Fun Facts of Lent, Day Fifteen: Leviticus

During my year of reading through the entire Bible, I tried whenever possible to write bumper sticker descriptions of each book as I went. According to my notes, I described the book of Leviticus as “Let’s kill something, set it on fire, and/or make Aaron eat it.” While this may be a bit of an over-simplification, I still stand behind the thematic assessment.

Leviticus is a big book of laws, and most of them have to do with animal sacrifice, the role of the priests, and ritual cleanliness. There are also laws about sexual relations, including one in particular you may have heard of. Conservative Christians often cite Leviticus as a reason to classify homosexuality as sinful because there is a law declaring that men must not have sex with other men. Leviticus defines this act as an abomination. Sex between men is not the only abomination – the same word is used to describe shellfish. There are a number of other laws that seem equally bad in God’s eyes yet are no longer adhered to by most Christians, including a huge number of unclean animals we shouldn’t be eating (pig, camel, rock badger, hare, gecko, land crocodile, mouse, etc).

The rules about sex are mostly confined to a single chapter, and the majority of that chapter is spent defining every kind of family member you shouldn’t be having sex with, including your mother, your sister, your mother’s sister, your father’s sister, your uncle’s wife, and any mother/daughter combo whether they are related to you or not.

However when you consider the setting for Leviticus, a different story appears. Leviticus is supposed to take place in the desert, right in between the slavery of Egypt and the freedom of the promised land. There are rules about confining diseased people for a defined period of time, rules about rotating your crops, rules about burning uneaten meat, and a lot of rules about ritual cleanliness. When I read Leviticus, I see an isolated group of people living in the desert and trying to survive. I see a community that is likely to fall apart and die if they can’t pull together and make it through as a united unit. And in that backdrop, it makes sense to me that you need a rule about not eating meat three days after you kill the animal, as scarcity may make you feel like it’s worth the risk. And maybe you need a few laws to control and confine menstrual fluids, since no one can really wash their hands. You probably need to outlaw incest of any kind, as unrelated women might be hard to come by. And yes, you’ll probably have to demand that all men confine themselves to women, because you’ll need to maximize your number of procreating pairs if you want to produce a stable, healthy generation of babies.

We don’t live in the desert anymore. We don’t need God to tell us to throw out the bad meat, because our abundance shows us there will always be more. And we don’t need to ensure the next generation, because that generation will happen without us even trying. The desert rules that made sense in a time of scarcity need not make us feel scarce forever. Instead, the lesson to learn from Leviticus is that for humans to live together, we must have rules. We must have structure. And sometimes we have to do things that may seem unnecessary to us, but are in the best interests of the whole tribe.

However if you do encounter someone that feels these rules should still apply as written, there are a few items worth asking about. Ask how they have found a modern way to leave the edges of their field unreaped so that the poor will have something to eat. Ask if they take an entire year off every seven years as a holy sabbatical, trusting that the Lord will provide. Ask if they have loved the alien as themselves, since they were aliens in the land of Egypt. Most importantly, ask if they have ever been devoted to destruction. The God of Leviticus has very clear instructions for what to do with such people.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Fourteen: The Bible

A few years ago I decided to read through the entire Bible. I had never done it before – most people haven’t. In church the scripture readings come from the lectionary, which is a calendar outlining specific readings for specific seasons and days. It’s a sort of Bible Greatest Hits that ensures you’re always reading the passion during Holy Week and the nativity story at Christmas.

The benefit of the lectionary is that it taps into a key concept in pedagogy: repetition. If something is important you don’t teach it once and assume your students have it. You say it over and over. And each time you talk about it you add something a bit different. The downside of using a lectionary is that we only focus on the parts of the Bible we find “most important,” and leave the rest for people to read outside of communal worship.

I think the greatest thing I learned from reading the Bible all the way through is that the Bible is a really big book. There’s a lot in there. The sheer volume of words guarantees that no matter what you believe, there’s something in the Bible to support it. And a lot of it is just vague enough that you can take it as literally or as figuratively as you want. We sometimes criticize Christians for picking and choosing which parts of the Bible to follow, but after reading it my only conclusion was, “How could you not?” There’s just so much to take in, so much to interpret. Things that seemed to go together one day sound contradictory the next. Stories you discounted as foolish at first become your favorites (I used to hate Jonah and the Whale).

But that’s also what I love about the Bible. It’s not easy. It makes me think and question and go over my own internal logic time and time again. Every new thing I learn in the world turns into a new way to read a particular story or passage. I’ve never been able to read a line of scripture and take it without question. For me, the question is the point of reading scripture. Reading the Bible brought up a lot of questions. It made me think a lot. There was one beautiful moment in my reading where I lost faith in God completely. I kept reading anyway, because it’s good to wrestle with your God from time to time. Some of us just love the fight.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Thirteen: Trans Issues in the Church

Until about a year ago, every trans person I knew was Episcopalian.* General Convention was the primary place I heard about trans issues, and the only place I saw intentionally gender neutral bathrooms that weren’t single-stall. Not every Episcopalian is 100% onboard with the concept of gender identity, but we’re working on it and we’re working with each other. I could do my best to talk about the struggles of transgender Christians, but I’d rather you hear it straight from them.

Below is a really great, 30-minute documentary made by Integrity, an LGBT advocacy group in the Episcopal Church. It lays out the basics of what it means to be transgender, discusses the importance of what trans people bring to the church community, and most importantly allows several trans Christians to talk about their experiences. There’s a line Vicki says just before the seven minute mark that still puts a lump in my throat.

I’m also proud to say that this film is now slightly out of date, because it was made a few months before the church passed legislation ensuring gender identity would be a protected class when considering candidates for the priesthood. We already had many openly trans clergy members, and we hope to see many more.

*Or rather, every person I knew to be trans. I am quite positive I have met and interacted with plenty of trans people without realizing it, as have you.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Twelve: It Never Hurts to Ask

In high school some of the adults in my church suggested I would be a good addition to the Bishop’s Committee, the elected group of people who ran the congregation. So I ran for the office and I sat on the committee for a term.

Just before graduation I got a call from a man I knew at church. He said a few of them had been talking and they wanted to nominate me to go to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. I didn’t know what that was but it sounded interesting enough, so I ran for that position as well. I was elected as an alternate and I went to the convention.

At my last high school youth conference I was handed an envelope with my name on it. Inside was a card inviting me to come visit Covenant House, the campus ministry at UW. So I went.

After a year or so at Covenant House I was asked to be a peer minister, so I did that too.

I wasn’t going to run for General Convention a second time, but a friend insisted I put my name on the ballot. I was a write-in candidate and I was elected a regular deputy this time.

After college I didn’t really have a church and wasn’t sure where I should go. My mother was working for the office of the Bishop at the time, and someone from St. Peter’s Episcopal asked if she knew any college kids or recent grads that might be interested in teaching Sunday School. She said she could think of at least one pretty easily. I interviewed and am still there more than six years later.

When I look back on my life of faith, I can’t help but wonder if I had anything to do with it. I would have left in Junior High but John was there. I would have left in high school but I was scheduling coffee hour and sitting on the Bishop’s Committee. I would have left in college but I was a peer minister and a deputy to General Convention. I might have even left after that, but I had lessons to plan. It may seem strange to imagine me leaving the church accidentally, but faith is not the same as religion. I don’t think I would have ever accidentally stopped believing in God. But I think it’s possible I could have casually wandered away from my own religion had I not been constantly nudged back into it.

We are spiritual by nature, but religious by habit. If one were to believe that God reaches down into daily life and intervenes on our behalf, one would have to conclude that my life in the church is the product of persistent divine nagging. I don’t hold to such a belief, so it must have been the nagging of people who love me. Yet if God is nothing else, it is the love we give to others to set them on a better path. So perhaps it was God that made me religious after all.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Eleven: About a Boy

Growing up I went to church because my parents went to church. I’ve never found this to be particularly objectionable, because the only reason young children are anywhere is because that’s where their parents are or want them to be. And I liked church just fine. Was it always fun and exciting? No. Sometimes it was boring and repetitive. But there were people I knew there and toys in the back and we always had cookies at Coffee Hour, so my needs were pretty much met.

My parents never had to force me to get involved at church (at least as I remember it). I assume this was because they were always so involved – I thought that’s just how church worked. I was an acolyte and helped Mom on our Coffee Hour team and once wrote and directed the Christmas Pageant with my friend Kathleen because we heard there wasn’t going to be one that year. As a side note, I played the angel Gabriel because I felt like it was the coolest part and thought Gabriel sounded like a girl’s name anyway. Plus it’s an angel so who cares, am I right?

Once my sister and I were old enough that we could be trusted home alone on Sunday mornings, we no longer had to go to church. It was our choice. My sister stayed home. I still went occasionally, but not every week. Until I met John.

John and his parents began coming to our church when I must have been around thirteen. He was the same age as me and I’m fairly certain he was the most beautiful boy ever created. I had a big crush on him that I revealed to no one. And I started to go to church every Sunday. I also started to dress up and wear makeup to church. John wasn’t there every week, so I had to be ready just in case.

Looking back, I doubt John and his family came to church more than a dozen times total, and I think they ended up becoming Lutherans. But by then church was my habit. My parents had started a youth group that I loved. I was more involved than I had ever been. One week the Coffee Hour Coordinator announced that she was stepping down and asked if anyone would volunteer to take responsibility for scheduling teams. After church I told her that if she couldn’t find anyone else, I’d be willing to do it. I went to the bathroom and when I came back out, my priest congratulated me on my new role (I quickly learned that this kind of thing always happens when teenagers express interest in things grown ups want them to do). And that was that. I had stuff to do, so I stuck around. Besides, I had started to really like the sermons.

The way I see it there are three times in a person’s journey to adulthood where they are most likely to walk away from the faith of their parents. One is in junior high – I stayed because of the boy. One is in high school – I stayed because I had been entrusted with responsibilities that mattered to me. The third is college, when I stayed because I was asked.

More on that tomorrow.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Nine: Jonah and the Big Scary Fish

“My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”
John Dominic Crossan

God told Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and prophesy to them, to tell them they were acting badly and their city would soon be destroyed as a result. But Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. It was full of strange and hostile people. Nineveh would not have been a very welcoming place for an outsider like Jonah. As a Lutheran friend of mine once put it, “One does not simply go to Nineveh.”

So Jonah ran away. He ran away because Nineveh scared him and the task scared him. He got on a boat and sailed in the opposite direction. But God caused a storm and Jonah ended up in the sea. In the sea a big fish swallowed him up. And in that moment, that sad, terrible, scary moment, Jonah realized he had to go back. He had to do what God asked him to do. He had to go to Nineveh. He had to tell a bunch of strangers that they were all going to die.

Whether or not it comes from God, I believe we are all called to do things in this life. Maybe it’s making art or teaching children. Maybe it’s being a good father or telling the truth when it counts. These are things of substance and meaning, things that are difficult or scary, things we know must be done but we wish someone else would do them. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we probably know what these things are. We know when the task before us is something we ought to do, something we are called to do. But denial is powerful, and so is fear. So we run. We run in the opposite direction of whatever that big important thing is. And we tell ourselves we’re doing right. That it doesn’t really need to be us to do that thing. We wouldn’t be any good at it anyway.

But no matter how far or fast we run, that thing is still there. We know it’s there. And sometimes we find that running puts us in a place that is so much worse than we could have imagined. A dark place. A disappointing place. A place where we feel trapped. A place we know we were never supposed to be. If we’re lucky, the terror of this place will be powerful enough to combat the denial and fear and send us back in the right direction – send us back to do the work that we were always called to do.

There is a big fish out there for all of us. It lurks in the deep. And if you let it, it will swallow you whole. Go and do the work you were meant to do.

Even Nineveh was saved.


Fun Facts of Lent, Day Eight: The Stained Glass Ceiling

Religions don’t exist outside of society or in spite of society. They are society. What troubles one troubles the other. While my church has made all the necessary provisions to allow gender equality in the faith, it suffers from the same deep, unspoken, often subconscious bias that we all have in our daily secular lives.

They call it the Stained Glass Ceiling. Despite equal numbers in lay participation and ever growing numbers in clergy, women still make up a noticeably small percentage of bishops. Of the approximately 300 members of the House of Bishops (which include both current and retired bishops), less than 20 are women. Almost 27 years after the ordination of pioneer and confirmed badass Barbara Harris as the first female bishop in the Anglican communion, we haven’t even hit 10%.

The sweet t-shirt I bought from the Episcopal Women's Caucus booth at General Convention in 2006, the year the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts-Schori was elected Presiding Bishop.

The sweet t-shirt I bought from the Episcopal Women’s Caucus booth at General Convention in 2006, the year the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts-Schori was elected Presiding Bishop.

The same internalized sexism that keeps people in strict gender roles in secular society also works in the church. Women don’t feel pushed or encouraged to go after positions of leadership and authority. When they become clergy, they are less likely to be called to a large congregation, which would be the kind of experience many are looking for when electing a bishop. So while few Episcopalians would suggest that there is anything wrong or different about women that make them unfit for the role of bishop, somewhere in the back of all our minds is a nagging voice that thinks the man is a more logical choice.

The Church of England only started allowing female bishops in 2015, but there is a real and legitimate concern that they will quickly outpace the Episcopal Church. Why? Because in the Church of England bishops are appointed, not elected. It is easy to notice how many women you’ve chosen when you’re picking every bishop. But when individual dioceses are voting for their own leadership, no single diocese is to blame for once again choosing one of the male candidates over the female candidate.

In theory, it is not the job of humans to pick bishops. Rather, we are supposed to recognize who God is calling and confirm that call. That’s why announcements for ordination say that the service will take place “God willing and the people consenting.” God does not, I assume, purposely call more men than women to the office of the bishop. Which means that we, unknowingly and unintentionally, are obstructing the will of God.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Six: I Really Love Harry Potter

This one is such a non-issue for me personally I normally wouldn’t even think to bring it up, but every once in a while some sensationalized news story crosses my feed and I feel the need to make myself clear. I have no problem with fictionalized representations of witches, the occult, the supernatural, or anything vaguely related to the trappings of paganism. I tend to be pretty into that kind of stuff. For reference, see my beloved X-Files DVD collection, lovely set of tarot cards, and “Ten Points for Hufflepuff” t-shirt.

I have never actually met another Christian in real life who had a problem with fictionalized depictions of witchcraft. I’ve only seen such people in movies or read articles about them online. In theory the issue is that witchcraft is a form of pagan worship, and pagan ritual is evil. However fictional witches almost never bear any resemblance to actual pagans, and I don’t have any problems with pagans anyway. Most church traditions came out of pagan rituals. In fact as far as I know, the calendar of Christian holidays is based entirely on ancient pagan festivals and days we’re pretty sure saints died.

There are a lot of church groups that like using magic and fantasy stories as discussion pieces, though it’s unlikely you’ll ever read a news story about a really lovely Lutheran Lord of the Rings reading group. But any narrative that asks you to consider themes of love, sacrifice, mercy, and compassion is worth the modern Christian’s consideration.

I try to be respectful of how others choose to interpret the faith, but personally I find the rejection of magic to be childish.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Five: Female Clergy

I’ll talk more about patriarchy and the church in another post, but I wanted to get this out there early: there are women priests. There are a lot of them, in fact. There are women bishops. There aren’t as many as we’d like, unfortunately. However the two highest positions in the Episcopal Church (Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies) were both held by women from 2006-2015. Gender is a protected class in our church canons, meaning churches are not to discriminate against gender when considering anyone for any position.

Fun Facts of Lent, Day Four: Reflections on the Death of Justice Scalia

There was a bible verse I was trying to find today, and in looking it up I made the foolish mistake of reading the comments section on a religious article. “Why do people need a bible verse to convince them to do the right thing?” a commentator asked.

I don’t think people need bible verses to make good decisions, however I have noticed the right verse can do wonders towards pushing me in the right direction. For example, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died today. To put it mildly, I was not a fan of Justice Scalia’s work on the Supreme Court. I disagreed with a number of decisions he made over the years. One could go so far as to call him an enemy of mine, since he fought on the opposing side of political battles that meant a great deal to me. But today on my social media accounts I was bombarded with “thanks for the empty seat” sentiments and “ding dong the witch is dead” memes. Something about it didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t find the words to describe what felt wrong. So I found something else to push me in the right direction.

Ginsburg and Scalia ride an elephant in India in 1994.

Ginsburg and Scalia ride an elephant in India in 1994.

The verse is a bit different in Matthew and Luke, but the sentiment is the same: There’s no virtue in only showing love to people you already like. It’s easy to love people who love us. It’s easy to like people who agree with us. Being nice back is not a struggle, it’s our natural human response. Everybody does it. I’ll bet the same people posting memes now will call Ruth Bader Ginsburg a natural treasure when her time comes. And while I’d say she is, so was Scalia. Because both have spent lives in service to a country they loved, speaking and writing intelligently on matters they cared passionately about. Perhaps it is no surprise that they were such good friends.

The sun shines on both the good and the bad. The rain feeds the crops of righteous and unrighteous alike. So it would seem that God’s standard for judgement is quite different than ours, and perhaps that is from whence we should take our cue. Jesus said to treat others as you would want to be treated. But there’s an unspoken caveat to that statement: do it even if you don’t like how they are treating you. So consider how you would want others to speak about you after you’re gone, and do likewise. It’s not always easy. But if you need some encouragement, here’s something you could read:

Matthew 5:38-48

Luke 6:27-36