Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity

Glorify is coming this spring from Pilgrim Press!

Who should read this book?

  • Progressive Christians who want to see the renewal of a vital, living church tradition.
  • Spiritual seekers who want a faith that’s both deeply rooted and radically relevant.
  • Clergy and lay leaders who are re-examining their local church’s priorities.
  • Denominational leaders who are looking for another perspective on church growth.
  • Post-evangelicals who feel like something is “missing” in the mainline denominations.
  • Aspiring theologians (lay or ordained) who want an accessible book about practical Reformed theology.
  • Anyone curious about what glorifying God might look like for a church culture on the verge of a major sea change.

Ready to read the book? Pre-order your copy here: http://www.uccresources.com/products/glorify-reclaiming-the-heart-of-progressive-christianity-heath

An excerpt:

When people ask me what the “next big thing” in the church will be, I tell them this: discipleship.

There are a lot of reasons why the church doesn’t wield the influence we once had in the public sphere, but I think the main one is this: we have forgotten our foundation. We have forgotten what it means to be disciples. And people can see through us.

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Photo credit: Jackie Geilfuss

Few people are interested in joining just another public advocacy group, and those who are can find far more effective ones. The progressive church is not the “Democratic Party at Prayer,” to borrow a phrase, and if we continue to lose our theological literacy, and our ability to talk about our faith, that’s all we will end up being. Without a bedrock of belief, the whole enterprise of church-based social justice will crumble.

Add to that my biggest fear, which is that the “next big thing” for the progressive church is attempting to “save” ourselves. For some reason the majority of our denominational conversations these days seem to be about how to preserve our institutions and legacies, even if we try to disguise that fact by claiming we are trying something radical and new. The fact of the matter is, until we somehow refocus on the heart of our faith, we are doing the ecclesiastical equivalent of simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

But that doesn’t have to happen anymore.

It’s time for progressive Christians to claim discipleship. It’s time to get radical, not about our politics or our policies, but about our faith. It’s time to stop throwing the baby Jesus out with the bath water, and start putting the horse before the cart. It’s time to remember what, and who, we worship, and to develop the language of faith.

And it’s time to see our social justice work as a natural product of our discipleship, not something that competes with it for the church’s time.

Only then, when we have gone back to the source and found what ultimately binds us together with God and with one another, can we go out and find the next, next big thing. Whenever that happens, we will be better for it. In fact, we just may find that when it comes to changing the world for the better, the Gospel of Why We Are Different from Other Christians can’t hold a candle to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Christians and Coffee Cups

It’s early November and already this year’s installment of the so-called “War on Christmas” has begun. All over social media I’m seeing rants from angry Christians who are trying to “Keep Christ in Christmas”. And the first volley of shots has already been launched against an unlikely target: Starbucks.

Apparently people are mad that the seasonal cups at Starbucks this year are just plain red. No mention of Christmas or Jesus at all. And, clearly that means that Christians are being persecuted. I mean, my faith is just destroyed if I don’t get my venti blonde roast with room for milk in a cup that features the name of my Lord and Savior.

So, obviously I think this is a little ridiculous. Because, Christians, I promise you that Starbucks red cups are not going to destroy the Christian faith. Seriously, the Roman Empire couldn’t do it, and they could kill you with lions. And I don’t think Starbucks has the death penalty. Yet.

IMG_5531But it’s even more ridiculous to me because of the timing this year. I’m kind of baffled because it’s early November. And it seems to me that people of faith, people who should be keenly aware of the grace God has given us, should be focused on the holiday that is coming up in just a few weeks: the one where we say “thank you, God”.

When Christians start to lose sight of gratitude and instead develop a major persecution complex then we have a huge faith crisis on our hands that is far bigger than whether the red cups at Starbucks make any reference to Jesus.

This year we didn’t even wait until Advent to start claiming persecution. We are joining the rest of the world in skipping right over Thanksgiving, and we are joining the Christmas rush. We are spoiling for a fight and those red cups are just the thing to give it to us.

We’re kind of like the religious equivalent of those Black Friday shoppers who trample other Black Friday shoppers in order to get a good deal on a flat screen TV. We are so incensed by any perceived omission of our personal faith from the public sphere that we go on a rampage. Except instead of other shoppers, we just trample things like inclusivity, diversity, tolerance, and pluralism instead.

And you don’t get a TV in the end either. In fact, now you can’t even get a latte. (Not if you are boycotting Starbucks, anyway.) Really, all you get is the smug satisfaction of knowing that you are part of a dominant faith that can try to impose its religion on coffee drinkers everywhere.

This is exactly what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your neighbors as yourself,” right?

But maybe, for at least some of us who are Christians, there’s another way. One where we don’t overlook the celebration of gratitude that comes later this month. And one that doesn’t overshadow the season of Advent, a time when Christians are asked to prepare their hearts that Christ may be born in the anew. One where we are asked to focus on hope, peace, joy, and love.

In a world where so much pain exists, that is hard to do. And that is even harder when we focus our energy in the wrong places. If we are outraged, we should be outraged at a world where violence is rampant, where children still starve, where people are displaced from their homes, and where veterans are homeless on the streets. We should be taking Jesus’ command to love every child of God seriously. And we should stop wasting our time complaining about coffee cups that don’t acknowledge his birthday.

Because, seriously, do you think Jesus would rather we remember his birthday by putting it on a coffee cup that’s going in the trash? Or would he rather we remember it by no longer treating one another as disposable?

Maybe this is the year that we can shift our priorities away from what doesn’t matter to what matters more than we know. Maybe this year we can set our sights a little higher than changing red cups, and instead try to change the world. And maybe this year we can stop yelling at others to “Keep Christ in Christmas” and instead focus on being Christlike ourselves.

So, here’s a suggestion of how to start: buy someone a coffee. In one of those red cups. Seriously, you will not go to hell for going to Starbucks this Christmas. But if you look closely enough, you just might find Jesus in the guy behind you in line. Because Christ is already at Starbucks, just as Christ is everywhere.

I don’t need his name on a paper cup to tell me that.

Note: did you like this blog post? Then you’ll probably love Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity. It’s out now from Pilgrim Press and available here: https://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity/dp/0829820299/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1&keywords=glorify+emily+heath

Labor Day

Heidi and I live in a loft in a converted mill in our New Hampshire town. It’s a great space and we love it here.

But I’m also aware of its history. The owner refused to let workers unionize. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the mostly women who were employed here worked long days, including having to labor two hours before breakfast. There were tragic industrial accidents, and even deaths, because the owners cared more about production and revenue than taking safety precautions.

At other mills across New Hampshire, the Irish side of my family found work. They took some of the only jobs that were available to new immigrants and labored in harsh conditions in an often hostile new country in order to escape the destitution back home.

The irony that, a few generations down the line, their great-great grandchild lives in comfort in a place so like the ones they worked so hard in is not lost on me.

On Labor Day I give thanks for them, and for all workers. And I give thanks for the unions that protected the generations that came after them, and laborers today. 

And, as a person of faith, I pledge to stand up for the dignity, safety, and fair treatment of all in their places of work.

Religious Liberty, Marriage Licenses, and the Cost of Discipleship

I was looking for something new. That was the start of it. I made a phone call and talked with a recruiter. And a packet of pamphlets and government forms arrived in my mailbox not long afterwards.

I had been a minister for several years. I enjoyed trauma chaplaincy work, but was looking for a new challenge. This particular ministry sounded challenging and meaningful. And they needed people.

The setting: the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

For a whaile I agonized over that pile of paperwork. Being a federal prison chaplain was something I believed I could do well. I was willing to do the work. And the need was great.

But there was one thing I just couldn’t get past. And so, I picked up the packet, threw it in the trash and started looking elsewhere.

Growing up, like most people in my death penalty state, I believed some people deserved the ultimate penalty for their crimes. I didn’t love the idea of an electric chair, but I believed that justice sometimes required an eye for an eye.

That changed for me when I became a Christian and read the Gospels. My own personal faith journey convinced me that supporting the death penalty was incompatible with following the Christian faith.

And that was the reason I knew I couldn’t be a chaplain in a federal prison system where the death penalty is still practiced. Even if I never had to escort a human being to the death chamber, I could never work in a system that upheld the option of killing someone.

I know there are some who disagree with me, but that’s what I truly believe. Just like there are good Christians who disagree about same-sex marriage.

I’m proud to be a part of a tradition that blesses the marriages of all. And I’m glad that now state and federal laws recognize my religious freedom as a member of the clergy to marry any two adults who love one another.

Many Christians disagree. And some are the very people whose government job requires them to issue marriage licenses.

Let’s be clear. These are not members of the clergy being forced to perform same-sex marriages. These are government employees, paid for by their fellow citizens’ taxes, who are being asked to follow the law.
Just like I would have been had I chosen to be a prison chaplain in a death penalty system.

Religious liberty is guaranteed in this country. But that does not mean that every job needs to bend to your particular interpretation of your faith.

So when someone is being asked to follow the law, and issue a marriage license, and they say they are being persecuted, I just don’t buy it. You are being no more persecuted than I was when I decided not to be a prison chaplain. We are both operating out of our sincere Christian convictions, after all.

The job of someone issuing a government marriage license is to basically handle a piece of paperwork. In this case a piece of paperwork that says that two people will have their marriage legally, not even religiously, recognized.

If you really believe doing your job is against your faith, then quitting would be an act of faith. Defying the law so two people you will never see again can’t get married? Not so much.

One of the most important teachings of Christ is that we must be willing to lose everything to follow him. Discipleship, as Bonhoeffer said, is costly. And sometimes it will cost us our jobs. If you really believe doing your job is violating your faith, then stepping aside would be a small price to pay for the love of the Gospel.

On Freedom of Speech: What it does and does not mean.

As Americans we have freedom of speech, which is a glorious thing. I’ve never been a fan of censorship, even when I find something distasteful or hateful. And I would never ask that something I find morally repugnant be banned on private proConstitution_of_the_United_States,_page_1perty, even if it deeply offends me.

Which is why the misreading of my piece on the Confederate flag is baffling to me. Because nowhere in my piece did I suggest that the Confederate flag be banned on private property, or that the man flying it should not be legally allowed to do so. (I would like to see it removed from public property, but that’s a different story.) I think if someone wants to fly the Confederate flag, that is indeed their first amendment right. I find it detestable, but I would not take that right away.

But here’s where it works both ways: someone flying the flag does indeed have the right to fly it, but all of us who see it also have the right to voice our own opinions about it.

To use another example, you are free to walk to the center of town and shout as many racist, sexist, and homophobic words as you would like. It is reprehensible and terrible, but that’s your right.

But in response, the people who hear you can say they do not agree. And they can also make choices based on your words. They might decide they no longer want to be your friend. They might say they will never again shop at your business. And, yes, they might call you a racist, sexist, and homophobe.

And they will be well within their rights to do so.

So when someone sees someone else flying a Confederate flag, they are free to infer what they want from your speech. For many people, particularly those whose ancestors were enslaved in the antebellum South, they are going to infer that you care nothing about racial inequality. And they are free to then decide how much they want to have to do with you.

That’s because freedom of speech does not free you from the consequences of that speech. 

For instance, I used my freedom of speech when I wrote my blog, saying the things I would say had I the opportunity to talk to the owner of that truck. I said that, to me, those symbols conveyed racist intent. That is not judgement. That is saying “those symbols are painful to many, and I wish you’d reconsider them”. It’s also saying that racism and hatred have for too long been allowed to flourish under the protection of that flag. And regardless of whether or not you agree with me, I have as much right to say that as he does to fly that flag.

The consequences of that speech have come in the form of emails, comments, and tweets calling me every racist, sexist, and homophobic slur I have ever heard. (Update, I have now received anti-Semitic slurs as well.) And the people saying those things have that right. I also have the right to delete them from my private blog (but not from public spaces) because I refuse to allow that speech in my digital home. Being called those names is not a negative consequence to me. In fact, the more people have to resort to slurs to prove their point, the more I know my initial impressions of that flag were correct. Because as it turns out it’s kind of hard to argue that your stance is not about hate when you are spewing hate. 

What I find interesting is that with one exception, no one signed their actual name to those slurs. I think that is because people do understand that free speech does have consequences. If you post hate speech online, it’s out there for every potential employer, date, or friend to see forever. Most people take the necessary precautions and do not sign their name.

The one person who did sign his name responded to my message back. We dialogued and, while we do not agree about the flag, he apologized. For others who sent slurs without their names, but with their emails, I have emailed back. I’ve invited each one to lunch so we can talk face-to-face. Sadly, none has yet taken me up on my offer. I wish they would. I’d like to hear why they said what they said.

Which leads me to this: If you really believe in freedom of speech, and if you really truly believe in what you are saying, why are you not willing to sign your real name? It always interests me that the comments that are most concerned about free speech come from people who lack the courage of their convictions and hide behind their keyboards. It seems pretty ironic to me.

So, I’ll keep writing. Using my real name. And I’ll keep talking about the things in this world that cause pain. And I’ll keep telling the truth I know, the one that is grounded in my faith. You, of course, are free to disagree. But don’t argue your first amendment rights are being denied. Because they aren’t. You are just being asked to consider the consequences of your words and actions. You can choose to do nothing in response, but the choice is always yours. The response to your actions, however, belongs to everyone.

To the Guy Flying a Confederate Flag in Exeter, New Hampshire

I saw your truck parked in front of the Rite-Aid, right by the Dunkin Donuts. Two large Confederate flags were attached to the back of it, waving in the wind. The American flag was, incongruously (and in violation of the flag code), in the center. And, I have to confess, I don’t get it.

Part of me wanted to ask obvious questions: You know you are in New Hampshire, right? And, you know New Hampshire was not a part of the Confederacy?

11709431_400316456841007_5791455240479926301_nI ask this because I’m not so sure you do. Here we are in a northern town, a place that gave her sons up to the Union Army and lost them on the battlefields of the Civil War. A place where locals organized early against slavery and led the charge against it across the country. A place where 150 years ago that flag would have been seen as a symbol of treason.

I grew up in the South where I saw plenty of Confederate flags. My college campus had a small Confederate cemetery on it and every Confederate Memorial Day (do you know when that is, by the way?) they’d be decorated with those flags. And I lived in a state where that Confederate emblem was on the flag for far too long.

Some people say it’s heritage. I don’t buy it. I have Confederate soldiers for ancestors, and I’ve never felt the need to honor them by flying that flag.

I also know it wasn’t even the Confederate flag. It was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. (My ancestors’ unit, by the way.) And I know that even the Daughters of the Confederacy advocated not using that flag anymore back in the 1920’s. And I also know that it didn’t really make a comeback until the 1950’s when a Supreme Court decision let African-American children go to school with white children.

Do you think that flag has been flying in front of the South Carolina capitol since 1865? It hasn’t. It was put there for one reason only: racist defiance in the face of integration.

I think you believe that the flag brands you as a “rebel” or somehow honors your outlook on life. It doesn’t. It brands you as a racist. You may not think you are one, but flying that flag is a racist act.

I know that right now you are saying, “But I’m not a racist!” “Heritage, not hate!” But this isn’t your heritage. It’s mine. And it is hate. And it is racism. And every time you put that flag on the back of your car, we all go back in time a little. And the past wasn’t so great for many of our neighbors.

The present isn’t so great either, by the way. Because in a time when nine African-American churchgoers were massacred at their church by a man wearing that flag, and in a week when seven black churches have been burned with little media attention, those flags tell everyone that you couldn’t care less about what is happening. Others can suffer, so long as you get to wear your flag. It’s like showing up at a funeral and dancing on the grave.

Is that the kind of man you are? One who doesn’t care who is being hurt, so long as you get to show off your flags on your truck?

You aren’t being a rebel. And you aren’t being courageous. And you won’t be on the right side of history.

But here’s the good news: it doesn’t have to end like that. You can stop flying the Confederate flag. You can honor your ancestors here in the North by learning why they were willing to give their lives to fight against that flag. And you can honor my ancestors down in the South by saying you are willing to learn from their mistakes.

Please. Our town doesn’t need those flags. And, if you look inside and find your better self, you’ll find that neither do you.

A few words about comments:

1. For those asking why I didn’t personally speak to him, I’ve only seen him while he was driving and couldn’t figure out how to get him to stop. My wife was in the car alone when she took this picture. Given the racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs I’ve received in comments (deleted) from people claiming to be his friend, I’m glad she didn’t stop. But I’d welcome him to come talk to me.

2. Post away but use your full, real name (First and last) or else I will delete your comments without reading.

3. My mom’s side is from NH and has been for 13 generations. Dad’s is from the South. So don’t tell me I don’t belong in NH.

4. No one is forcibly taking your flag from you. I am saying consider the message you are sending. A part of me wishes every racist would carry that flag so they’d be easy to identify. But I also hope everyone who really, truly does not want to be racist will decide to stop flying it.

5. Because some of the comments I received used derogatory and bigoted terms, I’m moderating comments now (because disagreement is fine but I refuse to host those words on my page). I’m also away for the weekend with my wife so your comment may take a couple of days to appear.

Thanks! 

In All Fifty States

“I love you in all fifty states.”

It has become my ongoing exchange with my wife in the past 24 hours. One of us says “I love you in all fifty states” and the other answers “I love you in all fifty states”. (I sometimes add “and the District of Columbia and all territories”.)

Of course, this was true before 10am yesterday. I would have loved Heidi in the most homophobic place in the world. But now our love, and our marriage, is recognized in all fifty states, and that’s worth repeating.

Heidi and I are in Cleveland, Ohio right now. We are attending the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, the first mainline American denomination to vote to bless same-sex marriages.

When we arrived here on Wednesday, we were married in the eyes of God. And we were married in the eyes of our home state. But we were not legally married in the eyes of Ohio. Even a hospital visit could have been complicated for us. For my same-sex married friends who live in Ohio, everything from their parental rights on has been in jeopardy.

But by Friday morning, that changed.

I was sitting in a room with over fifty UCC clergy members in our 20’s and 30’s. While we broke into discussion groups, a few of us kept our cell phones out, refreshing our Twitter feeds feverishly.

When the Supreme Court decision was released, I asked our leader if I could share the news. I said “the decision from SCOTUS has been released, and same-sex marriage is now legal in every state.”

I can only describe what happened next as one of the most profound experiences of the Holy Spirit that I have had in my life. The whole room, all of the servants of God’s love and grace, burst into applause. We cheered and clapped. And a few of us held one another’s gazes, knowing what this meant for our own families.

Some of us choked back tears. Some didn’t bother to hide them.

We prayed together, and then we spontaneously sang the Doxology. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

And then I called my wife

Heidi Carrington Heath, I love you in all fifty states. Thank you to everyone of every time who made it possible for me to call her my wife there too.

Why Do the Hateful Choose Our Houses of Worship?

One day during my first pastorate, back in Vermont, I went to the Post Office to get the church mail. That day there was an envelope with the name of a fake organization on it and no return address. It was addressed to me, and so standing there in the lobby I opened it. For the next five minutes I read about how gays and women like me were destroying both Christianity and the country, and how I was a “pitiful excuse” for a minister and human being.

I had just done work in New York advocating for marriage equality, and I had written some pieces for national outlets that had been widely shared. The letter had been sent from another state and to the church’s box and not my own (a box anyone in the area could have easily known). The postmark was also from Florida, and so I assumed the letter was from someone I had never met, and never would, who simply disagreed with my writing.

At home I laughed it off. I pointed out the irony of the fact the sender had chosen a stamp with the word “Equality”. I joked with my wife about putting it on the refrigerator. I told worried church members who had heard about it that it was nothing, and they shouldn’t be concerned. I’d received anonymous emails, and even texts like this before.

What I didn’t tell them is that they’d never been quite this hateful. I didn’t tell them I’d taken the letter to the police and been told they could do nothing. And I didn’t tell them that on Sunday mornings when I preached I now kept scanning the back of the church, waiting for the doors to open.

One Sunday shortly after a man I did not know came into the church midway through the service and walked to the front of the sanctuary. As he walked down the aisle I kept preaching. But with every word I thought to myself, “This is it…he’s going to shoot me.”

He didn’t. He had no ill intent at all. But that day I realized just how much fear I had been carrying around with me.

I don’t know why that memory came back to me so strongly last night when I heard about the shooting in Charleston at Emanuel AME Church. But it did. It hit me like a ton of bricks, and made my stomach turn. And it made me think of driving through the streets of Atlanta when I was a college student there. It reminded me of driving past Ebenezer Baptist in Sweet Auburn or The Temple on Peachtree and every other house of worship that had been targeted during the Civil Rights movement. I used to think about what it must have been like back in the days that people hated so much that they’d try to blow your church or synagogue apart.

I know now that those days are not in the past. I know the fear I lived with for a few weeks is nothing compared to the fear that others live with all their lives. And I know that for many they would give thanks if their worst experience was a hateful anonymous letter in their church mailbox.

IMG_5845Today at noon I rang the church bells here in Exeter, New Hampshire. It was a beautiful, sunny day; the kind that make me never want to leave New England. And I sat on the front steps of the church afterwards and marveled at the dichotomy between a night of terror and a day of beauty, and between my life of mainline white Christian privilege and the life of constant fear that too many of the faithful face.

I thought about a church gathered for prayer and Bible study last night, and how they had opened their circle to let a stranger join them. And I thought about a mosque in Arizona, and how the faithful walked past angry, mocking crowds with guns in order to worship. And I thought about the temple in Maryland, and the anti-Semitic graffiti they found one morning this spring.

There’s a reason the hateful choose houses of worship. It’s because that’s where so many of us put our hope. You can commit a hateful act anywhere, but if you really want to hurt a community, you choose the place they worship. You bomb the synagogue. You shoot up the church. You point your gun and shout at small children trying to get into the mosque. That’s how you cut the faithful so deeply that their hearts never stop bleeding.

But the ones who choose to do evil in the gathering places of the faithful forget one thing: These are not mere buildings. They are the symbols of communities, built often in resistance to hate. They are the places first built by new immigrants, or freed slaves, or spiritual refugees, or genocide survivors. They have known pain before. And they know how to survive it, and transform it. They know how to thrive in the face of the worst that the small-minded and hateful can do. And they know how to live with a faith that those who take up violence will never understand.

Today we ring bells. A small, insignificant-seeming act. And yet, there is meaning. The bells are tolled in remembrance for each life lost. And the bells are tolled as assurance that God is always with us, even in the midst of great evil. But we cannot forget the last reason we toll the bells: as a divine wake-up call to ourselves. The bells are saying it is time to do the work of justice. It is time to stand against hate. And it is time to call the evils of racism and bigotry, and the terrorism that comes with them, by name.

The bells cannot keep silent. And if we really believe in this faith we proclaim, neither can we.

A Prayer for Good Friday

Prince of Peace, redeemer of us all, crucified God, we have gathered at the foot of the cross, and at the entrance to the tomb, and we have rolled the stone across it.

524013_10100263836785808_2011523557_nThe world sometimes does it’s worst, even to those who don’t deserve it. You know that, because you once lived as one of us, loved as one of us, and died as one of us.

Today we leave the tomb, as your disciples did centuries ago, knowing our friend is gone, and that a good man has died.

The ones who knew you and loved you could find no consolation that night. They mourned. Just as there have been nights when we have mourned. Just as there have been nights when we have looked for mercy that didn’t seem to come.

And yet, some would dare to look for hope…

God, as you send us out into the world today, stay close to us. As we wrestle with the big questions, as we ask why there is pain, why there is suffering, why there is loss, do not leave us alone. Help us to find you in our hours of greatest doubt.

And at the right hour, draw us back together. To gather at the tomb. To look for the light. To look for you.

For hope, for you, we will be waiting. Amen.