About a week ago, Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation joined Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country in displaying a Black Lives Matter banner on our campus. Our banner symbolizes our support for the Black Lives Matter movement. It is a small part of our congregation’s burgeoning work on race and ethnicity.

We are ramping up our efforts in light of the deaths of so many African Americans at the hands of police, the disproportionate rate of imprisonment of young African American men, and, more generally, the racism that persists in the American system. Dozens of our members signed the banner, including many of our children, as a symbol of their individual support.

Two days later, the word ‘Black’ was papered over with ‘All,’ and several signs reading “All Lives Matter,” made with paper and permanent marker, were taped up around our campus. When the signs were removed, the word ‘All’ was spray-painted over the word ‘Black’ on our banner. You can see the latest vandalism in the photo.

This crime reminds us that work for justice is often unpopular. It leads me to the following few thoughts:

1) Vandalism of a banner pales in comparison to the the theft and destruction of black bodies in the United States. The Washington Post reported that an unarmed black man is killed by police every 9 days. Some argue the Post under-reported the numbers. Forty percent of people incarcerated in the US are black Americans, and about 50 percent of the women incarcerated are black, while only 13 percent of the US population is black according to the latest Census data. According to Unlock America and the NAACP, if Hispanics and Blacks were jailed at the same rate as whites, the US prison population would decrease by 50 percent. We will not confuse our very minor incidents with the real issues.

2) All Lives Matter? Yes… and No. Some say ‘Black Lives Matter’ singles out blacks in a way that devalues other lives. Not so. Truly we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every single person. VUU has done work around immigration, homelessness, and LGBT rights, to name but a few issues. But black lives have been singled out for abuse in our country. They were separated from their families and marched across the south to be sold as farm implements, denied the right to vote, killed and beaten bloody during the civil rights era, and are still oppressed today, as the above statistics show. Maybe we will know that all lives matter when we can proclaim that black lives matter without controversy.

3) We must keep the goal in mind. As stated in the Black Lives Matter guiding principles: “We are committed to collectively, lovingly and courageously working vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension, all people. As we forge our path, we intentionally build and nurture a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative, not depleting.” The goal is love and justice, but the work is anything but easy. It wasn’t easy in the days of the underground railroad, it wasn’t easy in the civil rights era, and it isn’t easy now. But we are called by Unitarian Universalist values to continue, and over time to deepen, our witness for justice.

Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi wrote earlier this year in Huffington Post, “Many thought that the abolition of slavery, the end of Jim Crow and the legislative progress of the Civil Rights Era, among other watershed moments, would have fundamentally done away with the racist structures that have long oppressed Black people. However, we know that has been far from the case. There’s been persistent and concerted effort to erode the gains of the Black liberation struggles throughout the years, hindering Black progress.” Replacing these structures (like the justice and prison structures) with systems which truly value black lives is the work before us. We look to people of color for leadership. It will not be easy. It will not be quick. But let us have courage and keep to the path.

I recently attended a barbecue at the home of a retired Unitarian Universalist minister. As he offered a blessing for the meal, the host gave thanks for the eras of ministry represented in the gathering. Two ministers had been retired for some time, now in their eighties. Two were recently retired. And then there was me.

I am 37 years old, a Generation-X’er, now 14 years into a parish ministry career. I have a six-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son. I began my ministry as a full-time youth minister. Still, our recent focus on recruiting young adults has me both excited and worried.

UUA Program and Strategy Officer Rev. Dr. Terasa G. Cooley authored an article in the latest edition of UU World entitled “Into the Beyond: Changing How We Do Church is Scary, But Not Changing Means Decline and a Lost Opportunity.” I agree. If we think in the 21st century that we can do things the way we’ve always done them and thrive, we are fooling ourselves.

Information is constantly at our fingertips, and every person alive can be a producer as well as a consumer in this new knowledge economy. Church needs a reboot in many ways. Yet while I believe the church must innovate and pay attention to shifts in culture (as Cooley notes, that has always been true), we should be careful not to lose our identity, and our ability to speak prophetically to this culture, in the process.

Rev. Cooley’s article speaks mainly of welcoming into UUism the millennial generation, adults under 30, only about 20 percent of whom “believe church-going is important…. They don’t come to church,” Cooley writes, “and they don’t want to.”

In reaction to her thinking, I wonder:

  1. Do we really know why millennials aren’t attending worship services? Is it enlightenment? Have they heard from God in a way that no one else has? Have they been wounded by church in a way that their parents and grandparents weren’t? Or are they largely apathetic about corporate worship, preferring to go to soccer games and read Depak Chopra? The answers matter, and I sense the latter is more accurate. What passes for spirituality in the Spiritual But Not Religious crowd is not always deep and thoughtful. Church is not being left behind for intense spirituality. It is being left behind for busyness. As well as inviting these folks to help us adapt (and we need to make that invitation), are we equipped to speak truth to the narcissism inherent in youth and young adulthood?
  2. Are we cheating Millennials by engaging in worship of youth? Twenty-somethings have a great deal to contribute. They also have a great deal to learn, including the value of being part of a congregation gathered around deeply-held values. The oft-repeated idea that older members need to be able to be uncomfortable for the sake of younger members is true. But so is the opposite. Our living tradition can adapt to this age group more effectively than we do now, and should. But if we beg every young adult who comes through our doors to tell us how we should be, we are serving neither the Millennials nor Unitarian Universalism well.
  3. Can faith be passed on without institutions? I believe the answer is no. Institutions, built by passionate, dedicated people invested in furtherance of a set of values, are essential. Our values have led us to certain ways of governing, certain holy texts (yes, even UUs have holy texts, probably including some texts being published right now), and shared worship practices. These are preserved primarily by the institution of Unitarian Universalism, by our agreeing to be together in governance as well as in spirit. Institutions often need reforming. They need constant tending. They should not be overhauled in each new generation. I wonder if we are in effect saying to those who self-identify as UU but who have no commitment or identification with our history, “Don’t worry about all that. We’re here to serve you. We can be whatever you want.” What happens to the institution of Unitarian Universalism in thirty years?

Having said all that, I sent Rev. Cooley’s article around to the board members of the congregation I serve. I quoted it in my sermon on Sunday. It is thoughtful, well-written, and important, and I believe we need to engage it. But (and the article says something like this too) I still value congregational life. There is no substitute for multi-generational, give-and-take, face-to-face community. I am excited about the possibilities before us and concerned that we do not lose our identity along the way. Especially now, we need vigorous support of our congregations, the places where much of the innovation we seek will begin.

The best part of the barbecue I mentioned above was sitting around after dinner listening to stories of ministry from people who spent forty years doing the work. One of them was ordained a Universalist minister the year the Unitarians and Universalists merged. I learned a great deal by listening and asking questions. Are we inviting Millennials to learn from us as well as to adapt our faith to their tastes? Are we inviting them into transformative community with us, or asking them how to build monuments to Millennial identity?


All afternoon it rained, then

such power came down from the clouds

on a yellow thread,

as authoritative as God is supposed to be.

When it hit the tree, her body

opened forever.

  • From the poem “Rain” by Mary Oliver


I was cruising through Indiana farm land, tilting the motorcycle handlebars around the curves,  enjoying the smell of fresh-cut hay, when a single raindrop plopped onto my fender. Then another, bigger drop. Suddenly, the sky exploded with thunder and I was drowning in cold rain. My breath was coming in short, quick gasps. I could see maybe a foot or two in front of me. The only thing I could do was pull onto the side of the road, catch my breath, and wait for the storm to pass.

Nature gives us plenty of reminders that we’re not as in charge as we like to think. Here in the valley, the pace of life is slowing as the temperatures climbs. Dust storms will soon block out the sun. People who migrated here from the Midwest will be dancing in the monsoon rains before long. If we’re paying attention, weather is an invitation to awe and wonder.

I was reminded of this recently when Rev. Michael Dowd spoke on a Tuesday evening at VUU. Dowd is a nationally-known speaker and author on climate change. During his presentation he said that we need to have an “I-Thou,” rather than an “I-it,” relationship to the earth.

Dowd was referring to the writing of Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Basically, Buber said when we are operating in an “I-it” relationship, we experience the other as someone or something to be used or experienced. We classify them, study them, etc. But in an “I-Thou” relationship, the other is hardly even an other. The primary mode of relating is mutual love, subject to subject. Whatever is between the two melts away, and they are united.

If we are in I-It relationship to the earth, we are mainly pulling things from it for our own use. But an I-Thou relationship to the earth would mean that our primary relationship to the planet is lovingkindness. The earth would be seen not as a resource, but as a beloved partner in life. What would be different if we held that idea foremost in our minds?

I think now and then of that day a few years ago, standing on the side of the road, shivering in the rain, leaning on my bike and watching the storm roll through. In that moment, I was forced to treat the earth the way a person treats one she loves. I had to make room for the earth to exist alongside me. I was reminded that I didn’t own any part of the planet. In what ways can all of us take that approach even when we’re not forced to by lack of rain gear?

There are a million things we can do to help preserve this planet we all love, from writing letters to senators to changing the light bulbs in our homes. All of them are important. But I believe the most important shift might be the change from seeing the earth as an ‘it’ to relating to our planet as ‘Thou.’

The Bible queers itself. Because it is both an inspirational spiritual document and an historical text covering thousands of years, it sets up social norms then knocks them down. The Pentateuch excludes eunuchs from the assembly and the priesthood, but the prophets are careful to include them in God’s beloved. Jesus, in Matthew, intentionally shatters boundaries using the formula “You have heard it said… But I say…” Paul does the same as he makes way for Gentiles to join this Jewish sect of Jesus-followers.

Many people, including John Shelby Spong, have argued that the Bible does not prohibit Christians from accepting queer identities. But I want to take one step further. I believe the Bible actually demands the constant questioning of cultural norms, including categories of gender and sexuality. Prejudice is always a misinterpretation of this bold and welcoming, boundary-shattering, norm-destroying text when it is viewed as a whole.

As well, I want to note that using only historical-critical lenses to interpret scripture is itself a context, not the absence of a context, for interpretation. As Stephen Bevans writes in his book “Models of Contextual Theology,” “Reality is not just “out there”; reality is “mediated by meaning,” a meaning that we give it in the context of our culture or our historical period, interpreted from our own particular horizon and in our own particular thought forms.” There is no possibility of a “pure,” context-free interpretation of the Bible.

I am a Christian Unitarian Universalist. I may not believe Jesus was born without his mother and father having sex, or that he rose from the dead, but I do believe this radical reformer taught us something that is worth trying to emulate. We Unitarian Universalists have sometimes scrapped the Bible as a source for spirituality. Seems to me we often do so out of shame. We don’t want to appear to be like the evangelicals. But I am interested, in this moment when ancient religious texts are in danger of losing their relevance, in reclaiming the Bible and reinterpreting it for a new generation. The seeds for such were planted by the Bible’s authors.


If you are a Christian, you may be upset about all this by now. After all, this is not what our parents and grandparents taught us about the Bible. Verily I say unto thee, be not afraid. There is a link to interpretive tradition which can help us Christians connect with this queer interpretive lens. I argue that the very first Christians took this approach with one of my favorite sections from the Hebrew prophets, the Suffering Servant Passage, Isaiah 52:13 through 53:12.

Christians will recognize much of the language of the passage. “He was  pierced for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Good Friday services are laden with this language.

The Suffering Servant Passage was for centuries probably understood to be talking about God’s relationship with Israel. But the first Christians, after their experience of Jesus’ life and death, brought their story to this text. They saw Jesus, and themselves, in Isaiah’s writing and, for that matter, much of the Hebrew Bible. See Acts 2 for a Christian reinterpretation of ancient Scripture. No matter that it had traditionally been seen another way. Those first Christians saw in Isaiah’s suffering servant their lowly Messiah, and even (I believe) tailored Jesus’ story to fit this passage better. Because of their experience, the interpretation seemed crystal clear.

Strict adherence to the historical-critical method of Biblical interpretation isn’t all that old. It only gained popularity in the 1800s. It has been common, for a long, long time, to bring our experience, our stories, to scripture first. What has also been common, unfortunately, is deciding whose stories are applicable. Queer Studies says, throw open the doors to many stories, as Jesus and Paul did!

In this post, I’ll consider two scriptures using the lens I described yesterday. The first comes from the Gospel of Matthew. The second is a passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. 

  1. Matthew 19:11-12: “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

This is Jesus’ response to the disciples arguing that it might be better for some not to marry. In reply, Jesus offers this discourse on eunuchs,  those who had removed their male sex organs or, some scholars argue, men who were simply unable to perform sexually and thus fulfill the Bible’s repeated command to multiply and fill the earth.

Lewis Reay writes, “To my transgender ears and eyes the meaning of this text is plain… I would suggest that the Matthew 19 verses are the clearest statement that Jesus makes about the inclusivity of the new realm. This is a realm where no one is excluded, even the most marginal outsider. Jesus proposes to turn the social order quite literally outside in.” (Lewis Reay, “Towards a Transgender Theology: Que(e)rying the Eunuchs,” in Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood, eds., Trans/Formations: Controversies in Contextual Theology (London: SCM Press) 2009, 150.)

Jesus describes three types of eunuchs in this passage: Those who were born this way, those who were made so by others, and those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.

Reay concludes, “The parallel that I would draw is to those born intersex, those who are transgender in the broadest sense of this word, and, third, those who are gender different, or gender queer, that is, not conforming to normative definitions of gender roles and identities. The broad understanding of the Matthew 19 verses, therefore, includes all those marginalized by virtue of their gender expression.” (Lewis Reay, “Towards a Transgender Theology: Que(e)rying the Eunuchs,” in Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood, eds., Trans/Formations: Controversies in Contextual Theology (London: SCM Press) 2009, 150.)

The historical-critical evidence seems to me to allow for this reading. Deuteronomy 23:1 prohibits eunuchs from the governing assembly. Eunuchs are also prohibited from becoming priests. Yet Jesus seems to be arguing that being a eunuch is a holy choice. He is reversing the social order and ushering in a new age of inclusivity. The eunuch, often excluded by God and by the eunuch’s own culture, is welcomed in the new realm. 

   2.  Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you           are one in Christ Jesus.”

Paul seems to be quoting a baptismal text which he also quotes in I Corinthians and Colossians, but here in Galatians he adds that there is no more “male and female.”

Bringing the queer lens to interact with the text first, it is easy to see Paul reaffirming the welcome Jesus cast in the Gospel of Matthew. Rev. Chris Glaser writes, “The… apostle Paul – himself a Jewish Christian free male – neither denies nor diminishes various identities, but affirms here that unity in a spiritual community trumps cultural, ethnic, economic, and gender divisions – for all are one.” In Christian baptism, Paul is clearly teaching, all become one. I argue that it makes no sense, indeed that it violates this teaching, to exclude transgender Christians from this new realm.

There are, of course, many more scriptures we could consider. Isaiah 56 reads, “For thus says the Lord: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.’” In Acts, Philip baptizes an Ethiopian eunuch. The arguments that Christianity by default excludes gender variance wear exceedingly thin under close examination. The Bible is full of boundary-breaking, binary-defying queer teachings!


I grew up in the independent Pentecostal movement. We believed the Bible was penned by God. I figured God reluctantly used humans as marionette-scribes to write down the words, and I mostly ignored the parts about not eating shellfish and not mixing milk and meat (I ate a lot of cheeseburgers as a kid). In college, when I came across the historical-critical method of Bible study, I learned that all 66 books of the Bible have a history, a setting, and a purpose. It revolutionized my faith. My road to becoming a religious liberal began in Biblical Studies classrooms at the University of Evansville in Indiana.

So as an evangelical Christian minister interpreting Christian scripture, I always looked first at the historical background and the intent of the author. Mostly, that served me well. I knew why the author of Leviticus banned Red Lobster, and why I went to all-you-can-eat -shrimp night anyway. I knew that the Bible doesn’t talk about a rapture of saints, and why Paul seemed to be so obsessed with what happens after we die. I also came to mistrust any interpretation of scripture that didn’t begin with historical-critical study. I thought we should bring our stories to the text only after we had studied the history.

But I’m beginning to think we need to flip that process. Experience first, then history. In this series, I’m going to experiment with that. Specifically, I’m going to try on an idea I came across recently. It comes partly from French philosopher Paul Ricoeur.

Too simply, Ricoeur argues for distanciation, or distancing the text from its author and history. To do that, he suggests, we should allow our stories to interact with the text first, and only after that study the history of the text. About his approach Ibrahim Abraham writes, “Only a biblical… hermeneutics that takes the lives of… queer people just as seriously as it does the scriptural text and the world behind it, will allow marginalised (sic) people to move beyond the doorstep of scripture so that ‘the world of the text,’ properly understood, may finally, explode the world of the author.”

For example, in Galatians 3:27-28, Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Here, without any historical background, I can easily interpret Paul describing a universal Gospel which shatters the binary restrictions of gender expression. This is surely a welcome which includes transgender people. In the Commonwealth of God, there is no male or female! This is truly Good News! And when I get to the historical-critical study, I find nothing which takes away that reading. But if I had hit the history first, it might have prevented a queer reading of these verses.

Christian, does this make you nervous? Day after tomorrow, I’ll tell you why I argue Christianity actually has a long history of taking this approach to scripture. But tomorrow, we’ll dive into the text.


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