TIME Religion

God, Soccer, and the World Cup

Soccer may be just a sport to most, but for Imam Sohaib Sultan, the game has been a series of lessons in spirituality

Across much of the world, soccer is known as the beautiful game. For me, soccer first opened my mind and heart to the experience of the existence of the transcendent – that which could not be explained away by the simple laws of physics – and the game taught me invaluable lessons for life’s spiritual journey.

Let me explain. This may sound heretical if not blasphemous, but if I were to write an honest spiritual autobiography, I would say that much of what I learned about faith in a higher power and of what it takes to reach greater heights within myself came initially not through any formal doctrine or religious study, but rather through my love (okay, obsession) with playing and watching soccer.

I first fell in love with the game during the 1990 World Cup. At the time, I did not have a favorite player or team nor did I even know that much about soccer. But, there was something about the preparation before matches, the exquisite athleticism and skill during the game, the winning combination of teamwork and strategy, and those moments of pure magic and genius, that drew me to the game. Soon after that world cup, I took to playing the game myself and even aspired to become a star on the field.

Looking back on it all, there was something in that pure joy of being an early convert to the game of soccer that was deeply spiritual. When Roberto Baggio neatly played off of his teammates to dodge through the entire Czechoslovakia defense and score his first goal of the tournament, it was a divine experience that, as a young boy, opened my senses to believe in transcendence. In that moment I witnessed something greater than physics and pure skill, it was something much more. And, I witnessed this again and again throughout that world cup and beyond in awesome goals, inspired passes and spectacular saves.

And, when I stepped on to the soccer field for the first time myself, I really wanted to experience something of that transcendence myself. But, as I learned the hard way it did not come easy. Instead, almost every time I touched the ball it was an embarrassment. Chances would come and go, but making something of those moments felt impossible. It was through that experience, that I learned one of the most important lessons of life – that training, discipline, hard work, commitment, struggle, courage, sacrifice and much more were needed if I ever wanted to experience what all the greats experience. For years I honed my skills everyday as a defensive midfielder and backup goalkeeper (mostly playing left bench for my teams) hoping to experience something special. It was not just about a game, it was about believing in something greater than self. Every time I stepped on the field, I would make a sincere prayer. I believed that God could make it happen for me if I just gave it my all.

Then, one day, it finally happened. The soccer club I used to play for in high school had reached the semifinals of the intramural tournament. Just before the match our star goalkeeper fell ill during warm up. He was out. The coach looked at me, handed me the goalkeeper’s gloves and off I went to defend the goal. For the most part I was just called upon to make simple saves behind a great defense. But, with a minute left in the match and my team leading just by a single goal, a forward from the opposing team somehow managed to get just behind my team’s defenders as the ball bounced perfectly for him right in front of goal to volley home the goal that would send the game into overtime. As we held our collective breath, my first instinct was to just throw myself across the mouth of goal and toward the spectacularly well struck soccer ball. I felt the spinning ball barely touch my shoulder as I tumbled to the ground expecting the worst. Instead, as I gathered myself and looked upward, I found the striker with his face buried in his hands instead of celebrating and all of my teammates running toward me with euphoric joy. Moments later the final whistle blew and we had won the game. It felt like one of those moments that you live for. My coach hugging and congratulating me asked where I had learned to make such an incredible move. In reality, I did not. I experienced a moment that defied my own physics and what I was truly capable of on a daily basis (as future matches proved!) I experienced something really special in that moment.

But, I knew then as I know now that if it weren’t for all the pre-requisite years of commitment and discipline, that moment would never have been possible. And, I realized then as I do now that all of those players I watched for hours and coaches who helped me along the way deserved much gratitude. I also knew that my magical moment would have been for naught if it weren’t for the victory that we achieved as a team. And, as a team we achieved success because of our values – patience on the ball, assisting and strengthening one another, and showing courage to move forward.

As a struggling spiritual seeker and now Imam, I have found that the spiritual journey is not dissimilar to the path a soccer player needs to take. Seeking God necessarily required of me daily disciplines of praying, chanting, fasting, serving, and so on. And, I found that I can’t do it without role models and mentors, living and dead, who show me the way through instruction and inspiration. And, finally, I discovered that journeying to God with a community of people who have the same goal and orientation is that much more realistic and fulfilling, and that it is in community that we can strive toward the highest values and virtues.

Religion and soccer, when rooted in simplicity and beauty, have great power to bring people together and to nurture higher values in people. Sadly, institutionalized religion and the organizing soccer bodies, such as FIFA, are too often corrupted by the pursuit of power instead. Both are in need of much reform if they are to play the critical role they must play in a broken world.

Enjoy the world cup starting on Thursday and make it a point to watch it with people, those you know and those whom you do not. It might be the start of something really special.

Sohaib N. Sultan is a chaplain and the first full-time Muslim Life coordinator at Princeton University.

TIME Religion

Meet Riverside Church’s First Female Pastor

Dave Cross

Rev. Amy Butler talks about feminism, her salary, being a single mom, and what it means to lead one of the country's most storied congregations.

Update added on June 12, 2014 at 4:15 p.m.

Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, who has been the pastor at Washington, D.C.’s Calvary Baptist Church for the past eleven years, was chosen Monday to be the first female senior minister at The Riverside Church in New York City. The Riverside Church has been a pillar of faith and activism in New York since its first service in 1930, with its famously diverse congregation participating in political issues ranging from LGBTQ rights to immigration. TIME sat down with Rev. Butler to talk about her upcoming transition.

Your emphasis at Calvary has been on unity and coming together, but Riverside’s congregation is more than twice the size of Calvary’s, and it’s interdenominational. Are there challenges that you think will come with that and do you have a plan for how you’re going to approach the new congregation?

There are many challenges ahead, and this is a diverse community. If you think about doing and being a diverse community together, this is the perfect place to try to do it because all of the pieces are there. And this is a community that has valued diversity for all of its history and, as we all do, struggled with what that means in day-to-day life. I’m really looking forward to trying to figure out how we can make that diversity into an asset and something that is really a compelling and attractive expression of our community. Diversity doesn’t always have to be hard and terrible. It’s a challenge, always it’s a challenge, but it’s a great opportunity for modeling what the church can be in the world.

Not only is the Riverside Church diverse, but also it is politically active. What do you see as the intersection of religion and politics, and what do you hope to do with that at Riverside?

The role of the church in society is changing very radically. Fifty years ago the church had a loud and compelling voice at many of these conversations. Increasingly, the church is becoming marginalized. And I think that at this point in history it’s a great opportunity for us as people who claim the message of Jesus, the gospel of loving God and loving each other, as this radical and prophetic place where we can be the church together. So I think the opportunities are boundless and endless, and I think increasingly we’re going to be feeling opportunities to be prophetic and speak truth to power in ways that we may not have had when we were part of the group sitting around the table.

You wrote in an Associated Baptist Press column in April that, “The church is not as vibrant in our society as it once was. In fact, the question of whether church as we know it is viable for the long term is a question begging to be asked.” So I’m going to ask it – do you think the current institutional model is viable? What are you going to do at Riverside to make it relevant and sustainable?

I think the church of the past is not the church of the future, and I think we don’t know what the church of the future is yet. I think the church is not going away because people are looking for community and people are looking for a place to ask the big questions. And if the church can provide a place in which both of those things are present, it’s going to be a place where people are going to want to come and be part of it. So I don’t know what the future of the church looks like, but it’s going to look different. I think at the Riverside Church we could be a place where some of those future expressions of church start to emerge, and that’s one of the things I find so exciting about this opportunity.

You’ve been open about your own struggles with faith. How do you navigate the relationship between your own personal questioning and your role as a leader of the church?

I think traditionally people have expected clergy to be the ones that have all of the answers. Here’s the truth: nobody has all of the answers. We’re all on this journey of figuring out what it means to be human in this world and to understand God’s role in our lives and in the world at large, and I think questioning together is a much more powerful experience. That’s the kind of leadership approach that I take.

I have to ask after the controversy over your predecessor Rev. Brad Braxton’s resignation [related to his more than $450,000 compensation]. What is your salary going to be?

I’ve always heard that it’s not polite to talk about what you make, but I’ll be earning a salary of $250,000. It’s quite a generous salary and it presents an opportunity for me to think about how to be a good steward of the tremendous resources that I am becoming a recipient of. And it’s also a good model for the church as a whole. The Riverside Church has many, many resources, so how do we, as a faith community, think about how to best be stewards of that tremendous gift?

What do you see as the biggest fiscal challenges ahead for Riverside?

I think the future of the church probably does not include building big cathedrals like this in major cities. But places like the Riverside Church are a gift, and can be a gathering place for people who are seeking God in the middle of a very busy and powerful city. So I think our place is important, and I think one of our challenges is going to be moving into the future thinking about how we preserve that and how we make it accessible to as many people as would like to be part of it.

You’re a single mother, you were the first female senior minister of Calvary, and now you are going to be the first female senior minister at Riverside. Where do you see yourself fitting in the modern feminist landscape?

I really recognize the significance of my call. I really want to commend the Riverside Church for taking the step of hiring a woman. That said, there are many, many gifted women around this country who are leading churches and who are doing all kinds of amazing professional roles and being mothers at the same time. And so hopefully this can be a recognition of that fact. It’s not something new; it’s happening everywhere and has for some time. Because this is such a public decision, I hope that it can be affirming of the many different roles that women play.

Do you have anything else that you want to add about the upcoming transition?

Having been the pastor here at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., for 11 years has been such a great time of preparation and growth for me, and I’m leaving behind this amazing, amazing community here. And that is giving me a lot of the courage to move into this new, big role.

[Update: After the story was published, Butler asked to add additional context to her description of her salary. The following question was asked and answered by email.

Your salary sounds different from your predecessor's. How did that figure into your decision?

The Riverside Church made it clear that they wanted to ensure equity in what they offered me. As their first female pastor, I felt that was an important message to send. And I felt that exact numbers—especially for such a humbling offer--were less important than the witness of equity. So the overall compensation won’t be the same, but we agreed to keep the same salary of $250,000 and for the church to provide for my housing, health insurance, and contribute to my retirement. I’ve found it is easy to think in terms of what we are owed or what we own, but it’s important to ask instead how we can use the resources we have, and how we might be used by God through them. Riverside has blessed me and given me quite a responsibility with their offer.]


David Brat’s Biblical Views Shape His Tea Party Politics

David Brat's spirituality depends on the union of capitalism and Christianity.

The Republican primary race in Virginia’s 7th district was a David and Goliath story from the beginning. Perhaps that’s why David Brat—the Tea Party professor who stunned the country and took down House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday—waved a piece of paper with a Bible verse in the air when he won: “Jesus replied, ‘What is impossible with man is possible with God!’” he announced to the crowd’s applause.

But there was another reason as well. Brat’s spiritual life has long been as central to his identity, even though it has also been difficult to pigeonhole. He currently attends a Catholic church, but he also identifies as a Calvinist, and he lists four churches as affiliations on his resume: St. Michael’s Catholic, Christ Church Episcopal, Third Presbyterian, and Shady Grove Methodist. He earned his bachelors from Hope College, a Christian liberal arts college in Holland, Mich., which is historically affiliated with the Reformed Church in America, a Protestant denomination that sprouted during the 17th century. He got a Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian school, but while there wrote a thesis on logical positivism and its impact on economic science—not a typical choice for someone earning a ministerial degree. He then switched his focus and earned a Ph.D. in economics from American University.

Through all of that, one aspect of his faith has been constant: Brat takes the Protestant work ethic seriously. Like many of his Tea Party colleagues, Brat is an Ayn Rand enthusiast, and coauthored a paper assessing the moral foundations of her writings in 2010. Like many Protestants in the classic Calvinist tradition, he believes Christ is the transformer of culture, and that capitalism is the key to this world transformation. He outlined this view of politics and religion in a 2011 paper titled “God and Advanced Mammon—Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?” published out of Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology.

His core argument is that capitalism and Christianity should merge. He believes their union is so important that making disciples of capitalism is Brat’s own version of Jesus’ Great Commission. “The main point is that we need to synthesize Christianity and capitalism,” he concludes in “God and Advanced Mammon.” “Augustine synthesized Plato and Christianity. Thomas Aquinas synthesized Aristotle and Christianity. Calvin synthesized all the rest, but capitalism was still coming. There is a book in here somewhere for the next Calvin. Go. God Bless.”

This means that for Brat, the Biblical message of loving your neighbor is about making people self-sufficient. If you preach the gospel and make people good, he argues, then you make the markets good. Individuals are morally responsible to work hard and advance themselves in society, so his theory goes, and then ultimately the capitalist system should help people advance and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. “We should love our neighbor so much that we actually believe in right and wrong, and do something about it,” he writes. “If we all did the right thing and had the guts to spread the word, we would not need the government to backstop every action we take.”

It’s a view that even takes issue with the idea of compassionate conservatism. “Let me ask you as an individual a question,” Brat’s essay continues. “Are you willing to force someone you know to pay for the benefits for one of your neighbors? Will you force them? Very few Christians I know are willing to say ‘yes’ to this question. It gets very uncomfortable.”

That message puts Brat at odds with the global leader of the church he attends, Pope Francis, who holds a view on the other end of the spectrum—the Pope’s recent messages have warned that capitalism often exploits the poor, and must be moderated. Francis has called “unfettered capitalism” a “new tyranny,” and he has equated unjust social conditions like unemployment and poor healthcare with “moral destitution.”

But for Brat, the consequences of not pursuing this radical capitalist agenda are drastic: if the church does not respond to the reality of capitalism, he writes, society could potentially face a downfall like Nazi Germany. “Capitalism is here to stay, and we need a church model that corresponds to that reality,” he writes, asking people to read Nietzsche. “Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the weak modern Christian democratic man was spot on. Jesus was a great man. Jesus said he was the Son of God. Jesus made things happen. Jesus had faith. Jesus actually made people better. Then came the Christians. What happened? What went wrong? We appear to be a bit passive. Hitler came along, and he did not meet with unified resistance. I have the sinking feeling that it could all happen again, quite easily.”

His moral views give way to his political and economic strategy. Instead of fighting usury as a product of capitalism, Brat argues that “the church should hire lobbyists to work on behalf of the poor who suffer under usury.” People should learn to “work hard and stay out of debt in the first place.” The recent recession, he says came about because “we wanted to force low-interest loans on the banks so that the poor could magically afford houses.” Progressives, especially in the faith community, need to wake up, he argues: “Church folk and my liberal pals are always preaching about inclusiveness and diversity. . . . However, a real test for liberal Christian types is whether they will reach out to capitalists!”

The thing that comes last in his plan? “Finally, I think Jesus told us to help our neighbor when they get in a bind,” he writes. “But that comes last in my little story here, not first.”

TIME Religion

Shifting the Conversation on Headwraps


This article originally appeared on Patheos.

On June 8th, the 2014 Headwrap Expo was held in Dearborn, Michigan, billed as an event on “the art of headwrapping and scarf styling,” bringing together fashion, culture and interfaith dialogue.

The event was presented by Beautifully Wrapped, an organization celebrating the art of headwrapping. According to Zarinah El-Amin Naeem, founder of Beautifully Wrapped, The Headwrap Expo is intended to celebrate “fusion — looking at how different cultural aspects, different things that people wear in different parts of the world are adopted across into other cultures.”

As Naeem further explains,

“It’s an intercultural, multi-faith event that brings together all these different groups…We have the Sikh Indians, we have Muslims, we have Christians, we have Jews, we have African Americans, African immigrants, everybody coming together. Once we’re there, we share, we talk about love, we have workshops, we have fashion stylings, fashion shows throughout the day. It’s a whole affair.”

The “whole affair,” as Naeem puts it, includes dozens of vendors and educational workshops on spirituality as well as style, topics ranging from natural hair care to “African adornment” to a special workshop for people dealing with hair loss from chemo or from other causes. In an interview about last year’s Expo, Naeem said:

“We pull a multi-religious, multi-ethnic eclectic group of people, many of whom are humanitarian minded and enjoy diverse colorful atmospheres and mingling with people from various backgrounds…From London, New York Runways and Prada, to the streets of Morocco, Malaysia and Nigeria, headwrapping is a global phenomenon enjoyed by women and men of all backgrounds.”

This sense of a hybrid, multiethnic “colorful atmosphere” is very much evident from looking at the poster from the 2013 expo, which features women of different ethnicities in various kinds of hijab and in elaborate headwraps. In contrast to such events as World Hijab Day, the Headwrap Expo presents itself as a way of bringing people together around the idea that head-covering is a common practice across many religions, rather than just focusing on hijab.

“Your head is your highest point of your existence; it is the part that has our consciousness. So when you cover your head, it is a constant reminder that something is greater than yourself, the Lord is the one you are you to revere. That is the big thing for many spiritual cultures — look at nuns, Rastafarians, Jews, Muslims — all these different spiritual groups have some type of head cover. That’s no accident.”

Is this a form of public relations for head-covering in general and hijab in particular? I think that is obvious. But rather than preaching about the requirements of “modest dress” and “correct dress,” or getting non-Muslims to “try on a hijab” as though that is a way to “feel Muslim” this kind of event can work as an effort to help bring people of different communities together.

I was reminded of hijab tutorials, and in particular, a tutorial by a person who identifies herself as “the non-Muslim hijabi” and notes, “I’m not Muslim, however I do like to wear hijab. The draping of fabric framing the face is beautiful.” Similarly, at the Headwrap Expo, the spirtituality of headwrapping, and whether or not is required, seems to be secondary to the focus on fashion and style and the aesthetics of headwrapping.

That’s not to say that this is a bad thing. When I first wore hijab, I was the only girl in my school who covered her hair. There was, however, a Ghanian teacher who wore an elaborate head-wrap, and who, like me, often got stares from the other students, as well as other teachers. I remember the affinity I felt with her, which was not related at all to faith, but simply to the fact of being identifiably dressed as different. We are often told things like “being different is liberating” and that it is all about self-expression – but it can be lonely and frustrating, when for example, a child won’t sit down next to you on the bus because, from the point of view of the child, you “look like a witch.” So next time, you remember to wear colorful clothes because being in all black might be intimidating to little kids on the bus, and you make an extra effort to smile.

In a post about World Hijab Day on Muslimah Media Watch, Shireen Ahmed writes:

“As much as I am interested in sharing, dialogue and debate, as a hijab-clad woman, my concern is not, and will never be how other women “feel” about a hijab that they do not wear regularly…This exercise reduces a Muslim woman to one yard of material. It is not an action that one can adequately educate and put another woman in their position. It’s completely disingenuous to think so.”

I agree entirely with this sentiment – trying on a hijab for a day does not automatically mean you’ve walked in another person’s shoes. But while there is no “insight” that can be gained just by covering your head with a piece of cloth, there are insights that can be shared when people of different meet around the diverse practices of head covering, with all their different symbolism and cultural meanings. The Headwrap Expo shifts the conversation in useful ways, because rather than the one-way track of asking non-Muslims to understand or accept Muslims, it asks people of different backgrounds to understand each other and to engage in creative collaborations. That is why, in the midst of all this personal and political hubbub around the piece of cloth some women choose to cover their heads with, events such as the Headwrap Expo are something to celebrate.

Tasnim is Associate Editor at Muslimah Media Watch. She is interested in the intersections of politics and culture in the Arabic-speaking world.

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TIME Immigration

With Cantor Gone, Immigration Reform Is All On John Boehner Now

John Boehner, Eric Cantor
On the day of President Barack Obama'’s State of the Union address, Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., at right, talks with reporters after a GOP strategy session at Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, Jan. 28, 2014. J. Scott Applewhite—AP

With Cantor out, Speaker Boehner, the faith community is counting on you to act on immigration reform

The stunning primary defeat of Eric Cantor could be a blessing for passing immigration reform. Cantor, as Majority Leader in the House and the number two Republican, was no ally of immigration reform and was likely an obstacle to crucial bi-partisan action. Always lurking in the shadows and clearly hoping to be the next Speaker of the House, Cantor was a threat to John Boehner. Apparently, continually working the inside game to become the Speaker, instead of being a member of Congress who represented his district was one of the biggest reasons Cantor lost his election.

But now that Cantor is gone and with him, his threat, we hope that John Boehner will be free to act, to do what his head and heart tells him is the right thing to do on immigration reform. “Bibles, Badges, and Business” have all been pressing Republicans to pass comprehensive immigration reform as both a moral and economic issue, one in the true spirit of America’s embrace of immigrants, and one in which the gospel is at stake in how we “welcome the stranger.”

What is also now clear is that lawmakers across the political system, who have publically supported immigration reform, won their primaries. Republicans, who have led on immigration reform, won handily. On the same night Eric Cantor lost, Senator Lindsay Graham – a strong champion for immigration reform who co-sponsored the Senate’s Immigration bill -won with roughly 60% of the vote in his South Carolina primary. Lindsay had the support of many evangelical Christians who have united in their support for immigration reform.

Cantor, who would not schedule a vote on the Senate bill that passed last year, lost his primary, while those Republicans who took a clear positive pro-reform stance won theirs. Graham, Representative Renee Ellmers, and others who were most vocal in their support for fixing our broken immigration system sailed through their primaries.

This could clear the path for a bi-partisan political and moral agreement on fixing a broken immigration system that daily breaks up families and is causing the massive human suffering that our pastors and priests are dealing with every day.

For many of us in the faith community, immigration reform is now the moral test of the U.S. Congress. New polls that also came out this week show a majority of Evangelicals, Catholics, and Mainline Protestants all want reform. And because the Republicans will decide this in the House, it is now all up to Speaker John Boehner. For us, it will be a moral choice and not just a political one. And one man will make that choice. For many in the faith community, immigration reform will be a moral test of the Republican Party, of the leadership and legacy of its leader John Boehner, and even their own electoral future.

Interestingly, Cantor’s opponent, Dave Brat, a self-described Tea Party leader, also identifies as a man of faith. Brat, who attends a Catholic church, is a graduate of Hope College, a higher education institution well knownwithin the evangelical community for thoughtful leadership and high-quality academics all grounded in Christian faith. While I have not polled Hope’s faculty, staff, and students, I suspect many of them would strongly disagree with Brat’s views. More importantly, we know that evangelicals across the country have been converted on this issue and now believe that how we treat 11 million undocumented people, is how we treat Christ himself. And that evangelical conversion is changing the discussion on immigration reform, across party lines. Most evangelicals—and Catholics– disagree with Dave Brat on what we should do with the “strangers” among us. And this change in evangelical politics will ultimately help change national politics on immigration reform.

So John Boehner, the faith community is now looking to you to lead and to do what you have said lawmakers are elected to do—to solve problems. This is a moral issue and a faith issue for us and as a Catholic, it should be one for you too. Mr. Speaker, you will feel our presence all around you in these next critical weeks in which we must get reform done and show the country that our political leaders can still do something positive and bi-partisan, that our leaders can still make the moral choice, not just the political one. We are praying for you and all of your colleagues in the Congress. May God give you courage and wisdom in these next few weeks.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

TIME Religion

10 Reasons God Loves Gay Christians

'God and the Gay Christian,' by Matthew Vines
'God and the Gay Christian,' by Matthew Vines Courtesy of Convergent Books

When I started writing my new book, God and the Gay Christian, I was well aware that Christians who oppose same-sex marriage in the church have long used the Bible to defend their point of view. As a gay Christian from an evangelical church in Kansas, that status quo has had a damaging impact on my life, which is one reason I'm setting out to change the faulty perspective. Here are 10 reasons why God accepts gay Christians.

1. The term “homosexual” didn’t exist until 1892. Some modern Bible translations say that “homosexuals” will not inherit the kingdom of God, but neither the concept nor the word for people with exclusive same-sex attraction existed before the late 19th century. While the Bible rejects lustful same-sex behavior, that’s very different from a condemnation of all gay people and relationships.

2. Sexual orientation is a new concept—one that the Christian tradition hasn’t addressed. Many Christians draw on their faith’s traditions to shape their beliefs, but the concept of sexual orientation is new. Until recent decades, same-sex behavior was placed in the same category with gluttony or drunkenness — as a vice of excess anyone might be prone to — not as the expression of a sexual orientation. The Christian tradition has never spoken to the modern issue of LGBT people and their relationships.

3. Celibacy is a gift, not a mandate. The Bible honors celibacy as a good way of living — Jesus was celibate, after all — but it also makes clear that celibacy must be a voluntary choice. Requiring that all gay people remain celibate is at odds with the Bible’s teachings on celibacy, which are grounded Scripture’s core affirmation that God’s physical creation is good.

4. Condemning same-sex relationships is harmful to the LGBT community. Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that good trees bear good fruit, while bad trees bear bad fruit. The church’s rejection of same-sex relationships has caused tremendous, needless suffering to the LGBT community—bad fruit. Those harmful consequences should make Christians open to reconsidering the church’s traditional teaching.

5. Sodom and Gomorrah involved an attempted gang rape, not a loving relationship. It’s commonly assumed that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah out of his wrath against same-sex relations, but the only form of same-sex behavior described in the story is an attempted gang rape — nothing like a loving, committed relationship. The Bible explicitly condemns Sodom for its arrogance, inhospitality and apathy toward the poor — not for same-sex behavior.

6. The prohibitions in Leviticus don’t apply to Christians. Leviticus condemns male same-sex intercourse, but the entire Old Testament law code has never applied to Christians in light of Christ’s death. Leviticus also condemns eating pork, rabbit, or shellfish, cutting hair at the sides of one’s head, and having sex during a woman’s menstrual period — none of which Christians continue to observe.

7. Paul condemns same-sex lust, not love. Like other ancient writers, Paul described same-sex behavior as the result of excessive sexual desire on the part of people who could be content with opposite-sex relationships. He didn’t have long-term, loving same-sex relationships in view. And while he described same-sex behavior as “unnatural,” he also said men having long hair goes against nature, and most Christians read that as a reference to cultural conventions.

8. Marriage is about commitment. Marriage often involves procreation, but according to the New Testament, it’s based on something deeper: a lifelong commitment to a partner. Marriage is even compared to the relationship between Christ and the church, and while the language used is opposite-sex, the core principles apply just as well to same-sex couples.

9. Human beings are relational. From the beginning of Genesis, human beings are described as having a need for relationship, just as God himself is relational. Sexuality is a core part of what it means to be a relational person, and to condemn LGBT people’s sexuality outright damages their ability to be in relationship with all people — and with God.

10. Faithful Christians are already embracing LGBT brothers and sisters. Mainstream denominations like Presbyterians and Episcopalians now ordain openly gay clergy, and there are seeds of change in evangelical churches as well. This November, the Reformation Project will host a training conference for up to 900 LGBT-affirming Christians in Washington, D.C.—and the movement for change in conservative churches is just getting started.

Matthew Vines is the author of God and the Gay Christian and is the founder of The Reformation Project, a Bible-based non-profit organization that seeks to reform church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity. Matthew lives in Wichita, Kansas.

TIME Religion

After Seattle Shooting, the Media Watched Us Pray

Following the tragic shooting at Seattle Pacific University last week, the school's Christian community gathered in prayer. As we prayed, two things happened: God heard our prayers, and the media watched us praying

Last Thursday afternoon around 3:30 p.m., a senseless act of violence visited Seattle Pacific University, where I teach. Within minutes, squad cars, fire engines, ambulances, helicopters, and TV news trucks had converged on the scene of shooting that took the life of one of our students and injured two others. The campus was on lockdown for several hours. But by 7 p.m., the mayhem had subsided and the campus community did something that has seldom been seen in the aftermath of the many school shootings that have occurred lately. It prayed.

And it was the praying, almost as much as the shooting, which seemed to capture the attention of the media in the next couple days.

SPU is a church-related school. All employees are professing, practicing Christians, and so are the majority of students. It seemed to be the most natural and needful thing for us to do at that moment to gather in the campus church for corporate worship, and then to gather in small groups for prayer and lamentation till nightfall. Another service was held the next day. We were all grief-stricken: but as Christians we are required to bear up with hope. We were shocked and angry: but we are forbidden to be vengeful. We were broken: but we know that it is only by recognizing our own brokenness that we are able to extend mercy and compassion to others when their brokenness is unleashed upon ourselves. So we did what Christians do in the face of senseless evil: we looked to the Source of Goodness. We lamented the fallen and wounded. We gave thanks for the heroes and safety officers and medics. We interceded for the bereaved…and for the gunman.

As we prayed, two things happened: God heard our prayers, and the media watched us praying. The first of these was a mercy; the second was a fresh trial.

That God heard our prayers came as no surprise. For slowly…very slowly…we began to heal. Our anger remained—and had to remain, lest the evil we had experienced be trivialized. But nobody was heard to express vengefulness for the killer. Our grief persisted, and even grew in its intensity. But so did our resolution to trust the One whose ways we don’t understand. Our brokenness was more obvious to us than ever. But expressions of concern and support poured in from families and friends, from loyal alumni and perfect strangers, from sister schools and local churches, from neighbors across the street and neighbors across the world. Banners with words of encouragement sprouted all over campus. Floral bouquets ringed the crime scene.

The fact that the TV cameras were recording all this was another story. We Christians are forbidden to “practice [our] piety before others in order to be seen by them” (Mt. 6:1), but we are also required to “speak [God’s] word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). We are told “to be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls [us] to account for the hope that is in [us]”—but to do so “with gentleness and reverence,” abstaining from self-display (1 Pet. 3:15). On that awful evening, when we needed to huddle together in order to begin healing, we found ourselves the object of media attention. We are required to bear public witness to our faith—but this hardly felt like the proper occasion or setting for that. It was very awkward. We had to pray in a way that was emotionally real, lest we prove ourselves hypocrites before God. But we had to avoid turning our agonized devotions into the grotesque unreality of reality TV by displaying either exaggerated emotionalism or mock-heroic stoicism for theatrical effect. We had to act as if we weren’t being watched, but we also had to act as if we weren’t trying to act as if we weren’t being watched.

When I was a boy, I once complained to my parents that my sister had kept her eyes open during table grace. To which Mother smilingly responded, “And how do you know that?” I learned that day that when it comes to religion, cynical voyeurism is as wrong as sanctimonious exhibitionism. I am praying that the SPU community avoided the latter this week, and that the watching world avoided the former. I am hoping that God’s healing grace can be seen in our campus tragedy—either because of us, or in spite of us, or perhaps both.

Richard Steele is a professor of moral and historical theology and associate dean of graduate theological studies at Seattle Pacific University.

TIME Religion

Union Becomes the World’s First Seminary to Divest from Fossil Fuels

New York's Union Theological Seminary--home to famed theologians Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as well as a $108.4 million endowment--will be the first seminary in the world to divest from fossil fuels.

At Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, we have a particular call to live out our values in the world. In accordance with that call, our Board of Trustees voted unanimously today to begin divesting the school’s entire $108.4 million endowment from fossil fuels, becoming the first seminary in the world to take this dramatic step in the fight against global climate change.

As a seminary we are familiar with the scriptural warning that “the wages of sin is death,” and this could not be more literally true than it is in the case of fossil fuels. As vulnerable communities have been swallowed by rising shorelines, as potable water has become a commodity of increasing rarity, as hundreds of thousands of people have been killed by violent weather, it is ever clear that humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels is death-dealing—or as Christians would say, profoundly sinful.

This concerns us deeply, and we are actively committed to finding new ways to participate in healing our wounded creation. We believe that the divestment of our endowment from fossil fuel companies is one small step in this direction.

This was not an easy decision for us. We depend on our endowment to support Union’s educational mission, and are committed to ensuring that our endowment can continue to support needed scholarships and faculty positions.

Fortunately, we can do this and remain fiscally responsible to our students, staff, faculty, and members of the Union community. We were heartened to learn that over the past two decades, a portfolio that had left out fossil fuel companies would have returned, on average, only six tenths of one percent less. This is a small financial loss when compared to the importance of our moral statement.

We realize that our endowment alone will hardly cause the fossil fuel giants to miss even half a heartbeat. That said, it is on moral grounds that we pursue divestment, and on theological grounds that we trust it matters. The Christian term for this reckless hope in the power of God to use our decisions of conscience to transform the world is resurrection, and I have faith in the power of resurrection.

In addition to our divestment and campus sustainability efforts, Union will host a conference in the days leading up to the United Nations’ Climate Summit in September called Religions for the Earth (religionsfortheearth.org). The event will culminate in an interfaith service and will be held in partnership with GreenFaith, the Interfaith Center of New York, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the World Council of Churches, and Religions for Peace. We know that the effort to care for the earth must be an interreligious, global one, and we at Union look forward to hosting continuing conversations about the role of faith communities the movement to combat climate change.

Yet these efforts do not mark the end of our obligation to be faithful stewards of the earth. Certainly, there is more work to be done, by Union and by all people of conscience.

I hope our decision to divest encourages other seminaries and universities to recognize that there are things we can do as a country and as a people to cut down on our greenhouse gas emissions. For Christians, sin is the word that describes anything that prevents us from having a faithful relationship with God, with each other, with ourselves, and with creation.

We have sinned, and we see this divestment as an act of repentance for Union. All of the world is God’s precious creation, and our place within it is to care for and respect the health of the whole. Climate change poses a catastrophic threat. As stewards of God’s creation, we simply must act to stop this sin.

Serene Jones is President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York where she holds the Johnston Family Chair in Religion and Democracy. She is Vice President of the American Academy of Religion, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and author of Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World. She tweets online at @SereneJones.

TIME Religion

Christian Right Attacks Planned Parenthood For Praying

Prayer gets political

Prayer is often one of the few acts that can cross religious and political divides, no matter how deep. But last week, the president of the Family Research Council criticized Planned Parenthood Federation of America for reaching out to women in the name of God. “Women are used to Planned Parenthood preying on them—but praying on them? That’s a new approach altogether,” Tony Perkins wrote on the FRC website. “Obviously, [Planned Parenthood] is always looking for new ways to justify abortion. But the Bible? That’s a step too far, even for them.”

Perkins was responding to a Planned Parenthood “Pastoral Letter to Patients” written by the group’s 15-member Clergy Advocacy Board and posted online. “Many people wrongly assume that all religious leaders disapprove of abortion,” the letter reads. “The truth is that abortion is not even mentioned in the Scriptures—Jewish or Christian—and there are clergy and people of faith from all denominations who support women making this complex decision.”

That message, Perkins felt, crosses a line. “Is Planned Parenthood so desperate for business that it has to spiritualize the murder of tiny children?” he wrote.

“We felt it was time to weigh in and make sure that our supporters were aware of Planned Parenthood’s latest tactics,” Perkins tells TIME.

Planned Parenthood’s pastoral letter, however, wasn’t actually new. It has been on the group’s website since October 2013, and it is part of a group of clergy’s longstanding efforts to support Planned Parenthood affiliates and patients. The group’s Clergy Advocacy Board spans a range of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions, and while the religious groups have their own particular views about abortion, they share the view that God loves women no matter their decision about a pregnancy. “We believe that clergy have a special responsibility to bear witness in support of reproductive rights so that the public and their elected representatives may understand the theological and moral basis for reproductive rights,” says the Clergy Board’s statement of beliefs. “The decision about abortion is a matter between a woman, her conscience, and/or her God, and that those close to her should offer support in any way they can.”

Three clergy board members—the Board’s chair, Reform Jewish Rabbi Jon Adland of Canton, Ohio; vice-chair Rev. Susan Russell, of All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena, Calif.; and Reform Jewish Rabbi Dennis Ross of Concerned Clergy for Choice in Albany, N.Y.—responded to Perkins’ criticism against their work in a statement to TIME. “Too often, the voices of negative religious discourse around abortion are those that loudly proclaim their teachings are the only ones that are valid,” they say. “They try to shame and judge women who are making deeply personal and often complex decisions about their pregnancies.”

For these Christian and Jewish leaders, their efforts far from spiritualize abortion–they defend a woman’s religious liberty. “As clergy members, we work every day to make clear that everyone is entitled to follow their own conscience and religious beliefs; what they don’t have the right to do is impose those beliefs on everyone else,” they say.

As ministers, they also believe they also have a spiritual responsibility to care for and counsel families in their communities. “As faith leaders, we recognize that women need to be supported and receive compassionate care while making deeply personal decisions based on faith and conscience,” they say. “It is important that women know that there are people of faith who respect a woman’s ability to make these deeply personal decisions in consultation with her family, her doctor, and her faith.”

The spat again revives the culture war debate over who can claim the Bible, and ultimately, who can claim that God endorses their cause. The majority of white evangelicals, Mormons, and Hispanic Catholics believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, according to the Pew Research Center, while the majority of white mainline Protestants, white Catholics, black Protestants, Jews, and unaffiliated believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Perkins, however, suggests that Christianity and Planned Parenthood are incompatible. “A straightforward reading of the Bible shows that since the beginning God held human life to be sacred, and values human life, no matter the stage,” Perkins says. “I imagine that Christians, supposed or true, who support Planned Parenthood either do not fully understand what abortion is, what its physical and emotional consequences are or what Planned Parenthood as an organization actually stands for and advocates.”

TIME Religion

What Can Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ Tell Us About God?

Singer Pharrell Williams performs his hit song "Happy" at the Walmart annual shareholders meeting in Fayetteville
Singer Pharrell Williams performs his hit song "Happy" at the Walmart annual shareholders meeting in Fayetteville, Arkansas June 6, 2014. Rick Wilking / Reuters—REUTERS


This article originally appeared on Patheos.

You like “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, don’t you? Of course you do. The song is catchy, plain and simple. Or maybe not so simple––new evidence suggests that “Happy” isn’t just catchy, but that when we hear it, we’re hardwired to get up and dance. And while it might seem crazy what I’m ‘bout to say, I think this study gives us a glimpse of how God has hardwired us to join in His “dance” on earth, too.

Hardwired to Dance

The “Happy” music video, currently sporting over two hundred and seventy-two million YouTube views, flips through shots of people dancing around the world. It’s spawned a worldwide imitation video phenomenon. So why does Happy make us want to dance?

In a study published last month, neuroscientists in Denmark explored this question. They created a survey asking people to rate a variety of drum patterns, selecting ones that made them want to dance the most. Some were simple rhythms with regular beats (think Drum Class 101), while others were complex, layered rhythmic patterns with lots of unexpected gaps where regular beats should go (think of Chad Smith in a drum-off).

Then there were beats that avoided both extremes, “patterns that had a sort of a balance between predictability and complexity,” explained the study’s leader, Maria Witek.

These were the beats that made people want to get up and dance, worldwide. And “Happy” is full of them.

So why do these beats affect us? Witek’s explanation is fascinating: “there’s enough regularity to sort of perceive the underlying beat, but also enough complexity to sort of invite participants to synchronize to the music.”

As NPR’s Michael Doucleff puts it, “it may be more about what’s missing from the song than what’s there.” Witek elaborates: “Gaps in the rhythmic structure…. provide us with an opportunity to physically inhabit those gaps and fill in those gaps with our own bodies.”

A Dancing God?

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis introduces the image of a God who is always dancing. Every member of the Trinity is ceaselessly adoring, serving, and “dancing with” every other member: “In Christianity God is not a static thing… but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life… a kind of dance….” God created us to live into this self-giving dance with Him, worshiping him, serving each other, and experiencing the joy of the Trinity. “The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us… [It’s] a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality.”

When we become Christians, we realize how we’ve turned away from the Divine Dance. We demand that other people serve us and dance for us, but we don’t want to do any serving or dancing.

Then suddenly we sense, to mix Lewis and Witek’s words, “the underlying beat at the very center of reality.” And we find it so attractive that we can’t help but get up and dance. We realize that everyone, worldwide, is hardwired to join us.

Filling in the Gaps with Our Own Bodies

What’s fascinating about this study, of course, isn’t that we like to dance. It’s that we’re attracted to songs with missing beats.

As Christians, we sense the rhythm at the heart of reality, but we also see that beats are missing in our broken everyday lives. God’s song is perfect, but there are gaps in our earthly rhythms. We feel frustrations and longings: why doesn’t God fix the world now? Christ died so we can join the dance––so bring it on, all of it! Why the brokenness?!

But this attitude is, after all, not the attitude of a dancer. God wants us to join in the dance, not wait around for Him to perfect it. Instead, he gives us the power of Holy Spirit. He invites us to do what comes so naturally when we listen to “Happy”: physically inhabit these gaps with our own bodies! God inspires us synchronize the work of our hands, minds, and hearts to the Rhythm of Reality. And rhythm won’t be complete until we join in! As Ephesians 2:10 says, we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Or, we might say, dance in them.

Nathan Roberts is an intern at Patheos.

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