The State of the Union felt like an old-fashioned revival to me

Long ago, my fourth grade teacher warned me: “Jordan, if you want to be a preacher some day you have to give up on politics. Religion and politics just don’t mix.”

I always was a good student, but maybe not the best listener. That’s why last Wednesday evening I was glued to the television watching President Joe Biden deliver his first address to a joint session of Congress. Speeches like the one on Wednesday are tough for any president. President Biden’s delivery was solid, but what made the speech significant was what he said he hoped to accomplish.

Jordan Conley

The president called for ending childhood poverty in this country. He affirmed health care as a human right, while reminding us that we are called to welcome the stranger. He demanded that our country “root out systemic racism” and called for feeding hungry Americans. Biden proposed expanding access to education, including free community college, so that more Americans can attain the skills they need to make a decent living for their families.

If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought the president heard my pastor’s regular Sunday morning benediction. Each week, the benediction sends us out to “feed those who come to us hungry” and to “stand up for what is right and just.”

Biden is the first president in years to attend weekly church services. He speaks openly about how his faith has helped him through the tragedies he’s endured. Standing in a chamber that was stormed just a few months prior by insurrectionists wielding the Christian flag, Biden sounded like one who heard Jesus when he said, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” He sounded like one living that familiar verse that echoes, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

To be clear, this was no regular speech by a run-of-the-mill politician. I heard in Biden’s speech an evangelistic call to join the divine in the work of bringing about the good news of the kingdom of God. To the senior who has to choose between purchasing medication or groceries, lower cost for medicine is good news. To the single mother who works an extra shift just to be able to afford her child’s day care, universal preschool is good news. To the miner in Eastern Kentucky who is one layoff away from financial disaster, tuition-free community college is good news.

“I heard in Biden’s speech an evangelistic call to join the divine in the work of bringing about the good news of the kingdom of God.”

To my ears, the president wasn’t just giving a speech after his first 100 days in office. He was outlining his evangelistic work as president, joining with Jesus in bringing God’s kingdom to those in desperate need of good news.

Before he even left the platform, pundits and political opponents alike started to name all the reasons the president’s agenda would not be passed. Besides the daunting task of getting 60 votes in the Senate, many were calling Biden’s agenda “fiscally irresponsible” and “radical socialism.”

“Fiscally irresponsible” is a term used to raise objections when government funds are allocated to assist the poor, the vulnerable or the working class. After all, both political parties regularly break records for spending. If the government never spent any money, then there would be no military, no interstate highways, and so on. The government spends money no matter who is president. The question is, “To what end will the money be spent?”

The services government provides to working people are not handouts, although they may be perceived as such by those who never have needed to rely on such services. When I hear wealthy representatives (who vote to spend money in a myriad of ways) bemoan Biden’s proposals as too costly, it strikes me as inauthentic.

Typically, we associate cost with worth. If we say something is too expensive, then what we’re really saying is it isn’t worth the money we’re putting out. We can’t see the value. My fear is that these folks aren’t concerned about cost; they simply do not see their fellow Americans as being worthy of the investment this country can afford.

“President Biden had an old-fashioned altar call. He called for revival. He challenged this country to bring the kingdom of God to the hungry, the poor, the oppressed.”

This is what Biden tried to convince Americans of on Wednesday night. Everyone is worth it. Everyone is worth having health care that can make the difference between life and death. Everyone is worth education that can break the chains of poverty. Everyone deserves a refuge, a balm in Gilead.

As best as I could tell, there was no tent in the House chambers on Wednesday evening. There was no pianist to play “Just as I Am,” but make no mistake: President Biden had an old-fashioned altar call. He called for revival. He challenged this country to bring the kingdom of God to the hungry, the poor, the oppressed.

He mixed politics and religion by calling for legislation that would bring good news to many. He invited folks to the banquet table who aren’t used to getting an invitation.

The breadth of the invitation ruffled some feathers. Radical hospitality isn’t always popular. But it is worth it because humanity is worth it. A man from Galilee told us the price was worth it long ago, and on Wednesday night, a man from Scranton reminded us that it is still worth it.

That’s how politics and religion can come together to make a real difference in our world. They should be mixed up together. If the combination is just right, we might find ourselves on an evangelistic mission with the divine, mixing faith and politics to bring good news, make more room at the table, and affirm the worth of all.

Jordan Conley hails from Eastern Kentucky and now lives in Louisville, where he’s a Baptist minister, member of Crescent Hill Baptist Church, a student at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky and funeral director.

 

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Matter-of-fact statements about Scripture aren’t always the gospel truth

It was a beautiful September day on the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The sun was shining brightly through the Beech trees along Lexington Road as they turned from green to orange. I ran down the stairwell from my dorm room in Carver Hall to go track down one of my professors. I had good news.

As a senior at Boyce College, I had been contacted by a church that was interested in calling me as their pastor. I had known I was called to the ministry for as far back as I could remember. I preached my first sermon when I was 8 years old and spent all my middle and high school years devoting myself to preaching. Now, I had an opportunity to go from being a “preacher” to “pastor,” and I couldn’t have been more excited.

Jordan Conley

As luck would have it, I found one of my professors in his office. I shared my entire experience with him, how I had interviewed with the committee, how much they enjoyed hearing me preach, and how much I wanted this job.

He leaned back into his chair and pulled off his glasses. “Jordan,” he said, “you are talented. You are going to have numerous opportunities in ministry. If you are asking me what you should do, I would turn it down. Stay here. Get your master’s from Southern, then see what’s out there.”

Then he added, with a chuckle, “If they call me from down there wanting a recommendation … I’ll tell them you are gay.”

He was making a joke. In fact, he could hardly finish his sentence through his laughter. I chuckled, too, under my breath, thanked him for his time, and then scurried back up the stairs to my dorm room.

I spent the next few hours crying alone in my dorm room. I pressed my face down into the fibers of the rug we had on the floor. I pleaded with God, for the millionth time, to change me. I was completely heartbroken.

The thing is, I am gay. I tried my best to deny that for a really long time. I tried to “pursue women” as all young men at Boyce College were taught to do. Albert Mohler himself told us to graduate with a “diploma in one hand and marriage certificate in the other.” He warned that churches would be spooked if we were unmarried, or worse yet single without any prospects of marriage on the horizon.

“I tried to ‘pursue women’ as all young men at Boyce College were taught to do.”

So, for four years or so, I tried my best. I attended the “approved” seminary churches in Louisville. I joined in as we made fun of the “liberal” Presbyterian Seminary across the street. I debated Reformed Theology in the dorms. I drank coffee at the “seminary hipster” watering holes. I tried to transform myself into what Southern Seminary wanted me to become.

But after four years and that haunting chuckle in Carver Hall, I decided I simply couldn’t take any more. I could not listen to another John Piper sermon. I could not join another “accountability group.” I could not continue to be the shell of the person I had become.

It pains me to know that many others have been through the same kind of mind-warp.

Recently, the Southern Baptist Convention doubled down its assault on LGBTQ folk, with the SBC Executive Committee tossing out two churches over their LGBTQ policies. Mohler tweeted, “Anyone who argues that the Bible … is not clear about the sinfulness of homosexuality is either very confused or deliberately dishonest about the structure of biblical theology and the clear meaning of the texts.”

Perhaps Mohler is referring to Leviticus 18:22, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination.” That does seem pretty clear. So does Exodus 35:2, which clearly states that one who works on Sunday ought to be put to death. That might be an issue with a bunch of folks, though, especially during football season. Oh, and should you ever need a refresher on the terms of selling your daughter into slavery, flip over to Exodus 21:7. That also is pretty clear.

“No one, not even the SBC Executive Committee, has the market cornered on everything there is to know about God or biblical theology.”

The truth about biblical theology is that it is complicated. Our Scriptures were written over thousands of years and in a context where the world functioned sort of like an episode of Game of Thrones.

When church leaders make matter-of-fact statements that dismiss communities of faith from fellowship, they aren’t making a statement about what the Scriptures say, they are making a statement about what “they” say. Similar claims of scriptural authority have been made throughout church history, often to excuse behavior that at best is exclusionary and at worst, deadly.

We live in a diverse world, and the Scriptures speak to that beautiful diversity. No one, not even the SBC Executive Committee, has the market cornered on everything there is to know about God or biblical theology.

“Very confused or deliberately dishonest” summed up my life at Boyce College. On the outside, it appeared I had all the answers. But where it mattered — on the inside — I was a mess.

Something happened that day when my professor laughed in Carver Hall. That laughter made me realize that authenticity is a spiritual gift, a gift that some may never find. It is a gift that unites us with the God who created us, the God who loves us and the God who delights in our diverse world.

I’ll be the first to tell you I don’t have it all figured out. But as I journey along the way, I do my best to listen, to learn, and day-by-day I am being redeemed. That is biblical theology, and that is the best lesson I ever learned at Boyce College.

Jordan Conley hails from Eastern Kentucky and now lives in Louisville, where he’s a Baptist minister, member of Crescent Hill Baptist Church, a student at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky and funeral director.

 

Related articles:

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My quest to find the word ‘homosexual’ in the Bible

LGBTQ inclusion and clergy sexual abuse treated equally in SBC expulsions




What I learned from RBG about the ‘dissenter’s hope’ 

As a funeral director, I sit across from families trying to process their grief.

Just about any funeral director you’ll meet will tell you that no two families are exactly alike. Some families really open up, and their faces light up as they share their grandmother’s favorite recipe or their family’s favorite camping outing with Dad. Some families are a little shy. Others are so overcome with grief that they can’t say much of anything at all.

Jordan Conley

Since the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I have found myself on the other side of that table, sitting with some surprising feelings of grief that I’m not sure I saw coming. I have admired Justice Ginsburg’s groundbreaking work for women’s equality, I have been moved by her stirring opinions from the bench, but when I learned she passed away, I felt an unexpected sadness. I felt a little hopeless, like I had lost someone who did much more for me than I ever could do in return.

When Ginsburg was nominated to serve on the Supreme Court, I was only 11 months old. Twenty-four years after her confirmation, I stood at the altar of a Baptist church and slipped a silver ring on my husband’s finger only a little over a year after the court’s groundbreaking Obergefell v. Hodges decision that secured marriage equality.

As timing would have it, my husband and I learned of Justice Ginsburg’s death while celebrating our four-year anniversary. The day we lost Justice Ginsburg also happened to be Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days of the Jewish faith. It seemed fitting that Ginsburg, a woman of Jewish faith, passed away during this season, a time that calls for repentance, reflection and spiritual renewal.

The pursuit of justice wasn’t simply an occupation Ginsburg took on and off with her robe. The words from Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” were inscribed on artwork hanging in her chambers at the Supreme Court. They point to her sense of vocation, her prophetic call.

She reminded law students, “If you are going to be a lawyer and just practice your profession, you have a skill — very much like a plumber. But if you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself, … something that makes life a little better for people less fortunate than you.”

“She made life a little better for people like my husband and me, and for thousands of other LGBTQ folks.”

Making life a little better was at the heart of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s prophetic call. She made life a little better for people like my husband and me, and for thousands of other LGBTQ folks. She made life a little better for women by challenging sexist structures that undergird our society. That work isn’t easy and is rarely popular.

The Bible says that when another prophet, Elijah, approached Ahab on Mount Carmel, Ahab asked the prophet, “Is that you, oh troubler of Israel?”

Justice Ginsburg can be said to have been a troubler. She made what Congressman John Lewis might have called “good trouble” for politicians, corporations and unjust power hubs across this country. She was often found on the margins, even pushing the margins, in pursuit of justice for all. This was especially clear in her well-known dissenting opinions. In issuing such opinions, which often challenged the so-called “conventional wisdom” of the day, Justice Ginsburg referred to what she called “the dissenter’s hope.”

She said:Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong, and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.” Tomorrow, she had decided, must be more just than today.

I believe the heart of the grief I feel is the sense that we’ve lost someone who cared more about tomorrow than today, someone who cared about my rights without even meeting me, someone who realized we truly can make life a little better for those around us.

“Her life calls us to tarry in the soul-changing work of making the dissenter’s hope a present reality.”

Our task now is to take up the prophetic call of RBG, to ensure that the “tomorrow” of another is one worth living. Her life calls us to tarry in the soul-changing work of making the dissenter’s hope a present reality.

That isn’t just the call of a well-known Supreme Court Justice; that is the call of Jesus.

So, my LGBTQ friends and allies, let us grieve for the loss we have experienced. But even as we mourn, let us work for the world Justice Ginsburg knew was around the bend; a world where justice is served for all, not reserved for the few. A world made up of people who are willing to make the “good trouble” necessary to make tomorrow better than today.

The Bible says that when Elijah was ushered up to heaven, Elisha took up his mantle. The Spirit of God that rested upon Elijah’s prophetic work fell upon Elisha. Let us take up the mantle Justice Ginsburg has left. May the Spirit of God rest upon us, as we attempt to making tomorrow a little better for us all.

Jordan Conley hails from Eastern Kentucky and now lives in Louisville, where he’s a Baptist minister, member of Crescent Hill Baptist Church, a student at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky and funeral director.

 

Related articles:

Why Baptist women in ministry feel a kinship to Justice Ginsburg

RBG: Defender of equality, principled dissenter, faithful supporter of religious liberty




What if we all learned to breathe in and breathe out together?

Blue faded overalls, a sharp Case knife, a gold Timex watch and a green oxygen tank. For about as far back as I can remember, those were the essentials for my Pap.

Jordan Conley

Pap mined coal underground in Eastern Kentucky for 27 years. He never met a stranger, he spoke with a booming voice, and he could spin a story like a wagon wheel. The last years of Pap’s life were spent going from doctor to doctor as he battled heart disease, black lung and, ultimately, lung cancer. The most obvious sign of the myriad of issues Pap faced was his persistent inability to breathe. This only worsened with time, to the point to where he couldn’t walk from the kitchen to the bedroom without being completely out of breath.

I can still hear him saying, “Bub, I’m smothering to death.” Finally in 2017, Pap died.

“I can’t breathe” just sounds different in 2020. George Floyd said, “I can’t breathe” more than 20 times before he died. Last year, Elijah McClain was on his way home when he found himself being held on the ground by police officers, crying out, “I can’t breathe” before he died. In March, after Breonna Taylor was shot in her own home by Louisville police officers, she fell to the ground, coughing, gasping for air, unable to breathe. She also died.

The COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. has left thousands fighting for their lives. Infected patients battle a disease with no cure while hooked to ventilators. They cannot breathe, and many continue to die.

Our atmosphere is full of air. We, along with all of creation, use that air, drawing it in for our next breath, then breathing out. As we exhale, our humanity travels out of our bodies into another body, or animal, or tree. This cycle has repeated itself for billions of years but even as that cycle continues fellow humans and fellow members of creation are crying out to us saying, “I can’t breathe.”

“People are suffocating in our world, succumbing to the smothering grasps of racism, classism and corporate greed.”

People are suffocating in our world, succumbing to the smothering grasps of racism, classism and corporate greed. COVID-19 has further illuminated the immorality that props up the economy of consumption — a force that churns onward devouring the poor, the marginalized, those without wealth and influence.

That’s why my Pap and thousands of other coal miners went to work every day wearing masks that ultimately wouldn’t protect them from black lung. That’s why the next factory that gets built in your city will be near the urban core of its Black population dubbed “the industrial” part of town. That’s why thousands of “essential workers” are being exposed to COVID-19 right now.

In a world with plenty of air, the reality is that people are dying because they simply cannot breathe.

Willie Jennings calls the windy descent of the Spirit in Acts 2, “the revolution of the intimate” signifying, “the beginning of a community broken open by the sheer act of God.”

The fresh air that blew among the believers inspired them to live in genuine community together. Common needs were met, everyone had enough, and everyone could breathe. Scripture says they, “had all things in common, they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

“Once the Spirit came, they lived differently. They lived with an awareness of one another, knowing that each life mattered.”

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the Spirit’s descent wasn’t the gift of tongues, or the number of people added to the church rolls after Peter’s sermon. Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the Spirit’s descent is found in how they lived with one another after the crowds left and after the tongues of fire ceased. Once the Spirit came, they lived differently. They lived with an awareness of one another, knowing that each life mattered. An individual need became everybody’s need. Nobody got left behind.

What does it look like to live in a community that God is breaking open?

Can we imagine a community where corporations make smaller profits in order to provide adequate PPE for their “essential workers” just because it is the right thing to do? A community where people who look like George Floyd or Elijah McClain can walk down the streets of any city without fear? A community where Breonna Taylor can sleep soundly in her own bed? A community where my Pap didn’t have to sacrifice his health for cheap electricity? What sum on your electric bill is worth the price of a healthy lung?

The economy of consumption never was designed around genuine community. Consumption commandeers for itself the talents of people like Breonna Taylor and people like my Pap. The need to satisfy the economic appetite was used to excuse slavery. The need for inexpensive electricity was used to excuse the safety of frontline workers like Pap. Today, it is being used to excuse the exposure of essential workers to COVID-19. After all, the economy depends on essential, or to speak plainly, expendable workers. But, when the Spirit comes, none of us is expendable.

Can we imagine living in a community broken wide open by the Spirit of God?

We’ll know we’ve conspired together with the Spirit in this holy work when we establish communities where the humanity of another is more important than “the bottom line,” communities where fellow human beings are irreplaceable or as the Psalmist writes, “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Communities where Black lives really do matter and where black lung is no more. Communities where wealth, race and class do not determine the amount of air you get to breathe.

That community is a place that’s been broken open by God, broken open for life. In that community, everyone can breathe. May we all breathe in, breathe out, and live in the community God is creating.

Jordan Conley hails from Eastern Kentucky and now lives in Louisville, where he’s a Baptist minister, member of Crescent Hill Baptist Church, a student at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky and funeral director.