Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Sophia Controversy

A few weeks ago, I preached a sermon called Holy Sophia based on the lectionary text for the day, which was Proverbs 1:20-33. I basically reviewed a few different ideas about Sophia and suggested that one way or another, Sophia, and more generally the divine feminine, are a part of the Christian experience of and cannot be ignored if for no other reason than that they are attested in our Holy Scriptures. Of course, I expected it to be a bit controversial, since we very rarely talk about that part of our tradition. I expected people to be skeptical. I expected that some would find it just too unfamiliar and would basically dismiss it. However, what seems to have happened is that this is the first sermon I've preached that has really gotten people upset and angry.

As I was preaching it, I could tell it wasn't going over very well. The congregation seemed completely dead, and they usually give at least some vocal response. And many people seemed have they're faces screwed up in expressions of either distaste or confusion. After the sermon, the response was pretty cold. Usually most people give the obligatory "nice sermon" as they shake my hand on the way out the sanctuary. Not so much on this Sunday. I got one very enthusiastic comment, another of general approval, one comment to the effect of "I'm going to have to think some more about that" and the rest mostly silent.

Now, I'll admit, it wasn't the best sermon I've ever given. It was terribly academic, for one thing, since I had to lay out the history and context of the Sophia tradition, which I assumed would be fairly unfamiliar. So, in that sense it was more lecturish than sermonish. In addition, I probably could have constructed the sermon a bit better, made it more accessible and relevant to everyday life. Still, though, I stand by the subject matter of the sermon. And I stand by the biblical warrant for the sermon.

So, back to the story. In the first week after the sermon, I heard very little about the sermon. I figured that some people probably hadn't liked it too much, but that's true of all sermons. And I figured that that was probably the end of it.

On the Sunday after the sermon, a parishioner asked me, "Are you girding up your loins for battle?" and helpfully warned me that some were upset about the sermon and that there were grumblings about it. The parishioner was just giving me a friendly warning that people were talking about it. (Which, by the way, was part of the point of the sermon, to get people to talk about it.)

Then today I got the first direct negative feedback. It was offered in a quite loving and polite fashion, not directly attacking me or anything. The parishioner said how uncomfortable the sermon had made them feel. They told me that they didn't believe there was warrant in the bible to say what I had said, and they made a very reasonable point: "Jesus called God Father, and I want to be like Jesus."

And that's fine. I certainly didn't expect everyone to agree with what I had to say. And I am very appreciative that this parishioner actually came and talked to me and told me how they felt. If people are concerned about how I'm doing my job, I'd much rather that they actually talk with me than that they grumble amongst themselves until I'm hit unaware at some later point with a whole mess of anger that has been growing and festering beyond my sight.

Still, I find myself a little surprised at the negative reaction, and I find myself taking it a little more personally than I really feel I should. The reason I'm surprised at the reaction that seems to be building is that the argument is purely theological. As far as I can tell, those who are upset (though to be fair, I haven't heard much from them, mostly rumors) have issue with a purely theological point that I made: can God be addressed or thought of as female. That is to say, it's not a social or political issue. I've already made reference in sermons to several controversial social issues, but those aren't the things that stirred up controversy, it's the more sterile, theological concept of Sophia.

Furthermore, I didn't suggest in any way that masculine images of God are invalid or even problematic. A didn't say that referring to God as Father was a problem. We still used Father language throughout the service. So I didn't feel like I was threatening people's strongly held beliefs. I wasn't telling anyone that there image of God was wrong. I was just highlighting another image God, one that is testified in both the biblical and historical traditions. If I had said that referring to God as Father was somehow wrong or oppressive, then I certainly would have understood tremendous resistance. But I didn't. I just lifted up another, often overlooked image of God.

And that's part of the reason that I'm taking it a bit personally. You see, the images of Sophia, of the Divine Mother, of the Bakerwoman God, are images that are very powerful to me. During some of most difficult struggles of life and faith, it was from God the Mother that I received help, sustenance, and healing. So if people are offended by the mere mention or suggestion of Sophia or the Divine Feminine, then it follows that they are offended by my personal experience of faith. It means that they consider my experience of God to be invalid, that the divine healing and forgiveness that I have received are somehow counterfeit. And that's why I'm taking it personally, because I was very careful not to discount any other image of God, even the ones that have very little power for me. But the mere suggestion of a biblical image of God that I have found helpful now seems to be the seed of congregational controversy.

On the other hand, I guess I didn't share anything personal in the sermon. I guess I thought it would be less controversial if I wasn't taking a personal stand for it, if I was just introducing the concept. Or maybe I'm just not very good at sharing my own faith, and it rarely occurs to me to do so.

I want to be clear that I don't expect others to feel any connection to God as Sophia or God as Mother. It's a foreign concept for most Christians. And I should also be clear that no one has accused me of anything. There are only rumblings and rumors, and I could be grossly misrepresenting the folks who are upset with me, if they are even out there. I just hope that we all, as people who some different ideas about God, can at least respect each other's views and experience, and I pray that I will have the grace to do the same.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


So, I've got a gig in town now. I'm the accompanish for the Coos Bay Community Choir through Southwestern Oregon Community College. I'm really looking forward to it. I've haven't really done much playing in quite a while, and it will be good to have a creative outlet. Also, this will be my first real activity here that isn't church related. It will be nice to have one, and to start to get to know folks outside of church. So all around, it should be a good thing.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


So, we've got a sermon podcast up now. You can use iTunes to subscribe to it. We're listed in the iTunes Podcast directory, or you can just click this link to find us. If you get a chance, please go ahead and subscribe so we can boost our stats a little bit.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


So, I just preached my tenth Sermon at Coos Bay UMC. Definitely my record for consecutive sermons. I had preached 6 at different churches last summer. But it's a very interesting thing to be preaching every Sunday like this. It means always needing to have something to say, which I'm not always that great at. Often, I just like to b silent until I feel like I really have something to say. Now, I have to say something meaningful whether I feel like I have anything to say or not.

It's been a really good experience, though. A few of them have been surprizes. Imbibe the Spirit in particular ended up being exactly the words that I needed to hear at that time. It's not all that often that one successfully preaches to themself, but it happened that time.

Also, it's been interesting to see if I was really brave enough to tackle difficult subjects when they present themselves. I haven't done too badly. So far, the words, "heroin, sex, prostitution, pornography, cocaine, AIDS, Democrats, Republicans, vote, campaign, drugs, drunkenness, evil, terrorism, pregnancy, abortion, death penalty, war, sexist, rape, murder, adultry, lust, menstration, and politics" have all appeared in a sermon of mine. I did chicken out a little bit with To Whom Can We Go?, though. I could have brought up homosexuality in that one, but I didn't. Of course, I was also running a fever of 101 degrees when I wrote it, so I may not have been in the best condition to handle that topic with the tact necessary. Another time will present itself, I'm sure.

So yeah, ten consecutive sermons to the same congergation, without repeating myself, as far as I can tell. That's kind of cool.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


I just got back from a week of vacation. I spent the time visiting my Grandma and Great Uncle in Haines, Oregon. Part of the reason for my visit was to go through a document that we had recently found: the journal of my Great-Great-Grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Thomas Stewart, recording her experiences of coming to Oregon in a covered wagon in 1896. I was able to transcribe the entire journal and begin some historical work on the text. At the same time, I was able to do a bit of genealogical and other general family history research.

I found: 1) my family was passing through Denver in a covered wagon almost exactly 110 years before I graduated from seminary there, 2) President Richard Nixon is my 7th cousin twice removed, 3) my grandfather was a WWI veteran in the Canadian Army. I was also priviledged to take possession of several family heirlooms including some wonderful antique woodworking tools.

It's really hard to explain what the experience was like. It felt like a bit of a pilgrimage through time, walking in the steps of my ancestors. I've always felt a bit culturally homeless, like I didn't know much about my family history. Now I feel like a have a great sense of place.