unChristian Attitudes Towards LGBTQ People

[This a sermon I shared with Trinity UMC on Sunday May 13, 2018. The biblical text was Romans 1:18-2:5.

8DEBDBFE-E621-45C9-85C2-066577C78ED2I’m sure some of us are asking why we are talking about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people and issues on Mother’s Day of all days. Well, in some ways, it’s quite fitting. Ultimately we’re not just talking about issues, beliefs, and rules. We’re talking about people. And each of these people has a mother— a mother who has gone through on a much deeper level the struggle we all have of learning how to love, understand and include other people.

A Tale of Two Mothers
Today, I’d like to honor two mothers I know very well. (To safeguard their privacy, I’m keeping their names anonymous.) These mothers are very different women, yet they both have two things in common.

First, they both have a child who is homosexual. One has a daughter and one has a son. Here’s the second thing they have in common: they unconditionally love their children— one who is gay and one who is lesbian.

They have both been fully involved in their children’s lives and the lives of their respective partners. They’re proud of their children and fully support them. Indeed, these two children have wonderful mothers whom I would be privileged to have as a mother, too.

As I mentioned, these mothers are also quite different. One mother embraces her child’s sexuality with no condition and with full acceptance. The other mother has found her child’s sexuality to be unbiblical therefore sinful.

But here’s the beautiful thing: just watching these mothers unconditionally love their children, we would never know they had any kind of ideological difference between them. They are mothers who love, nurture, and fully support their children. They remind us that when it comes to loving and nurturing our children, ideology rarely comes into play.

What’s the Controversy All About?
So, back to the issues… A lot of people ask me what all the controversy is about. Why are we as a local church and denomination caught in a debate about LGBTQ people, homosexuality in particular?

Right now, the future unity of United Methodist Church sits on a knife’s edge directly over the matter of homosexuality and three questions in particular:
1) Is homosexuality sinful or not?
2) Can same-sex marriages be performed by our clergy and in our churches?
3) Can people who are LGBTQ be licensed and ordained as clergy?

The United Methodist Church has been locked in this debate since 1972. (Not to make you feel old, but that’s longer than I’ve been alive!) In 1972, the UMC took a stance on homosexuality, stating that it is incompatible with Christian teaching. Through the years the rules have gotten more specific, stating quite explicitly that self-avowed “practicing” homosexuals cannot be licensed or ordained as clergy and cannot be married in our churches or by our clergy.

The UMC has not clearly addressed how we understand people who are bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning. This morning, I don’t have time to explore all of this here. Yet by and large the debate has been around homosexuality.

Ideologically, there are three main camps of people.

In one camp are those who want gay and lesbian people fully included in the church. They want to see marriage and ordination completely opened to people who are gay or lesbian.

To make their argument, they say several things. They state that all people are made in God’s image, and that some, for no fault of their own, have been born as gay or lesbian. That is their God-given identity. They state that Jesus never taught on homosexuality, and that Jesus challenged social norms that excluded groups of people from the faith community. Furthermore, the few places where the Bible addresses homosexuality do not apply to people who are gay or lesbian living in covenanted relationships.

In the second camp are those who uphold and are striving to protect our Book of Discipline’s teachings and standards on homosexuality. They believe the Bible clearly teaches that all homosexuality is sinful. God made marriage for one man and one woman. Thus, people who are in homosexual relationships are living in sin and should not be married or ordained.

In the third camp are those who feel caught in the middle of this massive debate without strongly holding any particular ideological view. These people are more interested in loving and not judging, and they want to move on from the debate to just being the church.

As you can see, there is a lot of divergence on the issues related to homosexuality. And once again, it’s over a range of issues including biblical interpretation, the definition of marriage, and our standards for ordination.

From My Non-Religious Friends
So, once again I turned to my non-religious friends to get their reaction to Christians and the LGBTQ community. Let me tell you, I was not prepared for the Pandora’s Box of highly emotional responses I got. Clearly I touched a raw nerve within these friends.

Their response reminded me of studies conducted with non-religious young adults. When these young adults were asked what they think about the church, typically their top answers have been: hypocritical, judgmental and anti-gay.

I’m going to share a few things folks said. In all fairness I’ve had to edit them quite a bit without losing the essence of their thoughts. As always, by hearing these folks, I’m not asking you to agree with them. I am asking you to listen and to try to understand them. We can offer that to anyone, regardless of how much we agree or not agree.

One friend who has a child who is transgender said,

The problem stems with the Bible. I realize that it’s Old Testament and a lot of folks discount much of what’s in the Old Testament, often touting the New Testament as being the kinder, gentler portion of the Bible. And while it’s often argued that “being gay isn’t the problem, acting gay is” … in other words, you can be gay as long as you act straight … that argument is idiotic. It’s a bit like telling a cat that it’s okay to be a cat, as long as you can bark like a dog.

And it leads to oppression and persecution, because it allows, or in fact, demands, that homosexuals, and other members of the LGBTQ community be persecuted. It is, to me, one of the most heinous parts of the Bible, and the Christian religion. And it’s unforgivable to me. I know those are very strong words, and I usually try to temper my words with as much understanding as I can. But this part stirs me up so much that I find myself being angry and resentful.

Another friend who identifies as queer— in other words, not having a definite sense of sexuality or even gender says,

I’m queer and there are many parts of this country I don’t feel safe in. If god created all things, then god created me and other LGBTQ people. Sadly the more Christian the environment the less safe I feel. I work at a suicide prevention hotline and we have many callers who have self harmed or have thought about killing themselves for something they have no control over. It is heartbreaking to hear stories of parents abandoning their children for being honest about who they are. You have not failed as a parent if your kid is LGBTQ. You have failed as a parent and as a Christian if you abandon your child for being who they are. People are literally dying because of the archaic views perpetuated by the church. Before you speak out and criticize someone for who they are, remember that what you say has an impact and can cost someone their life.

When I asked my friends what they would like to see the church do better, one friend replied,

In my rosiest day-dreaming, the churches would own up to what they have done and take a stand for change. “Just like scriptures were once used as an excuse for slavery,” they would say, “we have also used them to justify misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and other despicable attitudes. No more! We must now admit that Jesus never spoke about sexual orientation, and that even Leviticus has so much more to say about drunkenness and food restrictions than about homosexuality. We should have not used these few words to ruin the lives of so many people. We are sorry and we will try, for the rest of our lives, to make up for our mistakes.

My Take
So… where do I personally sit with these issues regarding our LGBTQ neighbors?

First let me say that I have not addressed these issues very much with you because literally no one has ever asked me what I think. And I’ve been okay with that, actually. I have not wanted these issues to become a distraction for us. We have a mission to fulfill of becoming like Christ and sharing his gospel with the world. I don’t want anything to take our eyes off of Christ and the mission he has put us on.

I have not wanted— and I still don’t want anyone— to hear what I say and use it to justify and strengthen their own hardened position.

Worse yet, I have not wanted to share what I believe and have someone come to the conclusion that if I believed all that then they could no longer have me as their pastor and Trinity as their church, especially since there are far larger and more important things we do agree on.

I share with you today, asking that you receive what I say as my personal, biblical convictions. I’m not asking you to agree with me, but I would like you all to take a step back and listen, not only to what I say, but also to why I say it.

To get at that, let me tell you a bit of my journey with these issues.

Before becoming a Christian when I 18-years-old, I had no opinion one way or another about gay and lesbian people, other than the typical stereotypes most of us had.

As I came into the church, I heard my pastor teach from the Bible showing quite emphatically that homosexuality is condemned as a sin. One of the main passages he used was our passage from Romans. So, I took that as my point of view, quite stridently. I didn’t hate gay or lesbian people. I did not reject them. For me, it was simply a matter of upholding the integrity of the Bible as the Word of God and upholding its teachings.

As I continued to grow, I began to meet and get to know gay and lesbian people. The first thing I began to see is how extraordinarily complex this whole issue is. It’s not just a matter of whether or not homosexuality is a sin, as important as that is. It also has to do with the very complex nature of how and why people are gay and lesbian in first place. And it has to do with how we Christians relate to and minister with gay and lesbian people.

I also heard many, many stories of gay Christians who grew up knowing that they were somehow different. They prayed and prayed for God to make them straight and take away these feelings towards people of the same gender. Many even tried straight relationships. After causing immense pain to themselves and to others, they came to accept themselves for being gay. In other words, it was not a choice to be gay. While they would have rather been straight to avoid all the stigmas of being gay, they came to the conclusion that they are who they are. More importantly, they came to realize that God loves them for who they are.

I have spent countless hours reading Scripture and getting to know gay and lesbian people better. All along, my desire has been to be true to Christ and true to the Bible’s teachings. I have wanted do so in a way that meets the reality of the gay and lesbian people I know.

I believe the strongest, most applicable passage from the Bible that addresses homosexuality is the passage in Romans 1:18-32. In a nutshell, it says that the very humanity of people has become corroded and corrupted by our turning away from God.

Paul says,

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.‭‭ Romans‬ ‭1:18-19‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Since we have turned away from God, Paul says,

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Romans‬ ‭1:24-25‬‬‬

God’s punishment for turning away from God is to give us over to very worst of ourselves.

From there Paul gives a whole list of things that illustrate the worst of humanity turned away from God. He says,

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. ‭‭

Romans‬ ‭1:26-27‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Then it gets worse. Paul says,

They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.

Romans‬ ‭1:29-31‬‬‬

In other words, we are made by God in God’s image. So when we purposefully turn away from God, we turn away from the source of our humanity. Then we become sub-human and animalistic. We even embody evil itself.

We see this kind of awful sub-humanity all the time, don’t we? We see it in the news. We see people we know acting this way. Sometimes we even see it in ourselves.

A prime manifestation of sub-human evil in Paul’s day was temple prostitution. Men and women would go in to pagan temples and do unspeakable, lust-filled things with both men and women, even when they were heterosexual. That’s what Paul means when he says that men and women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, lust-filled relations, all with the intent of merely using other people for their own desire and pleasure.

So the question is, does this awful picture of humanity describe all gay and lesbian people?

The answer for me, quite clearly, is NO!

There are certainly heterosexual and homosexual people who act out of lust and use other people for pleasure. Young people today call this “hooking up.” That is a terrible travesty of the gift of sexuality God has given us. Adultery, hooking up, one night stands, and any other kind of sexual activity outside the covenant of a firm, lifelong commitment between two people is always a degrading of our bodies. It degrades God’s gift of sexuality and is therefore sinful.

But this doesn’t at all describe the relationship between two people of the same gender who make a lifelong commitment to one another, and now within the bond of a legal marriage.

In other words, the kind of homosexuality the Bible condemns does not describe gay and lesbian people who are committed to a lifelong monogamous relationship. These people are not degrading, abusing, or lusting after each other. These folks are committed to mutually nurturing love, commitment, and respect, just like heterosexual couples.

I don’t understand same-sex orientation and attraction. Because you and I have been raised in a culture which has shunned and closeted same-sex relationships, it all does seem strange to me.

But I’ve come to learn two things: first, same-sex relationships are authentically loving and nurturing. Secondly, the kind of degrading, lustful, abusive, coercive homosexuality the Bible describes does not fit the gay and lesbian people I know.

There is certainly homosexuality and heterosexuality that is degrading, abusive, and lustful, but in the case of two people committed to a lifelong covenant of love, it is not.

So that said, doesn’t the Bible establish marriage and sexuality as between a man and a woman? The answer that is yes- most definitely, yes. In the beginning were Adam and Eve. From there, the Bible celebrates the love and commitment between a man and a woman.

Yet that does not necessarily exclude the loving fidelity and commitment between people of the same gender.

The Bible continually makes room for people who would ordinarily find themselves on the outside looking in. In the Bible, God makes room for women in male-dominated cultures to step up and become leaders. In the Bible makes room for Gentiles, eunuchs, those with disabilities, foreigners, and strangers to take their place in the fold of God’s people, no less than God’s own chosen people.

Surely then, with this kind of open-armed invitation, God makes room for gay and lesbian people who are striving to be God’s holy people.

I know many people who are gay and lesbian who have given their lives to Jesus Christ and are baptized and Holy Spirit-gifted. They clearly demonstrate Christ-like love, holiness and leadership. Their lives are exemplary. They often far exceed straight people in the their ability to offer grace and love.

To say that gay and lesbian people do not have an equal share at the table of Christ with us is a travesty to their humanity, an insult to their baptism, and a blatant denial of the fact that they are made in God’s image and are restored by grace, just like you and me.

So as a human being and as a pastor, I am committed to embracing and fully including my LGBTQ neighbors as fellow sinners along with me. They are just as much in need of God’s grace as I am- no more and no less.

I’d like to switch gears now and address three important questions some of you may be asking.

Some may be asking: “Do you or would you conduct same-sex marriages?” The answer is no. Our Book of Discipline outlaws this. Purposefully going against the Book of Discipline is a very serious matter, and at this point, I have not felt convicted to break this critical standard of our church.

Some others may be asking: “Do you support someone who is gay or lesbian being ordained?” If they meet all of the qualifications set forth in the Discipline, if they exhibit outstanding Christian character and are single living in celibacy or faithful in marriage, then yes.

However, this is difficult, too. Our Discipline outlaws gay and lesbian people becoming clergy. As I just mentioned, intentionally breaking our church’s Discipline is a grave matter. It’s something I take very seriously.

Thirdly, some may be saying, “All my life I’ve been taught that homosexuality is sinful. Now you’re trying to tell me that it’s not?” I’ve tried to show us this morning that it’s not simple.

As I’ve said, there are forms of homosexuality that are every bit as sinful as some forms of heterosexual sex. (In fact, the Bible has far more to say about heterosexual sin than homosexual sin.)

But a covenanted monogamous relationship is not the kind of homosexual sin the Bible was talking about.

And just because we’ve been taught something all our lives doesn’t necessarily make it true.

For example, many, many people have been taught that Bible establishes black people as inferior to white people. People have used Genesis 9:25 to make their point. And from a very basic reading of the Bible, it would seem that over and over again the Bible upholds slavery.

But we know full well that slavery is evil. We know full well that black people and white people are intrinsically equal in every way.

So to read the Bible in a way that merely affirms our prejudices is bad biblical interpretation! Let me say that again: Reading the Bible in a way that merely re-affirms our prejudices and our stereotypes of people, especially our LGBTQ neighbors, is a terrible misreading of the Bible.

Where Do We Go from Here?
Now, with all that said, where do we go from here?

I fully recognize that many of us here don’t see things the way I do. I want you to know, that’s okay.

This is a difficult issue. So, I do not look down on people who believe differently than me or read the Bible differently than I do on issues about human sexuality.

Why?

The simple fact is, there is an enormous amount we already do agree on- very important and more important things. As it says in book of Ephesians:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians‬ ‭4:4-6‬

That is just as true, no matter how we come down on issues of human sexuality.

Not only that, but right after Paul laid down that awful picture of humanity without God, he says to God’s own people,

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.

Romans 2:1

In other words, when we judge and condemn other people for any reason, we judge and condemn ourselves. We forget that we are messed up sinners, too- people in need of continual repentance and forgiveness of our sin.

As a congregation we do not see the same on these issues. Many of us passionately believe different things about human sexuality. We are deeply conservative, very liberal, and everywhere in between.

I respect that because I respect you.

I do believe we can make room for each other because we’re all disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just as Christ laid down his life for each of us, we can put our differences aside to love and lay down our lives for each other.

We have our differences, yes. Yet you and I decide what to do with those differences.

If we allow our differences to divide and distract us, then we’re letting the devil have his way. The devil wants us to take sides, divide, fight, and walk away from each other.
But if we commit ourselves to humility, to respect and to Christ-like love, then we can continue on, committed to Christ’s mission of taking his good news to all people. After all, at the end of the day, everything I’ve mentioned here boils down to God and to people.

I worship a God who sent his son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for all people. That means I am committed to loving, serving and including all people— all of you and all of our neighbors. I hope you’ll do the same for me, for each other, and for all of our neighbors, gay or straight.

In that way we will continue to crucify the unChristian tendencies within us to judge, make and choose sides, to exclude, to hate, to gossip and slander.

Then we become fully like Christ who died on the cross and was risen for us and for all people everywhere. Amen.

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Christian thought, Reflections

A Christian Call to Action Towards Ending Gun Violence

[This is a letter I shared with my congregation, Trinity United Methodist Church, this past Sunday February 18, 2018.]

img_1795This week, my heart has been very heavy. By now we have all seen the news of Wednesday’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, FL. As a parent, I think of all those parents and grandparents who sent their children to school that morning, never to see them alive again or to discover that they have been hospitalized from gun shot wounds and other related injuries.

I send my children to school every day. To think that this could never happen here in their schools is folly.

Today, I will yet again lead us in prayer for the victims of Parkland, FL, their families, their community, and our elected leaders. I will pray…

…just as I prayed after the Columbine High School massacre,

…and after the massive shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, CO,

…and as I prayed after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School,

…and as I prayed after a large-scale shooting in an office building in San Bernardino, CA,

…and as I prayed after the massacre at an Orlando, FL, night club,

…and as I prayed after the widespread carnage at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, NV,

…and as I prayed after a gunman invaded a church in Sutherland Springs, TX, killing over two dozen worshippers,

…and as I prayed a just few weeks ago for a shooting at a high school in Marshall County, Kentucky.

There are so many others, too.

I have to confess to you that I am getting very tired of simply praying. I’m running out of words, and I have run out of patience. I believe God wants us to pray, yes. I also believe that God has put us on a divine mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In other words, as disciples of Jesus, we are in the business of bringing about real change and eternal life in a world bent on violence and death. We do this in fulfillment of what we pray every Sunday: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

In the name of Jesus Christ, it is time for us to act towards ending all this senseless gun violence and death. I know there are controversial issues involved in this crisis- issues such as gun control, mental health care, and law enforcement procedures. I know we all don’t see eye to eye on these hot-button topics, and that may make talking about gun violence and forging a way towards ending it a difficult task. But I also believe it’s time to step outside of our familiar political/ideological belief systems. It’s time to get humble, to listen, and to courageously advocate for some common sense solutions that will most likely touch on the issues of gun control, mental health care, and law enforcement.

We are conservative and liberal and everywhere in between. But we’re not dealing with a conservative or a liberal problem, or a Democrat or a Republican problem. We’re dealing with a human problem whose perpetrators and victims go well beyond any notion of party or ideology. Therefore, we cannot be afraid of having a conversation about how to end gun violence, and then we cannot be afraid of stepping out to be advocates for the lives of our neighbors, most especially our children.

In the face of this crisis, it’s tempting to sit back and mindlessly watch the endless talking head debates on TV, to point our angry fingers of blame and to get cynical about the state of our world. It’s all too easy to throw up our hands and surrender to the magnitude of the problem. However, it is increasingly clear that we cannot afford to sit in idle fear any longer. To do so puts the lives of our neighbors, ourselves, and our children at grave risk.

In response, I would love for you to share with me your ideas and thoughts. What would you like to see Trinity do? How would you be a part of it? What steps can we and you take right now to be Christ’s disciples who work for an end to gun violence in our schools and communities?

Again, I ask you not to respond merely from within a familiar ideological framework. Let’s put aside bumper-sticker slogans, the usual talking points, and shrill arguments. These tactics are too easy, too unimaginative, and frankly too dangerously safe. Let’s stretch out, because clearly the ideological liberal and conservative trenches that many people shout from are not serving our country well. It’s time to extend ourselves across the breach, stand in the gap, and forge a new way ahead. Nothing short of precious human life is at stake.

In the coming weeks, I will offer us some opportunities to prayerfully discern and brainstorm some Christ-like ways for us to advocate and work for safer schools and communities shielded from the threat of gun violence. I ask you to join me in the effort. And as we pray, may we follow God’s prompting to act in courageous ways for the protection of our communities and schools, all in the name of Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord.

1 Comment

Filed under Rants

My Ancestors Came from S***hole Countries, Too

4C55038B-016B-4492-8137-AAAF06A08F51

The Gray Family from Aberdeen, Scotland

Lately, I have rekindled my interest in geneology and joined Ancestry.com. I joined to find some more information about my father’s family. Instead I have immersed myself in researching my mother’s lineage. It’s very true that whenever you start digging into your family’s past, you never know what you’re going to find.

One of the most interesting facts: on April 19, 1850, my 17-year-old second great grandfather William Gray landed in New York with his family. They were from Aberdeen, Scotland. William Gray was among a large wave of Scottish and Irish immigrants in the 19th Century journeying to America to escape widespread poverty. Eventually he met and married my second great grandmother Hannah Shalloo, an Irish immigrant from County Cork.

After moving to Dearborn, Michigan where his mother and father stayed for the remainder of their lives, William Gray moved to Kansas. There, William and Hannah had children, raised a family, and lived and died as a farmers. William Gray’s obituary states that the Grays were among the pioneering families of Kansas.

Fast forward to 2018. Yesterday, President Trump was reported to say that he no longer wants immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries whom he derided as “shithole countries”. Instead he favors immigrants from Norway. (?) While the President later denied that he used that specific term, the same Washington Post article that broke the story mentions past comments he has made disparaging immigrants from poorer countries and racial minorities in general.

If I could have a moment to speak to President Trump, I would say these words: “Mr. President, my ancestors came from s***hole countries, too.”

19th Century Scotland and Ireland were racked in poverty. Famine, premature death and disease due to failing crops pushed many to leave home just to survive. Scots in particular are fiercely proud of their country and family. For people like my grandparents to leave their ancestral home to settle in an unknown country speaks to the desparation they lived in.

When they arrived in America, they came to a country that was growing increasingly wary of their presence. They were poor. They were culturally different. They soaked up jobs and homes. In fact, by the 1890’s, under a cloud of Irish and Scottish xenophobia, the United States government sharply curtailed the number of Scotts and Irish who could immigrate here.

And yet, where would our country be today without people like my grandparents, William and Hannah Gray— poor Scottish and Irish immigrants from economically impoverished countries?

It’s clear that Mr. Trump does not possess a broad vision of America’s greatness.

I personally know people from these “s***hole countries” he describes. They are friends of mine from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Zimbabwe. I have visited the extreme poverty they came from. In America, these immigrants have become very successful citizens.  They bring their skills, their culture, and the story of their lives to our country. They are entrepreneurial, hard working, wonderful people. They have already made America great. Mr. Trump’s derision of these countries is an affront to them and to thousands upon thousands of men and women who immigrate to our country legally from the places he deems to be nothing but excrement.

Mr. Trump’s vision of America does not make room for us to be the America we have always cherished- a country of opportunity, freedom, and dignity for all people. He has defined America’s greatness by excluding and demeaning whole segments of the American and world populations. That is not America. It’s certainly not the America my grandparents and so many others came to in which to live, thrive and prosper.

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.
‭‭Exodus‬ ‭23:9‬

Leave a comment

Filed under Rants

To My Fellow White Americans: It’s Time to Get Real about Racism

IMG_1531The catastrophe in Charlottesville last weekend followed by President Trump’s outlandishly surreal press conference on Tuesday and the outrage most Americans have felt over all of this, has made for a trying week in our nation– to say the least. Our racial divides are even deeper now, thanks to a new generation of white supremacists, lingering societal racism, the behavior of our President, and the unwillingness from many of us to call it out or do anything about it. We are a wounded America.

If you’re still reading this, and if you find yourself disagreeing with anything I’ve said so far, the balance of this post is for you. This is not meant to be some “in your face” post. I’m going to be respectful, thoughtful and truthful with you.

I’m speaking to you as a fellow white person, a white male, in fact, who has traditionally stood and voted right of center on many things, including matters of race, the role of government, and a number of social issues. Like you, I’ve seen the news unfolding and the things happening to our country, and I have been deeply concerned about our future. Like you, I have reflexively avoided blaming myself for lingering racial issues in our country. Like you, I have been uncomfortable with what we call “identity politics.” In short, there has been some Archie Bunker kinds of thinking in me, and I suspect in you, too.

However, the events of last weekend and this week have reminded me of some valuable lessons I’ve learned in recent years about race and racism. I’m going to share them with you, and I hope you will read them carefully and consider them:

  • Racism- the attitude and resulting socio-economic systems establishing one group of people as inherently better, more valuable, and dominant over other groups of people- is still very much a problem in America. We see it in overt and in numerous subtle ways. Just acknowledging that fact and listening to the stories of our neighbors of color will open our eyes wide to this reality.
  • Saying, “I’m not a racist” while remaining silent and aloof to racism in our country only contributes to the problem. The worst evils are propagated by the cautious silence of the good people.
  • Our biggest problem is that we do not have to see- or we choose not to see!- ongoing racism in our nation and communities, and so we create the self-insulating illusion that racism doesn’t exist. Again, talk to people of color, and they will show us a vastly different reality. It’s a reality in which racism is still very much alive and well.
  • Just because we’ve come a long way towards eradicating racism in our country does not mean we can ignore where it still exists and the pain people still experience from being subject to racism.
  • Fact: white people in our country, no matter what socio-economic status we were born into, have a societal standing that will get us ahead faster and more smoothly than our neighbors of color. People of color have to work harder and endure more pain to get what we have. All of this is just a statistical fact. This is the “white privilege” you might have heard folks talk about. We may grimace at terms like this, but unfortunately, they are cold, hard realities.
  • Blaming black people for racism or racial disparity is a convenient deflection from our own culpability and responsibility. I don’t beat myself up with guilt or think I’m a horrible person. At the same time, I don’t point my fingers at the black community to heap guilt and blame on them. None of that changes anything. Rather, it’s a matter of working with our neighbors of color to make our communities more equitable and just for everyone. When there’s something I can say or do to make sure my neighbors have the same dignity, opportunities and justice that I’m afforded, I’m going to say it or do it!
  • You don’t have to be a liberal, a Democrat or an activist to talk openly talk about the problem of racism. I’m not a liberal, a Democrat, or an activist, and yet I have no problem embracing movements like Black Lives Matter and getting real about the reality of racism. This is not some tribal issue based on how you vote, where you get your news, or what causes you embrace. Racism is real, and thankfully, we’re moving to a time that addressing racism in frank, open ways is a bipartisan, multiracial effort. So… Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, Fox News or MSNBC, hop on the bandwagon. There’s plenty of room for you.

Back to Charlottesville and President Trump’s comments. There is no “two sides to the story.” These were white supremacists and neo-Nazis who were protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, and they were rightly confronted by those who were standing against white supremacy, fascism, and racism. Did things turn violent? Yes. But for the President to somehow equate the moral cause and justice of the two sides while claiming that there were good people there to protest with “Unite the Right” was simply a painfully absurd, ignorant, thing to say. The only just response is to condemn racism, racial supremacy, and fascism wherever it appears. Period.

I’m not going to claim that the President is a racist, but I will say that his behavior has torn open and deepened the wound of racism in our country. We needed a Healer and Uniter in Chief this week. Instead, we got something far worse. We got a President whose words only aroused the worst angels of our nature- anger, blame, defensiveness, finger-pointing, distrust, tribalism.

I hope that in the wake of this awful week, more of us, especially more of my fellow white neighbors, would adopt some humility, openness, and a willingness to see and think differently. We Christian white people say we love our neighbors. Well, let’s prove it. Let’s be the Christlike servants we say we are. Let’s get on our knees and faces in humble service of God and all people. Let’s take up the cross of Calvary and leave behind the fiery crosses of our racist past. Let’s look at our neighbors of color, tell them we love them, and then demonstrate that love in practical ways.

We may not have the elected statesmanship to heal our nation, but we always have Christ the King whose wounds, working in and through us, can heal the wounds of any person and any nation. May his healing begin with us, and spread to all of our neighbors.

3 Comments

Filed under Reflections

Pastor Robert Jeffress, Your Statement on Trump’s War Footing is Dangerously Unbiblical

Dear Pastor Jeffress,

In your August 8 statement, you made the startling claim that, “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” You based your statement on a reading of Romans 13 which says,

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
‭‭Romans‬ ‭13:1-4‬

IMG_1521While it’s true that God has established and empowered secular authorities to exercise justice, your application of this scripture is reckless and unfaithful to its original context and intent. Thus, your statement is an alarming case of biblical prooftexting and therefore dangerously unbiblical.

For you to personally commend President Trump’s fiery rhetoric against the North Korean regime is your prerogative. You’re just as free to do that as others are to condemn it. However, I take grave exception to your theological implication that God also commends Trump’s words and actions. That God has entrusted presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens, and dictators with the sword of authority is established in scripture. However, to also suggest that God has given President Trump the green light of heavenly blessing to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea is one of the worst and potentially most deadly pieces of unbiblical theology I have ever encountered.

Let’s look again at what the Bible says.

In Romans 13, the Apostle Paul was establishing the church’s relationship with the governing authorities. For these Christians residing in Rome, Paul was pointing straight to Caesar and the local authorities Caesar empowered to maintain his rule. Everyone knew that Caesar was no friend of the church. In fact, Emporers Claudius and Nero both persecuted Jews and Christians, using them as scapegoats for Roman civil unrest or disaster. Nevertheless, Paul urged the church to respect their governing authorities by following the law, paying taxes, and giving honor as required. After all, these authorities derive their power from God who is the source of all power and authority.

This, however, does not mean that God sanctions everything that these authorities do. Far from it. John the Baptist confronted King Herod’s adultery with his brother Philip’s wife, which would inevitably lead to John’s imprisonment and execution. Jesus warned his disciples to “watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” The book of Acts reports that an angel of God publicly struck down King Herod when he refused to acknowledge God while relishing the divine accolades the people were giving him. The Old Testament is filled with example after example of God punishing kings and rulers when they abused their power.

Back to your argument, Pastor Jeffress, if we were to follow your “divine authority and sanction” thinking to its logical conclusion, then we must also reasonably assume that God has given Kim Jong Un the authority to build nuclear warheads to protect his people and stamp out whatever he deems to be evil. And why not? God has given this despot the authority, so according to your theology, it must be good for him to use it to advance whatever he deems to be good, too.

Still, let’s assume that we arrive at the dreadful point in which all diplomatic avenues are closed and war with North Korea is the only remaining deterrent to their launching nuclear weapons against the United States and our allies. I don’t envy the terrible decisions Presidents of the United States must make to protect the American people and our interests abroad. Putting our country on a footing towards war is a weighty decision many Presidents have had to make, and President Trump may be yet another President to push that button. War with North Korea would devastate millions of lives in Asia, and for the first time in history, might even unleash retaliatory nuclear war. Foreign policy experts agree that there is no good way to deal with North Korea. For that reason alone, President Trump and our allies certainly need our prayers for wisdom and guidance.

Yet no one should ever gleefully declare as you have that war and threats of war against North Korea is God’s will, simply because the President has the authority to crank up the American war machine and you happen to endorse his actions. You, the President, and all the rest of us could use a dose of President Lincoln’s humble theology:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.

While some might try to use these words from Lincoln to claim God’s moral authority in their great struggle, Lincoln’s intent was quite the opposite: do not assume we are perfectly in God’s will. Do what we believe to be right, but do so knowing that we operate alongside God’s sovereign will, and that may not be within our side of the struggle. God may ordain something very different with consequences farther reaching and devastating than we could imagine, as Lincoln stated in his Second Inaugural Address.

All this said, it is clear, Pastor Jeffress, that you have taken scripture out of context and have twisted it to claim divine approval for President Trump’s rhetoric. That, sir, makes you a false prophet espousing a dangerous kind of theology that will ill-serve this nation or any other. I doubt you possess the wherewithal to recant your statement, but it would be a much welcomed and needed thing to do, for the good of the church, our nation, and the world.

 

3 Comments

Filed under Rants

Lessons from Pain

IMG_1513Right now I find myself in a deluge of tragic circumstances. Just a few days ago, a 29-year-old woman, a member of my congregation, died from an unknown staph infection leaving behind a bewildered, devastated family and scores of friends. A very good friend admitted his mother dying of cancer into hospice care, and then just a few hours later, she passed away. Another very good friend just told me that his mother is not doing well in her battle against cancer. I have a pretty high number of parishioners also battling cancer, grieving losses, and more.

As a pastor, I try very hard to be fully present with people in pain without shouldering their pain upon myself. I simply have too many people to care for and too many other leadership responsibilities to allow myself to be saddled with all the wounds and sorrows people carry. Yet that’s a fine line to walk, and after almost 20 years of ministry, I can’t always clearly see where that line is because it’s constantly moving. So if there’s a place to err, I’d rather be under the yoke of sorrow rather than hiding behind a shield of emotional distance.

That’s a choice I make, however, and sometimes it comes at a personal cost- one that I’m paying now. So, this post is just as cathartic for me as any chance it may have of being a blessing to someone else. Like most, I’ve had my own seasons of loss and pain along with the lessons I’ve learned. The following are some of my reflections and insights about the nature and redemption of pain.

1) Presence, not words.

When someone is in pain, the knee-jerk response is an urge to “say something to make it better.” That’s natural. We’re human beings. Made in God’s image, we’re creators, builders, and fixers. So when confronted with the inexplicable invasion of pain, our instinctual drives to create, build, and fix kick into high gear. Make the pain go away. Replace it with something else.

There’s one problem, however: pain can’t be undone or circumvented. For example, when someone dies and we’re filled with the pain of grief, no one’s words or any other attempt to fix it, manage it, or mask it can take away the pain from the unalterable fact that a loved one is permanently gone. Any attempt by others to fix, manage, or mask that reality can easily result in the unintended consequence of making the pain worse.

The true act of consolation is presence. When Job lost his children and all he owned, his friends Eliphaz, Bilbad, and Zophar came to visit. They wept with him and sat with him in silence for seven days. (This is the biblical precedence behind the Jewish custom of “sitting shiva”, a period of seven days when Jews in mourning welcome visitors to console them.) After losing my first fiancée Diane, the best consolers I had were those who just sat with me and listened. They said little. They held my hand, gave me hugs, and even shed tears with me. One church woman kept fresh flowers on my desk for several months after Diane’s death. I do remember getting lots of cards and notes from people, but I don’t remember anything the cards said. Their words did nothing to comfort me. But the act of remembering me and reaching out was the true gift of all those cards and notes.

2) There are no answers, only realities.

Why did this happen?

We human beings hunger for meaning and purpose, and pain is a deafeningly silent force that offers neither of those things. Sitting with the family and friends of the 29-year-old woman who died, so many have asked and will continue to ask, “How could this happen? Why did it have to happen? Why her? How could life (and God!) be so cruel?” I think we ask these questions as a way to gain some kind of power over a pain we did not ask for or deserve. Perhaps if we could understand the pain or explain it in some way, we could gain some mastery over it.

Try as we might, that struggle is an illusion. We’ve heard it said- and it’s very true- that many times we just don’t know. Yet all is not lost. I have learned that peace comes when we accept the wisdom that there are mysteries we do not know and do not need to know. We can find healing and meaning even with unanswered questions. I also came to a practical realization that even if I was able to find an answer to my questions of why?, those answers would not somehow lessen the pain or make it more bearable. That same pain would still be there, even if I possessed all omniscience into the rhyme and reason of my own circumstances.

Instead of answers, there are realities, and these realities bring about hope. As a disciple of Jesus, I have the realities of God’s presence, God’s faithfulness, the cross, resurrection, healing, and abundant life in the here and now to stake my life on. The presence of pain invites me to claim these realities in a new way to fit a new circumstance. Like lighthouses in treacherous waters or guide rails in a dark hallway, they are there for me to claim as I muddle my way forward. These truths are not mystical antidotes to the pain I carry, but they shepherd me through pain to the healing I seek.

3) Grief is a friend, not an enemy.

Grief is the byproduct of a great loss. Like an unwelcome guest, grief shows up in the place of what or who went missing. During times of loss, I remember at first hating grief, avoiding it, and doing all I could to beat it back. My grief became the great enemy to my happiness, which I felt could only be had if my loss was restored. Yet the losses we suffer can never truly be restored. Once we come to terms with that, then grief becomes our guide to letting go of who or what we lost. Grief guides us through all the necessary places of anger, sorrow, guilt, shock, and denial. Eventually grief leads us into a place of living well even with the pain of loss.

Over time, I have found grief to be a trusted friend. I don’t have control over grief. Grief often arrives unannounced and with no pre-arranged agenda. When grief arrives, however, it takes me where I need to go, and the result is one step closer to wholeness. With grief, wounds become scars. Deep sadness becomes joy. The cross and tomb burst open to the limitless possibilities of resurrection.

4) We can choose what to do with our pain.

This is the most difficult lesson to write about because in no way do I want to suggest that there are definite things to do with pain, or that what one person decides to do with their pain is necessarily better or more admirable than another person’s choices. However, I think it’s safe to claim that we do have the power to decide how to navigate through pain and what we want the legacy of our pain to be.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat said, I’d like to gently suggest one avenue of navigating through pain. We could choose a life in which our places of pain become the very places where others find comfort and healing. People have transformed their pain into advocacy movements, ministries, non-profit organizations, support groups, charitable foundations, books, seminars, music, poetry, and so much more. People have chosen to insert their own sense of meaning and purpose into their pain by using it as the very thing that would bring life and vitality to other people.

I have often said that while I am not at all grateful for the pain I have endured, I am grateful that with God’s help, I could find some wisdom, empathy, faith, love and strength I did not have before. I have allowed God to redeem my pain by deepening me to become a more authentic person and pastor. For all of that, I am eternally grateful. Yet I had to make the choice to do this, and my choices along the way did not always manifest themselves in the most gracious or endearing ways. Working through pain is always a messy process- an intentional slog, at times murky and perilous- but always forward-looking and stubbornly hopeful.

This post is written in loving memory of Meredith Mahr-Edmunds (3/25/88-7/29/17) and Doris Rodbell (10/15/37-7/31/17) and in honor of their loved ones. May God shepherd them through the valley of the shadow of death to the green pastures of healing.

4 Comments

Filed under Reflections

Arguments in a Vacuum

I was sitting in the back seat of my sister’s car and saw the oncoming vehicle quickly pull out into the intersection in front of us. There was no way to avoid hitting that car. All I could do was close my eyes and brace for the inevitable. CRASH! Even with my futile efforts to brace myself, I got pretty banged up and took an ambulance ride to the hospital. (My sister’s car was totaled, but thank God, no one in either car was seriously hurt.)

Last Tuesday I published a blog post giving my support to a sister-in-Christ, Tara “T.C.” Morrow, a woman married to another woman, who is seeking ordination as a Deacon in our United Methodist Church. I have not publicly shared my views on LGBTQI+ issues for at least four years, opting instead to be a voice for dialogue, mutual respect, and a way forward– work to which I am still strongly committed. But I felt a firm push from Holy Spirit to speak out for T.C., and so I did.

Then I braced myself for the inevitable crash. But then again, why put myself in this position at all?

After watching T.C. Morrow denied commissioning as a Provisional Deacon simply because she is a lesbian, I could not remain silent anymore. To block her path to fulfilling God’s call upon her life as a servant of the church is to depreciate her Christian character, her gifts, graces, her place in the church, and even the integrity of her relationship with Jesus Christ. That is a travesty which damages her and the whole Body of Christ, and it was time for me to say something about it.

In so doing, I knew there would be backlash. It didn’t come at first. In fact I was surprised by all the overwhelmingly positive feedback, especially from folks I didn’t expect to hear from. But then like a tsunami wave, the backlash hit. I’m sure there will be more surges to come.

In writing this post, I went back to re-read some of the comments from my conservative siblings in Christ. Here’s how they reacted to my post:

“…bending Scripture to suit… [your] desires”

“Pastors and church leaders will be held accountable for preaching false doctrine and misleading their ‘flocks'”.

“You are building a house on sand.”

“…teaching that lust is not a sin.”

“…calling sin something else and refusing to call people to holiness – that’s a serious problem.”

“May it never be said of me that I affirmed anyone in their sin. Do not be deceived.”

“There is no love in this. This is nothing but eisegesis.” [Eisegesis is expressing one’s own personal ideas instead of lifting up the meaning of the biblical text.]

And there have been other comments and inferences to the effect that I’ve thrown out, ignored, or perverted Scripture, that I’m accommodating societal sin, that I don’t understand true love, that I’ve been led astray, that I’m turning a blind eye to sin, calling evil good, blah, blah, blah…

Nobody has explicitly accused me of apostasy yet, but I’m sure it’s coming.

IMG_1437What gets to me about all the criticism, however, is that much of it is arguments in a vacuum. Folks are thinking and arguing for principles that do not intersect reality. Yet when confronted with reality, they hot-skip through it like bare feet on hot coals in order to stay put in their disembodied principle bubbles. This occurred to me after I read and re-read many carefully articulated arguments about how sinful homosexuality is, and about how folks like me are supposedly bending the Bible and church law to accommodate our agendas.

So let’s talk about accommodating agendas. That’s the first argument in a vacuum. It’s clear that at present the only agenda the United Methodist Church is accommodating is the conservative majority’s on this issue. Their attitude that ordaining someone like T.C. Morrow would be “accommodating” sin tragically misses the point. It ignores all of the gifts that people like her bring to the church. Anyone who does not know, refuses to know, or refuses to see all the blessings, gifts and graces that people like T.C. bring to the Christ’s Body, opting instead to throw her and other gifted and grace-filled gay and lesbian Christians into a garbage can category of “sexually sinful,” demonstrate the principle vacuum they choose to indwell.

That leads to the second argument vacuum of my critics- that all gays and lesbians in committed relationships are living in sin. I’ve tried to make the biblical argument that folks like T.C. Morrow are not “living in sin,” but let’s also look at the fruit of their lives, which is something my critics at times blatantly ignore. Living in sin blunts a person’s entire existence. Jesus said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:18). I think we would all agree that sexual sin is so fundamentally damaging because sexuality is a key aspect of our humanity. Sexual sin or any other deeply ingrained sin affects the quality of our relationships with God and others and mars our psychological and emotional well-being, our self-worth, and our judgment. Denial and lies become second nature. Live with a lie long enough, and our whole lives become a deception designed to keep the lie of sin in darkness.

It’s hard to say emphatically enough that this does not at all describe so many gay and lesbian Christians I know! They are powerful disciples of Jesus, whole, emotionally and spiritually healthy, balanced, everyday people. Their lives exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit. There is no lie or denial. Granted, many have had to grapple with the emotional and spiritual pain of coming to grips with their sexuality, but that stems from being gay and lesbian in a larger world and church culture that is hostile to them. Aside from this very real struggle, gay and lesbian people are just as whole and healthy in Christ as straight people. To then turn around and say that these same folks are broken in sexual sin is a statement made from ignorance, plain and simple.

*******

In my Facebook feed, one friend, a gay man in a committed relationship, went through great pains to share how balanced, happy, healthy and fulfilled he is, especially in how he applies Christ-like principles to his life and relationships. (I’m sure that’s not the first or the last time this man has had to prove that he’s “normal”- something us straight people will never have to experience.)

In response, one of my conservative friends replied, “This conversation isn’t about you. It’s about what the church teaches,” as in church law and doctrine. Say what??

I was totally flabbergasted by that comment! Is not the church a people of God? Is not the church called to be in ministry and community with real, live people? This rather callous response is a perfectly unfortunate example of someone choosing to insulate themselves within an impermeable principle bubble. No worthwhile missiology and ecclesiology can ignore the real life stories of everyday people, or write them off as rubbish. But for folks arguing in a principle vacuum, real people, their lives and experiences don’t matter as much as the convictions they desperately cling to, in this case their badly misinformed “biblical” belief that– despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary!– all gay and lesbian people in committed relationships are lost in sexual sin.

In closing, let me say that not all my critics are making arguments in a vacuum. Several have the humility and decency to remain open and to keep wrestling. I join them in their struggle, all the while striving to avoid my own potential argument vacuums, too. I want to join those who remain teachable, moldable, and open to the Holy Spirit. This same Holy Spirit keeps us alive to the realities of our mission field while keeping us tightly tethered to the anchor of our faith, the Word made flesh, Jesus the Christ.

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Rants