Category Archives: Christian thought

The Treasure of a Human Life: Lessons (Re)learned

As a pastor, I have conducted so many funerals for both older people and younger people. I’ve lost count of how many. People ask me how I manage to do that, especially for someone I don’t know. The answer to that is another story. But the one thing that continually compels me when I memorialize someone is the effort to capture the existential substance of their being, the worth and reason of their life. I look at each life as a stained glass window through which God can shine. The questions: how did God shine through this person? Who benefited from that light? How does this person reflect who I know God to be? The answer to those questions become the substance of what I share at a funeral.

Justin Kurlychek

Justin Kurlychek

Admittedly, all this can come to be routine until I’m smacked in the face with the death of a friend like Justin Kurlychek. Justin died early Tuesday morning. We were just 7 months apart in age. We graduated from high school together. We sang and acted together. We shared a wild and crazy senior beach week together. (Tales untold!) We spent many hours on the phone together in recent years. He left behind two beautiful daughters. As I mentioned in a tribute I wrote, he was a beautiful, creative soul, even with all his troubles and demons.

As many times as I’ve gone through grief like this- I’ve lost several good friends to death including a fiancée almost 20 years ago- I’m always awed at how one person deeply affects the world around them. My tribute for Justin went viral in a matter of hours by hundreds and hundreds of people who were grieving Justin’s death. On top of my own grief, I felt both honored and inundated by the number of people who reached out to me in the last couple of days. But the sheer magnitude of the response to Justin’s death was something I had not anticipated. It has affirmed how many people loved Justin, how many people he loved, and the ways he sincerely impacted us all with his presence and his gifts.

I only wish Justin knew how valuable his life was and how people would respond to his untimely death. That’s the value and power of one life. Just one.

During times like these, it’s only natural and necessary to mourn our loss. It is a horribly painful thing to lose a person like Justin Kurlychek. Many have said that he is finally at peace. That may be so, but I mourn the fact that he knew so little of it while he was alive. I mourn the terrible time Justin had valuing himself for the beautiful gift he was. And I mourn the unfulfilled wish of having spent more time with him in the last few years of his life.

But if there is a gift to pick up from the ashes of our grief and regrets, it’s the reaffirmation that each of our lives is a sacred gift to be lived, treasured, and shared. Since that is true, what will we do in the aftermath of Justin’s memorials and tributes? Will we return to life as usual? Or will we make more of a concerted effort to value each life in our network, love them, spend time with them, and at the same time, give away the best of what God has made us to be as a blessing to them?

How many times have we said, “Yeah, we need to get together and hang out!” only to find that months later, nothing has happened? Or how many times have we held back from giving our very best to the ones we love out of fear, pride, misplaced priorities, or even shame? For me, Justin’s death has brought those questions into a much brighter spotlight.

I think that it’s a wonderfully divine irony that the shadow of death can invite us into the endless treasure of life. I hope you and I can discover and claim this treasure for ourselves.

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An Open Letter from a LGBTQ Candidate for Ministry

imageAt this past Annual Conference of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, we had a very emotional debate about approving a woman married to another woman as a Provisional Deacon. (For my non-United Methodist friends, a Deacon in the UMC is a service-oriented kind of ordained ministry. Deacons are pastors who teach and preach with the church while dedicating their lives to a specific, specialized kind of service. Provisional status is the last step towards being fully ordained.) T.C. Morrow had passed through all the steps towards being commissioned, but failed to get the required two-thirds majority of our clergy.

Ms. Morrow was not commissioned. A long process including seminary and a rigorous ordination process has been halted for now.

As you can imagine, the reactions to T.C.’s denial of commissioning as a Provisional Deacon were quite emotional. Some rested assured that our denomination’s standards on human sexuality, specifically our ban on self-avowed practicing homosexuals from ordination, were upheld. Some saw this is a grave injustice, even an act of spiritual violence. Others were disheartened by the reminder that we are bitterly divided over how we understand and include people who are LGBTQ.

In the aftermath of all this, I received an unusual request. This past Thursday on the day after the vote was taken, I was given an anonymous letter to read to the entire Conference. The letter is from an LGBTQ candidate for ministry reacting to the news about T.C. Morrow. I was specifically asked to read it.

Keep in mind that I am not an active advocate for either side of the LGBTQ debate. My role has been to bring people together for dialogue and discernment about how we as the whole church can move forward together without suffering a devastating split over human sexuality matters. I have my own views, yes, which don’t fit neatly into either camp. I enjoy solid relationships and endure suspicious glances from both sides of the debate.

Unfortunately, I was not able to share this person’s letter due to time constraints. However, I am sharing it here on my blog. (I have all the time and space I want right here, and I can’t be ruled out of order.)

This is not necessarily a plea on this person’s behalf. However, I do believe that in a debate of this intensity, all voices must be heard and respected. I believe it an act of of grace and humility when we strive to understand and empathize with every voice, most especially when it’s a voice with which we do not agree. The later is truly Christ-like.

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

I am writing you today as one of your own. I am a pastor who is doing my best to faithfully serve the church and this conference and to live out the calling that God has placed on my life. It is our church that raised me in the faith from my birth to my baptism to my confirmation to the day I felt my heart warmed for the first time and I knew God in my life. I am writing you today because I love you church and I love in particular this the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference. I can remember the first time I attended annual conference and feeling like I had finally found my home, a place where I belonged, a place where I could bring all of me, a place where the spirit moved me to answer my call to ministry.

Sadly, I have begun to question whether I can continue to serve among you because, as a gay person, I am wondering whether the welcome I originally felt was intended for me. I am wondering because we seem to have mostly ignored that an injustice occurred right here on the floor of conference. We have denied a candidate approved by the BOOM her rightful place as a clergy member of this conference. We denied her because she happens to be married to another woman. In doing this, we have failed to recognize one of the most gifted persons for ministry I have ever met and we are lesser for it.

To be clear, however, I am not writing just about this one candidate. I am writing as one of you who is hurting because we did this terrible thing and then moved right along like nothing had happened. We have continued on with our business as if what we have done is ok. It is not. We have sinned and we need to seek forgiveness for the harm we have done, for the message we are sending to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers who are watching and who are gathered right in this room. The message that says you are a not really welcome here unless you are seated and quiet about who you are and who you love. We can do better. We must do better.

Signed,

Your gay sibling in Christ

Thank you for taking the time to read and truly listen to another voice. If you did, you have just made our church a little bit better, even if you don’t agree.

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General Conference, Blessed Are the Peacemakers

He climbed to the top of a mountain and sat down. His disciples took their usual places around him. If they had wanted to be alone, no one would ever know because right after they arrived, the crowds of people who had been following them around Galilee made their way up the mountain to listen, too. Then Jesus began to teach.

Surely the significance of this scene wasn’t lost on those gathered there. Burned into their collective memory is the story of Israel assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. God’s voice thundered the commandments. And now, Israel was gathered once more to hear the Word of God speaking in a new age.

Jesus began to teach with blessing. Who are blessed? The blessed ones Jesus lifts up are the people who are most often cursed. They’re forgotten, pushed aside, and stomped on. Blessed are the poor in spirit and those who mourn. Blessed are the meek and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful and pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness and because of Christ.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

Hands around seedlingUntil I attempted it, I never knew how painfully difficult peacemaking can be. While people applaud the efforts of peacemakers, it’s a lonely business. It’s almost always a misunderstood business.

In 2005, I began my journey of being a peacemaker in the midst of the LGBTQI debate in the United Methodist Church. Instead of taking and advocating for a firm stance- either affirming the Discipline‘s language or advocating to reverse it- I chose to be in the process of bringing people together from very disparate points of view to build and rebuild new community. Hopefully… prayerfully… efforts like this would keep our church from splitting apart. I have always had my own views and still do, but I’ve chosen to keep them in the background, working instead to be a reconciler.

It sounds like glamorous work, but it’s not. It’s not sexy. I have a lot of cheerleaders but very few helpers.

Meanwhile, I am often unfairly labeled by the very same people I’m trying to rally. I’ve been called a fundamentalist. (I’m not). I’ve been labeled a liberal. (Heck no.) People have accused me of abandoning the Bible. (I strive to live my life harmoniously with the inspired Word of God, thank you very much.)

And the worst label of all- a moderate. (These days that’s code for wishy-washy, weak, and ideologically confused. A sell out.)

Aside from being misunderstood, there are two major challenges to peacemaking: getting people to the table, and helping people to see how similar they really are. Especially in today’s debate over LGBTQI, people are well beyond talking. For conservatives, it’s a settled issue; sin is sin and has no place in the church. Period. For progressives, the time is now to once and for all put exclusion and bigotry behind us and to fully include, marry, and ordain people who are gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual, queer, and intrasex.

Both sides know what they want, are bent on it, and will tolerate an exodus or a split in the church if that’s what it comes down to.

Then there are people like me in the midst of the storm trying to advocate for different options to keep us all together as one Body of Christ. I do recognize that our different viewpoints are simply incompatible. However I also recognize that if we split or exit, we’ll all be weaker for it. United Methodism is a connectional church, relying on all of us together to fulfill the Great Commission and advance the kingdom of God. Apart from one another, we will each walk away with much less than we have now, greatly truncating our collective effort to fulfill the Great Commission and build the kingdom of God. Still not convinced of that? See 1 Corinthians 12.

Reading all this, you might conclude that I’m playing the martyr:

O woe is me, that my all-too-righteous efforts go unappreciated by the stiff-necked masses bent on their own destruction!

Well… I confess to complaining a little. (But Hey, Jeremiah complained a lot more than I am! He even accused God of being a deceptive brook run dry.)

More importantly, I’m inviting you into the blessedness of peacemaking. It’s hard work, but it is blessed work. Jesus says it is. There’s a price to pay for it, but the gift from God is a powerful vision of the peaceable kingdom to come, which all of God’s children will inherit. We all know that at present we live in a bitterly polarized time which unfortunately our church reflects. However, we peacemakers have the audacity to believe that it doesn’t have to be that way- that it won’t be that way for too much longer.

General Conferences will come and go. Sometimes even denominations come and go. Still, if the peacemakers rise up and dare to fill the gap, we can bring more people together into a community which is a foretaste of much better things to come. Thanks be to God for that blessing!

 

 

 

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Live Report: St. Paul Delivers a Speech at General Conference Addressing the LGBTQI Debate

Paul of TarsusFrom the back corner door in a tense, crowded convention hall, a short, modestly dressed middle-aged man appears. He wears a beige shirt and pants with street-worn brown shoes. His face bears jagged, careworn lines from an arduous life of work and great sacrifice, and yet there is an otherworldly serenity about the way he carries himself. His eyes have a sharp intensity to them- critical, sad, and yet longing. He has olive-colored skin, a balding head with sparsely greying dark hair, and a thin beard. He doesn’t have a Conference delegate badge, and yet he confidently walks into the room as if he had always been there. Hardly anyone notices his arrival at first, but in a matter of moments, all of that is about to change.

It is late-afternoon on May 18, 2016 in Portland, Oregon. The delegates of the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church are once again embroiled in an emotionally passionate debate that has eventually taken center stage of every General Conference since 1972. It’s the debate over Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people. What should the church think about them? Is the practice of homosexuality and transgender people compatible or incompatible with Christian teaching? Is it right or wrong to host and celebrate their marriages? Can LGBT persons be ordained as clergy?

One can glance around the room at the delegates and feel the immense weight of everything they must consider and vote into church law. Whatever they decide could determine the fate of the United Methodist Church as we know it.

Emerging from a back corner of the convention hall, the visitor slowly makes his way up an aisle and to the desk of the presiding bishop. With a hand cupping the microphone, she quizzically engages this stranger. At first the bishop seems annoyed but then suddenly freezes as the color drains from her face. She gazes up at the stranger for a few moments longer and then slowly stands. Her eyes never leave him.

Speaking into the microphone, the visibly shaken bishop says, “Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, our General Conference has voted on parliamentary rules which I am required as your Presiding Bishop to uphold, but I am making an extraordinary decision. I am unilaterally suspending these rules in light of the person I am about to introduce. Brothers and sisters, I yield the floor to none other… than the Apostle Paul of Tarsus.”

Stunned silence overtakes the room followed by a rash of whispering. “Is she crazy?” “Who orchestrated this?” “She doesn’t have the authority to do that!” “Who did she say he is?”

Amidst the clamor, Paul begins to talk in a clear, calm voice. He adds no hint of polish or flourish to his words, and yet he speaks with a methodical, earnest passion:

“My dear brothers and sisters, yes, it is I, your brother Paul of Tarsus, an apostle sent not from any person but rather from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have watched your proceedings with great interest over these last 44 years, and at the bidding of Christ Jesus, I have come to bring you a word from the Lord. May the Holy Spirit enlighten the eyes of your heart to my gospel, which I faithfully preached throughout the world. I now proclaim this same gospel to you.

“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to embrace any form of legal marriage, but another embraces only heterosexual marriage. The one who embraces both same-sex and heterosexual marriage equally must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not embrace same-sex marriage must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

“One person considers one form of marriage more sacred than another; another considers both same-sex and heterosexual marriages alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards only one form of marriage as sanctified does so to the Lord. Whoever regards same-sex marriage equally sanctified with heterosexual marriage does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever does not, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

“You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:

‘”As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will acknowledge God.'”

“So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that all monogamous, covenanted marriages are right and holy. But if anyone regards something as not holy, then for that person it is not holy. If your brother or sister is distressed because of your convictions, you are no longer acting in love. Do not let your advocacy for what you deem to be just and holy destroy someone for whom Christ died. Do not let what you know is good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of sex and marriage, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of sex and marriage. All legal marriages are good, but it is wrong for a person to advocate for what they deem to be just and holy in a way that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to self-righteously or angrily advocate for your beliefs and convictions or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.

“So whatever you believe about these things, keep yourselves humble and open, as if this matter was between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they force themselves to go along with something they believe to be wrong, because their acquiescence is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”

At that, Paul bowed his head, backed away from the microphone and quietly exited the hall.

Everyone was subdued into stunned silence. No one shouted “amen.” No one protested. No one flinched. Then after a few minutes, an elderly statesman of the church stood up from his seat and said, “Bishop, for the sake of our whole church, conservative and progressive, gay and straight, of any gender, and of any conviction thereof, I rise to offer this motion…”

(The main body of Paul’s speech is a hermeneutical application of Romans 14:1-15:7. This is an edit of a previous post.)

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A Scriptural Way through the LGBTQI Debate

Joining HandsOnce again, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church will be discussing and voting on resolutions that seek to fully include LGBTQI people into the life of our church, accept and normalize same-sex marriage, and to stop trials for those clergy who violate our Book of Discipline by conducting same-sex marriages. It’s yet another chapter of a debate that’s been raging in my United Methodist Church since the subject of homosexuality first came up in 1972. Yes, we’ve been debating this subject for 44 years, longer than I’ve been alive.

Most everyone would agree that we are locked in an irreconcilable debate between two disparate points of view. To state these views concisely:

Our Reconciling (progressive) friends say that fully including LGBTQI people into the life of our church– into membership, leadership as lay people, marriage, and ordination– is a matter of biblical love and justice. God does not exclude anyone from the gospel and the body of Jesus Christ. God also shows us how the Holy Spirit is at work in and through our LGBTQI members as disciples of Jesus Christ who serve and lead the church just as powerfully as anyone else.

Our Transforming (conservative) friends say that this is all a matter of two things: the authority of Scripture, especially the Scriptures’ teaching on human sexuality, homosexuality especially; and the preservation of marriage and family, as established by Scripture. The bottom line: the practice of homosexuality is a sin and therefore outside of Christian teaching established by Scripture and 2,000 years of church tradition.
Here’s the problem with this debate in a nutshell. They are talking past each other. These two “sides” are speaking two different languages- the language of inclusive love vs. the language of biblical authority.

Yet there’s an irony to all of this. Both sides read the same Bible and hold to its authority as the inspired Word of God. And both sides believe in an inclusive, loving church!

Now– let me stop right here because I can sense that both my conservative and progressive colleagues are already chaffing against what I just said. Friends, I’ve made these observations after having spent hours upon hours talking to people on both sides of the LGBTQI debate. There are some eerie similarities between both sides. Here are two striking commonalities:

First, both conservatives and progressives read the same Bible and they take it seriously as the authoritative, inspired Word of God. Or, if we want Wesleyan common ground to stand on, we all can affirm that, “The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation…” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, ¶104). By and large, progressives do not simply toss out passages of Scripture they don’t like. They wrestle with them through the lenses of careful biblical study, criticism and experience- something that everyone from any ideology does. Our ideological differences stem from how we interpret biblical teachings on human sexuality and hermeneutically apply them to our present-day circumstances.

Second, both conservatives and progressives strive for an inclusive, loving church, and in this case with our LGBTQI neighbors. It is simply wrong to assume that all conservative Christians hate gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer and intrasex people and don’t want them in their churches. We all want and strive for an inclusive church. Where we differ is in the nature of inclusivity. What are we including? Many of our conservative colleagues advocate for and practice radical hospitality to their LGBTQI neighbors. They love them, even if they cannot affirm the ways they live out their sexuality or gender. This is not hate or exclusion, at least in their eyes and hearts.

However, I want to say here that this does not at all diminish the real painful histories that LGBTQI people have experienced being ostracized, hated, and excluded from their families, friends, and church. This still goes on. That said, conservatives (and everyone else) have come a long way in getting rid of bigotry and homophobia. Much more needs to be done. Yet we can confidently say that a large and growing number of my conservative colleagues are weeding out hate and homophobia, extending love and grace to all, while at the same time upholding what they believe the Bible teaches about human sexuality.

To sum up what I’ve just said: by and large, both progressives and conservatives read the same Bible and advocate for a loving, inclusive church. Albeit, there are noisy, visible exceptions who always show up to steal the limelight. Put them aside, and we still find these striking similarities between a vast majority progressives and conservatives.

If it is true– and I firmly believe it is!– that progressives and conservatives on LGBTQI issues affirm biblical authority and an inclusive church, then I believe there is a scriptural way forward for all of us. Call it a third way apart from either extreme, and yet it can be a place for all of us to stand together.

That Scriptural way forward is Romans 14:1-15:7. A while back I wrote a fictional account of the Apostle Paul addressing the 2016 General Conference of the UMC , hermeneutically applying this passage to the LGBTQI debate. I invite you to give it a read.

Basically, in this passage Paul addresses a dispute between Christians of the ancient Roman church over eating meat that could have been offered to an idol. There were those who believed, based on firm Scriptural premises, that eating this meat was taking part in idolatry and so for the most part, they lived as vegetarians. Others in the community had the faith to believe that idols and idol worship is false anyway, and had no qualms with eating this meat. Then there were those who believed that the Sabbath (and other Jewish holy days) are sacred and must be strictly kept. Meanwhile, others saw everyday as holy.

The Apostle Paul framed this debate by calling it “disputable matters.” In other words, these Roman Christians were not differing over basic Christian dogma or doctrine. None of these things were in question. They were debating disputable matters of ethics, matters that do not inform essential Christian dogma and doctrine.

Paul’s solution was both simple and genius: accept each other at the same table of grace. Don’t force your beliefs onto the other as a stumbling block to them. Respect each other’s convictions as holy convictions, unto the Lord. Give each other space and room to live as they believe the Holy Spirit has led them to live. Strive for the things that build each other up, not tear each other down. Be patient with each other. And above all, be like Jesus, who humbled himself to be crucified for all of us. Welcome each other in the spirit of our crucified and risen Lord.

What would this look like in practice here in 2016, dealing with the LGBTQI debate? We would accept each other within the same church. We would make room for each other to live and practice ministry as the Holy Spirit has directed us. We would remember that our unity does not need to be based on our agreement over disputable matters like human sexuality; rather, our unity is based on our unified embrace of the dogma and doctrine of our church, our shared Wesleyan heritage as United Methodists.

This is more than merely “agreeing to disagree”. I can agree to disagree with someone without having to maintain a relationship with them. But, if I say that I accept someone whose views on disputable matters are different from mine, then we agree to stay in a covenanted relationship as siblings in Christ within his body. We need not part ways or remain locked in a debate that paralyzes and polarizes our church into winners and losers.

Having said this, let me address some possible objections:

1) “So you’re saying that we should just accept sin and let it remain. I cannot be in a church that passively accepts sin.” The fact is, we the church have always debated what is within and outside of God’s will. Take the issue of remarriage after divorce. In many places the Bible condemns remarriage for divorced persons. And yet, for pastoral reasons, we’ve made room for these persons while allowing our differences over this matter to remain. (I am a divorced and remarried person, ordained as an Elder. No one has ever held that against me, even though one could condemn my remarriage on biblical grounds.) Also, there are a number of other sins we passively overlook– greed, gluttony, gossip, etc. How well are we doing actively pointing out and condemning each and every instance of these sins? The point is this: we are all growing disciples of Christ, always discerning what is sinful and what is not, while growing in holiness. We can still accept each other, even in our differences over what is sinful and what is not.

2) “So you’re saying that we must live in a church which tolerates exclusionary attitudes towards LGBTQI persons? Where is the justice in that?” I think we all need to drastically lower the volume of our individual convictions on human sexuality. I’ve found that it is very possible to work side-by-side with someone whose convictions are very different from my own on LGBTQI  or any other range of issues. How do we get along? We simply don’t go there. We value the wonderful things we have in common, and we value each other as people. On the matters we dispute, we simply give each other space.

This third way of biblical acceptance will require the progressive and conservative sides of the LGBTQI debate to change tactics. We can no longer afford to impose our will and views regarding human sexuality on the whole denomination, no matter how biblically correct we feel our view to be. It is a disputable matter.

However, the third way of biblical acceptance will give us all tremendous freedom while keeping our church united around the essential things which already unite us. We can all freely hold and live our convictions on human sexuality while keeping our church from further fractions and schisms.

Then the prayer of Jesus will be more fully realized in our time:

I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20b-21)

(This is an edited version of a previous blog post.)

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A Kidney Donor Delivers a Setback to Live Organ Donation

I am a live kidney donor. That’s a fact I don’t parade around on my sleeve except for times like these when the credibility of live organ donation is on the line. We hear lots of beautiful, affirming stories of living donors giving a kidney or part of another organ and the life-changing, life-saving effects of that gift for their recipients. But all it takes is a widely publicized story of a donation going wrong to stamp a black eye on an evolving but fragile medical procedure– fragile because there are far more needs for organ transplants than available donors.

Debbie Stevens- the donor

This week, we heard the story of a 47-year-old woman named Debbie Stevens who donated a kidney to her boss, 61-year-old Jackie Brucia. Debbie Stevens has now gone public alleging that her boss and kidney recipient, hired her, received the kidney, terribly mistreated her, and fired her. Stevens stated, “I decided to become a kidney donor to my boss, and she took my heart… I feel very betrayed. This has been a very hurtful and horrible experience for me. She just took this gift and put it on the ground and kicked it.” Now, after filing a suit against Ms. Brucia, she’s demanding her kidney to be returned.

Jackie Brucia- the recipient

There are a lot of other extenuating details we know and lot more we don’t know. I’m not going to get into the messy she said/she said soap opera. You can read the story for yourself, but from what I gather of Debbie Stevens’ own story read through my own experience as a donor, I seriously doubt the substance of many of her claims. The circumstances leading up to the actual kidney donation looked legitimate. There didn’t appear to be any kind of set-up or manipulation. I also question the validity and helpfulness of  her post-donation claims.

Now, Debbie Stevens did suffer some post-surgical complications, and that happens. (I suffered some, too that lengthened my recovery time, rendering my case “non-textbook”.) But after that, she alleges that Jackie Brucia began to harangue her for taking too much time off and vying for special treatment as Stevens coped with her post-surgical complications. Eventually, Stevens was re-located to another office as a demotion. After she made a public stink over her treatment and filed a lawsuit, she was fired.

Stevens, a single mother of two, now claims financial ruin from all the post-surgical medical treatments and lost income. She claims psychological trauma as a result of the donation, and that her life is ruined since no insurance company will pick a kidney donor once her COBRA expires. Meanwhile, Stevens and the press have painted Jackie Brucia as a hot-tempered, manipulative, rich company executive who used and abused a gracious, poor single mother of two kids.

Oh brother… Typing out all that drama just now left me feeling like a daytime soap screenwriter!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure Jackie Brucia is no innocent saint and that there is some truth to her treatment of Stevens. And of course, we only know what Stevens has shared and how the press has told the story.

But as a donor, I felt compelled to point out some egregious red flags in Stevens’ story and allegations which people unfamiliar to the process might not see.

First, the transplant recipient’s medical insurance covers all of the donor’s medical costs related to the transplant, before and after surgery. All of my screening tests were 100% covered. The surgery and after-care has been 100% covered. When I was re-hospitalized after surgery, the hospitalization, tests, and follow-up tests and visits were all 100% covered. This usually lasts up to two years post-surgery. This is not Good Samaritan philanthropy on the part of insurance companies. As you can imagine, it’s purely about money. It costs a lot less to fully finance a transplant than years of dialysis treatments. Bottom line, unless Stevens is exaggerating her condition or not properly advocating for herself, she should not be in financial ruin from ensuing medical costs related to being a donor.

Second, insurance companies don’t typically deny coverage to organ donors. Not only that, but as established by the Affordable Care Act, a pre-existing condition is no longer a barrier to coverage. That’s one aspect of the new health care law I firmly agree with.

Third, I question the amount of recovery time and accommodations Stevens claimed she needed. Even with complications, I was back to work within three weeks. Stevens was given four. That’s plenty of time. And if she needed more recovery time or accommodations, she could have easily gotten a prescription from her surgeon. That would have cleared the air, especially with her recipient boss, for crying out loud. Chances are that through the process Brucia would have even known and  interacted with Stevens’ surgeon.

Recipients, on the other hand, do often require more recovery time than donors. That is especially the case today with minimally invasive surgical techniques to remove the donor’s kidney. Surgeons have even perfected a single-incision procedure through the donor’s naval! Amazing stuff… So Stevens’ implication that she was forced back to work while her still recovering, pampered boss reamed her out from the comforts of her home looks to be little more than an emotional ploy.

Lastly, something obviously went wrong while preparing and evaluating these two women for the relational after-affects of the donation.

Back to my story… I’m a pastor, and I donated a kidney to one of my parishioners. Live organ donation is emotional enough, but in a potentially awkward situation like this one, it could have been even more so.

Part of the evaluation process was weighing the effects of being a donor on my parishioner recipient, on our unique relationship, how this might affect the church, and how this would affect our families, especially within the church. As a part of my evaluation to be a donor, a social worker from our kidney donation program asked me some very pointed questions, “What are your motives? Do you expect to gain anything from being a donor? How would you react if there was a falling out between you and your recipient? How would you react if the surgery is not successful?” These were tough questions to wrestle through, and if my answers were any less than genuine, my donor application would have been flatly denied. I also had to work very carefully with our church’s leadership and my denominational supervisor to get their support, to discern the best way to share what was happening with the rest of our church, and to work up a recovery plan.

It’s clear from the Debbie Stevens and Jackie Brucia story that something went wrong with this evaluation and preparation process. Perhaps everyone involved was not as thorough or truthful as they needed to be. Maybe the donation program they worked through fell down on the job.

In any case, donation does significantly change the relationship between donor and recipient. It certainly brought my recipient and me and our families much closer. But we also had to figure out healthy, meaningful ways for us to express “thank you” and “you’re welcome” for an unusual, life-altering gift. That creates some discomfort and stress, and I think that stress contributed to the messiness between Stevens and Brucia. I can imagine Stevens feeling that she was owed gratitude and respect from her boss and Brucia struggling over how to be both a thankful recipient and an unbiased supervisor. No doubt those uneasy dynamics came to play.

Yet no matter the extenuating facts, Debbie Stevens’ public behavior since losing her job has cast live organ donation in a dark shadow. She may very well have a case, but why go so public with it, crying out things that are clearly out of line and false? The public sees this story and could very well walk away thinking, If that’s what can happen after donating a kidney, no thank you! Meanwhile, the list of people waiting on the kidney transplant list still grows.

Being a kidney donor is a huge decision, granted, but it is a truly viable, inexpressibly rewarding thing that any healthy person can do. How often are we given an opportunity to give something of ourselves that saves another person’s life? Yes, I live with one kidney now, but I’m just as healthy now as ever. Actually, the process forced me to lose weight and take better care of myself, so I’m healthier now before. My life expectancy has not diminished. I live everyday unaware that anything is different with my body. Aside from avoiding certain medications and avoiding high impact activities, my lifestyle is no different. My kidney donation took place January of last year. That November I ran a 5K race and beat all my previous times.

My body lives just fine with one kidney. And my recipient’s quality of life and life-expectancy has dramatically improved. Her transformation has been a humbling, stunning thing to see.

I really do pray and hope that everything works out as it should for both Stevens and Brucia. Something went terribly wrong that needs to be corrected. But in no way does a tragedy like this paint an accurate or fair portrait of live organ donation.

From one donor to another, Debbie Stevens owes it to everyone on a transplant list and to all potential donors to publicly uphold the worthiness and viability of live organ donation.

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Steve Jobs: the Everyman Who Made Genius So Simple

When Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1996, a company he co-founded and from which he was dismissed 11 years earlier, he inherited an operation in steep decline. At that moment, Jobs became the modern-day equivalent of David going to pick a fight with Goliath. Goliath, of course, was the unquestionably dominant presence of Microsoft embodied in none other than Bill Gates. Without a doubt, Microsoft was the universal standard of the computing world. Microsoft didn’t make computer hardware, but Bill Gates and Microsoft made Windows, and Windows became the way most of the world interacted with computers. Thus, Bill Gates and Microsoft formed the seemingly impervious imperial power of the computing world.

What chance did Steve Jobs and Apple have against a Goliath like that? Well, everyone but hardcore Apple users would have said, “Absolutely none!” while they installed Windows 97 on their PC’s. But little did they know, Steve Jobs had a hard, smooth stone in his slingshot. Right after he wound up and skillfully fired off that smooth stone directly at Microsoft, we began to see the giant lose its monopoly. Goliath had met his match.

The smooth stone of Steve Jobs was this: captivating simplicity. Steve Jobs was an everyman who believed that people really wanted their electronic tools to be cool, sleek, elegant, simple, and yet powerful pieces of technology. And while he began making drastic improvements to Macs, he made a fascinating, risky move to catch the public’s attention. It was the iPod. For most everyone, including myself, this was the first Apple product we ever owned, the first of many more. I remember being amazed at how cool and sophisticated the iPod was. I could have all my music in one polished little flat box that only had one button and a touch-wheel. There weren’t a half-dozen buttons to figure out and push. No complicated menus or screens. A small but beautifully rich display. And I could watch TV shows I missed on it, too! Now how cool is that??

It probably goes without saying that Steve Jobs stunned Goliath, and Goliath has continually tried to strike back, often with little success. (Anybody remember the Zune?? You may be able to find one on eBay… maybe.)

We all know the rest of the story. And I have to admit, I’m not nearly the Apple enthusiast I may appear to be. (Yes, everything you’re reading here was produced on a PC.) But I have been an admirer of Steve Jobs for one major reason. Steve Jobs was a man who knew his strengths and then invested them into a career and into several companies which became wildly successful. Don’t forget Pixar was a Jobs company, too. One could even argue that media giant Disney owes most of its success over the last 20 years to Pixar and to Steve Jobs.

Since his death yesterday, many people have been trying to capture Steve Jobs’ legacy. I believe Steve Jobs’ legacy was his core strength of being an everyman. In other words, he was a regular enough guy to know the kind of technology that people wanted and weren’t getting anywhere else. He harnessed his own and others’ creativity, created products that were nothing short of cutting edge excellence, and then became their passionate champion. Jobs and the people he chose to work with created products they truly loved. Then Jobs became the living billboard of those products with his passion and persona, serving as Apple’s best advertising.

Apple products: simple and captivating. Steve Jobs: jeans and a t-shirt with tons of pizzazz. Together, they made market-shifting genius that shaped an entirely different contour to the computing, entertainment, and communications world. (Jobs also affected the church world, too. “Simple Church”, based on Jobs’ concepts, has influenced many congregations to keep things both deeply authentic and structurally less complicated and cumbersome.)

Steve Jobs was an everyman in another way, too. Like everyone else, Jobs was endowed with unique strengths and gifts. Jobs, however, took the rarely taken step of channeling his energy into those strengths, and we all now live with the results. It’s easy to take for granted that Steve Jobs possessed no formal education in engineering, programming, or computer technology. The Geek Squad wouldn’t have hired him, and you probably wouldn’t have want Jobs to build and program much of anything. But he didn’t need to, and he didn’t waste his time trying to learn how. Instead, Jobs worked with the engineers and programmers to create the products he envisioned. He hired lots more non-engineers and non-programmers and turned them loose in the design phase of Apple products, too. Thus, Jobs didn’t make the mistake Microsoft has made of hiring computer nerds to manufacture products that only semi-computer nerds can fully appreciate and understand while everyone else fumbles through Microsoft error pop-up windows.

In the wake of Steve Jobs passing, his absence will be felt for a long time. But then again, we all can spot and indeed posses Steve Jobs-like genius whenever we singularly live into the strengths and gifts God has given us. People like that are always amazing. We love being around them. Their abilities and passion are a marvel to watch, no matter what they’re doing. There’s pure genius in the God-given strengths of teachers, managers, chefs, entrepreneurs, sales clerks, table servers, analysts, preachers, artists, athletes, or stay-at-home parents. Our strengths are invaluable gifts to God, to others around us, and to ourselves. Fully realized, those strengths are the hallmark of human genius, distinct and powerful because we have been made by God in his image. And there’s no greater genius than God!

Steve Jobs was blessed to know and courageous enough to live through his strengths. To honor Jobs and his legacy, I hope you and I can keep it simple and do the same.

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Filed under Christian thought, Reflections