Category Archives: Reflections

The Lies of Suicide

F6C44347-CD36-4D8E-923D-14CB181AEF89Kate Spade. Anthony Bourdain. Two in one week. Add them to that terribly long, horrific list of people who have taken their own lives— people we have known or knew from a distance.

What scares me is that a report published just this week indicates that suicide rates are climbing all over the country. It’s evident of a medical system unable to adequately treat the number of people who have mental illness, the numbers of people who go undiagnosed, and especially this: the growing cultural acceptability of suicide. It’s glamorized and even rewarded when we say things like, “I’m glad his suffering is over. She’s in a better place now. He’s free. She’s flown away.”

Suicide seems to have an increasingly seductive allure as a final act of escape. In a culture that promotes and celebrates distraction, diversions and get-aways from reality, suicide lurches more prominently within the darker recesses of our shadowy selves. In our compulsive, overly anxious, self-obsessed natures in which we fear and glamorize death with a “who cares” kind of apathy, is it any wonder that more of us are tempted to listen to the “like sucks” “I just want to die” “screw it all” “forget you, world” voices in our heads? Listen to it enough, own it enough, and then we begin to find reasons to act out on it in highly destructive ways. Suicide is ranking higher as a mode of self-destruction.

But suicide is a devilish liar of the worst kind. I should know.

I’ve written before about my own struggles through suicidal thinking. Having climbed through that darkness by God’s grace and presence along with the presence of some loved ones, I know how powerfully seductive suicidal thinking can be.

“Nothing matters.” “I don’t matter anymore.” “If people really knew me, they wouldn’t love me.” “I’m a failure and a disappointment to everyone.” “Everyone will be better off without me.” “Sure, people might be hurt when I’m gone, but they’ll get over it, especially me. They always do. They always have.”

Lies and more lies. Suicide doesn’t take just one life. It drains the life out of everyone else that one life touched. It’s a violent, most awful way to die, no matter how it is carried out. And suicide never delivers on its promises. No one is ever better off dead, and the world becomes a far lesser place without us suddenly not in it, not a better one. Suicide leaves nothing but death and tragedy in its wake. When we accept that reality, we can choose love and life over lies and death.

It could be said that suicide prevention revolves around the choices we all make. We either lovingly choose to make life-giving and saving connections, or we choose death. That is true for the one contemplating suicide and everyone else around him or her.

As I did in my most recent post on mental illness, I’d like to offer some essential ideas for those who might be considering suicide and for their loved ones:

1) As hard as it is, make the choice to reach out. Many of us know how it feels to be so bottomed out that the effort it takes to reach out for help can seem unbearably difficult. We don’t want to bother anyone. Apathy paralyzes us. When that happens— Just. Do. It. Call someone. Text or message someone. If it’s dire enough, Google “suicide” and there you’ll find the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Get yourself to an Emergency Room. Take one step at a time away from the edge and towards life. It’s worth it. You’re worth it. Your loved ones are worth it.

2) Be there. Watch out for the warning signs of suicidal moods in other people- extreme withdrawal, any kind of loose talk of wanting to die or wanting everything to end, or sudden, unexplainable mood shifts. Don’t just say, “Call me if you need anything.” Go there and make the connection. Listen to your gut, and remember that accidental overstepping is better than careful sidestepping, especially if someone’s life is on the line. If you feel someone is in imminent danger, offer to make a phone call or to take them to the hospital. But don’t leave.

3) Make time. At any moment with anyone, making time to slow down and deeply listen to the lives and stories of our neighbors, to hear and non-judgmentally receive their thoughts and feelings, good or bad, to provide a safe place to talk, explore, and “get stuff out” may be the best mental health medicine and suicide prevention we could offer to each other. Many of us suffer from loneliness, real or perceived. The best cure for that I know is the connection of deep listening. It’s been said that the gift of listening is a gift of pure, unconditional love. You don’t have to be a therapist. You’re not there to fix anything or make it better. You’re there simply to be the presence of God who is love.

And love… love is what keeps us alive, healthy, and happy.

 

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So I Have Mental Illness…

On Sunday morning I shared something with my congregation that I had never publically put to words: “Your pastor has mental illness.”

I began a 4-part sermon series on stress, specifically how to transform stress into happiness. I’ve learned quite a bit about stress management and transformation through my battles with major depressive disorder, also known as clinical depression. So to offer some ethos and pathos to the subject matter, i.e. Yes, your pastor really does know what he’s talking about and can personally relate to you!, I mentioned to my congregation a disease I have which has been with me through most of my adult life. It’s been my number-one health concern.

4BA14C90-4F39-4843-B992-47F130771228There have been several times that depression took me to the depths of suicidal ideation. Several years ago I was even admitted for a week at an inpatient mental health care hospital for debilitating depression and suicidal intentions. Antidepressants to keep my brain chemistry at good, balanced levels have been a regular part of my wellbeing.

Presently, I’m doing really well. I treat depression with a daily morning dose of antidepressants. I watch for the signs and triggers that pull me down into depression— things like extra stress. I surround myself with plenty of accountability from people like my wife and a handful of close friends. And when life throws a vicious curveball or my brain chemistry somehow gets out of whack, I bring my doctor and therapist into my support network, too.

I mention all this, not to garner sympathy or to create a stir, but to continue my work of casting a luminous light on the most shadowed, closeted, and one of the most prevalent health concerns many of us face. We see the terrible effects of it when someone like Kate Spade takes her own life or when someone violently acts out, causing massive human carnage. We see it in the lives of most of our homeless neighbors. Mental illness affects community and world leaders, celebrities, stay-home parents, teenagers, corporate executives, and yes, clergy like me.  It takes the shape of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, eating disorders, schizophrenia, mood disorders, and a whole host of other diagnoses. For far too long now, mental illness has been badly misunderstood and unfairly scrutinized, resulting in a social environment in which critically needed support for those suffering from mental illness and and their caregivers becomes extremely difficult to find.

That is especially true in the church. In the church, much shame surrounds mental illness.

I’ve often called depression a disease of double shame. There’s the inward shame of worthlessness, hopelessness, apathy, emptiness and nothingness. Then there’s the outward shame, the things explicitly said or subtly  implied that depression is a result of spiritual and moral failure: “Just give it to God in prayer and you’ll feel better.” “True believers always have joy.” “Real Christians don’t get depressed.” “Depression is a separation from God.” “Just be grateful. Just keep your chin up. Trust God.”— implications that I can’t do or haven’t already done those things.

It’s time to come to grips with the truth that mental illness of any kind is not spiritual or moral failure. It doesn’t indicate innate character, moral, spiritual or emotional flaws any more grievous than anyone else’s. It is, quite simply, bad brain chemistry brought on sometimes situationally, most often as a chronic condition, or both.

So how can faith communities and any other forms of human community care for people with mental illness and their loved ones? Several key things come to mind (no pun intended):

1) Put aside your assumptions. Listen and learn. Misinformation has created the stereotypical perceptions we commonly use to frame mental illness. Throw those out, and offer the gift of deep listening and a willingness to learn. What’s it like? What does it mean and not mean? How do we cope and live? Let us, we who have mental illness and our loved ones, show you our world and how we struggle.

2) Abandon judgmentalism. (See #1.) In addition, avoid finger pointing and fault finding.

3) Be a companion on the journey. Attempting to give advice, thinking that the right words will make it better, or coming with any attitude that you’re “here to help” only makes things worse. Think of it as coming alongside as a friend. Deeply listen. Listen to understand. Give us space when needed. Show compassion in simple, practical ways. But remember: we’re not your problem to fix. Only God can do that through a whole network of supportive care. And you may be blessed to be one of those people.

4) Be an advocate. Look out for people with mental illness. When you can, speak up to protect our dignity and correct misperceptions. Help others to understand what mental illness is and isn’t.

The healing balm for mental illness is the persistent, gentle light of understanding love, quality medical care, time and space. I know this full well. I’m here today because of it.

And I can also say that we who have mental illness can live happy, productive, deeply spiritual lives. I’ve learned a lot about light and darkness, life and death, pain and healing, salvation and redemption through my ups and downs with mental illness. Those are lessons I would never give back, and for which I am deeply grateful. These are gifts that can richly bless the world, too. That’s my hope.

 

 

 

 

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Let Us Eat Cake

709A57AC-3F0B-42D0-974B-EE81608A0480Six years ago, I can’t imagine any of us would have predicted that the Supreme Court of the United States would issue a ruling involving a wedding cake (or lack thereof), but it’s a sign of the times in which we live. And in all times, often the most fundamental Constituitonal issues are decided within the scope of seemingly trivial, mundane, everyday things.

For example, six years ago, David Mullins and Charlie Craig went into Masterpiece Cakeshop in Denver, Colorado to order a cake for their upcoming wedding. Shop owner Jack Phillips refused to make the cake citing his particular Christian belief that does not recognize same-sex marriages. In his view, homosexuality and same-sex relationships are sinful, so he could not apply his craft to contribute to an event he found to be religiously objectionable. From there, complaints were filed with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and suddenly the case became a struggle between religious liberty/freedom of conscious vs. equal treatment/anti-discrimination, a struggle which made its way to Washington, D.C. and into the hall of the United States Supreme Court.

The Court ruled in a stunning 7-2 majority decision that Jack Phillips was in his right to refuse to make the cake, citing the First Amendment and freedom of religion. No governmental agency could compel him to act or produce something that violates his long-established religious beliefs. There was also some heavy consideration given to the fact that the same Colorado Civil Rights Commission which had upheld other cakemakers’ religious freedoms to not produce products that violated their beliefs declined Jack Phillips’ own religious objection, establishing a clear bias and disparity.

Understandably, the reaction has been swift and passionate. Some are celebrating a victory for conservative values and freedom of religion. Others are condeming a decision that upholds bigotry and economic discrimination under the guise of religious belief.

As for me, I’ve made the argument multiple times that the kind of biblical theology espoused by fellow Christians like Jack Phillips is a poor, shallow reading of the Bible that does incredible harm to people. I predict that the days of the church shutting its doors on the full inclusion of LGBTQ people will come to an end within my lifetime. When that finally happens, the church and the whole world will be so much better served with the good news of Jesus that affirms grace and redemptive love for all people. Period. No if’s, and’s, but’s, or fancy qualifiers.

In the meantime, however, there are Christians like Jack Phillips, and as much as I reject his reading of the Bible, he has every right to believe it and to do nothing that violates his conscious. That is the definition of religious freedom.

America was established to be a liberally generous nation, but we are living in quite illiberal times. People want freedom, but they don’t tolerate the freedoms of those whose speech and actions offend their their convictions and sensibilities. In a related though slightly tangential way, we’re seeing this same struggle playing out in the NFL with football players who have refused to stand for the National Anthem.

Timeout!

Let me stop right here and state as emphatically as I can that by no means am I placing Jack Phillips’ conservative views on same-sex marriage and black football players’ protest against racial injustice on the same moral plane. Not at all. But that’s not the point.

The point is that these are Americans exercising their freedom of conscious, freedoms which are deeply American and enshrined within our founding documents. (The NFL as an employer recently made its decisions, and we’ll see how well they play out economically, politically, and legally.)

For now though, we live in a three way tension between cultural tribalism (warring social and political tribes highly intolerant of views or people outside of their tightly defined ideological parameters), the ongoing struggle for civil rights, and religious freedom.

I think it is an absolute travesty that religious freedom and civil rights should ever be in tension with each other, as in the case of a wedding cake. But tragically that is the case.

I also firmly reject cultural tribalism. I will rejoice when we can find an end to this kind of destructive behavior.

For now, however, it is incumbent upon us to uphold both religious freedom for people like Jack Phillips and the struggle for civil rights for our neighbors of any minority group. We need both things, even if when they are at odds with each other. The moment our government denies any kind of religious freedom by dictating thought and behavior which violate one’s religious convictions, we’re living under tyranny. And just as important, it is the role of our government to protect the civil rights of all Americans, including our LGBTQ neighbors. Otherwise, we’re living with injustice.

Here’s the strange stew we find ourselves in. Gay and lesbian people have a protected right to marry. And as terrible as one’s religious beliefs may be, one can refuse to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. Both are Constitutionally just. There’s always another cake store, and as our culture continues to shift towards the full inclusion of LGBTQ people, the Jack Phillips’ of the world will find themselves increasingly on the cultural and economic outs.

For today, we can all eat our cake. Our cake’s batter is made of good religion and bad religion, freedom of religion or no religion, freedom from government sanctioned religion, civil rights and the struggle for civil rights. The icing on this strange cake is our individual freedom to put our money into the businesses and organizations which match our values. Granted, it’s a peculiar cake recipe, and some are having a hard time stomaching it, but like it or not, this cake is oddly, painfully, and wonderfully American. Hopefully over time, we can build upon and in some cases drastically improve the recipe!

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A Broken Christ for a Broken Annual Conference

This year, 2018 marks 18 Annual Conferences I have attended with my Baltimore-Washington Conference. (That number seems like a lot to me, but it’s meager compared to a whole lot of other people!).

Without a doubt, this year’s 234th Annual Conference is certainly the heaviest I have ever felt.

At the center of our time together has been a full display of our division and discord over human sexuality and specifically two people, both married to someone of the same gender, who have been seeking commissioning and ordination as clergy within our Conference. Serving as a backdrop to all our proceedings has been the theme of our Conference sessions— “We are One Beneath the Cross” It has been a constant reminder of the tragically ironic tension in our midst: in a Christological sense we are one, but in many ways, with our differences over human sexuality and the looming threat of denominational schism, we are clearly not one.

After our Clergy Executive Session on Wednesday, in which these two siblings in Christ were not recommended for commissioning and ordination, I have tried to take a collective pulse of our Conference. That’s been hard to do. I sense much fear for our future, frustration, deep sorrow, betrayal, anger, disillusionment, numbness, and yes, some hope, too.

Yet one thing most of us can agree on: our Annual Conference is broken. As Bishop Easterling just wrote to us, there were no winners as a result of our deliberations over human sexuality and our gay and lesbian brother and sister in Christ.

So I wonder, in all of our deliberations, why has no one asked, “What would Jesus do?”

Sure, over the last several days, the question has been hinted at and perhaps included in some more theologically nuanced statements and questions. But I’ve not heard anyone ask, and repeatedly ask, “What would Jesus do?”

Well, given our diversity and divisions, undoubtedly there would be no consensus around an answer to that question! What would Jesus do? Lob that onto the Conference floor and settle in for a very long, tedious, painful debate.

2F6BE56C-7C77-4933-9A6D-1E1145D1050EBut perhaps there is a way to answer this simple question, and the answer has been expressing itself within a major symbol on the Conference floor stage: the cross.

Whenever Jesus taught his disciples how to follow him and to be like him, the cross always loomed large, shaping his entire outlook on what it means to live, love, and die. He said it most emphatically like this:

Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
‭‭Luke‬ ‭9:23‬

There it is. What would Jesus do? Take up his cross. And ultimately that means surrender. In his surrender, Jesus became crucified and broken for the brokenness of all humanity, for all time.

Back to our brokenness as a Conference… I believe it is a broken, crucified Jesus who speaks most deeply and powerfully into our brokenness and failure. This broken Jesus speaks, simply by offering us his wounds— wounds from his crucifixion, wounds he suffered to directly address and heal our wounds.

What would Jesus have us do?

First, gazing at his cross, we can admit to our utter brokenness and failure. We can weep and mourn. We can stop the denial game and come to grips fully with our inability to be the church united in purpose, vision, and spirit.

And then, in our brokenness, Jesus invites us to be crucified with him. We can learn what it means to surrender our wills, our wants, the things we fight and strive for, and the blistering battles we have won or failed to win. In Christ, we can learn what it means to crucify all of that and to finally lay down our lives for God and for all our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The bleak nadir of our brokenness and failure, with the cross in the middle of it all, can be a new birthplace for us to rise up together into a uniquely humble, shared cruciform life, a life unapologetically surrendered to God and for the welfare of one another, all for the sake of Christ. No agendas. No fights. No more cold proceedings and rules to determine our collective fate. Only love.

Love. That sounds just as profoundly naive as “What would Jesus do?” And yet, didn’t Jesus also tell us that his newest and greatest command is to love one another? Note: he gave no qualifiers to muck up and complicate the simple profundity of this command.

So what does all this look like for me?

Personally, I am terribly hurt, upset, and angry over our inability to commission and ordain people like T.C. Morrow and Joey Heath-Mason. I have wanted a church that allows clergy, congregations, and Conferences to discern their ministry context and to follow their conscious as to matters of inclusiveness and human sexuality. And I have wanted a church that fully embraces the gifts and call of all people.

However, for the sake of the cross, the church, and the world, I am surrendering my wants and desires. I’m crucifying the urge within me to fight for what I want. Instead, I am offering my life wholly to God, asking that God would use me only as God wills, come what may. I want to do this daily as Jesus commanded. And I want to lay down my life for my brothers and sisters in Christ. I want to bless each of them, love them dearly, passionately and unconditionally, supporting the call and life of each of them, with no agenda except blessing them in real, live-giving ways.

That may sound… naive, simplistic, irresponsible, dangerous, and even heretical. But isn’t that what Jesus did? And the ones who crucified him called him all those things.

One beneath the cross. That will truly happen when we embrace these words of the Apostle Paul:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
‭‭Galatians‬ ‭2:20‬

Let it be so in me, and in all of us. That’s what a broken Jesus did and continues to do within our brokenness and failure.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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