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Christians and Halloween—Fright, Flight, or Fight?

8BA642DA-3F20-4092-A717-96F5D66EFB5AHappy Halloween? Or wait… should I be wishing you a Happy Halloween? I’m a Christian and a pastor, after all.

So, I’ll admit it, when it comes to major festivities like Christmas or Halloween, we Christians have had our hang-ups and complaints, and Halloween is no exception to the rule.

Depending on what Christian you talk to you about Halloween, you’ll hear various responses ranging from…

  • “Halloween? That’s a completely evil, pagan holiday. We should have nothing to do with it.”
  • “Oh for crying out loud… It’s just a fun day for dressing up, having a good time, and trick-or-treating.”
  • Or… a shrug.

Because I like learning about this kind of thing and then writing on it, I did some research into the origins and evolution of the October 31 festivity we have come to know as Halloween. I wanted to know where it comes from. And I was especially curious about what kind of connections we Christians have to it, since it seems to evoke visceral, cheerful, or nonchalant responses. My findings were quite fascinating and varied!

Want to learn more? Read on with me…

So the first thing I learned is that the origins of Halloween are pretty complex, funkier than a witch’s brew. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Seriously, it’s a strange synergy of ancient Celtic, Christian, and even Germanic traditions, ginned up in the last nearly 100 years by our American retail and entertainment industries.

From what I can surmise, the earliest roots for Halloween come from the Celtic tradition of Samhain. (That’s the pagan influence which sends some Christians screaming for the exit doors.) It’s actually a beautiful tradition. A friend of mine who practices Celtic-based spirituality described it for me this way:

Samhain has its roots in the end of harvest celebrations around the world, by many different names. On the agricultural calendar it marks the time before the frost when anything in the fields were rendered dead. the dying of the crop- a sacrifice as it were- makes the fields fertile for buried seeds that bring the promise of a new crop to come in the spring- the rebirth. Because of the shorter days and less sunlight, the gate or veil between the living and dead is so thin.

So there it is. Samhain is an end-of-the-harvest celebration and an acknowledgment of the transition from the life of summer to the sleep of winter. This gave rise to the belief that on Samhain, the veil between the living and the dead was particularly thin, which meant that our ancestors along with good and evil spirits would come to visit the living.

Bonfires were lit and turnips were carved into faces to ward off any evil. People would go out mumming– a mix of caroling and gift giving/receiving, disguised, to celebrate the visit of the dead to the living, while attempting to ward off evil spirits. Great feasts were held to welcome the visitation of the dead with the living.

From this you can see some of the early influences of Samhain still at work today– Halloween bonfires, pumpkin carvings, costumes and mask, parties and feasts, trick or treating, and harvest festivals.

But… that’s only half the story.

Once upon a time, the Catholic Church had a fascinating practice of combining Christian and pagan traditions together, in order to make a bridge from paganism into Christianity. They believed that taking something pagan and “baptizing” it into something Christian would be a way to make connections between the church and the existing culture. And they were wildly successful. (Placing Christmas right around the winter solstice is another successful attempt at the same thing.)

In the 9th Century, Pope Gregory IV took the May 13 “St. Mary and All the Martyrs” celebration (which was itself an approbation of a Roman holiday commemorating the dead) and placed it on November 1, calling it “All Hallow’s Day.” All Hallow’s, later called All Saint’s has taken on many meanings through the years, but largely, it is a time to remember and commemorate the saints of God who have gone on before us and to celebrate our ongoing connection and communion with them, as they surround us in the heavens. We give thanks for them, look to their example, and look forward to sharing in their resurrection from the dead with Jesus Christ, joining together in the New Heaven and New Earth at the end of all time.

Major Catholic feast days were always preceded by a day of preparation- an Eve. That made an All Hallow’s Eve on October 31. Since many of our Halloween traditions came to America from the Irish and Scots, All Hallow’s “Even” (“even” is the Scottish word for Eve) came with them. “Even” was routinely contracted to “E’en”. Over the years, All Hallow’s E’en was shortened to Hallow’een and eventually shortened again to our modern day Halloween.

Put all of that together, and as I mentioned earlier, the Halloween of today is a very odd mix of old pagan and Christian traditions, greatly expanded by American commercialism, leaving these pagan and Christian traditions weaved together into this strange– and at times– uncomfortable hodgepodge of culture and religion. Of course, today, most people, even many Christians, are unaware of the Christian roots of Halloween.

So what can be done about that?

It begins by looking at our modern celebration of Halloween. It seems to be made up of several key things:

  • Community. This is the one night of the year that kids happily go from door to door collecting candy from neighbors they might not otherwise talk to. People gather together for parties, community bonfires, and harvest celebrations. I see in all this our ongoing need for connection with our neighbors.
  • A festive burlesque of death, evil, and the things that frighten us. Why do we go after all this stuff? Why so many ghosts, vampires, zombies, witches, and tombstones? I think it’s our attempt to laugh at and even mock the things we fear the most. Death, evil, and our shadows lurk in the outer wings of our lives. At least we like to keep them there as long as we can. But once in a while, we feel an innate need to face our fears and shadows and to parody, mock, and play with them. It seems to me that Halloween has become a major vehicle folks use to do that very thing.
  • An embrace of the changing seasons. This time of year is an ingathering time– something we felt much more profoundly when more of us lived agrarian lives. It’s a time to say goodbye to the life, light, and warmth of summer and to greet the deep, dark, cold sleep of winter. Perhaps this moves us to think of our own lives, specifically how truly thin the veil is between this life, death, and the next life.

I think we Christians can embrace Halloween in a whole new way, very intentionally, without running from it or heedlessly partaking in it without any consideration to our beliefs and unique witness.

First, we must share and live out the truth that through every season of our lives, God is faithful. It’s just a matter of fully embracing the season we are in and trusting that God is fully present in that season (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15). This includes, of course, the passing of summer and our transition into winter, in nature and over the course of our human lives, too.

Second, we can join in the community! Halloween stuff is fun. It’s a special time that people get together, enjoy one another, and hopefully build relationships. It’s within these human connections that the good news of Jesus is shared, both by our gracious speech and the good news of our lives, filled with the goodness of Christ.

Third, we do indeed have good news to share. Death and evil are defeated foes! Through Christ’s sacrificial love on the cross, we have the freedom to resist evil and to move through death into resurrection. Halloween may be one day of the year to laugh off evil and death. But every day we Christians all over the globe openly defy the powers of evil and death through the unstoppable power of God’s Holy Spirit within us and in the world. This segues very nicely into the celebration of All Saints, after the revelry of Halloween is over and packed up. There are so many creative ways to share this awesome good news with an anxious, bitterly divided world. How could we Christians do that, authentically and creatively, without being obnoxiously preachy, during this time of year?

So… Happy Halloween! See the presence and good news of God, even within the strange, growing darkness of the day. It’s the kind of hope and peace that will carry us through all the seasons of our lives.

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All of Us Must Answer the Kavanaugh Questions

E0E9942E-331C-4672-91B5-9A992258D630Did he do it? Do we believe her? Does it matter?

These are the questions swirling around the confirmation proceedings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Beyond partisan politics, these vital questions not only pertain to Kavanaugh and his confirmation, but they also reflect and shape our national collective conscience, too.

What is the truth? Do we listen to and believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation? Does this have any bearing on Kavanaugh’s fitness for office?

First, let me expose the terrible hypocrisy sitting in the middle of the room. Republicans who were quick to denounce the likes of Senator Al Franken and President Bill Clinton for their sexual misbehavior have been making every perceivable excuse for Judge Kavanaugh. And of course, Democrats who turned a blind eye to Franken and Clinton are now piling on Kavanaugh. Sexual misconduct and abuse is what it is. It either matters and brings to question the offender’s qualification for the responsibility of public office, or it doesn’t. Plain and simple, Democrat or Republican. (Of course, I don’t expect the partisans to agree with me. I’m sure they’ll respond with their regular barrage of worn-out, deflective talking points. Nevertheless…)

Now that the partisan smokescreen is out of the way, what do we make of Kavanaugh?

Let’s reverse the original order of my questions and first ask, “Does it matter?” Answer: it certainly should.

We’re about to confirm Kavanaugh to a lifetime appointment on the nation’s Supreme Court where he will render decisions that will affect our lives and the lives of generations to come under the provisions and protections of United States Constitution. That’s heavy stuff. It takes women and men of the highest character, the clearest thinking, and with the firmest grasp on the truth to faithfully render just decisions.

There is now an accusation of sexual assault raised against Kavanaugh. If he cannot render the full, whole truth of himself in the face of a question regarding sexual conduct and ethics, that says two things. First, it says that he cannot be trusted to see and render the truth. And it says that his character is essentially flawed; he cannot recognize and take responsibility for the choices he has made.

Now there are many who are arguing, “Kavanaugh was a teenager. That was a long time ago. We all did stupid stuff as kids. If he even did that, why should he be punished for it now?” It’s true. Kids do dumb things. Then they grow up… hopefully. And part of growing up is taking responsibility for what we do and have done.

Let’s suppose Kavanaugh called for a press conference or confessed under oath the following: “The allegation brought forward against me by Dr. Ford are regrettably true. As a young man, I did sexually assault her, and I am deeply sorry for what I have done. Since making that terrible, injurious choice, I have grown to respect the dignity and value of every woman. Thus I ask Dr. Ford’s forgiveness. I am willing to make any necessary amends to Dr. Ford and her family. Meanwhile, I continue to commit myself to the highest standards of professional and personal boundaries, ethics and accountability.” After a statement like that, I think most of us would find ourselves moving towards forgiving Kavanaugh, even if on other grounds we still oppose his nomination.

But if Dr. Ford’s allegation stands as credible and Kavanaugh in any way denies or evades the question, he disqualifies himself. Furthermore, if Kavanaugh is content to sit passively, allowing the Republican majority to scuffle the allegation while pressing forward his confirmation, we would have every right to continually question its validity. Truth and character always matter. One informs the other.

That leads to the second question: Do we believe her? The #MeToo movement has done much to expose sexual assault and misconduct for the grave injustice it is, holding the perpetrators accountable, no matter how powerful they are, and making room for victims of assault to come out of the shadows and tell their stories without fear of retribution or incrimination. We have much further to go. Yet we are finally moving to the higher moral ground of saying to these precious neighbors, “What happened to you was not your fault. It was wrong, and we believe you.”

The case of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh is another hurdle in this revolution of truth and consequence. By all accounts, we have every reason to listen to and believe Dr. Ford, regardless of how her case has been handled thus far by the Senate. We’re all entitled to know the facts. We have an obligation to openly listen to her story without suspicion. And then, we must carefully watch and evaluate how Judge Kavanaugh responds.

This raises the last question. Did he do it? Hopefully we’ll soon know. It seems that Dr. Ford is open to the idea of some form of testimony. And yes, there should be an open investigation into the facts. Let’s apply every effort to understand what happened.

At this point, the truthfulness and character of far more than Judge Kavanaugh is on the line. The truthfulness and character of the Senate is also in the dock. And so is ours. Let’s hope and pray, for our country’s sake, and for sakes and the lives of victims and perpetrators of sexual assault, that we get this one right.

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The Flurry and Fun of Baptizing a Toddler

Toddlerhood. I think it is the most magical time of childhood. I use the word “magical” quite intentionally. For figuratively speaking, magic can result in amazement and wonder, laughter and joy, or wholesale destruction, all at a moment’s notice and with nary a hint of warning.

Toddlers, fueled by wellsprings of energy have the wide-eyed curiosity of a thousand cats, empowered for the first time by upright mobility, the beginnings of fine-motor dexterity, language and their first inkling of independence. They’re unpredictable, moody, perpetually playful, and offer us adults the gift of re-experiencing the world with fresh wonder. (I’ve often said that toddlers and teenagers are strikingly similar, but that’s a subject for another post.)

So imagine centering a toddler within the sacramental rite of baptism. Baptism is an orderly, highly scripted, predictable ritual. For babies, youth and adults- no problem. For toddlers? Well…

AAA2CAA4-D249-4E6C-9139-47FABF1BE536When some parents from my church approached me with a bit of cautious trepidation about baptizing their almost two-year-old son Graham, I told them, “You know, we’ll make it all work somehow.” Inwardly, however, I was nervously wondering how adaptable and flexible the parents, congregation and the ritual would be to the temperament of a toddler. That was the big question.

Yesterday, Sunday morning, came, and the parents arrived with their son Graham, their pre-school daughter (who was insistent that her little brother should not be getting wet for this whole baptism thing), and a whole gaggle of family and friends. Graham was the epitome of cuteness- a white dress shirt, tan-colored vest and slacks, a tie and black shoes. He seemed to know something big was afoot, so he was extra primed with nervous, curious energy, toddler-style, of course.

I’m not always the most conscientious pre-planner, but something told me to make a few strategic adjustments. So first I switched out the cold, room temperature water in the baptismal font with warm tap water. Granted, that wouldn’t make Graham’s big sister any happier, but perhaps warm water would soothe his nerves a bit more. And then I gave Graham’s parents the baptism certificate before the service began. That way, if a quick getaway was needed after the baptism ritual, his parents wouldn’t leave empty-handed.

Well, the moment we had all anticipated arrived. Right on cue, as soon as we had gotten underway with the baptism ritual, the game of “Pass the Fidgety Child” commenced between the boy’s mom and dad. That game quickly lost its charm, and then Graham’s impatient chattering and complaining ramped up, quickly accelerating towards a 5-alarm nuclear meltdown.

Now I’m pretty calm in a storm, and that includes being in the presence of crying or screaming children. In a worship setting, I just carry on as if nothing is happening, trusting that the child and parents will work things out. My operational value in all this is let children with families be themselves. But when Graham’s protests were clearly distressing his parents while my congregation stirred with uneasy laughter, clearly it was time for a tactical change on my part.

My paternal instincts kicked in, and in a split moment I asked myself, “What would Pope Francis do?” He’s an amazing example of allowing children to be children, and in unprecedented and impromptu moments of grace, he unflinchingly finds ways for children to be included in his leadership of highly ritualistic Roman Catholic liturgy. So, in Pope Francis style, I improvised.

I found myself stepping closer to the father who by then had broken out into a visible sweat and was hoisting his son at the waist in one arm. Graham was facing out kicking and protesting. I showed Graham my hymnal and the words of the liturgy I was reading, and instantly, he stopped fussing, followed my finger in the text and went back and forth between looking at me and looking at the words of his own baptism liturgy.

I then adjusted my voice a bit from my normal boomy “this is the Word of the Lord” public speaking voice to a quieter, side-by-side reading inflection. I’m sure he had no idea what I was talking about (or maybe he understood more than I give him credit for, especially the all important non-verbal stuff of communication.) At any rate, for the first time in that service, I think Graham felt included in what was going on, and during the next several minutes of liturgy, he was as well-behaved as any watching adult.

It’s ironic. This was the church’s and his rite of baptism, and yet we were about to unwittingly leave this highly aware toddler completely unengaged in it. Why shouldn’t things be such that a child like Graham could fully involve himself and have his own sense of ownership of this tremendous gift of God’s grace that he was being given?

Then the time came for the administration of the water. By then, it seems I wasn’t a threat, so Graham came willingly into my arms and enjoyed the gift of his baptismal waters. It was truly one of those authentic, natural moments of grace for Graham, his family and his new congregation of brothers and sisters in Christ.

35BBEE0F-33CC-4C5F-B07C-F7D2E1CCDBF9While I suppose there are many lessons to be learned from an instance like this, one stands out for me. Be fully present in the moment. Being fully present allows for maximum connection with those around us and the greatest opportunity within our connection for God to show up and do things that clearly demonstrate God’s power, God’s grace, and God’s amazing love. And yes, as we all learned, that can even include a toddler.

 

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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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