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A Christian Call to Action Towards Ending Gun Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are so many others, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Gray Family from Aberdeen, Scotland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Pastor Jeffress,

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

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

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

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

Let’s look again at what the Bible says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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Arguments in a Vacuum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are building a house on sand.”

“…teaching that lust is not a sin.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Why I Stand with T.C. Morrow

Tara “T.C.” Morrow is a Certified Candidate for Deacon in the United Methodist Church, and for the last two annual sessions of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, our clergy session has considered her candidacy. In 2016, T.C. did not receive the required vote majority of our clergy session to be elected into provisional membership as a Provisional Deacon. This year, our Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry did not forward her candidacy to our clergy session for consideration. Still, her candidacy was a central topic of discussion, even with no formal vote taken.

Why all the fuss? What’s so terribly wrong with T.C. Morrow?

In the past, I served on our Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry, and in that time I considered many candidates for ministry. T.C. stands out as a uniquely qualified, exemplary candidate for Deacon. She has demonstrated outstanding Christian character. She is deeply committed to Jesus Christ and his church. T. C. is already a model of what Deacon ministry is all about while serving as a leader in her local church and working for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture in Washington, D.C. T.C. graduated from seminary and passed through the rigorous District and Conference candidacy process with flying colors. As a Deacon, she would continue in the call God has already given her.

Ordinarily, T.C. Morrow would be a person any Annual Conference would enthusiastically commission and ordain into ministry.

But there’s just one thing…

T.C. is a woman married to another woman. And in our Book of Discipline, recently clarified by Judicial Council decisions, this one thing disqualifies her from candidacy, commissioning, or ordination as a clergyperson in the United Methodist Church. This one thing. If we were to put aside T.C.’s sexual orientation for just a moment, I would be writing about the Rev. T.C. Morrow. Yet church law has made this impossible. To quote the former Rev. J. Phillip Wogaman, it’s “bad church law.”

Our inability and unwillingness to commission and ordain someone like T.C. Morrow is a glaring example of an entrenched injustice propped up by poor biblical theology.

Now before I go on to explain my claim, let me say that I have traditionally stood right of center on the issues surrounding gay and lesbian people. This is for no other reason than the fact that I take the Bible– the whole Bible– seriously. I do not dismiss scriptures that make me uneasy or challenge my assumptions. It’s all God’s inspired Word to be read, believed, and lived out. That said, the few times that the Bible does mention homosexuality, it’s always a condemnation. Meanwhile, the Bible consistently lifts up heterosexuality as the established norm.

I have spent countless hours reading and rereading the Bible to understand what it has to say about homosexuality. I have spent many hours in dialogue with others whose views are different from my own. I have spent time getting to know people like T.C. Morrow and others who are gay and lesbian Christians. The overwhelming conclusion I come to is that the kind of sexual deviancy the Bible describes and at times calls homosexuality does not reflect the character and life of people like T.C. Morrow and others who are gay and lesbian Christians.

Case in point: let’s take another look at one of the strongest biblical condemnations of homosexual sex in the Bible.

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. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

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.

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.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 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. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

Romans‬ ‭1:18-32‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Writing to the church in Rome, Paul was describing the full impact of turning away from God to engage in idol worship. God’s wrath against idolaters is to “give them over” to the worst aspects of human depravity. Among the worst examples of human depravity was men and women, inflamed with lust, who exchanged natural sexual relations with one another to engage in “shameful acts” of orgiastic sex with people of the same gender. Most likely, Paul was referencing Greek and Roman temple prostitution in which it was not uncommon for visitors to engage in cultic sexual acts. It was another form of leisurely entertainment.

Then Paul lists off a whole litany of acts resulting from a depraved mind void of “the knowledge of God.”

I fully agree with Paul’s assessment. Any people or society who abandons God and God’s ways devolves into the worst of sexual and moral depravity. They are allowed to ruin themselves, and we see clear examples of that all around us.

Back to T.C. Morrow and other lesbian and gay Christians. Only the worst of biblical hermeneutics would suggest that somehow they fit the mold of human depravity Paul was describing in Romans 1. T.C. is a worshipper and servant of God, a baptized member of the United Methodist Church and a disciple of Jesus Christ whose life emulates the best of Christ-like character. In terms of her sexual orientation, she is legally married. She and her wife foster children who otherwise would not have a home. In the midst of the controversy surrounding her candidacy, T.C. has carried herself with a gracious courage embodying the very character of Jesus when he faced opposition and persecution.

Still, let’s say that the Bible does not outright condemn T.C.’s marriage, does it make room for gay and lesbian marriages, especially since the commended, normative form of human sexuality is heterosexual? My short answer is yes. First, there are many things we do and believe that the Bible does not specifically commend. Most Christians hold to creeds and traditions that are not commended in Scripture. For example, the Bible does not mention Lent, and yet most Christians adhere to that tradition. The Bible never mentions or spells out the Trinity, and yet where would our theology be today without the classic Christian doctrine of the Triune God?

Yet the Bible does commend faithfulness, loyalty, purity, and covenant- qualities which so many married gay and lesbian Christians uphold and model.

Furthermore, the overall trajectory of the Bible is towards an inclusive community, a community in which those who were previously denounced as unclean or unworthy are brought into the community of God’s people as valued equals. Jesus shared table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners. The Apostle Paul asks his friend Philemon to welcome back a runaway slave “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 16). In a beautiful passage from Isaiah,

Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

‭Isaiah‬ ‭56:3-7‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

For someone like T.C., a woman in a married relationship with another woman, a disciple of Jesus who exudes Christ-like qualities, gifts, and graces, how could God not embrace her as an equal, fully valued part of Christ’s church? Whether we acknowledge it or not, God already has.

And if God has accepted T.C. as an equal, fully valued part of Christ’s body, then let’s be done with bad church law and commission her as a Provisional Deacon in the United Methodist Church. Until that day, I stand with T.C. Morrow and others like her who are being unjustly barred from God’s call to a life of ordained ministry in Christ’s church.

 

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