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Sermon: “Better Living Through Grace”

Another sermon for this coming Sunday preached in 2005.

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23, Romans 8:1-11, Isaiah 55:1-5,10-13
July 10, 2005
Community of Grace Christian Church
St. Paul, MN
 

 

dupontWhen I was growing up in Michigan, I would always see these commercials on TV that made no sense to me. As most of you know, my hometown in Flint, Michigan, a small city known for its many auto plants. Flint is smack dab in the middle of two important parts of the state. To our south is the Detroit Metro Area, and we get a lot of the Detroit stations as well as the TV station from nearby Windsor, Ontario. To our north, are three small cities known as the Tri Cities and the agricultural region of the state. Flint also picked up those stations as well. It was during a certain time of the year, when I was watching some program on that particular station, that I would see it: an ad for Roundup.

 

I had no idea what this was. What did they mean that this product would give better yields? What was quackgrass?

 

For those of you who come from rural areas, you know that Roundup is a herbicide that farmers use to keep weeds from damaging their crops. But to a city kid like me, this meant nothing. For farmers, this was important, since a bad weed or a bug, could wipe out their crop and hence their income for the year.

 

Today’s Gospel text is a parable. Through the Gospels, the name we give for the first four books of the New Testament, we see Jesus using stories of everyday people doing everyday things as a clue to what God’s kingdom is about. Too often, though we tend to look at these parables, if not the entire Bible as a book of morals, a guide to show us how to live. Some people use the Bible in this way to lash out against those who don’t follow what they think is a moral way. Others see the Bible as a way to gain wisdom and to lead a good life. However, both assumptions are wrong. The Bible is not here to tell us how to live. Instead, it tells us about who God is, and what God’s kingdom is all about. If we become godly people because of this, great, but that isn’t the main point of the Bible.

 

Today’s gospel text is about a sower who throws his seed hither and yon, landing on different types of soil. We then see how the soil takes to the seed. There are some good results and some bad results. Now when I was younger, I remember how the pastor or teacher would focus on all the different soils. We would spend time figuring out how the different soils related to the spiritual temperment of the different people. Some people worried to much, some didn’t take the good news seriously and some were good adherents of the Word. The message here was that we needed to be good soil and work on not being bad soil to God’s word. For some reason, I can remember how I felt when we talked about this passage. There was a sense of dread. I mean, how could I ever be good soil? There was no way that I could be that perfect. I’m going to be honest with you: I didn’t want to even preach from this text today for the same reason.

 

Then I started to think about something. This is called the parable of the Sower, but we never really talk about this sower, who is God. We talk about us, but God gets the short shrift. Has anyone wondered just how incredibly wasteful a sower God is? I mean he is just throwing seeds everywhere, without any regards as to whether the seed grows or not. I know there are a lot of gardeners among us this evening and I know many of you would never, never do this. I mean, if we saw someone throwing seeds everywhere, on the lawn, on the sidewalk, on the parking lot, we would wonder about the wisdom of this person. And yet that is what God does. For those of you who come from farmer backgrounds, you know that seed is precious. A farmer takes care of their crops so that they can have a plentiful harvest. The farmer in this story was probably considered a poor, tenant farmer who has to have a good return to feed his family. Now with all this substandard farming practice, throwing seeds wherever they may go, you would probably think that this farmer would get a poor return.

 

You would be wrong.

 

The seeds that did fall on good soil produced a harvest beyond anyone’s expectations.

 

So what was Jesus getting at here? Well, it’s that God’s love is extravagant. It seems wasteful to some, showing love to those who might not love back. It seems even dangerous to others, showing love to those who are different or who are our enemies. Why would God waste God’s time on such people?

 

That is the message here. We all receive God’s love, no matter if we are deserving or not. Yes, some will ignore God’s love. But that’s not the issue; what’s important is that God gives love to everyone.

 

This message of extravagant abundance is out of place for us because we live in a world defined by scarcity. If you’ve filled up for gas recently, then you have some idea of what I’m talking about. If you are like me, then you’ve probably set up an IRA and/or 401k to prepare for retirement, again, because money is scarce and because Social Security can’t fund all of our golden years.

 

We live in a world where resources are scarce. That’s a reality. What is sad is that we allow this valid principle to seep into our faith. Love becomes conditional and limited. Followers of Christ decide who is worthy of God’s love and who is not. We open our churches to those who are acceptable and close it to those who are not. Better to now waste our precious seed on “bad soil.”

 

But while scarcity is an important part of the science of Economics, it has no place in faith. God’s love is abundant and is freely given to all-good and bad. In Isaiah 55, we are given a clue to God’s abundance when the prophet proclaims that all who are hungry and all who are thirsty can come to God. Don’t worry about money; because God will take care of you.

 

My prior understanding of this text was one where I had to do all the work. Be a “good Christian” and the seed planted within will grow. That is a gospel of works, of trying to do good things so that God will like you. The thing is, none of us will always be good soil. We are human; we sin. We are tempted by the things of the world. We worry about the future. There are always “weeds” that will interfere with our seeds.

 

But if this parable is about God, then it doesn’t matter as much about my condition. Through the good times and bad, God’s love is always present. In times when I’m a wonderful garden and in times when I’m a weed infested backlot, God always love me.

 

And that is how God’s people should be. Let us go out and love the world regardless of how good or bad people are. Let us throw open our churches and our hearts to people.

 

Years ago, the chemical manufactuer Dupont, used to have a slogan that went “Better Living Through Chemistry.” I propose that as followers of Christ, we enter a life of “Better Living Through Grace.”   God’s grace is abundant, and we need to enter into that reality-one where scarcity doesn’t exist. Amen.

I’m Autistic. I Need a lot of Grace.

grace candlesOne of the things that I have learned since my diagnosis of Aspergers is my willingness to be more forgiving of people’s mistakes.  I’m not always good at that, but I try.  I try because all I have to do is look at my own life and realize that I will make a ton of mistakes and I need grace.

The worklife of someone with Aspergers, is always going to be chaotic.  Looking back at my work history, I can see that a lot of the problems I have, the ones that were summed up with people thinking I’m incompetent or worse is because of how my brain in wired.  No matter how hard I try (and I do try) I will always, always fall short.  This isn’t an excuse for mediocrity; it’s just an admission that I will frustrate others no matter how hard I try.

The social life of someone with Aspergers isn’t any better.  It’s hard to make friends and even harder to find someone to date.  Somehow I ended up with a husband and friends, but I have had to work hard at being a good friend and husband (at least in the neurotypical sense).  I have to learn what comes naturally to others.  During my time in Orlando for the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) I forced myself to be social. It was worthwhile, but I have to admit that at the end of the day, I had to go to my hotel room to “calm myself down.”

Actually, being a pastor is a “the worse of both worlds” for an aspie.  We have to deal with the whole job thing and at the same time learn to be social with others.  I’ve learned to do both, but I’m never going to be perfect, not like my “normal” colleagues.

It was nice to read today a blog post by a woman who used Autism Awareness month to remind people to be little more patient with the parents of autistic children:

Children with Asperger’s can seem like a typical child, until you are around them closely for awhile, then you will notice the behaviors that are “quirky” or “inappropriate” (not in a bad way, just in an uncomfortable way).

Communication skills are on par or even above, so these kiddos/adults are verbal, often very much so.  They just lack the filter for what is appropriate to be verbal about and lack the self control skills to stop themselves, which falls in the social and behavior category.

Behavior often seems obsessive to others or repetitive in an unusual way.  Their behavior often shows a  lack empathy for others.

Social interaction is often completely inappropriate or awkward.  There is usually an inability to read a situation or even nonverbal clues from others.

I am not attempting to fully describe Asperger’s.  Here is a test/checklist for Asperger’s that may help you see some more characteristics. 

Naturally, these vary in degree for each person with Asperger’s.

Of course, with training, they can develop and improve these skills, but they will always a struggle in some way.

Usually, these behaviors are ones that “should” have been mastered at a younger age, so what mommies do is jump to the poor parenting card.

They may not flash the card, but they’ll wave it in their heart.  They’ll possibly show it on their face.  Or talk about it to other mommies.

And one mommy is suddenly judged. And found lacking.

I’m that autistic kid thirty years later.  I’m the guy that looks rather normal, but then starts doing or not doing something that annoys co-workers.  I’m the guy that is now branded as a less than stellar worker with bad skills- the older version of blaming the parents.

As the blockquote notes, I have tried to develop and improve my social and communication skills and I think there have been some successes.  But none of that means that I will “get over it.”  I will always struggle in some way.

Which is why I find grace so attractive.  You see, grace isn’t some abstract theological concept.  No, it’s very real and I for one desparatlely need it.  I need it every day that I get out of bed, because at some point I will do something that will more than likely piss someone off.  The idea that I’m loved and accepted by God inspite of my faults is just amazing.

So that kid that is acting out with his mother trying to calm him down?  Well, he grows up to become me.  Autistic people need grace.  Actually, everyone needs grace, but someone that’s autistic is more aware of it because we screw up so often.

That the thing; I can’t hide the fact that I’m not perfect.  It’s right there in front of God and everyone.  All I have to do is breathe and I end up making some stupid  mistake.

So I need grace.  A lot of it.  I need to go to Costco and get grace in bulk.

It wasn’t til seminary that I really understood grace.  Lutherans are good at talking about grace.  But ten years later when I was diagnosed I realized how much I needed it.

If there’s anything good that comes from being autistic, it’s that I am aware of God’s grace.  I know I need it.  I want to see it in others and I want to be more graceful to others.

We all need this grace.  So I say to everyone out there; let’s try to be more graceful to each other.  Because that person next to you isn’t perfect…and neither are you.

T’was Grace that taught…
my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear…
the hour I first believed.

Note: I should state that my current employers have been understanding of my diagnosis and all the baggage that comes with it. 

Repost: Autism and Grace

from 2012.

Rod Dreher who has a son who is also autistic, wrote a post called the “Gift of Autism,” and he said he wrote that title with some trepidation.

As someone who is autistic, I can understand that. I know the common thing among those of us who are autistic is to talk about how wonderful being autistic can be and how we are just different and all. I get that and understand it to a point.

That said, autism can also be a pain in the ass.

It’s not easy being around someone who is autistic. It’s not easy for the person, for their loved ones or their co-workers. It can be a chore.

For me, this means that I make a lot more mistakes in my daily life than those that aren’t autistic. And I have to spend a lot more time trying to rectify those mistakes. The worse thing about it? Most of the time I don’t know that I’m pissing people off by not doing something or not asking something. I come off as an uncaring ass even when I don’t mean to be.

But being autistic has made me more aware of the need for grace, the need to learn to love others even as they make mistakes. I’m not always good at being patient, though reminding myself how I can be makes me remember that I need a lot of grace from others and so do those others.

Being a person with autism means you are going to make mistakes. There is no way around that. I can’t pretend I have my crap together because I don’t. It’s all out there. I can’t hide.

As humans, we pretend that we do have it all together. Grace is supposed to remind us that we aren’t all that and a bag of chips. But we find ways of hiding, of telling ourselves how great we are and basically telling ourselves and each other we don’t need God.

And yet, God loves us. God gives us a second chance. Just like so many friends, employers and loved ones give me a second chance. It’s a chance to try again, to know that you are loved for who you are, but also loved with a love that makes you want to get right and be better, not so that you can be loved, but because you are loved.

So, yeah, autism can be a gift- not in the sense that it’s wonderful, but in the sense of letting me know that I am human after all.

And I am still loved by God.

Grace and Race

I sure loves me some Maria Dixon.

Dixon is a Methodist minister and decided to share he thoughts about the whole Paula Deen affair and decided to take Progressive Christians to task for their selective grace:

When it comes to discussing race, progressives have little tolerance for intolerance–past or present. We throw labels around as easily as the Pharisees threw stones at adulterous women. How dare someone not have OUR enlightened view on the world!  How dare they not have been born with the innate view of justice, righteousness, and soul that we have!

So when Paula Deen’s transcript was leaked to the press last week, the script was already in place. The media would report that she used the “N” word–everybody would gasp–then the outrage would begin. She would be crucified by the New York Times, Facebook pundits, and of course, her fellow chefs. She would be tried by the court of public opinion who would judge her entire life’s work and character by the use of the “N” word in a private conversation. RACIST! we would yell. She would cry. Her business would be destroyed and progressives would declare victory.

Yet, here is the reality: Deen told the truth about her past. Knowing everything: her empire, her contracts, and sponsorships were at stake–she told the truth. She was more honest under oath than at least 3 US Presidents, several dozen Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, and Non-Denominational preachers and countless business leaders. Unlike the Pope, Joe Paterno, or Donald Trump, she acknowledged she hadn’t always gotten it right but that she and her company was committed to doing it better and were doing better.

Dixon isn’t done yet:

Progressives Christians love to talk about grace except when they have to extend it to someone who has offended their political reality. The grace that we proclaim that washes us clean and entitled us to a new life is for everybody as long as they have not offended our politics. A cursory look at the progressive schizophrenic (and hypocritical) view of who deserves grace bears this out. Anthony Weiner shows his weiner to someone other than his wife–Grace abounds. My beloved Bill Clinton gets a handy j in the oval office–Grace abounds. Barney Frank shacks up with a male prostitute–Grace Abounds. President Obama–doesn’t close Gitmo; listens to our conversations; and uses drones to kill civilians–Grace Abounds. A woman uses the N word  AND admits it knowing that a great portion of her clientele is African American (I’d say Paula probably has used it more than that)–our verdict: Off with her head, her show, and her ham.

What really angers me is the fact that most of the people really tripping about Deen’s past are from the North. That’s not to say that Southern African Americans are passive about the use of racial slurs but we are also aware of the reality that mindsets don’t all change at the same pace and that if we judged every white southerner over the age of 50 by what they said in the past, we could never buy a car; house, or eat in a Waffle House ever again. Perhaps the reason that much of the civil rights establishment, the men and women who got their heads beat in on the regular, have not condemned Paula Deen is because they know the complexity of the human heart on matters of race. Moreover, they are also aware that someone’s past doesn’t predict their present. Perhaps they remembered that the same George Wallace that stood in the door at the University of Alabama saying that Blacks would never be welcomed, returned in 1985 to the campus to crown and kiss that year’s Black Homecoming Queen, my sorority sister Deidra Chestang at a time when our campus was threatening to boil over in racial turmoil. That kiss silenced the bigots that day and his words begged all of us to embrace a new South. Though we lost that game to Vanderbilt, that kiss symbolized the magnificent change that God’s grace can make in a man’s heart. Many African Americans are standing by Deen, especially those that through the years she has launched into business because they are judging her actions as well as her words.

When I first heard about this, my thoughts were: and this is shocking because….

Like Dixon, I don’t condone the use of the N-word or any racially insenstive word for that matter.  But I don’t expect a nearly 70 year old woman from Georgia, who grew up in a very different South where the N-word was used a lot to somehow be a paragon of virtue.  She told the truth of a past slip-up.  PAST.

Having relatives and friends in various states in the South, I know it’s an odd place to a Northerner.  People from South, can be friendly and caring to a fault to a person of a different color and yet still harbor some racial amimosity.  To outsiders, it makes no sense.  But the South is a place of contradictions and they don’t have a problem living with those oddities.

I remember Mrs. Martin a well-to-do white woman whose husband owned the local paper mill in Pineville, Louisiana.  My dad and uncles did a number of jobs for her and whenever we went South, we would visit her.  I remember one time she gave us a gift- a figurine of a black kid eating a watermelon and sitting on a bale of cotton.  The porcalain figurine had a square hole that contained and acutal piece of cotton.

Now, this gift was offensive.  I mean total racist.  But she gave it to us, not out of spite, but out of love.  So, while it was horrible, I understood the intent. So did my Dad.

The other thing to remember about Deen; she told the truth when asked.  So, this is how we treat people who do the right thing?  What this is telling people is that when it comes to having a “conversation on race,” it’s best to lie or just say nothing at all.   When it comes to race, we expect perfection.  Anything short of that makes you nothing more than a Grand Dragon.

Part of the condemnation of Deen has to do with the South.  It’s always surprised me how many folks up north really, really hate the South.  They see it as a backwards region, filled with stupid racist bumpkins and in their minds, Deen is the exhibit A.

What we seem to forget is that racism didn’t stop at the Mason Dixon line.  Here in my adopted state of Minnesota, I learned shortly after I moved here that back in the 1920s, three black men were lynched in Duluth.  Mind you, I said Duluth, Minnesota NOT Duluth, Georgia.

If we really care about racial reconciliation, then we have to have some grace for old Southern white women and men who may sometimes say the wrong thing.  Not all of them are part of the Klan.  Some of them are trying their level best.

Paula Deen said a horrible word a long time ago.  I’m dissapointed by that, but I’m not going to judge her.  And neither should the court of public opinion if they looked into their own hearts.

Learning to Live in the Tension

pcusa dividedI haven’t really blogged about what’s happening in the Presbyterian Church (USA) when it comes to changes in its ordination standards for a simple reason: I get paid by them.  I know people who are more conservative and opposed the change and liberals who supported it and I haven’t really wanted to offend folks or get people upset.

But I also know that most people just have to look at my Facebook page to know where I stand.  And that doesn’t change how I would work.  My job is to serve the whole church with love and grace, not just those who happen to agree with me.

That said, I would like to say one thing to those people and churches that are leaving or thinking about leaving.

I wish you would stay.

I wish you would stay because we need your witness in the larger church.

But I have a more important reason that I’d like you to stay: I want you to get to know gay folks like me; especially those us who happen to be or want to be pastors.

I know that’s uncomfortable.  I know that might even go against what you understand in the Bible.  I understand.  I know you take the Bible seriously and want to live a righteous life.  I also know that you already feel that you aren’t really welcomed in the PC(USA) as it is.  I think sometimes you have been treated poorly for your beliefs.  I don’t think my side has always treated you with love , let alone respect.

But I wish you would stay and be willing to be a bit uncomfortable.  That you would try to live in this changed environment and see what God might do.

Yeah, I know it’s hard.  I get that.  But I want you to remember this.  People like me, who are gay, well, we’ve had to live in the tension ourselves.  We’ve had to put up with laws and rules that we didn’t like.  Some of us got tired and left, but a lot of stayed even though it was uncomfortable.  We waited to see what God was going to do, what God is doing. And while I can’t speak for every gay person, I want to be a bit uncomfortable myself and get to know some you more.

I’m not under any illusions that you will change your mind.  But I do think if you got to know us, you’d learn that we love God as much as you do.  That we gay folks can take the Bible as seriously as you do.  It might be a different verse, but in a lot of cases, it’s the same song.  Maybe if we live together in that tension, we will learn to love and respect each other even when we don’t see eye to eye.  Maybe we can learn to do mission and ministry together instead of in our little silos.

I know that I’m not even Presbyterian.  But my own denomination, the Disciples of Christ, is having a big debate this summer.  I can imagine there will be a few people who will want to leave if the vote goes my way.  I want them to stay too and learn to be a bit uncomfortable for the sake of the kingdom.

You see, I think the Christian life is about living in tension.  We live in the now and the not yet.  We are saints and sinners.  And in honor of the late Will Campbell, we are bastards and loved by God.  The Christian life is kind of messy at times and doesn’t always make sense.  Sometimes things are clear, and sometimes things are a bit cloudy.  Maybe the Christian life isn’t always a birthday party, maybe sometimes it’s that uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner.  Either way, God is there and might just surprise you.

I tend to think that heaven is going to be a shock for all of us.  We’ll be thinking to ourselves “God let him in?”  Which means heaven might be a bit uncomfortable at first as we get used to God’s truly amazing grace.

So, we might as well start practicing now.

Repost: Love, Justice, Vengence and Grace

The following is a blog post from 2007.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
-Matthew 5:43-48

I decided to call my parents back home in Michigan tonight to find out how they were doing. Mom answered first, like she always does and we started chatting. At some point, she talked about a horrific crime just outside of Detroit. My mother expressed rage at the sheer savagery of the crime and saw this man as the perfect candidate for the death penalty.

dirty harryNow, you have to know something about Mom: she is dead set against the death penalty. She doesn’t approve of it on biblical grounds. So, for her to suggest this is somewhat shocking. Of course, she calmed down, but she explained the crime was terrible, that it was impossible to not simply react in this way towards one who would commit such an evil.

Later this evening, I ran into another blog where a pastor hoped the wrongdoer would get an ass-pounding in prison. He later regretted those remarks, somewhat.

The two incidents have me thinking about Jesus’ message to love everyone, including our enemies and how that smacks up against real life and real evil. Pastors and lay people hang on to the fact that Jesus seemed to love those that weren’t considered the proper people in society. On paper that seems wonderful. But how to does it hold up to child molesters? What about war criminals? Rapists? Not so easy to love them, huh?

My tamed cynical self tends to look at those who preach this easy love as fools somewhat-blind to the real evil that takes place in the world. The sad fact is that no matter how loving we are to our enemies, the enemies still rape and kill.

I think we are called to love everybody in the world. But I also know we live in the real world. We are also called to work for justice and part of my mother’s anger was the injustice of it all. We live in a world where there is evil and part of us wants to respond not in love, with vengence: to make them pay for their crimes. No forgiveness, no second chance, just blow the motherfucker away.

Psalm 137 is called the Cursing Psalm. It was written in a time of stress, probably as the Israelites were ripped from all they knew to a foreign land.

Read along:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2On the willows* there
we hung up our harps.
3For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

4How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

7Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
8O daughter Babylon, you devastator!*
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

Hmmm, somehow I don’t think you hear this Psalm much in Sunday worship services.

The fact is, the psalmist was sad at all the destruction. His town was destroyed by vandals. He wasn’t interested in seeking understanding- he wanted his pound of flesh. He wanted to hurt them as much he was hurt. This passage reminds me of how many felt after September 11. In the devastation of the World Trade Center towers, there was a rage to strike back and kick some ass. Some chastised this feeling, but the fact is, it is natural-it is human.

We are called to love, but as Christians we have to also be aware of our own feelings . Yes, we can love evil people, but we are also called to do justice, so seeing the injustice of innocents dying in buildings, or a young child not being able to live out a full life gets us angry.

And yet we have to move beyond our anger and love these people anyway. We are called to love them and pray for them.

The thing is, when we think these thoughts of vengance, we also know that God understands and gives us grace. We are loved even when we find it hard to love.

Advent reminds us that the world is not okay, but that God has a plan. Please, Lord God, come to our aid.

Umbrage, Gay Rights and Grace

Ben CarsonI’m an odd duck.

I feel like I’m on of the few gay men that isn’t angry.  I’m not angry that same-sex marriage isn’t moving faster.  I’m not mad at the evangelical upbringing I had.  Heck, I’m not mad that it will be very hard to find another call because I’m gay and many churches in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are rural.

Last fall, Tony Jones wrote in a post that he couldn’t understand why Justin Lee, a gay evangelical activist,  isn’t more pissed. He writes:

It seems to me that there’s a place for righteous anger, and I think that the church-sanctioned discrimination against LGBT persons is one of those places. Justin and many other gay friends of mine have been shat upon by the church, in the name of truth and Christ. They’ve experienced an injustice that I never will. It pisses me off, and I think it should piss them off, too.

I’m not going to pretend that I haven’t been faced with discrimination, but for some reason it doesn’t bother me as much.  I’m not angry at God or the church because I know that there are places where I am welcomed and I’ve known since 1992 when I basically came out to God that I was loved by God.  I’ve wondered at times if it’s my aspie personality and to some extent I think it is.  I do handle emotions differently than the average bear.

But I think another thing is going on here.  I’m beginning to think that the reason I’m not angry is that as important as being gay is important to my identity, there is another one that has an even greater pull- being a follower of Jesus, being a Christian.  To me, being a follower of Jesus means working for justice, but I also think it means living a graceful life, a life where you love your enemies, especially the ones that might not see eye to eye on me being gay.

I’ve been thinking a lot about being gay and exhibiting grace lately, especially in the wake of the passage of same-sex marriage legislation in Minnesota.  The day the bill passed, I saw a message from a fellow pastor that is on the other side.  He asked that my side not be arrogant in our victory.  I thought he had a point.  As much as I look forward to marrying Daniel legally, I want to offer grace to the other side.   I want to offer grace to my “enemies.”

It’s a temptation for those of us gay and straight who work for justice to not be so nice to the other side.  After all, gay folks have long been oppressed from the pulpit.  We want to “spike the ball” against those we feel have done us harm.

While I think we need to continue the work of gay equality, I worry that both within the walls of the church and in the larger society, those of us who favor gay rights are lashing out against the other side in a way that doesn’t offer grace and ultimately doesn’t offer much justice either.

Political pundit Michael Kinsley wrote an article about what he sees as an attempt to punish people who don’t favor same sex marriage.  He brings up the example of Dr. Ben Carson, the well known neurosurgeon who came out against same-sex marriage. Kinsley thinks we need to cut some slack and not get all worked up on what one conservative said:

Carson may qualify as a homophobe by today’s standards. But then they don’t make homophobes like they used to. Carson denies hating gay people, while your classic homophobe revels in it. He has apologized publicly “if I offended anyone.” He supports civil unions that would include all or almost all of the legal rights of marriage. In other words, he has views on gay rights somewhat more progressive than those of the average Democratic senator ten years ago. But as a devout Seventh Day Adventist, he just won’t give up the word “marriage.” And he has some kind of weird thing going on about fruit.

But none of this matters. All you need to know is that Carson opposes same-sex marriage. Case closed. Carson was supposed to be the graduation speaker at Johns Hopkins Medical School. There was a fuss, and Carson decided to withdraw as speaker. The obviously relieved dean nevertheless criticized Carson for being “hurtful.” His analysis of the situation was that “the fundamental principle of freedom of expression has been placed in conflict with our core values of diversity, inclusion and respect.” My analysis is that, at a crucial moment, the dean failed to defend a real core value of the university: tolerance.

Evan Wolfson, head of the group Freedom to Marry, sees Carson as an agent of intolerance that deserved to get disinvited from making a graduation speech at John Hopkins:

Pretty much absent from Kinsley’s piece is any acknowledgment that loving and committed gay couples are still excluded from marriage in 38 states. Or that those couples who do get married are still subject to the “gay exception” created by the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which denies these legally married couples Social Security survivorship, access to family leave, health coverage, immigration protections, the ability to sponsor a loved one for a green card, and the chance to pool resources as a family without adverse tax treatment.

That’s the political agenda Ben Carson was signing on to and furthering. When a public figure and political dabbler like Carson takes a stand against gay people’s freedom to marry, he is not just offering his opinion—which is certainly his right. He is not just, say, personally opting to boycott a wedding he doesn’t approve of. He is advocating that the law be used as a weapon, that discrimination be cemented into constitutions, and that an important freedom he himself enjoys be denied to his fellow Americans.

 

So who’s right here?

Actually, both are.  The trick though is that for Christians, we need to balance our need for justice with a sense of grace.  Wolfson is right that Carson has signed up with a policy that hurts others.  Getting kick off the program for a graduation ceremony is small change compared to the harsh oppression that gays have had to face; being kicked out of families, churches and communities.  But Kinsley is right that we don’t need to go nuclear all the time.  And for Christians we are also called to love our persecutors as much as we are to fight for justice.

As a gay Christian, I am called to work for justice.  I want there to be a day when no gay kid has to live in fear and confusion.  But as a gay Christian, I am called to love the person that I might not agree with.  I am called to show that person some grace.  Loving our enemies is unfair and quite appalling.  And yet, it is the way that Jesus taught us to live in the world.

I few years ago, I shared a story of an encounter I had with an older gentleman who disagreed on the issue of gays.  I wrote back then:

As several denominations struggle with the issue of gay pastors, I am reminded of something that happened to me a few years ago.

I had just graduated from seminary and was doing my CPE at a local nursing home. I was still involved at the church where I was an intern and was asked to serve on the church board. It came to a vote and I was voted in nearly unanimously. I say nearly because one person voted against me. I knew who it was and so did many others. It was an elderly member of the church. He had some idea I was gay and many people assumed that was why he voted against me. After the meeting concluded, he asked me to come with him into another room. He explained that he prayed and studied the scripture on the issue of homosexuality, but his conscience was not swayed in favor. As he said this, he began to cry.

I was and still am touched by this guesture. He did have to speak to me to explain his actions, but he did. He might not approve of who I sleep with, but he did treat me with respect. This wasn’t simply about being right for him, but about being loving.

Yeah, I know that his actions were hurtful. Yes, it would have been nice had he voted in favor. But I could respect his decision even if it was wrong, because he valued me enough to respect me.

I learned about grace in that moment, and it forever changed how I look at the other side.

As Minnesota gears up for legal same sex marriages, it is my hope that my fellow progressive Christians will show grace to those who might not see this as a good thing.  I pray that we can embrace them as much as we embrace LGBT persons.  I pray that we work for justice and exhibit grace.

Because everyone needs a little bit of mercy.  Even Ben Carson.

On Holy Friendships

friendship

My thoughts these days are drifting towards relationships, or the lack thereof in churches.

I’ve been thinking about this in light of a recent blog post on CivilPolitics.org on the dearth of cross-party friendships.  The post linked to a longer article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the issue.  The author, Neil Gross notes that such friendships have benefits for the whole of society:

President Obama last month took a group of Republican senators to dinner at the Jefferson Hotel, in Washington, to discuss the sequestration crisis and a wide range of other policy matters. The next day he asked Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the former vice-presidential candidate, to lunch at the White House. Another meal with Senate Republicans is planned for April 10. The goal of those meetings? To score PR points—but also to build personal relationships that might erode partisan gridlock.

It’s too early to tell whether the president’s outreach will work, but social-science research suggests that friendships that reach across the political aisle may be good for democracy: They facilitate cooperation by reducing extremism and enhancing trust. In a 2002 study, the political scientist Diana Mutz assessed the effects of political diversity among friends. Study participants who reported friendships with those who were unlike them politically had a better grasp of why people on the other side held the view they did. Those participants were also more tolerant…

The problem is that, in both Washington and the country as a whole, friendships that cross party lines are becoming rare. The political scientist Robert Huckfeldt and his co-authors found that in 2000 only about a third of Americans who supported George W. Bush or Al Gore for president had someone in their political-discussion network who backed the other candidate. And in a study of wider acquaintanceship networks, the sociologist Thomas DiPrete and colleagues discovered that such networks are segregated by politics as well.

It should not surprise anyone that such a lack of cross-party friendships are lacking in the church as well.  I’ve noticed more and more how liberal Christians tend to stick with each other, while conservatives keep with their own kind as well.  In a post from last year, I explained that this wasn’t always the case:

It was about 20 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC.   The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today.  Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, along side a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.

The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to the join the good-sized multi-pastor staff.  The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills.  At the time, there was a bit of controversy because she was pro-gay and some of the evangelicals in the church weren’t crazy about that.

I was at a meeting where a member of the congregation stood up.  She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a “traditional” understanding on homosexuality, but she spoke in favor of calling the pastor.  You see, the pastor had been involved with congregation for a few years and the two had gotten to know each other.  “We don’t agree,” I recall this woman saying when talking about the issue they didn’t see eye-to-eye on.  But this woman was a good friend and she saw her as the right person for the job.

What’s so interesting about this story is that I don’t think it could happen today.  Churches like the one in DC really don’t exist anymore.  Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don’t really know each other.  Which only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.

As I move within my different circles, I’ve noticed how liberal and evangelical Christians don’t talk to each other at all.  They don’t see to like each other and say not-so-nice things when they are in their own groups.  Since I work for the Presbyterians and pastor a Disciples church, I’ve seen how we all self-select or how we wish we could not have to deal with “those” people.  I’m reminded of talking to another pastor a few years ago after a difficult vote.  The pastor wished our denomination was more like the United Church of Christ, our sister denomination that tends to be far more liberal.  I was privately irked by the pastor’s comments, because what was being said is that life would be easier if we didn’t have to deal with “those” conservatives.

In our society, it is becoming easier and easier to not have to hear diverse viewpoints.  As much as I like social media, it has the tendency to shelter folks from other opinions and reinforce our own views.  It’s been interesting to see people on Facebook who seemed more temperate in the past become more zealous over time.  People will put up the latest graphic that makes fun or demonizes the other side.

We are less interested in trying to build bridges, than we are in setting the damn bridge on fire.  In the name of social justice or orthodoxy, our places of worship are becoming less graceful.

Recently, social conservative writer Rod Dreher shared his experiences meeting the well known gay blogger Andrew Sullivan.  The two have tossled more than once on the issue of same-sex marriage, and yet something surprising happened over time: they became friends. Here’s what he said, responding to Andrew’s take of an evangelical church he attended where a mutual friend’s funeral took place:

It will not surprise anyone to learn that Andrew and I will simply not be able to agree on theology. It may surprise some to know that I can live with that, because Andrew is a decent and kind and very much alive person (though I can see his difficult side too; we all have them, as did — very much — David Kuo; as do I). Listening to Andrew speak with passion the other night about his love of Jesus Christ, and his experiences of Christ’s presence, was moving, because so genuine. Hearing of him speak of his own deep suffering as a child and as a young man — stories I hope he will be able to tell one day in his writing, because they were incredibly powerful, and gave me a new perspective on him and why he believes and feels the things he does — deeply reinforced for me the Gospel interdiction on withholding judgment from others. We really don’t know what others have endured, and how they have managed to hope in spite of hopelessness. I found myself back at my hotel room that night praying for Andrew, that Jesus will help him carry the things he has to carry, which to a degree that startled both of us, I think, resemble some of the heaviest burdens I myself have to carry.

If that makes me a squish, well, it makes me a squish. The older I get, and the more I become aware of my own frailty, my own vanity, my own hard-to-govern passions, my own weaknesses, and the more I come to grasp how freaking hard life is, the more inclined I am toward mercy. It’s not out of big-heartedness, necessarily, because unlike my sister Ruthie, I am not big-hearted. I am petty and jealous and quick to anger. My worst fault is my unbridled tongue. Rather, I think any inclination towards mercy on my part comes from a recognition of how much I need it myself.

The words that are most important here is that Rod could live with not agreeing with Andrew’s theology.  Live with. Tolerate.  Knowing that you might never change another person’s views and coming to a place where that’s okay.  To know that sometimes, it’s better to be loving than to be right. Grace.

What I wish for the church today is that we could live with a little more grace towards each other, especially when we don’t see eye-to-eye.  We need to get to a place where we can disagree and argue and still hug each other afterwards.

Maybe if we were more merciful we would be willing to hear each other.  Methodist pastor Stephen Rankin wishes that people not refer to things with the various political adjectives that keep us separated:

We absolutely must enact a moratorium on political labels as identifiers for the “kind of Methodist” that someone thinks she or he is.  Calling a particular theological position “progressive” or “conservative” perpetuates (ironically) the very groupthink that we often say we deplore.  These words are code that do nothing more than allow people to decide whether they like the theological idea or not without having actually to engage the idea itself.  It thus stops necessary reflection even before it gets started.

Using political labels, therefore, like “progressive” and “conservative” and, in some ways “evangelical” does nothing but short-circuit and maybe even ruin the possibility of important and serious conversations.  Let us please stop using them, at least long enough actually to talk and listen to one another without these maddening distractions.  I am not naive to think that we’ll stop using them altogether, but let us please become very self-aware and spare in our use of them.  And we should agree never to use them as conversations stoppers in public debate.

Our society is so fractured, and our churches mirror this sin.  What needs to happen is for Christians to not always work so hard to be right.  I’m not saying we give up our views, but to know that relationships matter, even when you don’t see eye-to-eye.

I know this will seem weird to others, but I hope one day to become friends with a social conservative.  We won’t agree on the issue of sexuality.  We might even think the other is sadly mistaken.  But I want to have a friendship with someone I don’t agree with to learn to love someone for more than their having the right viewpoint.  I want to love them as Christ did and does: with grace and mercy.

So, if there are any social conservatives who have always wanted a sassy black gay friend, I’m available.

Being Gay at Liberty University

Last fall, I wrote a blog post about how I’ve come to respect social conservatives.  What I’ve learned over time is that the view of social conservatives is not so black and white.  Here’s a little of what I wrote:

I’ve met good Christians who are some of the nicest and honorable people and have treated me with respect.  The only difference is that they can’t cross that bridge to accept same-sex marriage because they believe their faith says it wrong.  As much as I disagree with them, I don’t want to force them to disavow their belief, either.  But that is their fear.  That leads me to ask questions: how do we treat those who disagree?  How do we handle them with grace and love?  What can we learn from their views on marriage that can be adapted to the new consensus? What authority does Christianity have in regards to sexuality? What are the limits?  What does family mean in this day and age?  How can we help shore up disintergrating families in red states and also in the ghettoes of our inner cities?

This is why in the end I’ve come to respect social conservatives.  Yeah, there are a bunch of folks that are still hateful bigots, but that is not all of them and they do have some valuable things to tell us.  In the spirit of tolerance and love of neighbor, the least I can do is listen.

liberty universityIn that I spirit, I would urge folks to read this article by writer Brandon Ambrosino about being gay at Liberty University. For the uninitiated, Liberty University was founded by the late Jerry Fawell, who was once a leading figure in the Religious Right.  While the college in Lynchbrug, Virginia isn’t San Francisco East for LGBT folks, it also isn’t totally the horrible place many of might think it is. Brandon uses a story from the Gospel of John to explain what might be going on among some religious conservatives:

There’s a story in the Gospel of John that I’ve always liked. Some of the Pharisees who have it out for Jesus try to catch him in a trap. They bring to him a woman who was “caught in the act of adultery,” and they ask Jesus what he thinks they should do with her. They tell him that, as any good Jew knows, a woman committing adultery must be put to death, according to the Law that Moses gave them. After a mysterious episode of writing something unknown in the sand, Jesus both agrees and challenges the woman’s accusers. He says, in effect, “Alright, this is what the Law says, and it is very noble of you to want to honor the Law by stoning her. So we will do that. And we will start with the one of us who is blameless and perfect. Who’s first? Pick up your stone.” Apparently, this really aggravated and bested all of the religious accusers because, according to the gospel account, all of them left, leaving Jesus and the woman there alone. It’s at this point Jesus utters one of his more famous sayings. “Neither do I condemn you,” he tells her. “Go, and sin no more.”

The story centers around Jesus’ declaration that he does not condemn this woman. This is something that really resonates with me. Many of the same passages of Scripture that condemn adultery as abominable also condemn homosexuality. Anyone who is even slightly familiar with Torah or the Book of Romans would have to admit that both activities are regarded as sinful. Jesus, a first-century Rabbi, would have also held this belief. And yet, when the abstract sin is given a human face, Jesus responds with acceptance and mercy, proving the truth of Alexander Pope’s adage, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” It’s easy to despise an idea. But give that idea a human body, beat her up, and toss her down on the sand in front of you—do this, and then try to hate her. It’s not that easy.

I’ve always liked that story myself and it does sum up what might be happening in Lynchburg.  Read on to learn more of Brandon’s adventures and how he found the grace of God in some very unexpected places.

Ashes to Ashes…We All Fall Down.

Like many people, I’ve been rather surprised to hear that Oscar Pistorius has been charged with the murder of his girlfriend.

The South African athelete, who is a double amputee, is known as “Blade Runner” for his carbon fiber legs and his speed.  Pistorius was a symbol that persons with disabilities can achieve great feats, like being a world champion runner.  Yes, he was to use that tired cliche, an inspiration.  He helped put the Paralympics on the map, helping us to see it as a serious sporting event on par with its sister event, the Olympics.

I remember watching him run in the quarterfinals during the London Olympics.  He didn’t get farther than the quarterfinals, but even in that he was a winner.

So, it’s shocking to see him brought low, quite possibly by his own actions.

oscar-pistorius-running-in-the-olympicsWe’ve seen to have a run of sports figures who have been revealed to be human after all.  Besides Pistorius, there’s Lance Armstrong, Joe Paterno, Tiger Woods, Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire…and I could go on.

It would be easy to look at all this with a sense of contempt.  We can look at sports figures or priests and shake a waging finger at them thinking we are glad we aren’t like them.

Except that we are.  More than we care to admit.

Ash Wednesday was this past week. This is the one day where we have to face not only our finitude, but the fact that all is not well with us.  No, I haven’t killed someone, or covered up child abuse or cheated on my partner or taken performance enhancing drugs. But more often than not, I have cut corners or looked the other way when someone was doing something that wasn’t right.  As the old pop song goes, I’m not that innocent.

Laurie Feille, the Senior Pastor at First Christian, preached from Luke 22 this past Wednesday.  It was an odd text to use since this tends to be passage we don’t hear until Holy Week.  But we heard the story of Peter’s denial and of the rooster crowing and something else, that of Jesus looking at Peter.  I’ve never given that much thought, but Jesus looks at Peter.  The fisherman couldn’t hide.  He was caught.

That sense of being found out is what seems so central to the time of Lent.  It’s not about beating ourselves up or saying we are no good, but it is about realizing how fallible we are, how we can be so good one moment, and beastly the next.

But maybe having Jesus look at us can also be freeing.  Maybe it can mean we don’t have to play games, pretending everything is okay when it isn’t.  Maybe we can reach out for help, instead thinking we can make it on our own.  Maybe it can mean laying down the burden of keep up appearances.

Amy Butler is the Senior Pastor or Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.  (I was a member of the congregation in the mid 90s.)  She has this to say about Ash Wednesday at her urban congregation:

…our urban congregation spends an awful lot of energy trying to get those folks through the doors, to demonstrate in real and meaningful ways that the gospel — and sometimes even the church — has something of value to offer their lives. Attractive signage, convenient scheduling, witty sermon titles, easy parking, thoughtful worship, free child care — we do the best we can to pique the interest of someone, anyone, in the stream of people who walk or drive by our building every day.

Oddly, every year it’s Ash Wednesday when we welcome so many people whom we’ve never seen before. Out of all the days of the church year, it’s this day — the day we focus on our sin and humanity — that draws in the most strangers. Past the imposing steeple, in through unfamiliar doors, up the steep stairway and into the dimly lit sanctuary they come, seeking the imposition of ashes.

Every year when I see unfamiliar people wander in among the regulars, I wonder why we all seem to need Ash Wednesday so much. Why do we crave reflective moments to ponder our shortcomings?

Reminders of the ways in which we’ve failed are all around us every day; why seek them out? But people do.

I do. And I am coming to believe that we do because we all desperately need a place to stop for just a little while, to lay down the heavy burdens we carry, to be — if only for a moment — honest about who we are.

Because this busy world in which we live never seems to give us a break. Like the shiny church signs advertising only exciting, intellectually stimulating topics for worship, we get up every morning challenged to convince the world that we’re worth its time.

We’re smart and good, pretty and talented, witty and full of great ideas. We go to work every day wearing our titles like Boy Scout badges informing the world that we know what we’re doing. But secretly, we’re scared someone will find out that we really don’t.

I think about all of those fallen sports heroes.  It has to be hard to keep up a facade of perfection.  But then, it’s work to hide things from each other.  When Adam and Eve ate of the apple and realized they were naked, they had to spend time finding fig leaves.

Ash Wednesday and Lent are designed for us to face some hard truths about ourselves. It isn’t a happy time.  But even in this time of uncomfortable introspection, there is grace, as Butler notes.  Even in the midst of judgement, there is freedom.

No doubt I will follow what happens with Oscar Pistorius.  And I hope I will also look at myself and ask God for help, because I am more like Pistorius or Paterno or Armstrong than I care to admit.  Because we all fall down.

All of us.

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