Life in Black and Blue

Crime is increasing
Trigger happy policing
Panic is spreading
God know where we’re heading
Oh, make me wanna holler
They don’t understand

-Inner City Blues, Marvin Gaye

Screen-Shot-2016-07-07-at-5.25.05-AMFor the second time in two days we have heard of another police shooting of an African American.  Tuesday saw the killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA and last night Philando Castile in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights.  While all of these kind of shootings have bothered me, the Falcon Heights shooting hit closer to home and not just because it was only a few miles from me.

What makes this one more real to me is that Mr. Castile could have been me.

What has been unnerving and infuriating is that as far as we can tell, this was a regular guy.  He worked in the lunchroom at a St. Paul Montessori school.  When he was pulled over for a busted tail light, he told the officer that he had a permit to carry a concealed weapon. He seemed to be  doing the right thing.

And he still got shot.

From what we know, he did all the right things one should do as a concealed carry holder and as an African American and he still ended up dead.

My husband wrote an anguished Facebook post about the shooting and her fears that I could be pulled over and killed for no reason by someone this supposed to keep the peace.  The thing is, I can’t tell him not to worry.  I can’t tell him that as long as I am careful that nothing will happen.

The thing is, having Aspergers, I tend to miss social cues.  What if I miss a social cue and the officer draws a gun? Can I trust the police to do the right thing?  What will happen the next time I’m pulled over?

I never used to be scared of the police.  I can remember sitting in elementary school in Flint, MI back in the 70s and being taught that the police were there to help.  I’ve believed that since then, but the steady drumbeat of police shootings has eroded my child-like trust and replaced it with fear, and the police should not be the people I fear.

The sad thing is, these killings will continue.  Too much of white America doesn’t see this as a problem.  Many mistakenly believe that the shooting victim deserved it.  None of this means it can’t change, but until people can see the injustice happening, until it tugs at their own sense of fairness and justice, the values that we as Americans believe in, a lot of whites in America will remain unmoved to act.

Lord Have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

When Does Grace End?

Social media is abuzz in the recent trial that convicted former Stanford student Brock Turner of the rape of a young woman.  What has everyone talking is the fact that the judge gave Turner a six month sentence and he might get out sooner for good behavior.

To pour more gasoline on the fire, Turner’s father wrote a letter urging for leniency for what he considered “20 minutes of action.”

Facebook is aflame.  Memes are going around with the young Turner’s photo calling him a rapist, others put him side by side with a poor white man who received a harsher sentence.  The pitchforks are out even among Christians.  Brock Turner is the most hated man on the internet.  There is no love for this person.

Part of the anger is that he ticks off all of boxes of privilege: he’s white, he’s an athlete and he seems well to do.  He is the perfect enemy.

All of this leads me to one question: where does grace end?

Yes, yes among liberal Christians we talk about grace all the time, about the fact that God loves us no matter what.

But we don’t really believe that.  I don’t care if you are a tough-on-crime conservative or a bleeding heart liberal, there are some sins we feel are beyond redemption.

A few months ago, there was talk in my church about a convicted sex offender that would be moving into the area.  People were up in arms and wondered why this person couldn’t live with a relative or something, just not near them where their children and grandchildren play.

These weren’t the kind of folks who were tough on crime, most were liberals.  But the fact is, crimes involving sex can make the meekest person into a fire-breathing zealot waiting to lock them up and throw away the key.

Brock Turner will have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.  His “20 minutes of action” will stick with him.  If you think as most do, that he got off easy, know that he won’t escape what he did ever.  It will follow him when he seeks a place to live, when he applies for a job and so forth.

But this all means that he will be in the public sphere. I don’t know if he ever went to church, but what if he decides to visit a church- supposed he decided to visit YOUR church.  What would you do? What would you say?  Would say yes, as long as there are safeguards? Would you say no, fearful for your daughter?

Where does grace end?

Another question following this: Where does God’s judgement begin?

Does God judge the guilty, those who commit crimes like this?  What is that punishment like?

It’s easy for mainline/progressive Christians to talk about how we should love everybody and that grace is for everyone, but I don’t think we really are good when it comes to living this out.  It’s easy to love someone that is part of your in group.  It is hard to love someone who is someone you wouldn’t like anyway.

Sexual crimes can put our theology of grace to the test.  Where does mercy fit in?  What about justice?  What is justice?  Is justice only for the victim or also for the perpetrator?

Brock Turner is not a sympathetic person.  His excuses, as well as the excuses of those around him are sickening.  But I am wary of how this has become the outrage of the moment on social media, because there are some important issues to deal with here that demand more attention than a few minutes on Facebook.

In our theology Turner is also a child of God.  And that should bother us.  Because, how many of us want to see him forgiven?  His victim has to live with the trauma he cause for the rest of her life.  Why should he be seen as one loved by God?

Maybe this is why the cross is called a scandal.

But we also believe in a God that believes in justice, one that gets angry when justice is denied.  God gets angry.

Can God be graceful and also one that establishes justice?  And what does that mean of God’s people?

I don’t have any easy answers.  In fact, all I have is questions.

Where does grace end?  Where does judgement begin?

I leave you with a snippet from a post from Zach Hunt in response to the martyrdom of 21 Christians by Islamic State:

It’s easy to talk about loving our enemies when their greatest crime is stealing your parking space or voting for the wrong candidate. It’s a lot harder to love enemies who would gleefully broadcast your execution to the world if they only had the chance.

It’s easy to embrace the radical grace of the gospel when you’re sitting in a warm sanctuary filled with well-dressed people who clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and care for the sick. It’s a lot harder to swallow the fact that that same grace extends to cold-hearted criminals who thrive on executing the innocent…

Now, if you’re reading this and you’re angry with me for talking about extending grace and forgiveness to those monsters in the black hoods, believe me I get it. It’s not just rhetoric when I say I recoil at even the possibility that God could forgive, redeem them, and make them my neighbors in heaven.

That sort of grace seems so unjust to me.

And appalling.

So, I struggle.

I struggle with my own sense of justice.

I struggle with the idea that as a Christian, I must leave space for forgiveness even as I rightfully demand accountability for my enemies’ actions.

I struggle to accept the fact that believing in the radical transforming grace of God compels me to believe that grace abounded on that beach in Libya in ways I don’t comprehend or want to accept.

I struggle with the boundless depths of God’s love and forgiveness.

I struggle with the gospel.

What Does It Mean To Be Prophetic, Part Four

message-from-god

About a week ago, the church I am pastor at voted to become an Open and Affirming congregation, meaning it openly welcomes LGBT persons into the life of the church.  I think it was a big step for the church.  It might help people who were thinking of visiting the church to take a second look.

But while I think it was a good thing and while I think it helped stressed God’s love for all, I don’t think it was a prophetic move.

Do I think we were trying to witness to the world our intent to be like Jesus and seek out those on the margins?  Yes.  But that doesn’t mean it’s prophetic.  It means we are trying to be faithful.

And therein lies a problem.  These days, if a pastor says something edgy on race or sexuality, or if a congregation is exhibiting “radical hospitality,” we somehow think this is prophetic.  But I wonder if at times this is a big misunderstanding.  Are we giving ourselves too much credit?

For one thing, most of the prophets of Israel were chosen by God.  And they were chosen by God to say hard things to people.  And the thing is, they usually aren’t happy that God chose them. Read the story of Elijah or Jeremiah and you find people who don’t really want to be doing this job. When Jonah (as in Jonah and the “Whale”) was so excited to be go a preach repentance to the people of Nineveh, that he ran- in the other direction.

Prophets were sometimes called to do odd things like the prophet Hosea who was called to marry a prostitute.

What I’m trying to get at is that the people who were called to be God’s prophets were not eager to be prophets.  They didn’t want to be picked.

The problem with modern Christians who want to see themselves as prophets is that they have taken the whole role of a prophet out of context.  Instead of trying to understand what the role of the prophet was in ancient Israel, people just plop it into modern America without a thought.

But that’s not all.  The prophet is then made to fit the person’s political ideology, so that the prophet strangely is saying all the things you would say regardless.

I think God still sends prophets.  But just because you believe #blacklivesmatter doesn’t make you a prophet, no matter how worthy the cause. Theologian David Watson reminds us that prophets probably didn’t have many friends on Facebook:

The prophetic life is not an easy one. In fact, it is likely to be quite difficult, even painful, because the prophet will inevitably conflict with a world that does not acknowledge the identity and demands of the one true God. Think of Elijah despairing in the wilderness. “He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors’” (1 Kings 19:4). Think of the sad fate of John the Baptist.  If you find your message lines up nicely with the values of secular culture, you’re probably not being prophetic.

I’m not a prophet.  I don’t think I’ve ever been prophetic.  And there is nothing wrong with that. What I am is a disciple (and a Disciple).  I try to follow God, to do justice and love mercy, but I’m not Amos with a laptop.

My job as pastor is not to be a prophet, but to be a disciple that helps make other disciples for Christ.  I will leave the prophet business to God, since God is the one that raises prophets anyway.

Read past posts in this series by going here.

God Is A Concept.

johnlennonWhen I was in journalism class in high school, I remember seeing a poster in the teacher’s classroom that caught my attention.  It was one of those posters that shows something like a big sky or the stars at night.  At the bottom of the poster were these words: “God Is A Concept.”

I really didn’t know what it meant.  I originally thought it was nice to talk about  God.  I remember talking to the teacher about it and while I can’t remember the words she said, the point was made that we didn’t have the same view of God.  God wasn’t as much of a person in her view, but an idea.

I thought about that as I read David Watson’s recent blog post.  Watson is a Methodist minister in charge of United Seminary in Ohio.  In this blog post he talks about the “starting point” for mainline churches and theologians.  The starting point or organizing principle is the nature of evil or more to the point our response to evil.  Watson writes:

Much mainline Christian theology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been a response to the problem of evil. For liberal Christian theologians of the mid-twentieth century, two world wars and the Holocaust made any strong notion of divine action unbelievable. Unlike evangelical cessationists, who believe that miracles ceased after the biblical period, liberal theologians, who were extremely influential in mainline Protestant schools of theology, simply held that these so-called “miracles” never took place. They were the product of an ancient worldview, one that modern people could no longer hold credible.

The result was that mainline Protestants ceased believing in any kind of divine action:

One result of this liberal theological position has been that mainline Protestants have by and large ceased to expect any significant type of divine action. If someone in our churches received a world of prophecy that he or she wished to share with the congregation, would we receive this as legitimate? Would we take the time to test the prophecy against scripture and discern its truthfulness within our ongoing life together? Would we let the person speak at all? Or, as another example, when we pray for healing, are we taking a shot in the dark when all other hope is lost, or do we pray with the expectation that God will show up? Another example may hit closer to home: when we receive the Eucharist, do we believe that we are changed in that moment, that we have really and truly received the spiritual presence of Christ into our bodies and that the work of sanctification is taking place within us?

For many mainline Protestants, God has essentially become a construct. God gives weight to our ethical claims, credence to our feelings about social justice. God is not, however, an agent who can directly and radically change the course of events in our lives.

God is a concept.  It’s funny, as much as I don’t want to believe this way, the fact is it has seeped into my way of thinking.  When you pray for a sick friend, you don’t pray believe healing just might happen, instead we pray for “spiritual healing.”  We don’t talk about any kind of afterlife and tell ourselves that we have to focus on this life more than the life to come.  But deep down, we really don’t believe there is a life to come.  We feel leery about the whole Jesus dying a bloody death at least as a way to bring salvation for the world.  We love to ask questions, which is a good thing, but behind our seeking is the feeling that all of this is not real, that it doesn’t really have any impact in changing us and our world.

As Watson notes, God and Jesus or the idea of God and Jesus gives weight to our beliefs in social justice and inclusion, but God in no way makes a difference in our lives.

Watson notes that the result is that many mainline churches aren’t exciting places.  More to the point, Watson says what is missing in so many of our churches and in the lives of those who sit in its pews is…joy.

The thing is, if you believe in a God that “woke me up this morning, started me on my way” then you are going to be joyful even when times aren’t so good.

About a month ago, I went to the funeral of member of the congregation.  The service was held at the senior living facility where he had spent the last five years of his life.  I only met this man a few times, but he was the most joyous 102-year-old I ever met.  I wish I had a chance to get to know him better.  During the service in the chapel, the Episcopal priest noted that this man saw his Christian life as joyful.  The priest was surprised to hear this.  As I thought about her reaction more and more, I was a bit surprised at her response.  Even I’ve read Paul’s letter to the Phillipians which is a letter of joy even in the darkest times.  How could a pastor NOT know about the joy that the Christian life brings?

Like David Watson, I don’t want to minimize the role of evil in our lives and in the world.  Mainline Protestants do well in pointing out that life can be hard.  We can do well in saying that all is not right with the world.  There is evil out there.  There are men knocking their wives unconscious.  There are parents discipling their children to the point of severe injuries on the child’s body.  There are police who are so scared they use full force on black men and boys.  There are priests who abuse their office and inflict unspeakable crimes on children.  Yes, there is evil.  But God is also present.  God hasn’t given up on creation.  God has already overcome the world.  THAT should bring people joy; a joy that endures even in the midst of suffering.

I’m not leaving the mainline church.  I couldn’t go back to my evangelical beginnings even if I wanted to.  I bear no ill will to my evangelical sisters and brothers, it’s just that my views have changed.  But even though I am not in that camp anymore, there is much to learn from my former home, one of which is to believe in God that is present and alive, one that is most definitely not a concept.

I think it’s way past time for some sort of revivial in liberal Christianity.  We need to pray and believe that God is active in our churches, in our lives and in the world.

I believe it’s in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that someone says “Aslan is on the move.”  Aslan, the God-figure in the novel is making himself known again in the land of Narnia.

“Aslan is on the move.”  It’s time we believe that again.

 

Why Being Nice to The Gays Won’t Save Your Church*

rainbowpcusaThis past week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) meeting in Detroit, approved pastors being able to marry same sex partners in states where same sex marriage is legal.  According to Presbyterian polity, it still has to get the approval of the majority of presbyteries (there are 172) before it becomes the law.

Judging Facebook and Twitter there were a lot of comments about how good this is and I agree with them.  But will this action, coupled with the approval of non celibate gays to become ordained a few years ago save the Presbyterian Church?  Will it save any church?

I ask that question, because I read an article by Carol Howard Merritt about how these actions might turn around the PC(USA)’s decline.

After serving growing churches, I know that people have been attracted to our church because we upheld LGBTQ rights. This is why we can grow, because of this decision:

Young adults overwhelmingly support LGBTQ rights. According to Pew Research, about 70% of Millennials support marriage equality. Guess what? The 30% is probably already going to another church. So, it’s a good plan to focus on the 70%.

The old-school evangelical church is declining because of their attitudes towards LGBTQs. For many years, people have told us evangelical churches were growing because of their doctrinal purity. But, as a refugee from the conservative Southern Baptist Church, I can tell you, homophobia combined with asking women to “graciously submit” and not use birth control pills, is not a strategy that will hold up with… almost anyone.

We’ve watched the exodus of younger generations. We’ve seen emerging churches mature. We’ve witnessed a movement of evangelicals embrace a more compassionate faith. Now the Southern Baptists are grieving losses as well. I don’t want to sound smug about this. Leaving my Baptist roots was the most painful thing I’ve ever done and I’m distressed when someone leaves church. I’m just saying that so-called doctrinal purity is causing decline in many cases, not stemming it.

I would like to believe this, but my own experience tells me that this reasoning is too good to be true for a few reasons.  First, I think everyone wants to pin the blame on something they don’t like as the reason for church decline.  If you’re a conservative, you will blame those loose liberal values.  If you’re a liberal then you think it’s because of the strict morality preached from conservative pulpits.  Either way, it’s the other side that is causing the ruin of mainline churches.

I don’t think that the reason mainline churches are losing members rests soley on embracing liberal theology and practice. Yes some folk do leave for doctrinal or theological issues, but I don’t think that captures all of the problem.  Some of the “fault” lies in a changing culture that is far more secular than the 1950s Mainline Protestant dominance.  Loses within the Southern Baptist Convention could stem from the fact that many Millenials don’t have a presence for any religion.    Are Millenials leaving the SBC because of the gay issue?  Probably.   But it also could be that the youth have lost interest in the adult world.  It could be having to work to pay off student loans which takes time.  We don’t know all of the why it’s happening; we only know that it is happening.

Also, if the gay issue is the thing causing people to either leave or join the PC(USA), you would expect massive shifts from more conservative denominations to liberal ones.  That’s not happening.  The splinter groups that became denominations never get a huge chunk of followers.  The same goes with the reverse: if people are upset at the SBC, you would think there would be a massive uptick in the mainline denominations.  In both cases, what probably happens when young people stop coming is that they stop coming to church,  period.

The thing is, while votes to change policy are very good and necessary; there is something about this belief that mainline churches will now grow that seems half-baked.  Progressive Christians believe that if they take some official position on gays or women or the economy that will cause people to consider their churches over evangelical ones.  Yes, it’s good that churches are becoming more open to LGBT folk.  But the thing is, the job is only half done.  Maybe some people will darken the door of a church because of a positive vote, but not everyone.  What will bring people is when members of LGBT-friendly churches do some old-fashioned evangelism.  They need to go to a LGBT friend and tell them about their church and how welcoming it is to them.  They need to tell LGBT people of how God loves them.  When that happens, then maybe, just maybe the numbers in mainline churches will grow.

Methodist blogger Sky McCraken wrote two years ago, that the reason for decline in denominations has little to do with it’s stance on homosexuality and more on making – or failing to make- disciples:

Changing the stance on homosexuality in the United Methodist Church will not stop the loss of membership in the denomination. It’s at best a red herring and at worst a lie to espouse otherwise. The Southern Baptist Church continues to lose membership; they are in their fifth year of decline, and they have a very decisive, very clear statement on their opposition to homosexuality. On the other side of the issue, the Episcopal Church also has a very decisive and clear statement on homosexuality, where they bless and celebrate same-sex unions as they do male-female marriages, even though doing so separated them from the Anglican Communion. Did it help them gain members? Their membership is now lower than it was in 1939.

The loss of membership in both denominations, as well as in the UMC, can reasonably point to one reason: failure to make disciples. We can blame society, we can blame the president and Congress, we can even blame MTV. But we can’t blame our stances on homosexuality. The fact that I hold an orthodox view on this issue and agree with my denomination’s stance doesn’t let me off the hook for anything – that has nothing to do with a failure to make disciples in the name of Jesus Christ. And yes… that is what it says in Greek: μαθητεύω – to make a disciple  – it’s a verb, aorist tense, imperative, plural, second person. And as Dallas Willard reminds us, we are more often guilty of the Great Omission: once we baptize folks, and/or they have been converted to follow Christ, we seem to forget the rest: “teaching them to do everything that [Jesus] commanded you.” That’s discipleship. We have failed at discipleship – we suck at it! –  and have for several generations.

If gay people show up at a local Presbyterian church and ask to be married, that’s a great thing.  If they end up attending, that’s even better.  But what do we do once they are there?  Is our job over, and we can now relax?  How are we helping them become better followers of Jesus.  As McCraken notes, Americans Christians have done a poor job of making disciples; people who want to follow Jesus.

I am glad that this vote passed.  What I hope is that those Presbyterians in churches near and far not only welcome LGBT and Allied people into the church, but then help them become disciples of Jesus as well.

*I wanted to add that not being nice to gays won’t save your church either, but that would have been a crazy long title.

Sermon: “The Healing Power of Collard Greens”

This is a sermon I preached on Easter evening in 2005.  It is the text I will be preaching on this Sunday for the Third Sunday in Easter.

Luke 24:13-35
April 10, 2005
Community of Grace Christian Church
St. Paul, MN

I love good food, and it probably shows.
emmaus
I consider myself lucky to be born in the family that I’m in, because I grew up with two wonderful cooking traditions. On my father’s side is the African American tradition of the Deep South. It’s a tradition of fried chicken, collard greens, mac and cheese, cornbread stuffing and sweet potato pie. It is all fattening and it’s all good.

On my mother’s side is the Puerto Rican cuisine. I remember coming over to my grandmother’s when she was still alive and eating rice with chicken, or arroz con pollo. Sometimes she would substitute sausage or fish for chicken, but it was just as delicious. When I was little, I used to call it “Orange Rice” and literally thought my grandmother bought orange colored rice. Then I also remember pasteles, a delicacy that is made from plantain. They are little meat pies filled with pork and raisins and olives. My grandmother and other relatives made them and have been known to carry them in my luggage when I leave Michigan bound back to Minnesota.

Food doesn’t just bring needed nourishment to us, but it’s a context that brings people together. I remember eating arroz con pollo and talking in Spanish to my abuela, or grandmother. I remember eating so much soul food that I probably needed angioplasty at a family event in Louisiana a few years back, but it was also a wonderful time to get requainted with my southern relatives.

Today, we encounter one of my favorite stories concerning the ressurection. It’s the road to Emmaus where Jesus appears in disguise to two of his disciples. These disciples were still in shock over all that had happened in the last few days; the shocking arrest, the mockery of a trial, the crucifixion. They had thought Jesus was the one that would save them, and now their savior was dead. They told this disguised Jesus that it was already the third day since his death and in Jewish tradition, this meant that the soul had left the body, meaning there was no hope that Jesus would ever come back. To add insult to injury, the women who were aquainted with Jesus reported that the body was gone. These two had lost hope and were alone. They had placed their hopes on this one called Jesus and it had all ended so badly.

Jesus decides to put a stop to this pity party and open the Scriptures to them. They were interested in what this supposed stranger was saying to them.

When they arrived in Emmaus, it was evening and not a time for someone to be on the road alone, so they asked the stranger to stay with them for the evening. He agreed and shared bread with them. It was when he broke the bread that the disciple’s eyes were opening. Jesus had been revealed and just as mysteriously as he appeared, he vanished from their sight.

It’s interesting that the resurrected Jesus made himself know presumably at a table, breaking bread. In preparing for this sermon, I noticed that some interesting things happened when Jesus was at the table. In the fifth chapter of Luke, there is the story of the calling of Levi, aka Matthew. Matthew was a tax collector, an agent of Rome. Now Jews didn’t take kindly to collaborators, and it was also known that tax collectors not only collected money for Rome, but took a little extra for themselves. So, it goes without saying that Matthew wasn’t popular. And yet, Jesus calls him and as a result, Matthew hosts a big party where all his fellow tax collectors were invited. Well, this didn’t go over with the Pharisees who thought it shameful that Jesus would associate with such lowlife. Remember what Jesus said? He said that he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. Then there was the time he was invited over to the house of Simon the Pharisee. The story, record in the seventh chapter of Luke, tells of a sinful woman who comes in and washed his feet with her tears and poured purfume on them. Well the Pharisees were shocked. Didn’t Jesus know this was a “bad” woman. Why would he even allow her to touch him? What does Jesus do? He takes Simon and the others, all who were considered high society, to task for not being hospitable to him. Only this woman who was considered and outcast, showed him proper respect and for that, he forgave her sins.

Then there is the story of Zacheus, another tax collector. In Luke 19, we read that Jesus invites himself to Zacheus’ house. Zaccheus is so moved that this one called the Messiah would stay with him, that he repents and repays those whom he has cheated.

Over and over again in the book of Luke and in the other Gospels, Jesus is found somewhere where they is a table and food. What’s interesting here is that these “table talks” give us an insight into who the Son of God is and also what God is all about.

The prior stories all point to the fact that God is one who loves everyone and there are no second class citizens in God’s kingdom. Jesus broke bread with tax collectors and other various “sinners.” He also dined with the rich and powerful as well. This shows that Jesus was not a repsector of persons, but welcomed all. These “table talks” remind us that as children of God and followers of God’s Son, we are called to welcome all, regardless of their status in life.

So what does the meal in today’s text mean? Well, let’s go back to the fact that these disciples had lost all hope. They didn’t realize Jesus was alive. As Jesus told them Scriptures they were rekindled with some hope. It was in the breaking of the bread that they realized who Jesus was. In the context of this simple evening meal, they were reminded that death could not silence Jesus. He was alive, he had conquered death, and as a result, we now have new life. Not only is Jesus one who welcomes all to the table of fellowship, but he is one that death can’t hold. No earthly power can hold God back, thanks be to God.

In a few moments, we will partake of the bread and the wine. In Disciple theology, what other call an altar, we call a table. I tend to like that. An altar has a regal image to it, relating more to a king. That’s not a bad reference, since Jesus is a King, but the word table connotes something more basic and common. It represents the Son of God who came to earth as a peasant child, and then as an adult spent time teaching at tables. We still learn from Jesus today at this table. It is here we are reminded of God’s love for us-all of us, regardless if we are black, white, rich, poor, straight, gay. We are reminded that God loved us so much, God became one of us, lived among us and died the death of a common criminal. We are also reminded of his ressurection and know that not even death could hold him and no longer has a hold over us as well.

In closing, go back to talk about food. A few years ago, there was a movie called Soul Food, about an African-American extended family in Chicago. The matriarch, Big Mama, would cook these wonderful meals on Sundays after church and all the family would come over. Now, at some point, Big Mama fell ill and was hospitalized. When she ultimately died, the meals stopped and the family fell apart with certain people not talking to each other.

The narrator of this story, Big Mama’s eldest grandson, schemes to get the family together and concocts a story about some hidden money. Everyone attends and one by one, they all come together and start making the meals that Big Mama used to make. In the end, the family was back together all through a meal. The meal, healed a broken family.

This is the savior we worship, one that is made known to us in meals. The question I want to end with is this: as followers of Jesus, do our meals, at this table and at all of our tables reveal the something about the Risen Savior or do they reflect the table of the Pharisees, which is built on exclusion?

Something to think about. Amen.

Photo: “The Road to Emmaus” by Dr. He Qi ( http://www.heqigallery.com )

On the WorldVision Retraction

World-Vision

Most of the people who read this blog know that I try to understand and respect the views of evangelicals and conservative Christians.  I came from that background and even though I’m a mainline Protestant, the theology that made me who I am is the evangelical faith of my youth.  Because of that and because I think God calls us to love our enemies, I want to give these folks some leeway even on issues that could affect me, primarily on issues of sexual identity.  I know and understand that we don’t see Scripture in the same way, so I think toleration should be the case as long as we respect each other.

However, when the other side is disrespectful and downright mean, all bets are off.

By now, most of us know that WorldVision, the evangelical relief and development agency, lifted a ban on hiring persons in same-sex relationships.  This was less of a “let’s celebrate marriage” guesture as much as it was “we need people who can help” or pragmatic move.

When I first saw this, I was happy.  I’ve always respected WorldVision for its work and I hoped it would signal a change in evangelicalism where gays would at least be tolerated.

Well, after a flurry of responses, including a number of nasty ones, WorldVision reversed it’s policy yesterday.  Via “YoRocko,” the head of the relief agency threw the gay community under the bus:

“What we are affirming today is there are certain beliefs that are so core to our Trinitarian faith that we must take a strong stand on those beliefs. We cannot defer to a small minority of churches and denominations that have taken a different position.”

I’m checking my copy of the Nicean Creed to see where it says “don’t hire homos.”

While it is upsetting that WorldVision flip-flopped, what is truly maddening is that there were people who were so mad that they decided to not give to the organization anymore.  Really?  You were going to not help the world’s poor because of what WorldVision did?

I know that people sometimes withhold funding for various reasons.  But this just seems out of whack.  WorldVision is an organization that tries to alleviate the suffering of the poor among us.  I’m pretty sure when Jesus talked about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 I’m pretty sure it didn’t read, “I was gay and you shunned me” as a good thing.

The people who threatened WorldVision were threatening the poor in my view.  They cared more about who someone sleeps with than they do helping the poor and hungry.

I know that there are those who will say that they are defending an important institution in traditional marriage.  I understand that, but did people read some of the awful communication directed towards WorldVision? Look at the quote below:

Quote“Committed the children to the grace of God?”  Are you freaking kidding me!  Sorry kids, WorldVision committed a sin, so you’re on your own.  God be with you!

I know my tone here has been more harsh than…well, ever.  I don’t like to rant on this blog.  I also don’t want to offend my evangelical friends. However, I believe a line was crossed here.  I will defend someone their right to believe and practice their faith, even if it doesn’t mesh with my interpretation.

But I can’t support this.  This is just wrong.  You don’t hurt kids to prove a point.

I understand why WorldVision had to backtrack; they were going to take a hit to their finances which would hurt their good work.  I really don’t have a beef with them.  Some of the supporters of WorldVision are another story.

I remember my mother commenting about one of her brothers that was living with a woman that he wasn’t married to.  (He did later marry this woman.) Mom wasn’t crazy about that, she thought it was a sin.  But she still loved her brother.  She had her values, and love was one of them.

I wish that were the case with some WorldVision supporters.

 

By the Time I Get to Arizona

ArizonaAbout a week ago, I wrote a post on same-sex marriage and how those of us who support it should act towards those that oppose it.  Can we be good winners to the losers?

Some of the response to that post got me thinking (and agonizing) over this issue.  In two states, Kansas and Arizona, bills have made their way through the state legislature that would give people the right to refuse service to gays.  I think both bills are unconstitutional on their face and bring to mind the dreadful memories of Jim Crow.

That said, these laws are the signs of a way of being that is passing.  I as said in my previous post, those in favor of same sex marriage have won.  But there is still something nagging me.  How do we live with those who are the losers?  How do we deal with those who say their opposition to gay marriage is based on religious teachings?  Do we ignore them?  Do we try to stamp them out?  What is deemed as religious (even if we think it is weird) and what is not a religious practice?

The issue of a baker or florist refusing to serve a gay couple brings out conflicting emotions.  I do think at some level there is the potential of bigotry behind that refusal.  I also think that having laws where people can refuse service could cause chaos in our economy.  But then I think about how someone who is a social conservative would see this.  There’s something about compelling someone to do something they don’t agree with because of their interpretation of the Bible that bothers me deeply.  Those of us on our side tend to see this simply as case of bigotry.  Bigots don’t deserve protection and they should shut up and do their job.  After all their “religious objection” is just a smoke screen for their hate.

But the thing is, seeing homosexuality as a sin was considered the normative teaching in our society until recently.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t wrong, but we have to take in account that tradition is not something that you can easily dispose of.

The tactic that I have shared at times is that it’s okay to believe what you do in private, but in public you have to set your beliefs aside.  But upon thinking on this, I found this reasoning to be bothersome.  We are basically saying that their faith is a hobby that can be pursued at other times, but not when we enter the public square.  For the faithful, religious belief is not something that is private, but very public.  It orders every part of one’s life.  I think it would be difficult for someone who might think that same sex marriage to have to set their belief aside.  In fact, it wouldn’t make sense.  Why would they knowingly put themselves in a position to sin?

About three years ago, writer Jonathan Rauch wrote about the change that was heading our way on marriage.  He called on the LGBT community and allies to not immediately try to challenge the other side when it came to issues like refusing service to a gay couple.  To do so would be to make social conservatives fears come true and would basically play into their hands.  He writes:

…gay rights opponents have been quick, in fact quicker than our side, to understand that the dynamic is changing. They can see the moral foundations of their aversion to homosexuality crumbling beneath them. Their only hope is to turn the tables by claiming they, not gays, are the real victims of oppression. Seeing that we have moved the “moral deviant” shoe onto their foot, they are going to move the “civil rights violator” shoe onto ours.

So they have developed a narrative that goes like this:

Gay rights advocates don’t just want legal equality. They want to brand anyone who disagrees with them, on marriage or anything else, as the equivalent of a modern-day segregationist. If you think homosexuality is immoral or changeable, they want to send you to be reeducated, take away your license to practice counseling, or kick your evangelical student group off campus. If you object to facilitating same-sex weddings or placing adoptees with same-sex couples, they’ll slap you with a fine for discrimination, take away your nonprofit status, or force you to choose between your job and your conscience. If you so much as disagree with them, they call you a bigot and a hater.

They won’t stop until they stigmatize your core religious teachings as bigoted, ban your religious practices as discriminatory, and drive millions of religious Americans right out of the public square. But their target is broader than just religion. Their policy is one of zero tolerance for those who disagree with them, and they will use the law to enforce it.

At bottom, they are not interested in sharing the country. They want to wipe us out.

He continues writing what should be our response:

In a messy world where rights often collide, we can’t avoid arguing about where legitimate dissent ends and intolerable discrimination begins. What we can do is avoid a trap the other side has set for us. Incidents of rage against “haters,” verbal abuse of opponents, boycotts of small-business owners, absolutist enforcement of antidiscrimination laws: Those and other “zero-tolerance” tactics play into the “homosexual bullies” narrative, which is why our adversaries publicize them so energetically.

The other side, in short, is counting on us to hand them the victimhood weapon. Our task is to deny it to them.

I think we have to decide what level of discrimination is acceptable and what is off limits. As James Antle notes in his latest article, that at least according to the 1993 Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, there has to be a compelling interest for the state to force someone to violate their religious conscience:

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 seems to have this much right. Freedom of conscience isn’t absolute. But the government can only override religious conscience to serve a compelling interest and then must pursue that interest using the least coercive means available.

So even if there is a compelling public interest in ensuring access to contraception, if contraception can be made affordable and readily available through means other than forcing the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for contraception or contraceptive coverage, than those other less coercive means should be employed.

The same logic would seem to apply to participation in same-sex marriage services. If we can allow conscientious objectors to refuse to fight in wars, we can surely make some allowance for people to who don’t want to bake cakes, provide floral arrangements, or take photos at a particular wedding. A case could also be made that same-sex couples should prefer to send their business to vendors who share their values.

A sense of proportion matters here. It’s unlikely that we are talking about very many businesses, and even fewer large companies. In some parts of the country, at least, vendors who take this stand risk being picketed out of existence. A few news stories about a same-sex couple who was refused service in their town could easily attract a flood of free wedding cakes, floral arrangements, and photography offers from other more supportive businesses.

He also brings up something that I’ve been thinking about. The analogy that has been used likening these proposed laws to segregation doesn’t really work:

Should gay business owners be forced to provide services to Chick-fil-A, Phil Robertson or organizations that lobby against same-sex marriage? Should gay advertising executives be compelled to write ads in defense of the Defense of Marriage Act? Freedom of conscience applies here too. So does the market’s ability to punish irrational discrimination and a business’s willingness to turn away paying customers.

If a Muslim fundamentalist car dealer refused to sell automobiles to women on religious grounds, even if it was not against the law, he would almost certainly go out of business. (If he didn’t, then immigration laws might need to be revised rather than the First Amendment.)

This is where the Jim Crow analogy, used by Kirsten Powers and others, fails. People often argue for or against the civil-rights laws of the 1960s on the basis of abstract principles, pitting generic equality against generic freedom of association, but they were in fact a reaction to a very specific set of circumstances.

Jim Crow was a system of extensive discrimination, not isolated incidents. It relied on the state enforcement of laws requiring racial separation and the non-enforcement of laws banning private acts of violence when the victims were black. It denied blacks’ constitutional rights and was rooted in state government coercion and social customs so powerful they were largely impervious to market forces. The federal government had repeatedly attempted to remedy these problems through more modest measures.

It is theoretically possible that allowing a New Mexico photographer to refrain from taking pictures at a same-sex wedding ceremony—or more plausibly, allowing the Kansas legislature to enact the previously mentioned bill—would create conditions like this for gays. But it is not very likely.

I would agree. On the surface the two seem the same, but not in context. The Jim Crow that my father lived through in Louisiana was not simply one person refusing him service, but an entire system that was placed into law. There is a difference between the two, not that refusing a gay couple is okay, but it is not backed by a system of laws, at least not in every state but Arizona it seems.

The point of my rambling is that those of us in favor of same sex marriage and those opposed have to find a way to tolerate each other.  Those who have a traditional understanding of sexuality have to understand that being gay is becoming more and more normative.  LGBT folk and their allies have to understand that the other side isn’t going away anytime soon and in many cases they are compelled to follow what they interpret to be from God (even if we think this is pure hogwash).  We have to learn to coexist, because this tit for tat war of stigmatizing is futile and for those of us who are Christian not very Christ-like.  We have to learn to love the other even if we think they are wrong.

I want to end with the words of fellow pastor Trevor Lee who has this to say about tolerance:

Tolerance now means completely accepting viewpoints that culture, and especially the media and TV/movie industry deem correct. Many of these viewpoints are against traditional moral stances. So those who hold to the “outdated” views are intolerant. Yet this has almost nothing to do with tolerance. In fact, very often those who rail against those “intolerant people” are being intolerant in the process. Here’s what it comes down to…

You do not tolerate someone or something you agree with.

The dictionary defines tolerance as “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from [emphasis mine] one’s own.” So the only people and opinions we can logically tolerate are those we disagree with. If we change our opinions and beliefs we would now be tolerant by continuing to respect and treat with dignity those we used to agree with. I am for tolerance (really I’m more for love than tolerance, but we’ll get to that in a minute), but this is teetering on the edge of being a useless word in our culture.

I pray for more tolerance in our society. On all sides.

A Few Thoughts on Dave Ramsey and Poverty

dave ramseyI don’t follow financial guru Dave Ramsey much.  I’ve heard him a few times on NPR, and I know he’s about offering folks some practical advice on debt and basically how to live financially.  I also know that he blends his faith into his talks on economics.  I think he does a good job with what he does; giving folks some hard truth when it comes to finances.

Ramsey is facing some harsh criticism from some fellow Christians over a recent blog post on his website.  He shared a list from another site entitled “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day.”  Bloggers such as Rachel Held Evans and Morgan Guyton have wrote strong responses to the post, which in turn has led Ramsey to update the post, lobbing some barbs of his own.  I wanted to offer a few insights on my own.

 

First off, I don’t know if this is different for white Americans, but among African Americans it is normal to have a wide range of economic classes in one family.  You can have someone who makes six figures and someone who is on food stamps.  What this means is that African Americans tend to have a better working knowledge of poverty than whites. One of the things I notice among some of the folk I know that are poor is that they do make bad decisions.  Now, I agree with some of the latest studies about how poverty makes people make bad decisions.  That said, such findings should not put us into some kind of economic fatalism.  People need to be aware that their situation can make them do stupid things, but then they have to learn how to go against the temptation.  Of course, lifting people out of poverty should do the trick, but in the immediate present, one has to learn to not make those decisions even when they seem tempting because money is short.

Second, I don’t think this list (which I think I’ve seen before) is putting the poor down.  It simply focuses on a kind of empowerment.  Yes, there are barriers to this.  But that doesn’t mean the poor shouldn’t try.  I find it interesting that Evans takes Ramsey to task for advocating eating healthy when the poor suffer from “food deserts” but ignores the fact that people and groups like First Lady Michelle Obama also advocate for the poor to eat better.  I haven’t seen any blog post condemning Ms. Obama for her advocacy.

Third, poverty is a complex thing.  There are both internal and external factors that cause poverty.  Coming from the post-apocalyspe landscape that is Flint, Michigan, having a major industry in a one-horse town leave can be devastating to that city, resulting in poverty and crime.  But poverty also has roots in bad decisions as well.  Conservatives tend to focus on the latter and not as much on the former.  I think that’s a problem.  But liberals are also at fault on focusing on the external and not the internal.  Both are major drivers of poverty and have to be addressed.  This is not about blaming the poor- it’s about helping the poor live smarter and ultimately lifting them out of poverty.

Fourth, I tend to think that progressive Christians tend to idolize the poor.  We lift up verses talking about God choosing the poor and somehow see this as some sort of sainted state (for others, not for ourselves).  God is on the side of the lowly and that includes the poor.  But I really don’t think God wants the poor to be poor forever.  Poverty is a sin, a sign of the brokeness of humanity.  I think God would like to see the poor prosper and live better than they are now.  Which leads me to my final point:

I think progressive Christians have to come to terms with prosperity.  If you mention the word, prosperity in liberal Christian circles, you are more than likely to hear it as an adjective that comes before the word “gospel.”  We have a vision of slick-haired preachers that come around telling people that God wants them to be rich.  I don’t doubt there are folks like that who distort the gospel.  But don’t we want the poor to prosper, to live better than what they do?  Can prosperity mean something more than “God wants to make you rich?”  Can it mean lifting people from poverty to live lives more whole?  Can it not just relate to consumerism but to something more?

There are just a few things that come to mind.  I’m curious to learn what smarter folks on money and the economy have to say about this.

Sermon: “Waiting to Exhale”

Here’s a sermon I preached in 2007 on Pentecost Sunday.

“Waiting to Exhale”
Act 2:1-21
May 27, 2007 (Pentecost Sunday)
Lake Harriet Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

 

When I was about two years old, I was diagnosed with asthma.  From about age two until maybe age 9, I dealt with constant asthma attacks where I had hard time breathing.  I can remember sitting in the doctor’s office of Dr. Cory Cookingham, who was my allergy and asthma doctor, who would sometimes have to give me a shot of adrenalin to open up my constricted lungs.  More than once he worried if this didn’t work, that the hospital would be the next stop.

Growing up as a kid with asthma was not fun in the early 70s.  I still had a pretty full childhood, but there were things I was limited in doing.  My made sure all the schools I attended were clean and not dusty so as not to trigger an attack.  I remember when I was very young, not playing outdoors again for fear of an attack.

As I got older the spectre of asthma grew smaller.  I was able to play outdoors and have fun, no longer fearful for another attack.  In fact I went without an asthma attack for eight years until the summer I graduated high school.  I still have attacks few and far between, but I do carry an inhaler just in case. Continue reading “Sermon: “Waiting to Exhale””