The Anger You Don’t Understand

gay_s640x427One of the bloggers that I love to read is Rod Dreher.  While we share some similarities politically, we are on different sides of the same-sex marriage issue.  Rod has written a number of posts on what he sees as the coming troubles facing social conservatives as the opinion on gay marriage changes.  I decided to comment on a recent blog post.  One of the things he is bothered by is the meanness on the pro-SSM towards social conservatives.  While I agree that there has been a lot of spiking the ball on our side, I thought Rod needs to understand where some of that anger comes from and it doesn’t come from nowhere.

Before I share the response, I want to add that I do appreciate Rod.  He is one of the most honest people I know striving to honor God in the best way he can.  He has helped me see that not all social conservatives are horrible monsters.  So, while I am offering a bit of pushback here, I don’t do it out of anger.  I just want to him (and others) to understand a little about our side and what might be fueling the anger. 

Rod,

Part of the issue that needs to be addressed is the bitterness that many in the gay rights community has towards social conservatives. A lot of this comes from the pain we have experienced from people who were religious and yet treated their sisters and brothers with cruelty. One of the things that Ross Douthat shared in his Sunday column is the abuse LGBT folk have suffered in the past. I think it is important for social cons to at least admit that some of this vitriol is a knee-jerk response to some of the things we have faced.

The other issue that is a problem is how social conservatives are viewed by the larger society. When I was coming out in the 90s, the image I saw was Pat Buchanan venting at the 1992 GOP Convention in Houston. The image most gays and allies have of social conservatives is one of hateful people bent on destroying LGBT people. It’s not a true image, but it’s there. My view of social conservatives have changed for two reasons: one I take the call from Jesus to love our enemies seriously. Second, I’ve met many social conservatives and see that they don’t have five heads and eat gay babies. Because American society is so fragmented with like-minded folk clustering together, most gay folk have never encountered a social conservative and see them as complex beings instead of caritactures. And because we don’t know you, hence the hostility.

I don’t know what the answer is. I have used my blog to express that social conservatives are not all monsters, but I have also got pushback from people who write me talking about the pain they have faced and how it makes no sense to show mercy. The negative image of social conservatives is ingrained in many gay people and their allies and that is what keeps them from showing and sense of forgiveness and love. Gay people can and should speak up and maybe even seek out social conservatives and befriend them (somthing I’ve tried to do). But I think the only way this is going to change is when social conservatives themselves reach out and be Christ to gay people. When gay people can see that social conservatives are people, things will change. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but realize that a lot of the anger is warranted. Trust has been broken. LGBT people like myself can and should reach out, but until gays and trust social conservatives such hostility will continue, even if it is not right.

Discipleship or Consumerism?

seedA few days ago, I was at a church retreat.  In response to a question on what challenges the church is facing, a woman remarked that one challenge is how people don’t really want to get involved in church.  They don’t see it as a life, as much as a place where they can get their needs met and be on their way.

I was glad to see someone in the pews notice this.  It’s been a growing frustration of mine over the years.  Pastors are pushed in many ways to try to make their churches appealing to folk, especially the oh-so-important Millenial crowd.  We are told that younger folks are not interested in serving on committees.  We are told they want to do mission.  We are told they want a church that is welcoming to LGBT folk.  So, we try to do everything to try to attract people: we offer more mission opportunities.  We push for our churches to be Open and Affirming.  We try to make our worship experiences more hip.  There is nothing wrong in trying to be hospitable and welcoming.  I’m not saying we don’t engage in mission and I most definitely am not saying churches should not welcome LGBT persons.  But there is a danger in that we start to trade the call to discipleship, the call of Jesus to follow him and replace it with a slick marketing message in order to gain market share among a certain demographic.

Again, nothing wrong with churches doing marketing; that is my trade.  But there is something wrong about replacing the hard message of becoming a disciple of Jesus for an easy message that tries to get people in the pews.

Methodist pastor Ben Godson reminds us that churches need to engage their local communities instead of trying the latest fad:

A biblical mandate says to go into the world preaching, teaching, and baptizing. It says we are to disciple one another in the ways of Jesus. Part of carrying out that mandate is learning the lay of the land and prayerfully discovering how the ways of Jesus can be lived out in a particular context with particular people. Our American, capitalist drive says if certain methods work well in one place, all we need to do is duplicate those methods everywhere and we can franchise the way to be church. In other words, a biblical mandate cares about people first while a franchising mentality cares about methods and results first. Churches of all shapes and sizes can put people first by uniquely and faithfully seeking to engage the communities they are in using the resources they already have. Other peoples’ ideas too often become warmed over leftovers that don’t fit outside of the context they are in. And that’s okay.

Every pastor or church board chair wants to see more people involved in the life of their churches.  We are all desiring some kind of trick to make our congregations grow and thrive.  Of course we need to make sure we aren’t placing barriers that prevents growth, but we need to have faith that God will cause the growth to happen at a church.  What we are called to do is to help those who want to follow Jesus is to help them become better followers of Christ; in short, we need to make disciples.

Discipleship isn’t sexy and it can be slow.  It’s not something that people are going to flock to.  But I have to think the benefits are longer lasting than having the latest, coolest worship service.

Even as Minnesotans await a big snow (in May?), I get excited around this time of year because it means I get to plant flowers.  Now, I am not a great gardener.  Actually, I kinda suck.  I’m getting better at it and the flowers I planted last year are slowly coming up.  This year, I will water the plants, put some more mulch in the garden.  There is no shortcut to a good garden, it just takes time.

The same goes with discipleship.  It will take time.  Some people won’t be interested and that’s okay.  But if we want strong followers of Jesus Christ, we will take the time and not be so uptight.  We are called to make disciples, not consumers.

Occupy or Confess?

The whole Occupy Wall Street protests have been fascinating to watch. Even moreso is how Christians respond to the event. I know that there have been clergy taking part and other tweeting positively about the protests, which have now spread around the country.

I’m not very sold on the whole thing.  Yes, they are talking about some important issues, but in many ways they tend to be the inverse of the Tea Party movement.  Where the Tea Partiers blame government for, well… everything, the Occupy folks blame corporations.  Instead of trying to find ways to alleviate the suffering that is going on, both movements seek easy and comforting answers to what has happened.

Economist Bruce Wydick writes that the problem “those people.”  No, the problem is far closer to home- the problem is us:

Like most protests, the Occupy Wall Street folks are better at identifying something that is wrong than identifying a way forward that is right. But even if the protestors don’t understand much about financial economics, they have a clear sense that something is wrong. That something, however, lies deeper than the behavior of a relative handful of Wall Street moguls. That something, I believe, is a sense of material entitlement that has crept into the American psyche. This sense of material entitlement has infected our personal choices, our politics, and our financial system…

The crisis has spiritual roots. Jesus warns his followers, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15, NIV). But a syncretistic form of Christianity has emerged in our country, a syncretism that mingles genuine New Testament Christianity with the consumer materialism of the American Dream.

How has this religious syncretism contributed to the financial crisis? First, our sense of material entitlement has had a profound impact on the financial choices of American families. As the stock market began to peak after the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, money began to flood into the real estate market, further inflating home prices which had already reached historic highs. With home prices skyrocketing, the coveted American dream of home ownership for many seemed to be slipping away. In response, families over-extended. In the home-ownership feeding frenzy, they bought houses beyond their means on easy credit terms, which the laxly regulated financial industry was too eager to provide.

No one should be shocked that politicians would try to seek simple answers to the ongoing financial crisis.  But it is sad that the church has not been more thoughtful about this issue.  Instead of forcing those of us in the pews to see where we have fallen short and seek forgiveness and repentance, we have joined the political circus, seeking to pin blame everywhere and anywhere else.  The Great Recession/Lesser Depression is a reminder of how broken creation is.  What happened was not something that you can pin on the one percent; it was a systemic failure.  Whole institutions failed society as well as families that were not prudent in their finances.

None of this means that Wall Street is innocent, I don’t think it is.  But the image of Wall Street tempting the innocent 99 percent is false comfort and will do nothing to help shorten this crisis.

I think that instead of just running towards the latest agenda, the church needs to help people learn to be more careful with their money and less materialistic, to push for more forceful regulation of the financial industry and to ask for a government to live within its means.  I think we need to occupy less and confess more.

h/t: Michael Kruse

Repost: Notes from a Reluctant Liberal Christian

The following post is from January of this year.  I’ve been wanting to write more on this topic and hope to do so in the near future.  For now, there’s this essay.

A few years ago, a dear friend of mine described me as an evangelical turned liberal Protestant.  I remember blanching at that definition.  Politically, I tend to lean more center-right/libertarian.  Theologically, I’m pretty orthodox.

But the fact is, I am a liberal Protestant these days.  I’m ordained into a mainline Protestant denomination (Disciples of Christ) and I have standing in another denomination that in some cases is the very embodiment of liberal Protestantism (the United Church of Christ).

I’ve been a part of mainline Protestantism for nearly 20 years.  In the years after college, I found the evangelicalism of my youth wanting and left it seeking a better fit.  I found that in mainline churches.  I should add, that I never looked down on evangelical past; I think it is still a worthy tradition and it made me who I am.  But, my home is now in a different tradition.

And yet it has at times been an uneasy fit.  Don’t get me wrong; I am thankful for a tradition that honors diversity.  My evangelical roots would never accept an open gay pastor, but liberal Protestantism did.  It has also been on the forefront of issues such as civil rights and helped give women a more equal footing in America.

But while in many ways, I am liberal in my theology, I feel at times that the liberalism I am talking about is from another era.  Some of my uneasiness is reflected in Bruce Reyes-Chow’s excellent essay on the good and bad liberal Christianity.  Unlike me, he is way more comfortable wearing the liberal label, but he also able to be critical of it:

Over the past few months I have found myself frustrated a lot.  Sitting on the sidelines observing a few interactions between Christians with whom I find theological and ideological commonality, I’ve found myself whispering under my breath, “I love ya. I agree with ya. But you are really not helping.” It seems that in an attempt to respond to actions and words that we liberals feel are wrong, even destructive, we often do more harm than good.

Now I realize that for me to make such broad sweeping statements is pretty arrogant and I fully admit my participation in most of the following accusations in my life. But let me be equally arrogant in saying that if the liberal or progressive church – and we can fight over “liberal,” “progressive,” etc. definitions HERE – is going to lead the way forward in the church and be part of a larger cultural conversation about morals and faith, we have got to quit shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot and driving people away from our particular approach to faith and life.

His post reads as a love letter to his fellow liberals, telling them to do good work, but also calling them on where they fall short.

On the other hand, Walter Russell Mead’s essay from last year reads like a letter from a longsuffering wife to her cheating husband.  He rails against liberal Christianity’s willingness to get in bed with the political left at the expense of the life of the church:


In the mainline churches, which is what I know best, the political views leaders express are generally those of what could be called the ‘foundation left’ — emotionally grounded in concern for the poor and development, historically linked to the ‘new left’ mix of economic and social concerns as developed in the 1960′s, shaped by an atmosphere of privilege and entitlement that reflects the upper middle class background of the educated professionals who run these institutions.  The social sins they deplore are those of the right: excessive focus on capitalism, too robust and unheeding a promotion of the American national and security interest abroad, insufficient care for the environment, failure to help the poor through government welfare programs, failure to support affirmative action, failure to celebrate and protect the unrestricted right of women to abort.  I am of course speaking very generally here and there are lots of individual exceptions, but many of these folks are generally tolerant of theological differences and rigidly intolerant when it comes to political differences: they care nothing at all about doctrines like predestination but get very angry with people who disagree with them about issues like global warming or immigration reform.  Theological heresy is a matter for courtesy and silence, but political heretics fill them with bile.

Back in the days of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, it was news when Episcopal bishops sided in public with liberal causes.  It took real courage for bishops and priests to speak up in some cases; one of the clergymen in the town where I grew up had been driven from his last parish in Alabama because he spoke up for the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King.  Other priests received death threats; some who participated in the Freedom Rides and other demonstrations were beaten by angry mobs.

But these days an Episcopal bishop would have to go to a lot of trouble to get into the news for backing a liberal political cause.  The headline says it all: Liberal Official of Small, Declining Liberal Denomination Endorses Liberal Idea.  This isn’t news for two reasons: it is utterly predictable and it doesn’t matter.  Trivial and predictable are not news, and the political stands that the mainline clergy take are almost always both.  A statement by an Episcopal bishop will not change one mind or one vote; at least in all my years in the pews I’ve never met a single Episcopalian who said that the opinion of a bishop does or should have the slightest influence on how Episcopalians vote and if the churchgoers aren’t paying attention to the bishops I can’t imagine anyone else is.

I’m not urging the bishops to change their politics.  I’m urging them to shut up.  More precisely, I’m urging them to base their ministry on a clearer understanding of their situation and their role.

It’s important to note that both Reyes-Chow and Mead are liberal Christians from mainline Protestant denominations.  Both talk about the decline of the mainline church.  But where Reyes-Chow has a more sunny and hopeful view, Mead is far more dire- his post is fire and brimstone.

In many ways, I feel that I have both views living inside of me.  There are days that I am more like Reyes-Chow, wanting to gently admonish people who I consider my friends, and there are days I want to rip them a new hole.

I would agree with Mead that liberal Christianity has become too chumy with the political left.  I’ve long agreed that American evangelicalism sold itself out to the GOP, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that mainline Christians had done the same with the Democrats.  What’s frustrating at times is to see Christians have mirrored the larger world: Team Red on one side and Team Blue on the other.

I’m not asking that liberal Christians who are politically liberal change their ideology, but could we not try to ape the larger society?  Can  we be willing to critical of the political left as we are of the political right?  Can we worry less about getting people to support this viewpoint and give people the tools to think as Christians in the world, influencing culture in different ways? Can we find a way to separate partisan politics from faith? Can the church be follwers of Jesus and not try to make Jesus the mascot of either party?

I guess what I’m asking is that we find ways to talk about justice without it devolving into some kind of pep-rally for this or that political party.  When I work on issues like homelessness or poverty, I want to help people think of how they can put their faith to work, not to tell them to support an agenda.

Blogger Nathan Gilmour had this to say about justice, the political left and right in a commentary on last Sunday’s texts:

…far too often any old cause of the New Left gets baptized in the name of being not-fundamentalist, and far too little inspection and criticism happens, especially when libertarian/capitalist categories of “choice” and “rights” rather than Christian practices like hospitality and thankfulness govern Christian discourse about “issues.” The univocality of Being once again threatens what I take to be genuine Christian reflection in these circles as well: throwing one’s time, effort, money, and sometimes more behind the DNC (just as much as the GOP) machine far too often requires participation in the Manichean machinery of American political discourse, and  such participation far too often loses sight of the common lot of mortals in light of the strong analogical difference between God and humanity.  (And there are few more dishonest moments than when a dedicated New-Left Democrat says that “this is not a left-right issue”: if I had money to gamble, I would bet every time that the next line out of the New-Left Democrat’s mouth is going to be party-line social liberalism.)  Not unlike the Right-Wingers that the Christian Left (rightly) holds in suspicion, the stance in favor of some kinds of Social Justice tends towards a strong division: contract-enforcement for one’s political enemies and seeking-for-shalom for one’s political friends.  The urge is neither inhuman nor unexpected, but it’s not all that different from its mirror image.  The hesed and the mishphat that Micah points to in this week’s reading call everyone to account and to repentance, not in the spirit of some flattened “moral equivalence” but in the realization that, when seen in the light of analogically different divine justice and kindness, no mortal’s sense of the good life should remain un-illuminated.  Perhaps the best place to start is indeed to walk humbly.

Walking humbly.  It sounds like a good start for all of us.

Life, Death, Steve Jobs and the Future of the Mainline Church

Steve Job’s commencement address in 2005 at Stanford University seems to be everywhere right now.  A whole host of media are sharing quotes from that speech.  Most of them are sharing this portion where he talks about death.  I guess I’ll join the throng and post that portion here:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Most people bring up this quote, because it seemed to forshadow Job’s fate.  But as theologian Susan Brooks Thistlewaite notes, there is something more going on here.  I think it has a lot to say about churches, especially Mainline Protestant Churches as they face an uncertain future.

For the last three years, I’ve been part of a church in decline.  When I came on staff in 2008, there was a lot of talk about closing the doors.  The previous 8 years had been ones of turmoil and loss.  The congregation seemed spent.  They had sold off their building and the new landlords (the Minneapolis Institute of Arts) graciously offered First Christian time to stay in the building as they decided their future.

For a while I thought that death was closing the doors of the church.  That is one form of death, but in some ways death was all around the church.  People were aging and dying.  Programs and ministries stopped.  People were going through the motions and not really living.

Jobs was correct, death is the ulitmate change agent.  Whether it’s physical or metaphorical, it comes.  What was once new, becomes old and is swept away. The way things were don’t stay that way.

For a long time, mainline churches have been trying to avoid death.  “Do this program and you will live,” says a bevy of folks ready to offer this method or that program to people afraid to die.

But the thing is, everything changes, everything dies.

Back in January, First Christian voted to join an ecumenical partnership with two other churches: one Lutheran and the other United Church of Christ.  The three churches will share a retrofitted church building.  I could look at this as a way to stave off death, but in some way it is a death all of its own.  We will be a different congregation in that setting.  What we used to do in our current space won’t take place in the new space.  Things will die and new things will come into being.

With all of this change, I think the second part of Jobs’ message comes into being; that is- live now.  It’s so easy for churches to get stuck in the past, to do something because it’s what we’ve always done.  Jobs talked about listening to our inner voice, but in the life of the church, we are called to listen to the Spirit of God;something we are not good at doing.  Churches spend too much of their time NOT listening to the Spirit.  Instead, we listen to old dogmas that might provide comfort but not much else.

I think about how the disciples of Jesus started to go into the known world preaching the gospel.  They took a risk to live bodly now.

I hope that the congregation that I am honored to serve at and countless others near and far will learn to live now and allow the Spirit to blow into our lives.  I hope we can see that death is part of the process and allow it to happen. I hope we can learn to be bold and take risks so that at the end of the day we can say: “what an awesome ride that was!”

Thanks be to God.

Jobs vs. Shuttlesworth

One blogger wonders about our priorities in the wake of the death of a prominent figure:

Fred L. Shuttlesworth, a pioneer and central leader in the United States Civil-Rights Movement died at the age of 89.

His legacy, which included risking his life, being imprisoned, inspiring the work of others who received more credit — such as Martin Luther King, Jr., was remembered with nearly no fanfare, little Internet and media coverage, and only the most nominal of acknowledgements in the press. It was thanks to the reminder of Prof. Ed McCormack of the Washington Theological Union that the significance of Rev. Shuttlesworth’s death really struck a chord. Even I had been swept away with the hype of Jobs’s death — mostly becoming upset with the disturbingly disproportionate attention it received vis-á-vis other world issues — and, although I had been aware of Shuttlesworth’s death, had nearly as quickly forgotten about it as I had heard of it.

Instead of paying the appropriate respect that a man like Shuttlesworth deserves, we — as a society — chose to turn the death of a white male billionaire into a spectacle. I’m not entirely sure what the source of the catharsis is in the metonymic treatment of the Jobs’s death; for what does he represent? Does he represent the young men, the children, the middle-aged citizens of the world who struggle to stay alive this day because of cancer or other terminal illnesses? Does he represent the justice and courage that Rev. Shuttlesworth’s legacy presents to a generation that ignores his passing from this life to the next?  I don’t think so. If it were the case, I think I might feel differently about the bizarre behavior that has been exhibited today in what I can only describe as idolatry-turned-normative: the flowers and candles at Apple stores, the reverenced cadence of a Jobs invocation, the treatment of Apple products as second-class relics of a saint who bestowed his blessings on the life of the consumer.