Monthly Archives: March 2013

Theological “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

“Don’t Ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was the official United States policy on gays serving in the military from December 1993 until September 2011. The idea behind this policy was to allow closeted LGBT personnel to serve in the military without fear of harassment and discharge. Even without addressing the total lack of moral integrity of DADT–there is nothing remotely moral about forcing people into the closet in order to serve the country they love–this policy never worked. There were still several cases of unauthorized investigations and harassment of LGBT personnel. It has now been a year and half since DADT was repealed, and none of the doomsday scenarios and mass breakdown of military morale predicted by some people have occurred. I can even imagine that without the stress of discovery and discharge hanging over their heads, some LGBT service personnel are performing at even higher levels than they did before DADT was repealed.

There are all kinds of DADT policies out there, too. Most of these policies are not in writing; you just know its best to keep your mouth closed about certain issues. And in my opinion, institutional religion is one of the biggest proponents of various DADT policies. There is, of course, the glaring example of the child abuse cover ups in the Catholic Church which are now increasingly being brought to our attention. Those atrocities, as painful and sad as they are, however, are not the subject of this post.

I’m talking more about theological DADT policies. For example, I remember a conversation I had with three colleagues a few years ago. One was Roman Catholic; one was Presbyterian (PCUSA); the third was Evangelical Lutheran (ELCA). We were discussing a variety of theological subjects over lunch; feeling safe with this group, I shared a few of my more “unorthodox” beliefs. Imagine my surprise when all three of them said that, for the most part, they were on the same page as me! One of them said, “I agree with your comments. I just can’t say those things in my congregation.” The other two clergy persons agreed.

Huh?

Now I do understand the concept of not intentionally upsetting congregants for shock effect. After all, if some congregants have issues with the church colors not being “correct,” can you imagine what would happen if you told them you don’t believe Jesus literally rose from the dead? Also, if you’re going to share some potentially unsettling theological insights either in a class or from the pulpit, you’d best be prepared to cite your sources and share how your reasoning has led you to those conclusions. Beyond that, I believe a pastor and/or teacher should do their best to walk with congregants through any theological disorientation their teachings may bring to these folks. Of course, even after we do our best to walk with these people, some may simply shake their heads and walk away–and that’s OK.

What is not OK is teaching and preaching what we do not believe just to keep the peace–and our jobs. What I’ve learned is, if I preach and teach using a combination of head and heart–if I preach and teach from a place of personal integrity–and if I give people plenty of room to agree to disagree–to believe and to be who they are with their own sense of integrity–things tend to work out because people feel safe, and they trust they aren’t going to be drummed out of the community simply because they don’t agree with the pastor.

I also think it is time we stopped playing DADT within our various denominations. I applaud reconciling congregations within the United Methodist Church; More Light congregations within the PCUSA; and all other openly LGBT affirming groups within various faith traditions. These congregations are doing what they can to say “NO!” to the policies of their denominations which offend their sense of theological integrity and belief.

Beyond policy issues, however, I think–no, I know–some of us feel a certain level of discomfort with the unspoken theological DADT policies in our denominations/associations. For example, we toss the word “Christian” around and write it into our bylaws like it means the same thing to everyone in a particular congregation/denomination/association. It doesn’t–and we know it. So why aren’t we talking about this issue?

Could it be…fear?

Fear of losing our jobs; fear of losing our leadership roles; fear of losing our lifetime membership in Club Christendom? I think it’s all that and perhaps a bit more. Let’s face it, folks. If you’re a pastor in a liberal and very diverse congregation, chances are you’re doing your best just to hold it together week to week. Sure, the journey is exciting and full of possibilities. You feel honored and in awe to be entrusted with the responsibilities of leading a congregation. I know I am.

And then there is all that day-to-day mundane stuff that must be handled. There are multiple personalities with whom we must learn to work–and them with us. Add some serious theological debate and the denominational politics that go with that debate and, well, who has the time? Mulitply that reality by the number of people in your congregation who most likely have some of the same questions as you, yet who are afraid of “rocking the boat.” Now, multiply that reality by the number of congregations in your denomination/association, put yourself in the seats of your senior leadership and, well, you get the point.

Still, I think we’re risking a lot by not having these conversations; and not just between like-minded colleagues at retreats and/or at church conferences. I mean trusting our congregants enough that we can have these conversations and still be communities that follow the spiritual paths to which we’ve been called. I mean trusting the senior leadership of our denominations/associations enough that we can say, “This is the spiritual path our congregation is following. It doesn’t fit your bylaw requirements, either. Can we talk?”

Well, can we?

Blessings on your journeys!

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Hangovers

Although I still love a good Pinot Noir, it has been several years since I’ve experienced a serious hangover–and I don’t miss them. I don’t make these comments out of any sense of “holier than thouness;” I just enjoy good wine without the pounding headache the following morning (although it took some time for me to figure that one out).

Ever have a hangover? Not pretty, is it? Headaches for some folks; nausea for others–and if you’ve really tied one on, both;  a real sense of feeling like (fill in your favorite hangover adjective here). Regret for some; a “whatever” attitude for others. (I’ve found the “whatever” attitude tends to be most prevalent among the younger, more resilient set–it was for me back in the 80’s). And some people, unfortunately, seem to live in a constant hangover cycle.

We know better. We know what’s going to happen if we overindulge. Still, for whatever reason, we overindulge anyway and…hangover. Gee, how’d that happen?

It would be great if I could say that once I became serious about my religious commitments that I never had another hangover. It would be great, and it would be dishonest. You see, I think God–or at least our perception of God and/or God’s representatives and institutions–has been the source of many, many hangovers. And not all of them involve alcohol and drugs.

First there was the Constantinian hangover. I’m sure the earliest church leaders enjoyed being courted by the Emperor and debating theology at his seaside estate in Nicaea. Let’s face it, folks; compared to being lion food, there was no contest. At the same time, by coming out of the houses and tombs and into the public square, I think the church lost a lot of its early edginess–things like divergent theologies, scriptures, women leaders and more of a sense of God’s kindom in caring for the poor and outcast in the community. I think we can safely say that none of those council trips were free; the church paid–and sometimes still pays–dearly. Big hangover!

Then there was the Reformation hangover meant to address the Constantinian hangover. As leaders, women for the most part were still out; but at least “common folk” could read and interpret scripture for themselves. No pope. No priests. No Holy Roman Empire. Of course with such diversity of thought comes a whole new set of issues with which to contend; and therefore, denominations were born, each with its own hierarchy and take on what it meant to be a “real” Christian. Then there were those pesky Quakers, Unitarians and Universalists who largely refused to play by the established rules of either Catholic or Protestant Christianity. These–and other–groups took what they needed from Christianity and left the rest.

Denominationalism turned out to be quite the hangover inducer itself.  Seeking respectability, each group–even the Quakers, Unitarians and Universalists (who merged in 1961) shored up its own structure and sense of “orthodoxy”–although some groups went much further than others in their processes. Please don’t misunderstand me; I love good organization, structure and order–just ask anyone who knows me. Still, I believe overindulging in these things has caused quite the hangover for our churches today.

So to address that hangover, sometime during the 1990’s non-denominational groups (or groups with very loose denominational ties) became more prominent than in past years. I believe Rick Warren’s book “Purpose Driven Church” drove a lot of the interest in this movement; and while I do not agree with Warren’s theology, he does have some great ideas about church structure, organization and so on. Warren and others tapped into the current culture and its need for entertainment and convenience. Co-opt the music styles, fashions, and language of the current culture, mix it with some simple, black and white conservative theology, offer multiple services on various days and boom–the mega church is reborn! This formula worked for a long time, too. In fact, in some areas of the country it still works–although perhaps not as well as it did in the past.

Now we have what I call the “Cultural Convenience Hangover.” That is, as the cultural music styles, fashions, language, time commitments, etc. continue to rapidly change, a lot of churches are struggling to keep up with these changes. And if they don’t keep up, the stakes in members and money can be very high. Some leaders might even feel they’ve somehow failed God by not bringing enough people to Jesus. You see, we’ve overindulged in cultural convenience. And we all know what happens when we overindulge, right? Hangover!

I recently experienced the effects of the Cultural Convenience Hangover. In April our church is going from two services at 9 and 11 a.m. on Sundays to one service at 10:00 a.m. There’s been no church drama, split, etc. to drive this change. Realities like kid’s soccer games and other activities on Sunday, professional relocations, etc. have resulted in lower attendance in the past year. Our sanctuary can now accommodate the average attendance of both services. While new people are attending church, they have not fully made up for those who are now occasionally attending our church due to other scheduled commitments. So our board voted unanimously to move to the new schedule. We’re trying it for a few months, and as I explained to the congregation, should the need for two services arise due to consistent increased attendance, we will promptly address that need.

Fortunately there hasn’t been a huge outcry, which speaks to the maturity of most of our congregants. At the same time, there are a few folks who have said they will no longer attend after Easter due to the new schedule. Why not? The time is no longer convenient. That’s it.  Job obligations are not involved. Other important commitments are not involved. It is simply a matter of convenience–and we are no longer convenient for them. I respect their decisions; and at the same time those decisions frustrate me. Guess that’s what I get for being so “liberal,” huh?

Let me be clear. Religiously speaking, I am quite open . I make sure everyone who comes to our church knows that all peaceful expressions of spirituality–Christian and other than Christian–are welcome. Atheists, agnostics, humanists–everyone–is welcome at our church and they are invited to fully participate in the life of our church (and that includes receiving communion, if they are so inclined). For me, such inclusion is part of what it means to follow the teachings of Jesus.

All that said, the church–any church–is not here primarily for our convenience. Or as that great theologian Pink once said, “I’m not here for your entertainment.” Church–for me– is largely about community. And in community we do our best to work together; and that means we all have to make individual sacrifices at times for the good of the whole. And while all the world’s great religions emphasize love, there is also a very strong component of communal responsibility and accountability in these traditions.

Who knows? Maybe that lack of communal responsibility, sacrifice and accountability has been at the core of all our ecclesial hangovers. That is, we’ve overindulged in convenience–in the forms of Constantine, Luther, Warren, etc.– to the point when we can no longer sustain the high convenience brings, the hangover kicks in.

Maybe it’s time for a bit of recovery…

Blessings on your journeys!