Category Archives: Christianity

Excruciatingly Neutral

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” 

Elie Wiesel

Last week I had the privilege of attending a clergy luncheon for People of Faith for Equality Virginia. The guest speakers were LGBT students who shared their experiences–both positive and negative–of being out as LGBT in their high schools. Living in northern Virginia–the blue slice of an otherwise very red state–most of the experiences with their peers were, fortunately, positive.

At the same time, when asked about their experiences with teachers and staff, one student said, “Excruciatingly neutral.” She explained that while most teachers and staff didn’t harass them, neither did they take an active stand for LGBT students. It was as if these adults were afraid of being seen as “too supportive” of LGBT students or perhaps as LGBT themselves.

And when it came to their church homes? You guessed it–excruciatingly neutral.

The churches they attend are welcoming enough. Some of them even fly a rainbow flag to let LGBT folk of all ages know those congregations are welcoming and safe spaces. The challenge in these congregations is there is little to no active advocacy for LGBT students–and especially for “T” (transgender) students. So what seems to be the issue?

I think part of the issue is the tendency of progressive/liberal communities of faith to be “excruciatingly neutral” in general. That is, we don’t want to be seen as exclusive; we want to genuinely welcome everyone into our communities. And if we’re serious about extending such a radical welcome, that means we can’t afford to go too far in any one direction, right?

Well, yes and no.

First, regardless of what we may think of the exclusive theology and practices of many conservative communities of faith, we have to admit that at least we know where they stand. You either agree with them or you’re somehow an agent of “the Enemy.” In progressive/liberal communities of faith, such exclusivity is the enemy. We try to make room for a wide variety of opinions on any number of issues. That position makes active advocacy on many issues a challenge because, well, “some people” may not be ready to move forward. And being the good progressives we are, we want to give people time to make informed decisions–hopefully in agreement with our desires, of course.

While such sensitivity is admirable–and I believe, necessary–in our communities of faith, it is even more vital for us to not allow that sensitivity to prevent us from living out our missions and visions. So if part of our mission and vision is active support of LGBT issues, we actively support LGBT issues through as many appropriate avenues as possible–and that includes advocacy for LGBT youth. If feeding the homeless and addressing poverty issues are important to us, then we actively work in those areas. You get the point.

We are never, however, excruciatingly neutral.

“But what about those who aren’t on board?” you might ask. “What if you offend people? What if big donors leave?”

Well, those are good questions and they represent real possibilities. I’ll admit I try not to purposely offend people with my views (although I still manage to do so at times); and I’m willing to listen to different and respectfully presented points of view (note: I have no patience for negative drama and triangulation). And let’s face it, like many of my clergy colleagues, finances are almost always a part of the fabric of community life. It’s just the way life works.

At the same time, if an excruciating neutrality on critical issues is necessary to ensure our survival, haven’t we missed the point of being a community of faith altogether?

Blessings on your journeys!

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Polite or Welcoming? Part 2

A couple of weeks ago I posted an entry in which I shared my thoughts regarding the difference between being polite and welcoming. I based this entry on an experience Richard and I had with a social club here in D.C. where the group was indeed polite, yet when it came time to make room for us, no one seemed especially moved to do so. They already had their internal groups of close friends; and we formed the impression that, if we wanted to join this group, that was fine; we would just have to find our own way. Again, the head of the group and the social director were very nice–just what you would expect. At the same time, we felt rather invisible. So our search for a non-church related social group continues.

I compared this experience to church world. Often we are very polite to newcomers–and that’s how it should be. Pastors and other leaders try to make sure new people don’t feel invisible–just what you would expect from church leadership. At the same time, throughout my 40-plus years of church history–the last 13 as a clergy person–I’ve noticed many of our communities (whether we realize it or not) operate much like this social club. That is, we have our close friends; so when church is over we tend to hang out together–or we leave very soon after worship to eat lunch together or simply go our separate ways.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this behavior, either. In fact, it’s quite normal. We hang out with the people with whom we feel most comfortable. Sunday tends to be one of those days we like to be alone, too–especially if we’ve had a rough week. We come to church, receive some spiritual nourishment and go home and relax. And let’s be honest; not everyone has that extrovert gene which enables them to approach complete strangers and invite them into the group. So my intention with that post was not to beat up on church folk; it was to simply draw attention to this behavior in hopes that a few folks would notice that behavior in themselves and then make a sincere effort to go beyond “polite” to “welcoming” when they see new people in their midst.

There is, however, another side to this coin…

Sometimes new people like to fly under the radar. These are the people who are polite during the hug fest we call “Passing the Peace;” they listen intently to the music and the sermons; many even come forward for communion. And then, without speaking a word to anyone, they rush out the door as soon as the last “amen” is uttered. And while at MCC NoVA we don’t have an official “reception line” where people must greet the pastor, I do stand at the door between the sanctuary and social hall in order to greet anyone who desires that greeting. Even with a low-key approach, sometimes new people have purposely avoided making eye contact with me as they head for the door as quickly as possible–again not speaking a word to anyone.

I can’t tell you how many times that when I’ve witnessed this behavior I’ve rehearsed the entire service over and over in my mind. Was it the sermon? Was it the music? Did someone cross a personal space boundary during Passing the Peace by hugging the person when they didn’t want a hug? Was it something else?

What I’ve learned is you will drive yourself crazy if you obsess on why a new person bolted for the door immediately following a service. The truth is, while it could be any of the reasons I’ve mentioned above, some people don’t come to church for close  human contact. They prefer to observe, hopefully receive a blessing of some type from the service and then leave. Some people have social anxiety challenges, which means it probably took every ounce of strength they had to walk through our doors.

In the end, perhaps the best we can do is to be aware of our own behaviors. That is, let’s try to move beyond politeness to offering a sincere welcome. At the same time, if people don’t respond to our welcome, that’s O.K., too. Respect that choice, let it go and be at peace.

Blessings on your journeys!

 

 

 

 

 

Can These Bones Live? Part 1

There’s a vision story in the bible’s book of Ezekiel chapter 37 in which the prophet Ezekiel–at God’s request–prophesies to a valley of dry bones (symbolic of the house of Israel at that particular time in its history). As he prophesied, the bones began to do the old “shake, rattle and roll” and came together. Once the bones came together, muscles and then skin formed on them. Still, they did not really live. It took another round of prophesying from Ezekiel before the now corpse-like multitude actually “lived.”

One thing I like about this story is it can be interpreted as a vision of community renewal that occurs in stages. That is, Ezekiel didn’t just say a few words, wave his hand, sprinkle some holy water on the bones and voila–instant healthy, living, loving community! Scattered bones; then connected bones; then muscles; then skin; then life–and it didn’t happen all at once.

Something else I like about this story is what appears to be Ezekiel’s honest assessment of the community. When asked, “Can these bones live?” he replies, in effect, “God only knows.”

Ever have one of those days in your life?

So as I read the story, Ezekiel, while perhaps not totally convinced, was still open to the possibility of his community’s renewal. Starting with “good bones,” so to speak, Ezekiel began the work of renewal. Things began to come together. The community grew stronger and things were looking good (let’s face it; compared to scattered dry bones, flesh and bone bodies–even inanimate ones–were a big improvement), Still, he didn’t stop prophesying until real life was evident in the community.

And I would like to believe the prophesying continued well beyond the initial renewal. It most likely took a different emphasis, too; after all, they were a different community than before their renewal. Perhaps they learned that many of their old ways of doing and being together led to their initial “death,” and that in renewal, they were going to have to change–if they wanted to live, that is.

Can these bones live? It’s a good question for churches of all types to ponder. Citing the growing number of people who claim no religious affiliation, the decline of Christianity of all types (at least in the United States), there is no shortage of articles and books that have already pronounced the church dead–it’s just a matter of time.

Can these bones live? Faced with this question, rather than say, “God only knows,” many religious folk immediately say, “Of course! All we have to do is change our music…or order of worship…or education program…or pastor. We have to learn how to be “cool” so young people will fill our seats. Let’s hang a few rainbow flags and become open and affirming of LGBT folk.”

Or… “Of course! All we have to do is throw ourselves on the mercy of an angry and jealous God because we aren’t paying enough attention to him (and this god is ALWAYS a him). We need to make sure we are doctrinally pure! We have to kick the queers out of church! (unless they’re closeted, musically talented and substantial financial contributors, that is). We have to get “back to the bible.” (whatever that means).

Here’s a thought. When asking the question “Can these bones live?”, why not consider the answer, “God only knows.” I’m not implying we should just throw our hands up in the air, sit back and “watch God work,” either. To me that’s not faithfulness, that’s laziness. So what do I mean when I say consider the answer “God only knows?”

Stay tuned…

Blessings on your journeys!

Whose Religious Freedom?

“While these Christians (the majority in a recent poll) are particularly concerned that religious freedoms are being eroded in this country, “they also want Judeo-Christians to dominate the culture,”―David Kinnaman

Most people are now at least aware of the alleged “religious rights” bill awaiting Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s signature or veto. I understand both senators and one of the bill’s original supporters want her to veto the bill, as do a large number of major businesses and–get this–religious people of all types.

Of course Arizona isn’t the only state that has considered this type of legislation. According to an article by Jaime Fuller in the Washington Post, there is a flood of similar “religious freedom” legislation in various stages from dead to close to passing both bodies of state government. Fuller even missed a few states in the article like Indiana, Georgia and Missouri. With that in mind, my best estimate is that “religious freedom” legislation in one form or another has been or is being considered in at least 15 states. Why?

From Fuller’s article:

“As states and federal courts have slowly expanded gay rights, groups pushing for increased religious protections have tried to coax momentum in the other direction, through both law and lawsuit…The catalyst for the recent flood of religious exemption legislation seems to have been a number of court cases that were decided in favor of LGBT clients who were denied wedding services.”

I agree with this assessment. In fact, I’ll take it a bit further. I think religious conservatives know that they have most likely lost on the issue of marriage equality. Their world is changing rapidly, and they are desperate to maintain any semblance of control they think they might have on society by playing the “religious freedom” card.

Supporters of such legislation insist it isn’t about discrimination but about protecting freedom. While I strongly disagree with these people, I want to take this conversation in another direction.

For me, “religious freedom” legislation isn’t about religion at all. It isn’t even about Christianity. As I pointed out earlier, there are many faithful Christian people who oppose this type of legislation. No, this type of legislation is meant to legalize the bigotry of a small, twisted branch of conservative Christianity to whom politicians desperate for attention pander. Impotent to govern on the larger issues of healthcare, the economy and so forth, they focus on an issue they think they can control.

If you disagree with me, from Fuller’s article, consider these words from Mississippi state senator Hob Bryan, where the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” has passed the Senate, but not yet the House:

“State Senator Hob Bryan said he was worried because the legislation’s expansive decree would protect all religions during floor debate on the bill. “This bill applies to all religions, including Islam, Buddhism and New Age religions,” he said soon after the bill made it through the Senate, according to the Associated Press. “We need to think carefully about the implications of it.”

Did you catch that? the good senator is concerned because their proposed religious freedom legislation would protect all religions. Of course the funny thing is I haven’t read about large numbers of non-Christian religious people who support this type of legislation anyway. Can you imagine, however, the uproar if a Muslim business owner refused business services to a conservative Christian based on religious objections? Or better yet, what if a liberal Christian refused business services to a conservative Christian based on religious objections?

I recently read a quote attributed to one of our founding fathers, John Adams:

“This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.”  

And if the religion to which he was referring is the type protected by “religious freedom” legislation, all I can say is, “Amen, brother!”

We’re better than this, folks. Let’s show the world the beautiful side of religion–whichever religion(s) you choose to practice. For such religion needs no government protection.

Blessings on your journeys!

Woogie Church

One of the things I love about moving to a new area of the country is all the new “fun facts” you learn. For example, since moving to Northern Virginia, among other things, I’ve learned: 1)Highway 66 is its own little special slice of hell–day or night. In fact,  66 made me briefly re-consider the possibility of hell being a real place. 2) Avoid the Beltway as often as possible–unless you have an E-Z Pass–and even then beware.  3) If it snows more than one inch, work from home–period. 4) Before leaving home make sure the gas tank is full and your bladder is empty.

My education, however, has not been limited to traffic flow–as nerve (and bladder) saving as that education has been. My vocabulary has increased, too. I’ve already shared my thoughts on one new word: Christian-ish. Today I’m sharing a recently new (to me) word: “Woogie.”

I learned this term from yet another colleague (I have such fun and interesting colleagues!).  Unlike with Christian-ish, this time I asked for a definition. Are you ready? From my colleague: “I don’t know that  there is any official definition. For me, I suppose…maybe it would be what would happen if “Weird and “Spooky” had a kid…out there.”

Of course, as is the case with beauty, woogie is in the eye of the beholder.  What is cool, creative and perfectly fine for one person is woogie to another. And to me there is no better example of the “great woogie divide” than church world.

Historically conservative traditions (Church of Christ, most forms of Pentecostalism, Baptists and the Anglicans for example) consider the more liberal traditions (i.e., United Church of Christ, Episcopalians, Evangelical Lutherans and some Presbyterians) rather woogie. And then some (yet not all) of those liberal counterparts point to the Unitarian Universalists and the denomination where I serve–Metropolitan Community Churches–and say to our conservative friends, “You think we’re woogie?  Consider the UU’s and MCC. Now they are woogie!”

Of course the more conservative folk among us don’t think they’re woogie–they prefer to think of themselves as “the faithful remnant.” And let’s be fair, OK? We religious liberals don’t usually like to think of ourselves as woogie, either. We prefer “cutting edge.” Plus we tend to think of our conservative counterparts as pretty woogie, too.

So what makes a church woogie–in a good way? Well, as there is no official definition of woogie, neither is there an official “woogie characteristics list.” So here are my thoughts.

Consider my colleague’s definition; “weird”; “spooky”; “out there.” Using those descriptors, woogie can have a negative connotation, or it can simply represent something quite different–perhaps even in a good way. One thing woogie is not, however, is neutral. Neither, do I believe, is woogie always fashionable. With those thoughts in mind, let’s return to our question, “What makes a church woogie–in a good way?”

For me, woogie churches are inclusive. Inclusivity includes welcoming agnostics, atheists and people of different faiths into full, healthy participation in our churches, as well.  Inclusivity includes the embrace of a variety of social justice issues as resources permit. Inclusivity means an openness to other theological perspectives–whether or not we ultimately accept those perspectives. And just so I’m clear, woogie churches aren’t inclusive to be fashionable and/or increase their attendance and improve their financial positions–although those things could happen.

Now, you may be read this and think, “Wait! Doesn’t that mean you’re neutral–anything goes?” Not at all. Every church has its own culture–its own “vibe,” if you will. And different communities appeal to different people. For example, I pastor a church that is considered culturally Christian; yet we are not neutral in our position that everyone without exception is welcome to participate in positive ways in our church. Most of our folks are not big on cross imagery or atonement theology.  We love Jesus and read from the bible each week in our services. And we read from the writings of other faiths as well as other sources and incorporate those ideas in our reflections.

While we’re culturally Christian, we do not require baptism or a confession of faith in order to receive communion or to become a “voting” member of the community. We feed hungry and homeless people. We march for justice and contact our legislators. We raise money to fight HIV/AIDS. And we don’t do these things to be fashionable. We don’t do these things to punch our tickets for a sweet afterlife or to avoid eternal damnation, either. These–and other–characteristics are simply part of our communal identity. And as much as I love our community, we are far from perfect and realize we can’t be all things to all people. We’re too Christian for some people; we aren’t Christian enough for others. And for other folks, we’re just “right.” You could say we’re both Christian-ish and woogie.

And to me, that’s a good thing…

Blessings on your journeys!

Christian Persecution Complex

As most people know by now, Jason Collins came out this week as the first active gay athlete in the NBA. In fact, if I understand correctly, he is the first active openly gay athlete in any of the major sports leagues. His announcement was met with an amazing amount of support–even from the President himself!

Of course not everyone was happy with Collins’ revelation–especially many conservative Christians. That’s OK; we’re all entitled to hold and respectfully express our viewpoints. At the same time, some of the commentary from “Christians” has been anything but respectful; in fact, some of the commentary has been quite hate-filled. And to be fair, not all of the commentary from “progressives” has been civil, either.

Something I don’t understand, however, is how some Christians have taken Collins’ announcement and turned it into a big pity party with Christian persecution as the primary theme. One post that landed on my Facebook page stated it was OK to profess being gay in the military, but professing your Christianity could get you discharged. And while I am still dubious of the validity of this post, I checked out the link for this claim, and the word used is “proselytize,” not profess. In other words, no religious conversion therapy allowed. Another post read: “Tim Tebow gets bashed for professing Christianity. Jason Collins gets praised for professing homosexuality.” Then there was a scripture reference from Isaiah about the dangers of calling evil good.

Chicago Tribune political cartoonist Scott Stantis added his two cents, as well. This week he published a cartoon that in the first frame depicted Tim Tebow telling the media he’s a Christian, and the media tells him to keep it to himself. The second frame is a depiction of Jason Collins telling the media he’s gay, and the media calls him a hero. You can see the cartoon and accompanying commentary at:  http://newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/taking-a-stantis/2013/04/collinstebow-and-the-media.html.

Stantis states: ” This cartoon is a comment not so much on either Tebow or Collins but,  rather, on the media and the culture we live with today. The fact that  we seem to care more about what a high-profile athlete does with his  privates versus what they believe. Faith often informs a person how to  treat themselves and others around them. In Tebow’s case his profession  of faith was often met with derision.”

First, there is absolutely no comparison in the stories of these two athletes. Tim Tebow is a white, heterosexual evangelical Christian male–not exactly an oppressed minority in the United States. He is not the first professional athlete to profess his Christianity. He is, however, probably the first to apply for a trademark for his prayer pose (otherwise known as “Tebowing”). And let’s not forget the nickname some folks gave him when he played for the Denver Broncos: “The Mile High Messiah.” He received a hero’s welcome when he moved to the New York Jets, too. Although if you want to carry the Messiah imagery forward, Denver was like a Palm Sunday party and New York resembled Good Friday.  And so far, no resurrection. Tebow’s brand of Christianity received far more positive media exposure than it was ever bashed. And I’m fairly certain there aren’t many young men struggling with the decision of whether or not to be “openly Christian” for fear of not being able to play the sport of their choice.

Jason Collins, on the other hand, is a member of two historically oppressed minorities. He is the first active professional athlete to come out as gay. And we all know there are young LGBT people out there who struggle with the decision of whether or not to come out–and not being able to play the sports of their choice is often the least of their concerns. So, yeah, to me Jason Collins is a hero.

The only thing I can see these two men have in common is they are both Christians. Unless, of course, you agree with ESPN analyst Chris Broussard’s definition of Christian–a definition that excludes Collins and a host of other folks, including me. Actually, I consider that kind of exclusion a compliment.

Adding to the whole Christian persecution complex was National Organization for Marriage president Jennifer Roback-Morse, who told Lutheran Public Radio on Tuesday that it takes no courage to come out as gay. Something tells me she hasn’t read the homeless statistics for LGBT youth who are thrown out of their homes once they come out. Roback-Morse went on to say she believes it took more courage for Chris Broussard to say  he’s a Christian and that he believes “sex belongs in marriage and it belongs in man-woman marriage.”

Yeah, it sure takes a lot of courage to profess you’re part of the religious majority, doesn’t it?

Here’s a thought. Maybe it isn’t as much the profession of faith as it is how that faith is shared that turns people off. Just because some people object to what largely amounts to Christian proselytizing–again, not profession of Christian faith–doesn’t mean Christians are being persecuted in the United States. Not praying in schools or before athletic events doesn’t mean anyone’s religious freedoms are being violated, either. And I don’t really care what words are on our currency. Given the war, poverty and various forms of oppression and abuse in the world, do you really think God cares whether or not the word “God” is on our currency?

As I’ve seen it expressed in other places, freedom of religion doesn’t mean just your religion. Or mine.

So let’s all take a step back and relax. No one is trying to steal anyone’s religious freedom. Then let’s get out there and feed some hungry people, clothe folks who need it, house people who need it, and profess our faiths in ways that make a real difference in the world.

Blessings on your journeys!

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!

Identity Issues

I’m old enough to remember when the answer to identity questions were fairly simple. You were either black or white, gay or straight, male or female, Christian or not Christian–you get the point.

The times, however, they are a changin’…

For various reasons, some people who are “racially black” might consider themselves more “white” than “black,” and vice versa. Younger people especially tend to see sexual orientation as fluid and not as a once-for-all fixed identity (I’ve seen examples of this phenomenon in the congregation I serve). Gender identity is now all over the map–male, female, transgender, gender queer, gender non-conforming, and I am sure I’ve missed at least one if not more gender identifications. To give you an example of how confusing the issue of identity can be for some folks, I know a person who identifies as biologically male with a heterosexual orientation, and whose gender and emotional identification and presentation is female. I cannot begin to imagine the issues with which this person must deal on a day-to-day basis. And for the record, she isn’t the one who is confused–it is me and many of her friends who don’t “get it.”

Then there is the matter of religious identification–in this case, specifically identification as a Christian.

I was raised as a Christian. And until I was 13, I thought there was only one kind of Christian–Apostolic, Oneness, Pentecostal Christian. Other folks were nice enough–just wrong, and unfortunately going to hell–especially the Catholics.

Then I met Mrs. Howser…

Mrs. Howser is the mother of a young man I babysat when I was 13. To me, she was June Cleaver Incarnate. Beautiful, polite, the perfect homemaker direct from the pages of a 1960’s Home Economics textbook (although with a part-time job at a local department store, she was pushing the boundaries of that image). At the same time, Mrs. Howser was–and probably still is–a Methodist. As a newly converted Pentecostal, I remember once “witnessing” to Mrs. Howser about “the truth” of Jesus Christ (at least the version of “truth” I was taught at my church).

I will never forget her response. She gently explained to me how, while she didn’t always go to church, she prayed, watched church on television when her husband didn’t take her to church, and how she knew in her heart how much Jesus loved her–as he loved all people–regardless of what church they did or did not attend. Nevertheless, some of my friends at my church insisted that no matter how nice Mrs. Howser was, she was still going to hell because she was a Trinitarian who had not spoken in tongues and was not baptized correctly (in the name of Jesus).

As I look back on my life, I think that was the point I started leaving the church–at least in spirit. In my mind there was no way God would send Mrs. Howser to hell for eternity. I mean, really, what could she do to merit that sentence? Wear a little too much lipstick? Wear eye shadow and dye her hair? Wear jewelry other than her wedding ring? Actually love people for who they were–like Jesus did? Seriously?

41 years later I’m now the pastor of a “Christian” church. Who says the Universe doesn’t have a sense of humor? I put the Christian in quotation marks because we’re all over the theological map at the church I serve. We have former–and not so former–Catholics, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ folk, Trinitarians, Unitarians, agnostics, humanists–you name it–chances are you will find a kindred soul in our community of 60 or so folks.

So what unites us? To be honest, I’m not sure. That is the question we’re examining in 2013 at Holy Covenant. Are we a Christian church? Well, I guess that depends on your definition of “Christian” (and like “legion,” the definitions are many). I do know everyone at Holy Covenant loves Jesus and his teachings–even the annoying ones; and I know we believe different things about Jesus, his origins, life purpose, death and resurrection. Not everyone at Holy Covenant believes in a Supreme Being God; yet there is a respect and reverence for Mystery. The bible is holy–and so are the writings of other faiths. We represent the spectrum of orientations, gender identity and age, too. So what unites us?

Perhaps it is our humanity…

Blessings on your journeys!

“Fowl!”

Chances are by now you have heard about the controversy birthed by the comments of Chick-Fil-A Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy. In case you haven’t, here are the quotes taken from a recent Huffington Post article by Juliet Jeske (by the way, I strongly recommend reading her article, too):

“We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.”

Some have opposed the company’s support of the traditional family. “Well, guilty as charged,” Cathy said when asked about the company’s position. “We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.”

Jeske’s article then effectively proceeds to challenge Cathy’s “operate on biblical principles” comment by quoting several bible verses which make it quite clear that Chick-Fil-A does not consistently operate on biblical principles.  During an appearance on the Ken Coleman Show Cathy is also quoted as saying:

“I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,’ and I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is about.”

First, I may have missed it, but whenever photos of happy LGBT couples exchanging vows or leaving courthouses with marriage or civil union licenses in hand are published in the newspaper or posted online somewhere, I’ve yet to see anyone shaking their fists at God, or pumping the air with their fists while saying something like, “Yeah, take that, God! In your face!”

Second, and speaking only for myself, if we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation, I would lean more to reasons like passing legislation that attempts to balance local, state, and national budgets on the backs of the elderly and poor, while the military budget is practically untouchable. After all, you can’t have too many nuclear weapons, now can you? And all these things happen while the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow.

How about inviting God’s judgment on our nation for our support of a culture of violence made far too real in the recent beating and death of an elderly man in Chicago–a beating that was part of some sick game–or a nation that allows people to buy massive amounts of ammunition online with no background checks; or a nation that allows the purchase of assault weapons by people who have absolutely no reason to purchase these types of firearms? Nope; I guess LGBT folks falling in love, establishing stable relationships and seeking equal treatment under the law are what really annoy God.

What I think Mr. Cathy–and his supporters–either don’t understand, or choose to ignore, is the model of biblical marriage they so vigorously try to protect isn’t the only model of marriage in the bible. Owning–yes, owning–multiple wives and concubines was a common practice in the Old Testament. Love may have been an added bonus in some of these marriages; at the same time, it appears marriage during Old Testament times was more about power, property ownership and procreation that would ensure not only the survival of various tribes of people, but also provide them with the potential to develop strong armies to conquer and control weaker tribes–all in God’s name, of course.

When you raise such complicated issues, however, often what you hear resembles some of the theological acrobatics posted in the comments section following Jeske’s article. For example, one person claimed that all the laws from Leviticus she quoted were “pre-exilic,” and there was a new covenant established after the exile in Babylon was over. OK. So I guess that means the Ten Commandments are off the table, too, huh? I’ve also heard the argument that some of the laws in Leviticus were ceremonial and some were moral. So when Jesus came the ceremonial laws were null and void, but the moral laws stand forever. I’m not exactly sure where Jesus made that distinction; actually, I don’t think he did. As a matter of fact, if I remember correctly, Jesus basically said that all the law and prophets could be summed up by loving God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself.

Disagree with some of these folks, however, and you risk being charged with attacking traditional Christian values, persecuting Christians, and/or violating First Amendment rights to free speech and exercise of religion. Or as in the case of Chick-Fil-A, some people cry, “Fowl!” If you think I’m exaggerating, just read some of the religious-based commentary from people supporting Dan Cathy. Yes, some of the commentary from people who disagree with Mr. Cathy is ugly, too, and such commentary isn’t helpful if we want to encourage healthy debate. At the same time, I get the impression that there are quite a few people on both sides of this issue who have no interest in such debate. They are, as UCC pastor and author Robin Meyers says, more interested in being right than being loving.

And when we are more interested in being right than we are in being loving, we often wind up being neither.

Brand Loyalty

I recently notified the Board of Directors of the church I serve and the Director of the Office of Formation and Leadership Development (OFLD) of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC)  that I am seeking plural standing in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). There was no weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth–which I consider to be a good start. I have also affiliated with a nearby Unitarian Universalist (UU) church. The senior minister understands I “work” most Sundays; so I will connect with them primarily through small group studies, monthly Taize worship services and other UU functions as I am able.

As I explained to the board, Director of the OFLD, my spouse, some colleagues and other family and friends, there are multiple reasons for my decision. First, all you have to do is read this blog, listen to a few of my sermons or just sit down and chat with me to quickly realize that theologically and spiritually I am a UU. Trust me, this realization did not happen overnight; and it was just as much of a surprise to me as it was to some of my friends, family and colleagues. So it makes sense for me to seek spiritual growth, challenge and community with other UU’s as I am able to do so.

There are also professional considerations. Whatever else you choose to call it, ordained ministry is also a profession. Most of my colleagues from all denominations and associations studied for years, made sacrifices and incurred signficant student loan debt in order to pursue what they feel is their life’s calling. And not only did we make sacrifices, many of our families did so as well.

It is no surprise, too, that the changing religious, cultural and economic landscapes have made finding suitable employment increasingly difficult for a growing number of clergy regardless of affiliation. More and more warm and loving congregations need strong leadership, yet can’t afford to pay their ministers a livable wage. And finding adequate part-time work to supplement part-time ministerial wages is often difficult at best–especially given the on-call nature of pastoral duties. That is, it’s rather hard to leave one job in the middle of a shift to address a pastoral care emergency and expect your supervisor to always understand.

These realities are, for the most part, no one’s fault. They just are. And since most denominations do not guarantee employment (nor should they, in my opinion), I believe it’s reasonable for professional ministers to expand not only their options for spiritual growth and challenge, but for future service opportunities as well. It is also important for clergy like me, who are incredibly blessed to be fully employed at this time, to be aware of the evolving nature, needs and challenges of institutional religion as well as the larger culture itself; and then do what is necessary to serve in those ever-changing scenarios while remaining fully engaged in and available to our current communities. Either that, or pray we win the lottery so we can retire when our positions and institutions–as they currently stand–lose their value and relevance. And they will, if we don’t find creative ways of living out our callings in the 21st century and beyond.

“But what about loyalty?” some may ask.

I understand the question. After all, when you have one foot in one world and one in another, isn’t your loyalty somehow divided? In years past, I have used that same logic when people hold dual membership in churches. So I guess the answer to this question largely depends on how one defines “loyalty.” In this particular example, I was probably questioning loyalty from a “branding” perspective, which when it comes to churches usually involves concerns over sharing resources of time, talent, and finances. In other words, when you’re at Church A, you’re sharing resources you could be sharing with US. How could you? Where’s your loyalty?

To me, loyalty primarily relates to whom or to what you feel ultimately accountable, and I was given a chance to explore that question at a recent UU District Conference in a workshop led by Rev. Marilyn Sewell. One of the group discussion questions was simply, “To whom or to what do you feel ultimately accountable?” In traditional Christianity, that “ultimate” is usually expressed as “God,” or some Christians may narrow it further to God as expressed in Jesus Christ; and people tend to express that loyalty through participation in a local community of faith. In UU world–and in a portion of MCC world–however, that “ultimate” includes those viewpoints and several others. It was quite the conversation, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

In fact, it was that conversation that convinced me I am doing what is right for me by seeking plural standing in MCC and the UUA. You see, for me, I am ultimately accountable not to a particular brand, but to doing what I can to serve the Greater Good–to do what I can to leave a positive print on this world. Some people would call that serving God. At this time in my life, my chosen path for this service is through ordained ministry. So the more I can learn, grow, challenge and be challenged, the more opportunity I have to effectively fulfill that accountability as the world continues to evolve over time.

So, I leave you with a question: “To whom or to what are you ultimately accountable?”

May we all find our answers to this question–and then peacefully live out those answers through our words and actions.

Blessed be.