Thursday, January 10, 2019

Bigotry in the Name of God Is Blasphemy

Senators Tim Scott, Kamalah Harris and Cory Booker, sponsors of the Anti-Lynching Bill
Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates a brother or sister is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.
I John 2:9-11

For Christians, this is Epiphany, the season of light. We celebrate the light of the world, which we see in Jesus. And we remind ourselves that we believe in light rather than darkness.

Regardless of our religious affiliation or lack of it, light is a powerful image which speaks to the heart of our spiritual journey. We are always seeking more light; always doing our best to choose light over darkness; reminding ourselves that we can trust the light.

It is a struggle, because we are tempted by the darkness. Often the world seems to love darkness more than light. And there are some who will try to make us believe that darkness is light, and light is darkness.

Sometimes the campaign against the light is led by people who call themselves Christian.

In an online article for NBC News, Brooke Sopelsa reports that the Liberty Counsel, a self-proclaimed evangelical nonprofit that opposes gay rights, is opposing a bill that would explicitly make lynching a federal crime.

Liberty Counsel Chairman Mat Staver explained that the group opposes the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act because it specifically includes protections for LGBTQ people.

"The old saying is once that camel gets the nose in the tent, you can't stop them from coming the rest of the way in," Staver told the conservative Christian news outlet OneNewsNow. “This is a way to slip it in under a so-called anti-lynching bill, and to then to sort of circle the wagon and then go for the juggler [sic] at some time in the future."

The anti-lynching bill was introduced in June by by the Senate’s three black members, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. It addresses lynchings motivated by a victim’s “actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.”

In a statement after the bill passed the senate unanimously, Senator Booker remarked:

“For over a century, members of Congress have attempted to pass some version of a bill that would recognize lynching for what it is: a bias-motivated act of terror. And for more than a century, and more than 200 attempts, this body has failed. We have righted that wrong and taken corrective action that recognizes this stain on our country’s history.”

One might think that an anti-lynching bill was at least a century too late to make any difference, but the opposition proves it is still needed.

Mat Staver and the Liberty Counsel hope they can stop it before it passes the house where they are lobbying Lawmakers to remove protections for “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” before taking a vote.

They want to make it clear: they oppose lynching. They simply object to including the specific protections for LGBTQ persons.

The Liberty Counsel is not promoting liberty or Christianity. They are darkness rather than light.

In the words of John’s letter, “whoever hates a brother or sister is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.”

Epiphany is a good time to remind ourselves that Christians are always called to walk in the light, and choose light over darkness. Bigotry is always wrong.

But Christians have a special responsibility to reject bigotry in the name of God.

Bigotry in the name of God is blasphemy.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Collateral Damage

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”
Matthew 23:23-24

We need to be absolutely clear that in the Christian Church’s war on LGBTQ persons, our LGBTQ siblings have borne the overwhelming weight of the suffering. The Traditionalists often claim that they have had no desire to hurt anyone, but that does not mitigate the pain they have inflicted.

But there has also been collateral damage.

And the collateral damage should not be underestimated. It is wide and deep and it will have lasting effects on the whole church.

We have trivialized our understanding of the Bible.

We are straining out gnats and swallowing camels.

There are seven passages in the Bible that are typically used to “prove” that the Bible condemns same sex relationships. They consist of a few hundred words; a small fraction of the total word count of nearly a million.

And these seven “clobber verses” are all problematic in one way or another. When Christians act as if an authoritative biblical witness can be found by lifting these seven passages out of context we trivialize the whole Bible.

Those who read the Bible this way become de facto literalists and they make it much more difficult to appreciate the Bible as a guide to faith. It becomes a rule book rather than an inspiring narrative. Instead of being a book of big ideas, it becomes a book of isolated verses.

And those who have tried to counter the condemnations of the traditionalists have typically joined the debate on those same terms. We counter one series of passages with another. We cite verses. And even though we may be using those verses as illustrations rather than as proof texts, to the secular world it looks like proof-texting.

It is more like a game of biblical trivia than an honest exploration of the biblical witness. And the result is that we diminish the meaning of the Scriptures.

We appear to care more about archaic and anachronistic rules than we do about actual human beings. The traditionalists may claim to be honoring Scripture. And that may be their honest intention. But in practical terms, they achieve a high view of Scripture by making a few verses more important than the people for whom the whole biblical witness is intended.

We have trivialized the meaning of sin.

Paul Tillich, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth (or any other) century, questioned whether the Christian concept of sin could survive in the modern world. He argued that for modern people a more helpful word for sin is separation.  In his famous sermon, “You Are Accepted,” he described sin as a state of separation: separation from God, from others, and from ourselves. And he defined grace as the acceptance which overcomes that separation and reunites us with God, with others, and with ourselves.

If sin was a difficult concept in the middle of the twentieth century, it is nearly impossible now.

The traditionalist focus on the “sin” of same sex relationships is spectacularly unhelpful.

In the 21st century we do not see sex as inherently sinful. Forced sex is sinful. Unfaithfulness we can see as sinful. But sex between consenting and committed adults is not seen as sinful. Almost every couple I have married has been living together. And those that weren’t living together were typically splitting time between houses or apartments.

Focusing on the sin of same sex relationships comes off as hypocritical.

But that is not the biggest problem.

When we try to identify sin with same sex relationships we lose focus on the sins that are central to the biblical witness: economic and social injustice. The Bible is far more concerned with how we treat poor people than with our sex lives.

The focus on sex is petty and hypocritical and it takes away from issues that really should concern us as Christians.

We have made it look like we do not believe in science.

The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a mental illness from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) approximately twenty minutes after the United Methodist Church declared it to be “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Those of us who actually believed in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience) assumed it would not be long before the Book of Discipline caught up with the science and revised our understanding of same sex relationships. But we underestimated the growing influence of right wing theology and selective biblical literalism.

We are at odds with the best insights of science and medicine.

We appear backward, primitive, and superstitious.

And United Methodists find themselves lumped together with those who think the world was made in seven days five thousand years ago, and evolution is a hoax. Not surprisingly, this costs us credibility. But it goes far beyond sex and biology. The bad science undermines the biblical witness across a broad spectrum of ethical and moral issues.

It makes us appear irrelevant.

And then. Finally. We just look stupid.

Traditionalists can talk about being counter-cultural, and that could be a good thing. We should be counter-cultural in our rejection of violence, and greed, and selfishness.

At its core, Christianity is profoundly counter-cultural.

But this. Is just. Stupid.

As a wise person once observed, “Just because you are a fool does not mean you are a fool for Christ. Sometimes you’re just a damned fool.”

Those of us who are still affirming a faith that is open and accepting might hope that we would not be affected by the loud condemnations of the traditionalists. But it just doesn’t work that way.

Those who condemn our LGBTQ siblings do not speak for the whole church. They certainly do not speak for the whole of the United Methodist Church.

They do not speak for the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, The Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalists, and others.

And in a broader faith context they do not speak for Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist Judaism.

But to much of the secular world, and among many casual Christians, those voices of condemnation sound like the official voice of Christianity. And, in a general sense, condemnation seems like the singular voice of organized religion.

In the war on our LGBTQ siblings, Christianity is just collateral damage.

*It is important to read the 23rd chapter of Matthew within the context of our understanding that Jesus was himself a Pharisee and that what he describes is an internal conflict.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Friday, December 21, 2018

Was Mary a Virgin? (A Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent)

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

Luke 1:34-35

Christianity has a marketing problem.

Our most important marketing problem is that the Christian message has been hijacked by right-wing political groups.

But beyond that, we have a problem with our messaging. Christmas ought to be a slam dunk and it isn’t. In congregations that follow the lectionary, you know what I mean.

Over the first three Sundays of Advent, while the secular world is making spirits bright, we dedicate Sunday morning worship to the Apocalypse, John the Baptist, and John the Baptist.

Because apparently you can’t have too much John the Baptist.

Nothing expresses the joy of the season better than “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Finally, three paragraphs later, Luke says that “with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

 So it is a relief on the Fourth Sunday of Advent when we finally get to Mary and Elizabeth.

But Mary brings us another problem.

In his wonderful commentary on The New Testament, William Barclay observes that in Mary’s story, “we are face to face with one of the great controversial doctrines of the Christian faith—the Virgin Birth.”

Today, when much of the Christian Church has become captive to the biblical literalism of the Religious Right, it is important to reflect on Barclay’s perspective. When he was writing, in the middle of the last century, Barclay was one of the preeminent biblical scholars, and the very embodiment of orthodox scholarship. His work defined the center of center of Christian biblical theology.

In terms of the Virgin Birth, Barclay declares that “the church does not insist that we believe in this doctrine.”

We may choose to believe it, says Barclay, based on a literal reading of this passage as well as Matthew 1:18-25. And, he writes, “It is natural to argue that if Jesus was, as we believe, a very special person, he would have a very special entry into this world.”

But there are also excellent biblical reasons not to take the story literally. First, the genealogies in both Matthew and Luke trace Jesus’s ancestry through Joseph. Second, when Mary and Joseph finally find Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:48) she tells him that “Your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” Third, there are other references to Jesus as Joseph’s son (Matthew 13:55, John 6:42). And finally, the rest of the New Testament (Mark, John, and Paul’s letters) knows nothing of this story.

Barclay’s sets the story in the context of Jewish belief. “The Jews had a saying that in the birth of every child there are three partners—the father, the mother and the Spirit of God. They believed that no child could ever be born without the Spirit.” So these stories are “lovely, poetical ways of saying that, even if he had a human father, the Holy Spirit of God was operative in his birth in a unique way.”

This is more than an academic discussion because it goes to the very heart of how we understand the Bible. The insistence of literalism in this case suggests a literalistic approach to the Bible as a whole. When Christians (especially pastors and Sunday School teachers) insist on a  belief in the Virgin Birth, they invite prioritizing literalism over religious meaning.

And when we focus on literalism, it's easy to lose the meaning altogether.

The meaning of Jesus’s birth does not depend on a DNA test.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Listening to Marley's Ghost

“A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens, was published 175 years ago today. It is a message worth remembering, especially in a time when we seem to value the old Scrooge of greed over the new Scrooge of generosity and goodwill. 

One of the very odd things about our popular culture is that we often seem to have a universal reverence for books or movies that ought to be deeply controversial. And this is particularly true with regard to two of the most cherished productions of the Christmas season. 

The movie Frank Capra movie, "A Wonderful Life," and the Charles Dickens novel, "A Christmas Carol," both present stinging critiques of the worst excesses of capitalism.

In this iconic scene from "A Christmas Carol," Scrooge is confronted by the ghost of his old business partner Jacob Marley who has come back to warn him that selfishness is ultimately self-defeating.
“Jacob,'' said Scrooge, imploringly. ``Old Jacob Marley, tell me more. Speak comfort to me, Jacob.''
 “Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,'' cried the phantom, ``not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!''
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,'' faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!'' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!'' 
We live in a time in which Old Scrooge's definition of business triumphs over that of Marley's ghost. Dickens tells a story that we need to hear again.

Friday, December 14, 2018

A Craven Madness

For God did not give us a craven spirit, 
but rather a spirit of power 
and of love 
and of self-discipline.
II Timothy 1:7

I have been thinking about the children and teachers who were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, six years ago today.

But those reflections led me to another multiple shooting.

My guess is that you do not remember the May 23, 2014 killings in Isla Vista, California.

Neither did I.

There are so many killings, it’s hard to keep track.

I came across a reference to Isla Vista as I was researching gun control issues in relation to Sandy Hook.

I found that I wrote a blog post about it at the time, but I still had only the vaguest recollection. The bare facts are that a 22 year old young man named Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others before killing himself. 

In a manifesto he posted on “You Tube,” he called his plan “Rodger’s Retribution.” He said he planned to punish women for rejecting his sexual advances, and men for having more active sex lives than he did.

In the days following the killings, a Facebook “friend” had posted a link to Richard Martinez’s impassioned plea for gun control in the aftermath of his son’s death in Isla Vista, 

In a series of interviews, Martinez had called out the “gutless politicians” whose unwillingness to implement any meaningful restrictions in the availability of firearms was a major factor in his son’s killing. "Why did Chris die?" he yelled in one interview. "Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA. They talk about gun rights. What about Chris' right to live?"

Near that same time, another “friend” posted a link to an article in The Onion. I love the satire in The Onion, but this seemed in very bad taste. Above a picture of grieving college students was the headline: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” The article is short and it isn’t funny at all.
ISLA VISTA, CA—In the days following a violent rampage in southern California in which a lone attacker killed seven individuals, including himself, and seriously injured over a dozen others, citizens living in the only country where this kind of mass killing routinely occurs reportedly concluded Tuesday that there was no way to prevent the massacre from taking place. “This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them,” said North Carolina resident Samuel Wipper, echoing sentiments expressed by tens of millions of individuals who reside in a nation where over half of the world’s deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the past 50 years and whose citizens are 20 times more likely to die of gun violence than those of other developed nations. “It’s a shame, but what can we do? There really wasn’t anything that was going to keep this guy from snapping and killing a lot of people if that’s what he really wanted.” At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past five years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”
Why are we unable to do anything? Why are we so addicted to guns? And I know that three of the seven victims at Isla Vista were killed with a knife, so we could also ask why we are so addicted to violence. But guns are the common denominator in mass killings over the years.

As comedian John Oliver once observed, "One failed attempt at a shoe bomb and we all take off our shoes at the airport. Thirty-one school shootings since Columbine and no change in our regulation of guns."

After 9/11 we made drastic changes in airport security. Basically, we search everyone. We won’t allow anything more deadly than a paperclip carried on an airplane. We limit shampoo bottles to 3.4 ounces. We won’t let anyone park anywhere near the boarding areas. We tolerate restrictions that once would have seemed bizarre. And we do all of this to prevent another tragedy.

The total death toll on 9/11 was 2,996. The number still looks horrific. Even one death is too many.

But more than 30,000 people die each year in America from firearms. For the math-challenged, that would be ten times as many deaths every year.

About two-thirds of those deaths are suicides. If you don’t care about those deaths (and many don’t) you can feel free to discount them. Nine to ten thousand per year still seems like a lot, but maybe that’s just me.

And yes, I know people die all the time from all sorts of causes. I’m a pastor. I am well acquainted with grief. But that does not seem to me like a good excuse to do nothing.

We have lost approximately half a million lives to firearms since 9/11. This is madness. To borrow the word shared by Mr. Martinez and the Apostle Paul, this is craven madness.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.

*Parts of this post were originally published in May of 2014.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

In the Bleak Midwinter

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.
Luke 2:15-19

Christina Rossetti was born on this day in 1830.

Every year we sing her wonderful Christmas Carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” It was first published in 1872, and simply called “A Christmas Carol.”

As I write this in Rhode Island, it feels like midwinter. And much of the northern half of the United States is caught in a deep freeze. But Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (and Bethlehem, New Hampshire) are very different from Bethlehem in Israel, where the high today will be in the upper 50’s and next week it will be well into the 60’s.

The weather described in the Christmas Carol is very different from the usual winters in Israel.

And, of course, scholars tell us that it is very unlikely that Jesus was actually born in December anyway. We celebrate his birth in the winter because some very clever Christians co-opted the pagan celebration of the winter solstice.

(So in a way it is only fair that the pagans seem to have reclaimed it. Looking at how it has become a celebration of consumption, we may well think that Holden Caulfield was right when he said that if Jesus could see Christmas, he’d puke.)

But whatever our reservations about the loss of true meaning and the departure from the historical realities of Jesus’ birth, we love Christmas.

And we love the carols, and I especially love this one. It is not first on my list, but it is up there.

And within the carol, I love the idea that “heaven cannot hold Him,” and I love the last verse.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am? —
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him, —
Give my heart.

Of course, most of us who sing those lines in North America are not poor. By global standards, we are rich. Our problem is not that we cannot afford to give something to Jesus, but that we don’t want to. And we make believe we can’t in order to assuage our guilt.

We tell ourselves that although we cannot give something substantial in material terms, we will give our hearts. And by that, what we really mean is that we will feel all warm and fuzzy about Jesus and Christmas and our neighbors—at least for a few minutes in the glow of candles and Christmas lights.

I want to tell myself that this year will be different.

I really will give my heart to Jesus (again).

One of the great tragedies of modern Christianity is that for so many so-called Christians, it all comes down to believing. The only question is, do you believe the right things?

But to give one’s heart is more than believing.

Christian faith is not an intellectual exercise; it is an existential commitment.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish. 

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Preaching in the Age of Donald Trump

Preach the Word! Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound teaching, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves preachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.
II Timothy 4:2-4

Dad died twelve years ago today.

Part of his spiritual discipline was a regular reading of Oswald Chambers’ classic devotional, “My Utmost for His Highest.”

In his commentary on these verses, Chambers quotes from the King James Version: “This verse says, ‘Preach the Word! Be ready in season and out of season.’ In other words, we should ‘be ready’ whether we feel like it or not.” And then he observes, “If we do only what we feel inclined to do, some of us would never do anything. . . The proof that our relationship is right with God is that we do our best whether we feel inspired or not.

Dad was a United Methodist pastor and he was always ready to preach the Word. He was persistent and faithful “in season and out.”

But it is perhaps just as well that he is not preaching in the age of Donald Trump.

This is not an easy time to be a Christian pastor. For that matter, it’s not an easy time to be a Christian. It’s hard to be faithful without appearing to be intensely and explicitly political.

Of course, the Gospel is a political document, but it transcends partisan politics. And although Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets before him, proclaimed an undeniably political message, we should not identify that message with one party or candidate.

It’s hard not to appear partisan in the age of Trump because he has done so many explicitly anti-Christian things. We will pause now in silent remembrance. We could start with teargassing children, or separating families, but it’s a very long list. And it seems to just keep getting longer.

There is nothing partisan about those issues, but it is hard to address them without some folks seeing it in partisan terms.

Dad always worried less than I do about appearing partisan. Actually, he didn’t worry about appearances at all. To say that he was outspoken would be an understatement. And to his credit, he never counted the cost of his witness in personal terms.

I never ask myself what Dad would say about this, because I already know.

For Dad, it was always about justice. He looked for the practical application of the gospel in contemporary life. And he was never afraid to tell you what he saw. In his mind, he had no choice.

Dad served in the Navy during World War II, and then again during the Korean War. In March of 1945, as soon as he turned 17, he received his High School diploma early and enlisted. But as a pastor, he was deeply committed to world peace.

On Veterans Day in 1966, when our church was hosting the American Legion, Dad felt he had no choice but to preach about how war generally, and the Vietnam War specifically, was a denial of everything Christ taught.

Not surprisingly, it did not go over that well.

His outspoken witness often got him into trouble, but that never kept him quiet.

If parishioners were upset with him, he would listen patiently, and explain gently. And then he would say that he was sorry, but he had no choice. He was just doing what he had to do. It was his job to preach, in season and out.

Sometimes they would agree to disagree. Sometimes his persistent witness would win them over. And other times they would leave to look for another church, with a preacher who had the good sense not to meddle in “politics.”

As a pastor in the age of Trump, I find myself trying to thread the needle; to be faithful without giving offense. But the truth is that I probably worry too much about the second part and too little about the first.

Thank you for reading. Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. Please feel free to share on social media as you wish.