Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Lenten Experience of Law and Grace

Law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.
Romans 5:20

Through the mysterious algorithms of Facebook I was reminded of a blog post I wrote seven years ago after testifying in favor of Marriage Equality at a State House hearing. Thankfully, the legal issues have been largely settled, but the conflict in the church goes on. Much of what I wrote then applies to the conflict in the United Methodist Church today.

It was in many ways the perfect Lenten experience.

I was at the State House for almost six hours before it was my turn to testify.

I spoke briefly (but passionately, I hope) about how I believed that God is always calling us forward as Abraham and Sarah were called to leave home and journey toward "the land that I will show you." We are working toward the Kingdom of God and we are impatient with the present because we look for a future that will be more just. And I believe that Marriage Equality is part of a more just future.

While I waited and watched, I had a lot of time to reflect and meditate. (A good Lenten discipline.)

As a Christian it hurts to hear the Bible (and Jesus!) misused to promote an unholy trinity of tradition, fear and ignorance.

One woman lamented the fact that until her testimony, no one had mentioned “the sin of sodomy.” She assured us that a same sex couple cannot really teach children about sin because their lives are immersed in sin. She told us that “it grieves our Lord and Savior, and his Blessed Mother in heaven.”

One wonders how she knows this.

The Bible has over 30,000 verses, and there are, in fact, six brief passages that condemn homosexuality. None of them are in the Gospels. Oddly, they only condemn male homosexuality. Each of the passages is problematic in one way or another. And not one of them is addressed toward a faithful, committed, monogamous same sex relationship. But listening to some of these folks one would think that everything from Genesis to Revelation was written just to condemn homosexuality.

At times I felt like I had fallen into the Bible Study from hell. No wonder that to many people outside the church it looks like Christianity is fundamentally about self-righteousness and condemnation. This was a weaponized Gospel. Devoid of grace. Abounding in judgment. It was painful.

In an earlier post I spoke of ours as "a time when so many Christians seem to hate immigrants (and LGBTQ people, and people of color, and poor people) so much more than they love Jesus." That statement drew immediate and fervent response from several traditionalists. Just because they believed something was sinful, they argued, that did not make them haters.

As an intellectual argument, it sounds plausible. But in practice it does not work. Expressing the belief that homosexuality, or "the practice of homosexuality," is sinful is experienced as hateful.

And that night at the State House there were many Christians who seemed to hate gay people a lot more than they loved Jesus.

“But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”

There were wonderful grace-filled stories told by parents about their gay children and by children about their gay parents.

Partners told of their struggles to build a life together.

A neuro-scientist talked clinically about studies of sexuality and the brain, and then introduced his brother, who is a pediatrician and cannot marry his partner.

Altogether it presented a very vivid illustration of Paul’s argument about law and grace in Romans. The more the traditionalists invoked the Law (Natural and Religious), the more “the trespass multiplied” by them against their sisters and brothers.

The Law was used as a club; in the apparent belief that if they could pound home their point with sufficient force, then they could make same sex relationships go away.

They are against Same Sex Marriage because they are against homosexuality, and they are against homosexuality, at least in part, because they do not believe that the Bible is a living Word. For them it is a dead letter. As Paul argued in his second letter to Corinth, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” The dead letter of the Law can be used to wound, but it cannot heal and it cannot bring life.

We need to remind ourselves that we are called to be “ministers of a new covenant, not of letter, but of spirit: for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (II Corinthians 3:6)

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

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The "Conservative" Lament

Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Ephesians 4:15

I do not like the terms “conservative” and “liberal.”

They are at times a necessary shorthand, but they are labels. And even the best labels tend to tell less than the whole story.

That is true when we talk about someone else’s politics and particularly true when those who claim to follow Jesus use those labels to describe the politics of other Christians.

The Bible is an intensely political book. Hebrew Scripture is focused on the life of the people of Israel. The prophets proclaim God’s expectations of the nation and they are not shy in describing the consequences of injustice and oppression. Jesus’ message was about the good news of the Kingdom of God; an alternative to the violent injustice of the Empire.

But when we try to translate biblical ethics into current social and political context, we need to be clear that the Kingdom of God is a concept that transcends our current political parties.

With that disclaimer, I will venture into these troubled waters with the hope of making a useful observation.

A colleague, who describes himself as a conservative, recently posted a commentary on Facebook that has much in common with many others I have seen, and it illustrates a trend in both politics and religion.

He writes:
“It makes me sad (kind of) to realize I was a happy well adjusted person who accepted people just because.... but now
If I use a gender specific pronoun I offend people
If I talk about working in law enforcement I offend people
If I talk about my deep faith or even mention Jesus I offend people
If I dare have a conservative political opinion I offend people
I even offend by things I have no control over. I am male, I am straight, I am white, or I am older
If I laugh because I think it is crazy kids need a label not to eat Tide Pods or that changing the color will change that.
Being patriotic offends
Owning guns offends
Eating meat offends
Having pets offends
If this post offends you I need to speak truth in love to you. The problem is not me or the millions like me. The problem is that you might have been lied to that in the real world nobody will ever offend you. You have not been given the tools to survive and when the SHTF you will be in trouble. In fact you may be in trouble right now. This is not a joke post. This doesn’t dismiss that we all need to respect diversity and various opinions. In fact it is just the opposite. I am not putting you down I am lifting you up. There is no disclaimer at the end of this post. Suck it up and let’s get to work on the real issues that matter.”
In truth, if you think of yourself as a liberal (or if others label you that way), you could post your own list of things that others say offends them. But this seems to be almost entirely a conservative phenomenon.

So let’s just stick with the conservative lament.

Conservatives currently control:
The White House.
The House of Representatives.
The Senate.
And the Supreme Court.

They control both chambers in thirty-two states.
And they have thirty-four Governorships.

That last one could be argued. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is a Republican although he is not in the mold of current conservatives. But thirty-three is still a huge majority.

So the question is, how is it possible that the people who control pretty much everything in this country still see themselves as victims. In the words of my conservative colleague, “suck it up.” If you are that easily offended maybe the problem is you.

Sunday, February 18, 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

Four years ago, after a troubled young man shot and killed three people in Isla Vista, California, Richard Martinez, whose son was one of the victims, made an impassioned plea for gun control.

In a series of interviews, Martinez 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?"

The Onion published it's own commentary on gun violence.

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.'”
Not funny, but precisely to the point.

Why are we unable to do anything? Why are we so addicted to guns? And I know that three of the seven victims in 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 said, "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. We have lost approximately 500,000 lives to firearms since 9/11. This is madness. 

To borrow the word shared by Mr. Martinez and the Apostle Paul, this is a craven madness.

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

*An original version of this post was published on May 28, 2014.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Bad News on the Doorstep

And in the streets: the children screamed,
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.
But not a word was spoken;
The church bells all were broken.
And the three men I admire most:
The father, son, and the holy ghost,
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.
Don McLean

If people are not screaming in the streets (and maybe they should be), they are surely screaming on TV.

There is plenty of bad news, though not as many people find it on the doorstep. Those of us who still want to get the news from a newspaper are much more likely to find it at the end of the driveway. But I am not focused on current events right now. I am thinking about music rather than the famous memo.

And I am thinking about the past rather than the present.

Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J. P. Richardson (the Big Bopper) died fifty-nine years ago today in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa.

They were on a tour called "The Winter Dance Party," which was scheduled to cover two dozen Midwestern cities in three weeks. The logistical challenges of transporting several bands by bus to so many cities in such a short time were significant. When they got to Clear Lake, Holly suggested to his band mates that they charter a plane to take them to the next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota.

They made arrangements for a 21 year-old local pilot, Roger Peterson, to fly them in a 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza. The plane seated three passengers in addition to the pilot. Because he had developed a case of the flu, Richardson asked Waylon Jennings if he would agree to give up his seat on the plane. When Holly heard about it, he told Jennings he hoped the “ol’ bus freezes up,” and Jennings responded in jest, "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes". Those words would haunt Waylon Jennings for the rest of his life.

The plane crashed shortly after take-off, caused by a combination of bad weather and pilot error. Because he was unfamiliar with the instruments in the Beechcraft, the young pilot may have thought the plane was ascending when it was actually going down.

I was too young to really notice when it happened. I was not old enough to care about Rock and Roll. But I feel a melancholy sadness looking back.

The music didn’t really die. In fact, you can argue that it got better. But I cannot listen to Buddy Holly without thinking that something wonderful was lost. The music was special.

On this day I am reminded (if I need reminding) that life is fragile and precious, and that every day is a gift.

Everyday it's a gettin' closer,
Goin' faster than a roller coaster,
Love like yours will surely come my way,


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

*The original version of this post was first published on February 3. 2011

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

And the Greatest of These Is Love

Captain Daniel Hall and Captain Vinny Franchino
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body to be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. 
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
I Corinthians 13:1-8,13

On February 24, 2004 I spoke at a press conference of clergy supporting equal marriage. I remember the date because it was Elaine's birthday and in my remarks I referenced our marriage of (at that time) thirty-five years. 

"As a Christian," I said, "my support for same sex marriage is rooted and grounded in the theology of marriage itself. Marriage is a covenant between two people; a promise made before God and the community to love one another forever. We make this commitment in spite of the fact that we know that forever is not ours to give; it belongs to God. And the fulfillment of the commitment is never just a human effort; it is always a gift of grace."

Not long after that a woman in her eighties, one of the saints of the congregation, asked me to visit with her. She wanted to talk with me about her grandson who had recently told her that he was gay and that he was in a serious relationship.

The grandson and his partner had been fighter pilots in the Navy. They were graduates of Annapolis. But in the era of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” they had resigned their commissions and taken civilian jobs in the Pentagon. Even so, they were worried that if their relationship were known it could jeopardize their security clearances.

The young man’s parents, a wonderful couple, had been invited to share in the discussion and it was clear that they were fully supportive of their son. Their only concern was that we all understood the need for complete confidentiality.

Mildred was comforted by the thought that there were responsible and thoughtful Christians who supported same sex relationships. And she was glad that I was supporting equal marriage, but she could not completely let go of the reservations that she had lived with for so many decades.

The memory of Mildred’s grandson came to mind when I read the story of two Apache helicopter pilots who became the first active-duty same sex couple to be married in the chapel at the West Point military academy. Captain Daniel Hall and Captain Vinny Franchino met at West Point in 2009 when Hall was a senior and Franchino was a first year.

“We couldn’t tell the truth for fear of what would happen to us,” Franchino told a reporter. “So we put it in our minds that we were never going to say we were gay, we were never going to get made fun of, and we were certainly never going to get kicked out of the Army.”

When congress repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011, the couple felt safe enough to go out on their first date, which took place in 2012.

Franchino said that although he’s been through a lot with his new husband, nothing was worse than when he had to hide his identity.

“We’ve experienced everything from people feeling awkward around us to being called faggots while holding hands and walking down the street, stuff like that,” Franchino said. “But despite what we’ve been through, nothing was worse than having served during the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ years.”

Mildred passed away before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and I don’t know what became of her grandson and his partner. I would like to think they were married in the chapel at Annapolis and have been living happily ever after.

But this is a story that still casts a dark shadow.

One wonders how it is possible for the United States Army to be more loving than our beloved United Methodist Church. How can the army be ahead of the church when it comes to accepting and affirming our gay and lesbian siblings?

And as happy as I am to see a photo of the army captains embracing under the traditional arch of crossed swords after leaving the chapel, reading some of the comments on the story reminded me how deeply the Christian faith has been wounded by the hatefulness of some of those who call themselves by that name.

Consider this:
“An act of hate against God, mocking marriage. I have to wonder what these two boys are expecting to accomplish, committing such a sin. Homosexuals will not inherit the Kingdom of God, after all, if they choose to be enslaved to that spiritual disorder.”
Or this:
“Despite the efforts of a liberal of a liberal society to normalize this behavior, it is not and never will be. This country is bombarded daily with stories of the ‘first gays to _________’(fill in the blank). Call me what you want, but I will never accept, condone, support, or recognize this behavior as anything but immoral and against the laws of God and nature.”
There is no excuse for such hatefulness. And disguising it as Christian faith just makes it worse. The comments are crudely written, but more polite language would not make the sentiments less offensive. Those who dress up such views with cleaner rhetoric do no less damage.

This is toxic. It is unloving and it is unlovable. 

It is a slander to our faith.

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

Friday, January 19, 2018

All My Tomorrows (On Janis Joplin's Birthday)

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants of one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Galatians 5:13-14

Paul did not agree with Kris Kristofferson’s assessment that “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” 

But then again, Paul never heard it sung by Janis Joplin.

She would be seventy-five years old today.

My brain has a hard time imagining Janis Joplin at seventy-five, but she certainly left us way too soon.

She was the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company when they came to Wesleyan on March 9, 1968. Fifty years ago this spring. A month before Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. Three months before Bobby Kennedy. Eight months before we elected Richard Nixon.

But when I hear her singing in my head I don’t think about national events. I think about that great talent lost. The wrenching pain that drove her to greatness and ultimately pushed her over the edge. 

When she was at the University of Texas, as a fraternity prank, some guys nominated her for “Ugliest Man on Campus.” There must be a special place in hell for people who think that’s funny.

The acne scars. The tangled hair. When I hear Faith Hill sing her version of “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart,” I wonder if two people could ever be more different than Faith Hill and Janis Joplin.

Everyone sings sad songs. And every singer wants you to believe that they have lived the blues. But Janis Joplin didn’t need to convince anyone.

In Kris Kristofferson’s “Me & Bobby McGee,” she sang one of the most poignant lines of all time: “I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday.” 

As it turned out, she did not have very many tomorrows to trade.

Sometimes yesterday seems so much better than today. In my head, it is not Bobby McGee, but Janis Joplin, who is singing. And feeling good was easy then, when Janis sang the blues. 

“Me & Bobby McGee” is a dark vision. But it is despair delivered with a driving beat that makes you want to sing along. The words are dark but the music is bright.

In many ways, faith is about trading yesterday for tomorrow. Maybe not without regret, but certainly with hope.

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

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas: A Lesson to Be Lived

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.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Luke 2:15-20

Like Mary, we should treasure the words of the story and ponder their meaning.

Unfortunately, if we do that, our peaceful holiday cheer will soon be displaced by a deep discomfort at the huge disconnect between the biblical message and our commercialized celebration of the holiday. Even before Jesus was born, in the proclamation brought by the angels to Zechariah and to Mary, Luke tells us that the baby will bring a challenging message about transforming our lives and the world around us.

On Christmas Eve, our Christmas Pageant closed with a wonderful poem by Howard Thurman,  an African American preacher and theologian, who was Dean of the Chapel at Boston University from 1953 to 1964. The poem is about what it means to take the Christmas message seriously. It is titled, “The Work of Christmas.”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
           To find the lost,
           To heal the broken,
           To feed the hungry
           To release the prisoners,
           To rebuild the nations,
           To bring peace among people,
           To make music in the heart

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