Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Generation at Risk

13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might bless them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.  Mark 10:13-16

A century ago Walter Rauschenbusch wrote an impassioned plea to pastors and leaders to embrace the Social Gospel, to combat the poverty of cities and rural areas, to stand up against the exploitation of workers, support the rights of women, promote universal education, and join in building the Kingdom of God. If churches want to save souls, he argued, then they must also save bodies.

Young people, he said, already understand this. They are already committed. And if the churches do not join with young people in this struggle, then they will lose a whole generation.

A great deal has changed in the past hundred years. Women can vote. Workers are protected. We have Social Security and Medicare. We have made great advances in combating racism and sexism. We protect people with disabilities and we treat mental illness with more humanity. We have made great progress.

And the churches can take credit for playing a major role in this transformation. In the Methodist Church we created a new liturgical season between Pentecost and Advent, called Kingdomtide and devoted to studying and celebrating the biblical foundation for building the Kingdom of God. This was never a unanimous effort. There were always individual churches, and sometimes whole denominations, on both sides of every major issue. But overall, there was a shared commitment to advancing equality and justice.

Unfortunately, today much of that commitment can only be described in the past tense, and in many ways, we are in the same place we were a century ago.

Half a century ago, when the churches were at the height of their institutional power, one of the great leaders (I think it might have been Harold Bosley, but I cannot find the reference) said that in the future our greatest challenge will be keeping a vision of the Kingdom of God alive in the human heart. Today, when we have a widening gap between rich and poor, and a reluctance to do anything about it; when we are willing to cut food stamps rather than increase taxes, we seem to act as if Jesus was only kidding when he talked about economic justice. Our vision of the Kingdom of God is faded and distorted by self-interest.

Today Christians are better known for gay bashing than for social justice.

George Barna, a Christian Evangelical and social researcher, reported that among young people ages 16-29, the most common perception of Christianity was that it was “anti-homosexual.” This was true for 91 percent of those who identified themselves as non-Christian, and for 80 percent of those who called themselves Christian. This same age group is overwhelmingly accepting of gay people, and approximately two-thirds of them support gay marriage.

The anti-homosexual agenda is wrong. And it is self-defeating. It is pushing young people away.

This doesn’t just damage the individual churches or denominations that pursue an anti-gay agenda, it hurts all churches. When J.P. Morgan lost $2.8 billion in a misguided trading scheme, it wasn’t just J.P. Morgan whose stock went down the next day, bank stocks were down across the board. When people see a video of a pastor telling his congregation that they should smack a son who isn’t acting like a real man, or another pastor saying that gays and lesbians should be kept behind an electrified fence, it doesn’t just hurt those individual churches.

No one who knows anything about the Gospel accounts would believe for a nano-second that either of those ideas would pass the Jesus test. We might not always know what Jesus would do, but we can be fairly sure of some things that he would never do. Unfortunately, for millions of people those pastors and their congregations are defining Christianity.

If we want to bring young people into the church, we first need to bring the church back to Jesus.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Chafee Does the Right Thing

You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more and no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. 
Luke 5:5 (The Message)

On Monday Governor Lincoln Chafee did a very brave thing. He issued an executive order declaring that the state will recognize same sex marriages performed in other states, just as the state recognizes heterosexual marriages performed in other states. This means that those couples will have the same rights as their heterosexual neighbors with regard to health insurance and many other benefits.

We rarely see such courage in our political leaders. We claim that we value it, but my guess is that Chafee will get little credit for his courage.

Part of it is his own fault.

Just by chance, I watched the signing on Capitol TV. Martha Holt Castle spoke eloquently about the difficulties that she and her wife faced in getting both of their names on their son’s birth certificate, and she told the story of another woman who had faced many obstacles in dealing with the legal ramifications of her partner’s death. Both of these problems will be corrected by the executive order.

Then she introduced Governor Chafee. He thanked her for her remarks, smiled his goofy smile, and sat down to sign the Executive Order. As is the custom, he used several pens for his signature, and then he passed them out to leaders in the cause of Marriage Equality. He hugged everyone and then he stepped up to the microphone.

He grinned. He said something like, “this is long overdue. I don’t see how anyone could look at this room and not be in favor of marriage equality.” And then I think he gave a thumbs up. And that was it.

It was the perfect opportunity for a stirring speech about the need for political courage in times like this, about making hard decisions, about the historic battles for civil rights. He could have said those things without bragging, while making it clear that he was willing to do what others were afraid to do.

But he just grinned and waved.

I have met Lincoln Chafee just twice. Each time he was at our church for the funeral of the parent of a childhood friend. Each time he gave a short remembrance. One of the things I have noticed at funerals is that often when people share remembrances; it is more about them than it is about the person who died. Chafee did none of that. He is the most self-effacing politician I have ever encountered.

Lincoln Chafee suffers in comparison to his father. John Chafee was a great man. He had integrity and intelligence and a willingness to stand on principle even when it put him at odds with popular opinion or the leaders of his party. And he was an imposing figure with craggy good looks and a presence that commanded attention. Lincoln Chafee, on the other hand, looks like one of the characters from “The Big Bang Theory.” He speaks awkwardly and he moves awkwardly. And he has that goofy grin.

In a statement reacting to the Executive Order, Christopher C. Plante, regional coordinator for the National Organization for Marriage, immediately declared his opposition. “To issue an executive order recognizing same-sex marriage flies in the face of the clearly expressed actions of the legislature and the people,” said Plante. I think Plante is wrong about the people, but he is right about the legislature.

Lincoln Chafee is one of the world’s worst politicians. He is not an eloquent speaker. But he is not afraid of taking an unpopular stance. He made national news when he wanted to be inclusive by calling the tree in the State House a “Holiday Tree.” He wanted to be inclusive, and he was not bothered by the abuse and ridicule heaped on him. As a Senator, he was the only Republican to vote against authorizing the war in Iraq. And he will stand up for equality. I think his father would be proud.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Prayer for the Family

Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband too, and he praises her:
“Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”
Proverbs 31:25-31

One of the best things about Mondays for me is the gathering of moms and toddlers for “All God’s Children’s Story Time.” As I write this, they are done with the stories and the songs and are enjoying a beautiful spring day on the playground. Running feet and happy voices, what could be better?

But there is also a counterpoint.

On Mother’s Day I am always aware that the celebration of mothers and motherhood is not a universally positive experience. Not everyone lives in a Norman Rockwell painting. Looking out at our congregation yesterday, I saw one young mom whose husband died just a year ago, and another recently diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy, and one with multiple sclerosis. And then there are those who want to be moms and are coping with infertility. Others have recently lost their mothers, and still others have lost a child. And that is just a small sampling.

This has me thinking about Walter Rauschenbusch

Rauschenbusch is remembered as the greatest prophet of the Social Gospel awakening of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His theological analysis of the social situation and his application of biblical principles to social issues provide a continuing legacy for Christians who want to understand the practical meaning of the Gospel. But during his lifetime, Rauschenbusch was known and loved for his prayers. He lost his hearing at an early age when he caught the flu while serving a church in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, and the isolation this imposed made him a keen observer of the people around him. He was often moved to tears by the simple scenes of love and caring and pain that took place silently around him. In remembrance of Mother’s Day, his prayer for the family is especially appropriate:

O God, we who are bound together in the tender ties of love, pray thee for a day of unclouded love. May no passing irritation rob us of our joy in one another. Forgive us if we have been swift to see the human failings, and slow to feel the preciousness of those who are still the dearest comfort in our life. May there be no sharp words that wound and scar, and no rift that may grow into estrangement. Suffer us not to grieve those whom thou hast sent to us as the sweet ministers of love. May our eyes not be so holden by selfishness that we know thine angels only when they spread their wings to return to thee. Amen.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Did You Hear About the United Methodist Minister Who Is an Atheist?

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
Psalm 137:7-11

Did you hear the joke about the United Methodist Minister who is an atheist? Actually, it’s not a joke, at least not intentionally.

On April 30, NPR (National Public Radio) published a story by Barbara Bradley Hagerty about Teresa MacBain, a United Methodist pastor in Tallahassee, Florida.

"I'm currently an active pastor and I'm also an atheist," MacBain says in the article. "I live a double life. I feel pretty good on Monday, but by Thursday — when Sunday's right around the corner — I start having stomachaches, headaches, just knowing that I got to stand up and say things that I no longer believe in and portray myself in a way that's totally false."

I understand doubt. And I am comfortable with doubt. Tennyson was right, but he didn’t go far enough when he declared, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.” In his great book on ‘The Dynamics of Faith,” Paul Tillich argues that authentic faith is best understood as “ultimate concern,” and that doubt is an essential part of faith. Like Tillich, I believe there is more faith in honest doubt than in all the creeds.

But there was little theological depth in the NPR article

We learn that she was raised in a conservative Southern Baptist family, that her dad was a pastor, and that she felt the call of God when she was 6. She had questions about the role of women, and about conflicts in the Bible, and Hagerty reports that “she sometimes felt she was serving a taskmaster of a God, whose standards she never quite met.”

When she became a United Methodist pastor, she asked more questions. She hoped for answers that would strengthen her faith. "In reality," she says, "as I worked through them, I found that religion had so many holes in it, that I just progressed through stages where I couldn't believe it."

Hagerty reports that the questions haunted her: Is Jesus the only way to God? Would a loving God torment people for eternity? Is there any evidence of God at all?

I wonder why she thought she had to believe that Jesus was the only way to God, or that God would torment people for eternity. On the other hand, the last question matters. It would be very hard to be a pastor if you could not see “any evidence of God.”

As I write this I am sitting in my office on a beautiful spring day and down the hall I hear the happy sounds of children in the pre-school. Honestly, that is enough evidence for me.

I don’t mean to dismiss this lightly. But Christian faith is not about believing abstract doctrines or imagining a perfect heavenly being who exists outside of the world and humankind, and yet controls everything that happens. As Tillich wrote in his Systematic Theology, “The protest of atheism against such a highest person is correct. There is no evidence of his existence, nor is he a matter of ultimate concern.”

Today when people, like Teresa MacBain, speak of atheism, what they mean is that they reject the god of narrow biblical literalism. So do I. Christian theologians have given a clearly articulated rejection of that “god” for more than a century.

As a pastor, I find the Teresa MacBain story painful in two ways.

First, it must have been incredibly painful for her congregation. One Sunday when she wasn’t preaching, she went to the American Atheists’ convention in Bethesda, Maryland, and announced to a crowd of 1,500, that she was an atheist. They laughed when she said she was also a United Methodist pastor serving a church, “at least up to this point.” Hundreds of people stood and cheered. She apologized for having been what she called “a hater.” She told them that she used to believe that she was on the right track and they were going to burn in hell. Now, she said, “I'm happy to say as I stand before you right now, I'm going to burn with you."

That’s how her congregation found out. One week she preached a sermon and led worship as usual, and the next week she announced to a national convention that she was an atheist. They deserved better.

Second, it reveals that in the popular imagination, Christian faith is often understood in narrow and rigid ways that are totally lacking in theological depth. The great Methodist preacher, Henry Hitt Crane was a popular speaker on college campuses in the 1950’s. After his lectures he loved to meet with students in their dormitories to discuss the issues of the day. Invariably some brave soul would announce that he or she was an atheist. Dr. Crane would then ask, “Tell me about the god you don’t believe in.” And then after listening to a description of this supernatural being who judged and punished, and directed and controlled everything in the world, he would say, “I don’t believe in that god, either. Let me tell you what I believe.”

That’s a conversation worth having.

Friday, May 4, 2012

It Feels Like Exile

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of justice of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.

They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 11

It feels like Exile.

Of course that is overly dramatic, and I have not ever been in any situation even remotely like the Exile, but still for many United Methodists, watching our General Conference unravel so much that we hold dear and then once again declare that our gay and lesbian (and bi-sexual, and transgender) sisters and brothers are not really welcome, has felt like Exile.

It feels like wilderness and desert. But as Walter Brueggemann observed, it was in the Exile that the Hebrew prophets did their best work. In was in the Exile that hope was born. The Exile gave birth to Rabbinic Judaism, which in the fullness of time gave birth to Christianity.

It is not by accident that the Advent scripture readings bring us back to the Exile. Christianity begins in Exile.

Within the United Methodist Church in East Greenwich, and within thousands of other United Methodist Churches, nothing will change. We will continue to proclaim the grace of God. We will celebrate the wideness in God’s mercy. We will do our best to embody the living presence of Christ in the world. And we will include everyone, even the people who want to exclude us.

But General Conference 2012 has made our job harder. Because some people will read about what happened and think that General Conference speaks for us. In some cases they will ask me what it means and where we stand, and I will do my best to explain it all. In other cases they will just drive by and shake their heads.

Like Israel in Exile, we are called to action, to build up and raise up and repair, and to proclaim “good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of justice of our God.”

In other words, our task today is the same as it was two weeks ago. We are called to be faithful. And we know that God will continue to sustain us. In the words of the Psalmist, “the steadfast love of the LORD endures forever, and God’s faithfulness is to all generations.” Even in what feels like Exile.

“For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Nothing Can Separate Us

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:37-39

Can anything separate us from the love of God?

No, at least according to the Apostle Paul.

In the last verses of the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome he declares with absolute certainty that nothing can separate us from the love of God, not “hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” (v.35).

Yesterday the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted with Paul, but it was closer than you might think.

In the morning session they were revising the Preamble to our United Methodist Social Principles. The Rev. We Hyung Chang, pastor of the Belmont UMC in Belmont, Massachusetts, one of the clergy delegates from New England, proposed that they add this sentence, “We stand united in declaring our faith that God’s grace is available to all, that neither belief nor practice can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

This might seem like basic Wesleyan theology. In fact, it might seem like basic Christianity. But among some of the delegates there was a fear that this would somehow soften their declaration that homosexuals and non-Christians really are (by their own choice, of course) separated from the love of God.

The Rev. Lisa Dianne Schubert, a clergy delegate from Indiana proposed that the word “nothing” be substituted for “neither belief nor practice. As she explained, “I want to say like in Romans 8, “nothing can separate us from the love of God.”

But that didn’t stop the debate.

This would be funny if it were not so sad. On the floor of General Conference they were actually debating whether they believed the central affirmation of Paul’s theology.

One delegate from Liberia argued that, “Putting that in there is telling us as Christians that our belief and our practice do not separate us, and that can be far from the truth because then we deny God’s judgment at the end of the ages.” A delegate from Florida argued that Paul was not talking about everyone, he was only talking about “those who are in Christ Jesus.”

But a narrow reading of Paul is just that. And it goes against the inclusive sweep of Paul’s understanding of God’s grace.

One of the deep ironies in the debate is that those who claim to believe the Bible literally (that is a generalization, of course) were willing to sacrifice a literal reading of Romans 8 in order to preserve a literal understanding of a few verses in Leviticus.

In the end, they decided that Paul was right and “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” I’m sure the Apostle was relieved. But as I said earlier, it was closer than you might think; the amendment carried by a vote of 532 to 414.