Monday, March 31, 2014

World Vision and the Great Reversal

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
John 9:39-41

Last week, Rich Stearns, the president of World Vision, announced a new policy which showed vision. Stearns announced that the agency was changing its personnel policy to allow gay Christians in same sex marriages to serve as World Vision employees. The change, he said, would make their policy “more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues.” While denominations and individual churches might be divided over the issue of marriage equality, World Vision would look beyond the sectarian battles to a unity built on the common goal of feeding hungry children. Under the new policy, the sexual standards for gay and straight employees would be the same: abstinence for those who were single and faithfulness for those who were married.

In a letter to employees announcing the change, Stearns wrote, "I want to reassure you that we are not sliding down some slippery slope of compromise, nor are we diminishing the authority of Scripture in our work. We have always affirmed traditional marriage as a God-ordained institution. Nothing in our work around the world with children and families will change. We are the same World Vision you have always believed in." The decision, he said, was made without external pressure and was overwhelmingly supported by the World Vision board.

In terms of what we generally identify as Evangelical Christianity, it was a light shining in the darkness. But sadly, in this instance the darkness did overcome it.

Reactions were swift and even more judgmental and self-righteous than one might have feared. And there was no shortage of hyperbole. Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared, “This isn’t, as the World Vision statement (incredibly!) puts it, the equivalent of a big tent on baptism, church polity, and so forth. At stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Michael Brown, who writes a blog called “In the Line of Fire,” and hosts a “Christian” radio program, posted his commentary under the title, “The Apostasy of World Vision.” In it he wrote, “Let it be stated plainly to the leadership and board of directors of World Vision U.S.: The Lord Jesus is no longer central in the corporate life of your organization. You have denied His lordship by your actions.”

Never mind what Jesus actually said. Apparently what he meant to say was that the key test of discipleship is whether or not we offer sufficient condemnation of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers.

Before I had time to write a blog affirming what World Vision had done, they reversed themselves. They apologized for the heartbreak they had caused in the evangelical community. They repented of their inclusive vision and compassion.

In an interview with Sarah Pulliam Bailey, published in the Huffington Post, Stearns was asked whether any of the World Vision employees had resigned as a result of either their initial decision or their reversal. He said that a few had resigned because of the stress. “You can imagine some of the folks in our call center that are answering our 800 line. They’re receiving an earful of anger. I think we had a few people who couldn’t handle the stress and the anxiety created by the incoming calls.” He went on to say that, “Within an hour of the reversal, the call volume dropped. The angry calls stopped and dropped to a much lower level. Some of the sponsors called back to reinstate their sponsorships.”

World Vision initially lost nearly 5,000 sponsorships, totaling over $2 million in annual revenue. But Stearns reported that after the reversal, many called back to reinstate their sponsorships. “They’re forgiving, they’re saying, ‘Hey we stand with you.’”

As a Christian, it is hard not to feel both shame and anger at this episode.

For the past several years our youth group has participated in the “30 Hour Famine” to support World Vision. All day Saturday and part of Sunday they fast together. They do service projects (yes, on an empty stomach), they do Bible study, they pray together, and they learn about world hunger. They also raise money for World Vision. Each year our group raises a few thousand dollars.

If you go to the 30 Hour Famine page on the World Vision website you will see a tab for the “Famine Study Tour,” a special study opportunity that those who participate in the famine can apply for. One of our kids, Adam Sticca, was chosen from among thousands of applicants to participate in last year’s tour. In the group picture, he’s right in the center, wearing a T-Shirt with the words that Jesus spoke to his disciples when they asked him what to do about the hungry crowd following them, “You Feed Them.”

We will be participating in the famine again this year.

We have never been fully on board with the theology of World Vision, but we are in one hundred percent agreement with their mission.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Why Are the Millenials Leaving Church?

He also told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye."
Luke 6:39-42
In an online article for Washington (CBS DC) Benjamin Fearnow reported on a new survey by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute showing that almost a third of Millenials (ages 18 to 33) who have abandoned their childhood religion said that the anti-gay teachings of their church played a significant role in their decision making. And 70 percent of Millenials believe that these teachings are driving away their generation.

Over the last decade, support for equal marriage has increased by more than 20 percent according to most polls. Some record total support across the nation at nearly 60 percent, others see support only slightly above 50 percent. Within those numbers, the support goes up as the age goes down. Among Millenials, almost 70 percent support equal marriage. Among those 68 and older, the support is only 37 percent.

Fearnow reports PRRI CEO Dr. Robert P. Jones’ statement that, “While many churches and people in the pews have been moving away from their opposition to LGBT rights over the last decade, this new research provides further evidence that negative teachings on this issue have hurt churches’ ability to attract and retain young people. And Jones went on to say that “Nearly one-third of Millennials who left their childhood religion say unfavorable church teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people played a significant role in their decision to head for the exit.”

In other words, the damage has been done.

Thank you to the Fundamentalists, the Literalists, and all the other judgmental so-called “Christians” who have worked so hard to convince the world that being a Christian means condemning gay people and rejecting scientific reason. Heaven only knows the hurt you have inflicted on generations of LBGTQ youth and adults. But beyond that, you have hurt the church you claim to love.

Jesus weeps.

People ask why some of us in the church are so focused on this issue. They wonder why here at the United Methodist Church in East Greenwich we have spent the past two and a half months working out a statement of inclusion and becoming a Reconciling Congregation. There are, after all, lots of other things in the world that should demand our attention. Keith Sanzen, our Church Council Chair puts it simply and eloquently. “Yes,” he says, “there are lots of social justice issues out there and we are concerned about all of them, but this is one issue where the church has really hurt people.”

John Wesley’s first rule was, “Do no harm.” That seems like a good place to start.

Monday, March 3, 2014

What Pope Francis (Should Have) Said

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”
Mark 9:42-4

Late on Saturday night, as I was going over my sermon for Sunday.

Okay. I should be honest. It wasn’t really late. It was barely 9 o’clock. But it was late for me, and “late on Saturday night” seems like the time I should have been going over my sermon. And the idea that it was late would make what happened next seem less stupid.

Yesterday was “Transfiguration Sunday,” and I was thinking about “mountain top experiences.” I was thinking about the real “mountain top” behind the house where I grew up in Sagamore. It was really just a hill, but we called it “Mount Tom,” and from the top we could look out across the Scusset marshes to Cape Cod Bay. It was spectacular. I was also remembering a wonderful memorial service that morning, which was wonderful celebration of a life well lived. And I was looking forward to what I anticipated would be some very creative and inspiring themes that our worship team had been working on for Lent.

And then I looked at Facebook, and I saw this wonderful quotation from Pope Francis:

“Through humility, soul searching, and prayerful contemplation we have gained a new understanding of certain dogmas. The church no longer believes in a literal hell where people suffer. This doctrine is incompatible with the infinite love of God. God is not a judge but a friend and a lover of humanity. God seeks not to condemn but only to embrace. Like the fable of Adam and Eve, we see hell as a Literary device. Hell is merely a metaphor for the isolated soul, which like all souls ultimately will be united in love with God.”

It made me happy. Giddy, even.

Not exactly groundbreaking theology. When I was in seminary I did not know a single student or professor who would not have endorsed the general meaning of that statement. No serious theologian or biblical scholar would have argued for the notion of “a literal hell where people suffer.” Most mainline Christian thinkers, then and now, are Christian universalists. They believe that we come from God and we go to God.

But for the Pope to say it clearly and directly was like a breath of fresh air.

And yesterday morning, at the last minute, I decided to include it in my sermon. And it went very well. Until a friend came up to me after the late service and said that he had seen the quotation and looked for the source and discovered that it was a hoax. The Pope never said it.

Normally, I am deeply skeptical of almost everything I see on the Internet. And most of the time I can smell a hoax before I finish reading it. But in this case I was completely gullible and it did not occur to me that I should verify the source before using it in a sermon.

I just wanted to believe it. And for what it’s worth, the Pope SHOULD have said it.

Rob Bell, once proudly claimed by Evangelical Christians as a rising star, stirred fierce opposition among that group when he published a book called, “Love Wins.” In it, he shared his belief that no one is consigned to eternal torment. For many Christians, apparently, the only thing more precious than the blessed assurance that they are saved is the comfort they get from believing that others are damned.

Bell was accused of the heretical teaching that hell is not a real place. Actually, what he said in the book is that in the time of Jesus, hell was a very specific place. The Greek word most often translated as hell is “Gehenna.” In biblical times, that was the name of a ravine outside of Jerusalem. Originally the site of pagan child sacrifice, in Jesus’ time it was a garbage dump. In Gehenna, the fires literally never went out. And wild dogs gnashed their teeth as they went through the garbage. There were some actions, said Jesus, for which one deserved to be treated like garbage.

In other words, Jesus used “hell” as a literary device, just like Pope Francis “said” in the bogus quotation. Lest anyone think that is a groundbreaking insight, we can also find it in William Barclay’s New Testament commentary, published in 1954.