Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Reconciliation Is Not Indoctrination

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
Matthew 5:23-24

Our culture is obsessed with lots of things. When it comes to obsessions, we are multi-taskers. We are obsessed with wealth and fame and power and celebrity. 

But within our many obsessions, sex has a special place.

And within the church we have our own special obsession with sexual orientation.

With all that is happening in the world, from rising income inequality to global warming, from the violence in the Middle East to the violence on our own streets, one might reasonably ask, why has the church focused so narrowly on this issue?

There are really two answers. 

The first is that sexual orientation is not our only focus. We are doing lots of things all around the world that address every major issue faced by humankind. Most of it just flies under the radar because although it is important, it has little entertainment value. 

The second answer is that the treatment of our LBGTQ sisters and brothers is an issue for which the church bears a special responsibility. We have done great harm in the name of faith. Sometimes we have done it inadvertently, or even with the best of intentions. Other times we have done it vengefully and without remorse. But we have done it. It is uniquely our sin.

This is an issue on which we must seek reconciliation before we can faithfully come before God to offer our gifts.

John Lomperis, the United Methodist Director for the Insitute on Religion and Democracy posted a blog with the provocative title: “Are Methodist Sunday Schools, VBS for LGBTQ Indoctrination? Should young children be indoctrinated in LGBTQ ideology in United Methodist Vacation Bible Schools and Sunday schools?”

For information on the IRD, click here

Mr. Lomperis complains that at a Chicago event called “Winter Warming,” the Reconciling Methodist Network, RMN, presented a program for indoctrinating children in the “ideology” of LGBTQ advocates. The article is inflammatory and accusatory, and there are many points where one might reasonably take offense. I want to address just two of them.

The first comes from the title of the blog post. 

The online Merriam Webster dictionary defines “indoctrinate” as “to teach (someone) to fully accept the ideas, opinions, and beliefs of a particular group and to not consider other ideas, opinions, and beliefs.” My Microsoft Office thesaurus lists "brainwashing" and "propaganda" as common synonyms.

My guess is that we don’t want anyone indoctrinating our children with any particular point of view, period. That’s not how we grow faithful disciples or responsible citizens or thoughtful adults.

But I wouldn’t call creating a climate in which children can accept and affirm the diverse family groups and individuals they will encounter in their lives as “indoctrination.”

The second issue relates to gender identity.

Mr. Lomperis tells of the presentation given by M. Barclay, whose name at birth was Mary Ann Kaiser. He writes, “She shared about her own more recent experiences as a transgendered individual who has 'physically transitioned in some ways,' now self-identifying as not conforming to gender binaries and using the pronoun 'they' rather than 'she.' She also gave a broader overview of some of the often confusing aspects of transgenderism, including how part of transgenderist ideology is that people did not change genders but rather they were never truly the gender they were assigned at birth—except for folk in the narrow sub-category of ‘gender-fluid.’”

The reality that some people live with, of never feeling that their biology matches their internal sense of who they really are, is not “transgenderist ideology.” It is their reality. And it is incredibly painful. It is not something one chooses.

He follows his description of the presentation with an apology which is not really an apology. He writes, with parentheses: “(I realize that transgenderist ideology would protest my use of female pronouns for Ms. Barclay. It is not my intention to insult or hurt anyone’s feelings. But when someone is facing what needs to be named as a severe delusion of not recognizing his or her own God-given sex – long recognized by psychiatrists as a mental disorder – true compassion involves helping people come back to reality, rather than “humoring them” by saying anything to encourage or enable their very self-destructive confusion.)”

Contrary to his assertion, transgender people do recognize their own “God-given sex,” just like Mr. Lomperis wants them to; the problem is that the identity that God has given them does not match their biology. It is cruel to insist that they are delusional and that the only solution is for them to sit down and be quiet and pretend that nothing is wrong.

This is not easy. For many of us it is uncomfortable. But it is long past time for us to “leave our gifts at the altar,” and go “and be reconciled.”

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Donald Trump and Seeking Forgiveness

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 
He said to them, 
“When you pray, say: 
Father in heaven, 
hallowed be your name. 
Your kingdom come. 
Give us each day our daily bread. 
And forgive us our sins, 
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. 
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
Luke 11:1-4

Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?

For most Christians that is not a difficult question.

Some of us might want to clarify the question and explain that we were using symbolic language. But apart from scholarly theological discourse, most Christians would see it as a simple and straight forward question.

The answer is, “Yes.”

And we might follow up by asking, “Is this a trick question?”

Nevertheless, last summer when pollster Frank Luntz asked presidential candidate Donald Trump whether he had ever asked God for forgiveness, he said it was a tough question. But after reflecting briefly, Trump said that he did not think that he had ever asked God for forgiveness.

Since he also says that he regularly attends church, we might wonder what he thinks he is doing when he recites the Lord’s Prayer.

Apparently this does not matter to a vast number of Evangelical Christians, who consistently name him in public opinion polls as their favorite candidate.

Go figure.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni writes: “Let me get this straight. If I want the admiration and blessings of the most flamboyant, judgmental Christians in America, I should marry three times, do a queasy-making amount of sexual boasting, verbally degrade women, talk trash about pretty much everyone else while I’m at it, encourage gamblers to hemorrhage their savings in casinos bearing my name and crow incessantly about how much money I’ve amassed?”

Bruni goes on to observe that the Donald “just about runs the table on the seven deadly sins. He personifies greed, embodies pride, radiates lust. Wrath is covered by his anti-immigrant, anti-“losers” rants, and if we interpret gluttony to include big buildings and not just Big Macs, he’s a glutton through and through. That leaves envy and sloth. I’m betting that he harbors plenty of the former, though I’ll concede that he exhibits none of the latter.”

More recently, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Jake Tapper asked him about some of the attack lines being used against him, including that statement that he has never asked God for forgiveness.

Trump was unfazed by the question. “I have a very great relationship with God,” he said. “I like to be good. I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad. I try and do nothing that’s bad.”

In Romans, Paul writes, “There is no one who is righteous, not one . . . no one does good, not even one.”

But then again, Paul never met the Donald.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Unarmed Truth and Unconditional Love

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today's mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. "And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid." I still believe that We Shall overcome!
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 
Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1964

Near the conclusion of his State of the Union speech, President Obama spoke about his hopes for our country and he talked about how he was “inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that have helped America travel so far. . . .  Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word — voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.”

He talked about how he sees those voices “everywhere I travel in this incredible country of ours.” 

“I see you,” he said. “I know you’re there. You’re the reason why I have such incredible confidence in our future. Because I see your quiet, sturdy citizenship all the time.”

And then he listed the places and the ways and the people in whom he sees these voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love:

“I see it in the Dreamer who stays up late to finish her science project, and the teacher who comes in early because he knows she might someday cure a disease.

“I see it in the American who served his time, and dreams of starting over — and the business owner who gives him that second chance. The protester determined to prove that justice matters, and the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave, quiet work of keeping us safe.

“I see it in the soldier who gives almost everything to save his brothers, the nurse who tends to him ’til he can run a marathon, and the community that lines up to cheer him on.

“It’s the son who finds the courage to come out as who he is, and the father whose love for that son overrides everything he’s been taught.

“I see it in the elderly woman who will wait in line to cast her vote as long as she has to; the new citizen who casts his for the first time; the volunteers at the polls who believe every vote should count, because each of them in different ways know how much that precious right is worth.”

It was a moving moment.

As a pastor, and specifically as a United Methodist pastor, I found my attention focused on that vignette of the son “who finds the courage to come out,” and the father “whose love for that son overrides everything he has been taught.”

Sadly, the Christian church generally and United Methodists specifically, have too often been responsible for teaching fathers and mothers to reject their gay sons and daughters. 

There is language in our United Methodist Book of Discipline which is supposed to mitigate that rejection, but when we tell people that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” some amount of rejection is inevitable. 

Bill Ziegler was a great United Methodist preacher, whom I was blessed to have as a mentor and friend. He was a tireless advocate for social justice and for the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the church and in the culture. Whenever we debated an issue like this, he would always caution us to remember, “this is a human being you’re talking about.” 

For Bill, it was always personal.

In our debates about how we deal with the “issue” of sexual orientation in the United Methodist Church, we often talk as if we have forgotten that this is about human beings. We are debating the inclusion or exclusion of human beings.

In the end, it’s not about polity, or doctrine, or the Book of Discipline. In the end, it’s not about the authority of scripture (though on that score we can be reasonably certain that love wins), it’s about human beings.

Over the centuries the church has often fallen short of what it ought to be as the Body of Christ in the world. That’s not because the church is more fallible than other institutions or communities, it’s because our expectations are so much higher. But this is a mistake we need to correct.

Unarmed truth and unconditional love need to have the final word.

We need to be the community that gives the son “the courage to come out,” not the institution that teaches the father that he cannot accept who his son is.

This is about human beings and we need to get it right.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

"Thank God for Something that Moves Up!"

The United Methodist Church of Red Bank Celebrates Becoming a Reconciling Congregation
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” Jesus answered, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
Luke 17:5-10

In the opening paragraph of his wonderful little book about the history of the Methodist Church (it was written before we became the United Methodist Church), the great preacher and teacher Halford Luccock tells the story of a bishop standing behind a railing overlooking the American side of Niagara Falls. 

He was watching the mountains of water cascading over the falls when his eye caught sight of a little steamboat, The Maid of the Mist, in the water below the falls pushing upstream against the current swirling down the river. 

In Luccock’s words, “his imagination took fire,” and he shouted out, “Thank God for something that moves up!”

The book is called, “Endless Line of Splendor,” and it was written in 1950, a time of irrepressible optimism in the Methodist Church and across Protestantism generally. Luccock told the grand story of Methodism, from the genius of John and Charles Wesley, through the expansion in America toward a world mission, to the struggle against slavery and the prophetic witness of the Social Gospel. The Methodist Church really did look like an endless line of splendor.

Looking back over the past half century, Luccock’s vision seems hopelessly naïve. And in many ways it was a reflection of the same optimism that colored all of America in the 1950’s. Although in the aftermath of World War II it is hard to call that vision naïve. In spite of, or possible because of, the trials we had been through, it was easy to believe that anything was possible. It was a time of great dreams. 

We had conquered evil on opposite sides of the globe, now we would implement a vision of lasting hope and goodness.

But today that Endless Line of Splendor seems long ago and far away.

Now, more than ever, we need “something that moves up!”

Just before Christmas, the Reconciling Ministries Network announced that the United Methodist Church of Red Bank, New Jersey, was the newest Reconciling Congregation. The Red Bank church declared their intention to  include all persons, regardless of "sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, race, ethnicity, age, faith, history, economic status, marital status, physical and mental abilities, and education."

In their statement of inclusion, they declare that their goal as a Reconciling Congregation is to “transform our church and world into the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love.”

Think about that.

It is a big goal. An apparently unrealistic goal. It would be an unrealistic goal for a megachurch, and Red Bank is several lightyears away from megachurch status.

But when I looked at the picture of their congregation, I could not help but smile. Isn’t this what the Kingdom of God looks like? They are young and old. There’s an older man with a cane. There’s a young person exuberantly picking up another young person. There are black people and white people. There are fists pumped in the air. 

This is exactly what the church is supposed to be!

And when I saw that picture, I thought, “Thank God for something that moves up!”

The Reconciling Statement of The United Methodist Church of Red Bank:

“The United Methodist Church of Red Bank, as a Reconciling Congregation, seeks to transform our Church and world into the full expression of Christ’s inclusive love. We celebrate our human family’s diversity of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, race, ethnicity, age, faith, history, economic status, marital status, physical and mental abilities, and education.

We affirm that all people are created in the image of God and as beloved children of God, all are worthy of God’s love and grace.

We welcome the full equality and full inclusion of all people in the life and ministries of The United Methodist Church of Red Bank as we journey toward reconciliation through Christ.
We recognize that there are differences among us, but we believe that we can love alike even though we may not think alike.

We work diligently to make the larger United Methodist Church inclusive and welcoming of all. This includes affirming the same rights and privileges of marriage equality and the right to be ordained.

We proclaim this statement of welcome to all who have known the pain of exclusion or discrimination in church and society. We invite all people to join us in our faith journey toward greater love, understanding, and mutual respect.”