Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Dad Had It Right

Rev. Edwin A. Trench 1928-2006
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.  Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.
Romans 5:15,18

Dad died ten years ago today. 

It is perhaps just as well that he did not live to see our recent election. 

He might have mispronounced "misogynist," but he would not have been quiet about electing one to the white house. 

To say that he was outspoken would be an understatement. That's not always an advantage for a pastor. But to his credit, he never counted the cost of his witness in personal terms. 

Those who regularly read this blog know that over the past eighteen months I have written frequently about the issues, but I stopped short of endorsing a candidate. 

There are two major reasons for making that choice. First, I believe that although the gospel is an intensely political document, 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. And second, I believe that I need to be a pastor to everyone, regardless of their politics. Endorsing a candidate would compromise that relationship.

Dad saw it differently.

For him, 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.

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

His willingness to say what needed to be said was impressive, but his greatest gifts were as a pastor rather than as a prophet.

A few years ago, before a graveside service for a distant member of the church, a woman came over and introduced herself. She told me that she belonged to a neighboring United Methodist church and that she was a Lay Speaker, and a leader in that church. “I remember your father,” she said. He was the pastor in Coventry when I was a teenager.”

“He came to visit at our house and he was talking to my mother. And he invited me to come to the youth group. I told him that I didn’t really believe in Jesus, so I didn’t want to come to the youth group.

“My mother was so embarrassed. And she was so angry with me. But your father just smiled. ‘That’s okay,’ he said. ‘You think about it, and if you want to attend, we’d love to have you.’ He didn’t get upset. And he didn’t tell me I was wrong to think that way. I’ll always remember that. 

“And then later I went to the youth group and it was great. But I’ll always remember the way he reacted.”

When the great theologian Karl Barth was asked to sum up his many complex volumes of “Church Dogmatics,” he said, 

Jesu liebt mich, ganz gewiss,
Denn die Bibel sagt mir dies

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

That would also have summarized Dad’s theology, although it sounded much more profound coming from Barth. Dad was not a theologian, but he was a pastor, and he understood the practical application of the faith pastorally as well as politically.

He was convinced that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” And he was convinced that God’s grace, in Christ, extended to everyone, whether they believed it or not. Sadly, Dad’s intuitive response to a questioning teen made a lasting impression in part because it was not what she expected from those who call themselves Christians.

In Paul’s exposition of Christ as the New Adam, his basic assertion is that in Adam we have all sinned and in Christ we have all been justified (forgiven and made right with God).

For two thousand years, the majority interpretation of that passage has been that the first “all” refers to everyone (everyone has sinned) and the second “all” refers only to baptized Christian believers. 

Ironically, this notion that sin is unlimited while grace is restricted, is one more evidence of our tendency to “sin” in our biblical interpretation. So (ironically) it proves the first of Paul’s assertions. We are all self-centered and we want to believe that grace applies only to us and to the people who think like us. We believe in sin, but we have doubts about grace.

Why is that? In traditional language, it’s because we are “sinners.”

But Dad had it right.

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 on November 29, 2010.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Thanksgiving and the Kingdom of God in America

The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899)

"Politics are never ultimate, never absolute. We can and must fight the good fight for a better republic and a better world. But our hope does not depend on any political outcome. Our faith and our hope derive from Jesus Christ, who survives all nations and all politics."
Robert N. Bellah

I have a special fondness the notion of the Kingdom of God in America. 

First, and in a serious way, because it was (and is) the agenda of Jesus to build the Kingdom of God on earth, and since I am an American Christian, my first responsibility is to build it here. 

But I also enjoy talking about the Kingdom of God because it makes everyone uncomfortable (including me). 

The secular left gets nervous about a theocracy and a religious vision, and the religious left is uncomfortable with the King imagery (I share the discomfort with “King” and I agree that in many ways it would be better to get the King imagery out of it and speak about the Reign of God, but I still think that falls short of the original.). 

The religious right wants religion to be personal rather than social, and they are nervous about the “politicization” of the Gospel, and the political right gets nervous about the Social Gospel and Social Justice.

That’s all good, because we are supposed to be uncomfortable with the Kingdom of God.

We should not look for ways to escape that discomfort. Jesus’ vision calls us into the future. We pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth, and that must mean change. As soon as we are comfortable with the present, we remember again that we are called into the future. We are called to be a pilgrim people.

In a special way, Thanksgiving is central to understanding the Kingdom of God in America.

Robert Bellah was one of the greatest American Sociologists. He rose to national prominence when he wrote an essay on Civil Religion in America. (If you have never read the essay, you can get it on line by clicking here.) 

Bellah explained how Americans had developed a religious sensibility which was rooted in our Judeo-Christian heritage, but also uniquely American. We began with a covenant and a mission. Slavery was our original sin. Lincoln was our central prophet. And though we had a high view of our calling in the world, we were clear that America always stood under the judgment of God.

Thanksgiving is the most important holiday in our American Civil Religion. It was first instituted by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, as a time of national Repentance and Thanksgiving. A national day of repentance would be a tough sell in today’s political climate. 

As Christians, how do we relate to the uncivil tone of our political debate today?

It is a difficult question and there are no easy answers. It is particularly problematic today after a long season political campaigning in which the president-elect distinguished himself by shattering almost every norm of civilized discourse. One of his Republican challengers declared dramatically that “you can’t insult your way to the presidency.” But apparently you can.

We are in uncharted waters.

But as Christians, it is important that we keep perspective and that we focus on long term goals.

The Gospel is intensely political and we cannot read it with any measure of intellectual honestly and pretend otherwise. It is about proclaiming a vision of the Kingdom of God. It is about social and economic justice. But we must also remember, as Bellah points out, that the Kingdom of God can never be identified with any single political group or cause, or country. Instead, it is always the standard by which every political plan is judged.

As Bellah notes, “We can and must fight the good fight for a better republic and a better world.” But we need to be clear that there is a gap between our vision and God’s vision. This does not mean that one idea is as good as another, or that political issues do not matter. It does mean that we should approach political issues with Lincoln’s repentance and humility. 

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

A previous version of this blogpost was originally published on November 23, 2016.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Does the Moral Arc of the Universe Bend Toward Justice?

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.
                                                                 James Russell Lowell

At the end of the Selma march, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech titled, “Our God Is Marching On.” And at the end of the speech, he wove together a rich poetic tapestry of Bible verses with the poetry of Julia Ward Howe and James Russell Lowell. Then he adapted a phrase from the great abolitionist preacher Theodore Parker and declared that although it had been a long struggle for Civil Rights, in the end they would be victorious because “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

No one doubts the “long” part of that sentence. But especially this week, some of us may have our doubts about whether it is bending toward justice.

I don’t know whether King would see his phrase about the “arc of the moral universe,” as interchangeable with “the moral arc of the universe,” but I prefer the latter.

If we believe in the Kingdom of God, then we believe that the universe itself has a moral arc that bends toward justice.

Jesus told his disciples that the Kingdom of God was already among them although it was not yet fully realized. This is what God is doing in the world. The moral arc is bending toward justice. Jesus called his disciples to join in what God is already doing, to share in bending the moral arc of the universe.

The liturgical season of Kingdomtide ends next Sunday.

That is, if we still celebrated Kingdomtide, it would be ending next Sunday.

In the old Methodist liturgical calendar the Sundays from the end of August to the beginning of Advent were known as the season of “Kingdomtide.” It was a time to reflect on the biblical promise of the Kingdom of God and to ask ourselves what the world would look like if we were serious about building the Kingdom of God on earth.

The loss of Kingdomtide is not a metaphor for everything that is wrong with the world, although sometimes it seems to me as if it is. And the loss of a liturgical season does not stop the bending of the arc or the coming of the kingdom. But it is still a loss.

Jesus preached the “good news of the Kingdom of God.” He announced that God was already at work in the world, and we were invited to live in the new reality that God was creating. The idea of the Kingdom of God begins with Jesus, but it grows out of the experience of the people of Israel. And a primary theological component is the liberation of the Israelites in the Exodus.

Although Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom of God occupies the overwhelming majority of his teaching, it has often been ignored by modern Christians.

For Jesus, this alternative community was a place where the poor were lifted up, where everyone had a place at the table, where love governed both individuals and institutions. It was a place of radical hospitality, egalitarianism, inclusion, mutual concern, self-sacrifice, and social justice. In this biblical vision, everyone has enough and no one has too much.

The great abolitionist and social gospel poet James Russell Lowell was a Unitarian. He was also a disciple of Jesus in the best and most inclusive sense of that term. And he was clear that those who follow Jesus must be in it for the long term: 

"Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong.
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own."

In this post election season some of us may feel like truth is on the scaffold. For those who live in the relative security of privileged race and gender, as I do, it is only a metaphor. And to some it may seem like hyperbole.

But to those on the margins, it is a terrifying reality.

At the University of Pennsylvania, African American students themselves unwillingly added to a group email account that invited them to a “daily lynching” and received other racist threats. The FBI eventually traced to students at the University of Oklahoma. In a statement to the students at Penn, University President Amy Gutmann wrote:

"We are absolutely appalled that earlier today Black freshman students at Penn were added to a racist GroupMe account . . . The account itself is totally repugnant: it contains violent, racist and thoroughly disgusting images and messages. This is simply deplorable.”
Similar incidents have been reported around the country.

Luke reports that in a far more perilous time than our own Jesus was asked when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

“Against the data,” as Walter Brueggeman would say, Jesus declared that this “Kingdom of God” was already among them. In spite of the Roman occupation, which would go on for centuries. The world did not belong to the emperor; it belonged to God. And God was at work in the world. The disciples were invited to live into the new reality; this alternative community.

This is a vision that transcends partisan politics.

The popular misinterpretation is that when Jesus talked about God's Kingdom, he was talking about heaven.

But he wasn’t.

He was talking about what happens (and doesn’t happen, but ought to happen) on this earth.

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

Thursday, November 10, 2016

What Has Changed and What Has Not

God is our refuge and strength,
   a very present help in trouble. 
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
   though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; 
though its waters roar and foam,
   though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Psalm 46:1-3

For many of us, the past few days have been profoundly unsettling.

We were expecting to celebrate the election of the first woman President of the United States and we woke up on Wednesday to find that we had elected a man who is openly and unrepentantly misogynistic. 

Not a happy feeling. 

To take a biblical phrase out of context, some of us feel like strangers in a strange land.

In a blistering article in the Huffington Post, Sarah Ruiz-Grossman writes, “Dear Fellow White Women: We F**ked This Up.” And she follows that up with a startling statistic: “Exit polls show 53 percent of white women voted for Trump — compared to only 43 percent for Clinton.”
“When the demographic split for the exit polls came out, showing the divide between Trump and Clinton supporters, my eyes immediately jumped to one group: white women. Tell me we came through for our sisters of color, I begged, at least this one time. We didn’t.
“So I am ashamed. I am ashamed of my country. I am ashamed of white people. But more than anyone else, I am ashamed of white women.”
It feels like a seismic shift.

But, in fact, it really isn’t. It may be an uncomfortable look in the mirror, but the country really has not changed.

Hillary Clinton apparently will win the popular vote (and we will probably have a healthy debate about the Electoral College, which disproportionately increases the influence of smaller states and makes votes in swing states more important than votes in Alabama or Rhode Island). But regardless of the final outcome, the margin will be tiny.

Basically, it’s a tie.

And when we look more closely at the numbers, the demographic percentages are almost identical to 2012. Donald Trump did as well among white women in 2016 as Mitt Romney did in 2012. 

There are small shifts among other demographics, but nothing major.

Donald Trump won because his supporters were more enthusiastic (and a lot angrier) than those supporting Hillary Clinton. A higher percentage of his supporters actually went to the polls and voted. To paraphrase a campaign slogan, “Anger Trumps Apathy.” He hit a nerve.

The country did not change and yet our trajectory has shifted. 

We may disengage with other nations on climate change, on trade, and on mutual defense agreements. And then there are those all important Supreme Court appointments.

On the positive side, there is at least the possibility of a bipartisan approach to job creation and infrastructure. And the truth is that presidents are almost never as bad as their opponents fear or as effective as their supporters hope.

Campaigns are won and lost at the extremes, but governance gravitates toward the center.

I am aware, of course, that I can take the long view because I am in a place of privilege. Not everyone has that luxury.

On Wednesday morning I got a call from an African-American woman in our congregation.

"Bill," she said, "I'm scared. He's a racist. What's going to happen to people of color?" She was shocked that he could get elected, and she was especially afraid for her grandsons. "Hillary is not perfect," she said, "but she's not a racist." 

And then she talked about what Clinton had done on behalf of children. "All children," she said. "She didn't care what color they were, she loved them all."

We talked about hope and justice and loving one another.

That is not a phone call I ever expected to get in 2016, but it brought home to me how terrifying this is for those who are vulnerable.

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

Friday, November 4, 2016

Further Thoughts on A Way Forward for the UMC

So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these people and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”
Acts 5:38-39

In an article published in the online journal um-insght, Diane Degnan reports that the Council of Bishops, meeting in St. Simons Island, Georgia, “expressed their intent to call for a special session of the General Conference in either February or March of 2019 and asked the business manager of the General Conference to move forward with exploring venues and a bid search.”

In a related action, the co-chairs of the “Praying Our Way Forward” initiative, asked the whole church to pray for the Commission on a Way Forward.

 “We want the church and the Commission on a Way Forward to be led by God. This prayer emphasis puts us in a posture where as a church we are asking and listening for God’s leadership,” said Bishop Wallace-Padgett. “Our prayer focus is twofold: We are praying that God will help us to more effectively fulfill the mission of the church.  And we are praying to be one in Christ.”

“To be one in Christ,” is a spiritual way of talking about the unity of the church, Some fear that such unity will only come at the expense of LGBTQ persons. Some of those same people, and others, suspect that a call for unity is really about the preservation of money, property and power.

I will not be praying that we will be “one in Christ.” That is not who we have been in the past, and I do not expect we will achieve that anytime soon. Like John Wesley’s notion that we are “going on to perfection,” it is more about hope than reality. It is not a place we will get to in this lifetime.

But I will be hoping and praying for unity. And by unity I mean connectional unity. I do not expect that we will be of one mind, but I am hoping we can continue to be one church.

And beyond that, though I know that we will not all think alike, I share Wesley’s hope that we may all love alike.

A year ago I did not believe that we would come this close to schism because I fully expected the runaway train of LGBTQ awareness, acceptance and affirmation would move faster than our lumbering bureaucracy. 

I imagined one of our study committees, meeting in a windowless room,  plodding toward some vague compromise only to be interrupted by a messenger who arrived to tell them that in the outside world this had already been settled, that there was no longer anyone out there who cared about anyone else’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Sadly, that did not happen. At least it has not yet happened. But I am still in favor of unity.

To be clear, I do not believe in “unity” as a euphemism for continuing to oppress and exclude our LGBTQIA members, friends, children, siblings, or neighbors. We need to stop the harm.

And I would not be in favor of unity if I did not believe that we are moving inexorably and irreversibly toward full inclusion. I may have underestimated the speed of the change, but I am convinced that we will continue to move toward a more inclusive society and a more inclusive church.

The cynical view has been that the bishops and others in leadership would hold the church together in order to avoid the inevitable conflicts over the division of assets (property, buildings, investments, pensions). I would not minimize the potential conflicts, but that is not what really concerns me. We can do the math and we can figure out a formula. It will be messy and difficult, but it will get done.

My greater concern is when it comes to individual United Methodists in individual local churches.

What do you do if you believe in inclusion and your congregation votes to go with the traditionalists? Of course, you can find another church, but that will not take away the hurt. Or vice versa? What if you are an LGBTQ person and your church votes to go with the traditionalists? If the vote is 90 to 10, the pain may not be that great, but what about the churches that find themselves divided 55-45, or even 65-35?

And how will this look to the rest of the world?

Our mistreatment of LGBTQIA persons has caused pain and even death. And that mistreatment has also compromised our ability to proclaim the Gospel. We have lost credibility in the world. When people see how wrong we are on this issue they wonder if we can ever get anything right.

Our literal and legalistic (and profoundly mistaken) interpretation of a few obscure passages of scripture has caused folks outside the church to discard the whole Gospel. 

Both traditionalists and progressives should be appalled by that.

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