Tuesday, July 1, 2014

How I Got Here, as an LGBT Ally

First, here's a column I was invited to write for Columbia Faith & Values, our local religion-news website, about the Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court.  I don't think it had anything to do with faith, but with greed and hypocrisy.

Recently, I had a conversation with someone who knows my profession but is an "outside" friend.  (Friends outside the church are important for pastors to have, for many reasons.)

The conversation was sparked when I updated my Facebook page with a big red "equal" sign for marriage equality, and my friend (happy, nonetheless) wondered how a Christian pastor could support same-sex marriage.

We had a nice, if brief, back-and-forth.  And later, I realized that I've probably never told the whole story - or even thought much about it, for that matter.  And it seemed worth exploring.

The timing is convenient, too - this past weekend was the one-year anniversary of the US Supreme Court's decision revoking DOMA, the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and saw a challenge by the mayor of St. Louis to Missouri's constitutional amendment against marriage equality.

So, as our country prepares to celebrate its freedom, I'm thinking about recent moves toward guaranteeing equal treatment for all....

I grew up mostly in small, homogeneous towns.  I knew one black person in grade school and only a few in high school.  The folks who seemed most "different" to me were Armenian and Greek Orthodox.

And I was naive, and more than a little clueless to things that weren't in-your-face obvious.  In some ways, I probably still am; I miss "subtle" all the time - ask my wife.

So if anyone was gay when I was growing up, I didn't know it.  And it wasn't something my parents talked about, either pro or con.  Our faith wasn't built around "thou shalt not's" and condemnation of this or that.

I don't even recall homosexuality as a topic of youth-group discussions.  We were more concerned with racism, drugs, Vietnam, and Watergate.

I'm sure, somehow, the idea of same-sex attraction filtered into my consciousness.  I read a lot, including the news; I'm sure I would've read about Stonewall, for instance.  And when I was in high school, a family acquaintance was described as "living with his mother," and an implication that more was meant.

I know I laughed at others' jokes about gay people, hanging out with the guys in college.  But it was just something I didn't understand and wasn't personally interested in, not something I was actively against.  So there was no highly negative view to overcome, when I finally began to recognize and think about same-sex attraction.

And I'm not really sure when that process of reflection began, but when it did, my mental default was toward openness and inclusion, and my faith orientation was toward love and acceptance - thanks to my parents' clear beliefs on racial equality and justice.

I guess the first time I was really confronted with homosexuality was in my last year of divinity school, when our clinical pastoral education group discussed a strange new disease that was affecting gay men, and no one (at that point) knew how or why.

Barely four years later, I came face to face with AIDS when a high school classmate called to ask if I could visit a mutual friend in the hospital.  Craig had graduated and left town, and I'd lost track of him.  Now he was dying, on the other side of the state.  His mother was there, but his father had repudiated him.

By the time I made the hours-long drive he was a mere shell, hooked to multiple machines, uncommunicative.  He died less than a month later, and his mother was kind enough to send a note.

By that time, though, I'd attended a lecture series and heard Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, an English professor and feminist scholar.  I don't remember what she talked about, but I bought one of her books there - Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?: Another Christian View, co-authored with Letha Scanzoni.

Whatever lack of awareness may have afflicted me, that book began to confront and cure.  The authors highlighted ways that Christians had demeaned gay and lesbian people and used Christian scriptures to validate it all.

Then they explored the truth of homosexuality and clarified and reinterpreted what the Bible really says - and doesn't say.  And they ended with a challenge - to see lgbt persons as neighbors, even as Jesus pointed to a Samaritan as an exemplar.

It all made sense to me.  But it was still academic, unconnected to my daily life and the people around me.  At least, I assumed so.

When I participated in a community-theater production of Godspell, I got to know a young gay man in the cast.  And when I left that community for another church, I had several lgbt persons in my new congregation - on staff and in church leadership.

However, these folks were not really "out" to the general public; one of them talked with me about his wish that the church could become Open & Affirming (a UCC label for officially welcoming and including lgbt persons in church life and leadership).

But he knew it would take time, even to have the discussion, and I left there after three years when the church closed and merged with another.

Thank heavens for California!  In many ways, because that's where I ended up.  Before too long, I became interim minister for one of our denomination's most liberal and socially-conscious churches. This congregation was officially Open & Affirming, and it was easy to fit right in - to be able to act on what my mind already accepted.

Even more, acceptance of lgbt persons was only one issue for them, so gays and lesbians - singles and couples - were able to avoid being "issues" and could just be people exploring and acting on faith. In little more than a year, I was able to officiate at several "commitment" ceremonies for gay or lesbian couples (California hadn't yet approved marriage equality).

Another congregation, and then another, as I continued my work of providing transitional leadership for churches "between" pastors.  The next two settings were also Open & Affirming, and we made friends of all sorts - many of whom we continue to be connected to.

During this time, the Southern California-Nevada Conference sent a resolution to the UCC's national gathering, supporting full marriage equality for all people.  I became a signer of the original petition, and I looked forward to the day I might return to full time, resident ministry with a church that was as Open & Affirming as I felt.

By now, my children were all in college or graduated, and I tried to stay as connected as distance would allow. At some point in their younger years, as I was educating myself and solidifying my ideas about homosexuality and faith, I figured that there was a statistical probability one of my children might be gay or lesbian.

Still in the intellectual realm, I was fine with it, but I didn't spend any time trying to figure out who.  And then I got a call from one of them - already "out" to siblings but nervous about talking with Dad.

I was glad she finally felt she could call, and glad I'd spent all those years doing "homework."  Because there's never been a rough patch or misunderstanding - not on this issue, anyway!  She's my daughter, and I love her.

Now here I am in mid-Missouri.  States all around are - through one means or another - accepting marriage equality, and maybe some day Missouri will, too.  I hope so.

And that's the tale.  There isn't a lot of data or background information, but you can find that scattered in various posts on this blog - click on the tags for "lgbt issues" or "marriage equality" to find links that provide reasons and interpretations.

As preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor wrote in The Christian Century over 10 years ago, lgbt equality isn't an "issue" I have.  Instead, I have people I know and love, folks I've worked with and respect.

And I believe in a God whose living Word, Jesus Christ, is more important and definitive for my faith than words on a page.  And even those words reveal that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality in his life.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Current Events

I'm working on a post about marriage equality, exploring my own intellectual development.  But things are happening in the world, and people are responding to them.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) approved, by a slim margin, to selectively divest from certain corporations doing business with Israel.  Presbyterian pastor Sam Alexander isn't happyRabbi Brant Rosen is, however.

The Christian Century has published a number of articles over the past few months on divestment.  Thomas Prinz and Karl-John Stone argue for positive investment.  Christopher Leighton criticizes the study guide used developed for the divestment debate.

And Presbyterian pastor Jan Edmiston suggests that, no matter where faith leads us, it will be disruptive.  True that....

Meanwhile, this morning the US Supreme Court approved, by a 5-4 vote, the right of Hobby Lobby and similar corporations to refuse contraceptive coverage in their employee insurance plans, based on religious beliefs.

I'm still trying to figure out how a corporation can have religious beliefs - or political beliefs, for that matter.  Contrary to what The Supremes have said, corporations are not people.

Here are several quotes from religious leaders made prior to the decision's publication.  And here is evangelical pastor Richard Cizik's pre-decision analysis.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

More on the Bible & Scriptural Authority

In my last post, I linked to Wes Ellis' May 28th thoughts on scripture and its authority.  This week, I found some more perspectives on that issue, on the Patheos blogging network's Progressive Christian channel.

Particularly, there's a section on this year's Religious Trends which features a whole set of articles on how to understand and appreciate scripture.  Readers might want just to click on titles that intrigue or aggravate them, but I'll highlight a few that I find important, below.

Brian McLaren talks about the various frames through which people understand the Bible, reflecting on his own intellectual journey away from literalism.

Mark Sandlin uncovers the power-dynamic in the oft-used argument that "it says so" in the Bible.  And make no mistake; that kind of statement can be used by people from all theological positions.  But it becomes especially dangerous when it attempts to stop discussion and limit input from previously unheeded corners.

Ben Corey writes about the importance of being able to ask hard questions of the text (e.g., did Jonah really get swallowed by a whale?), but also the necessity - too often bypassed by progressives - to ground their faith in scripture, not in spite of scripture.

Carol Howard Merritt echoes one of my favorite Hebrew-scripture scholars, James Kugel, when she emphasizes that it's not about "how" but "why" - that is, it's not about what happened (did it or didn't it) but what does it mean?  And, with Sandlin, she emphasizes the relational character of scripture and its story-telling.

Chuck Queen refers to the way Jesus interpreted and re-interpreted his tradition and offers "Three Questions about the Bible Jesus Might Ask."

And Roger Wolsey builds a list of "16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible" - in case you needed a list.

Long-time followers might remember that I also write for a local religion-news site called Columbia Faith & Values (or FAVS).

Columbia FAVS is undergoing some transition this summer, as it shifts to a new working model. But at this time, they're still providing locally-generated content on religion(s) and faith's intersection with life and society, as well as material generated elsewhere, including from Religion News Service.

Here's my latest article, as it appeared while I was on vacation.  It continues a reflection on what daily faith and discipleship might mean "after Easter."

Monday, June 2, 2014

Moving Beyond Easter...to What?

Getting ready to take some much-needed vacation time.  But before I do, some links to things that have piqued my interest and informed my thinking on various issues.  (How various? Check the list of "labels" below!)

Wes Ellis discusses how the Bible might be authoritative, critiquing both liberal and conservative pole-positions.  And this is an important discussion for both sides and everyone in between.

Why?  Because we all have subconscious assumptions that guide our actions and reactions.  To consider again, intentionally, how to read and understand the Bible's teachings forces each of us to confront what is unspoken in ourselves as well as others.

Jeff at Coffeehouse Contemplative explores change in the church, and all the obstacles and hidden pitfalls in the way of accomplishing it.  He makes some great points - I too grew up in a fairly traditional church atmosphere, and am used to doing things certain ways, even when they don't work anymore.

Our congregation's Strategic Visioning Process is running into some of that, too - no surprise.  How we negotiate it will (at least partly) determine how successful we are.

The death penalty ("capital punishment" is too nice a euphemism for state-sponsored killing) continues to be in the news here in the Midwest, as Missouri and surrounding states seek to execute criminals but have trouble maintaining supplies of execution drugs.

Rev. Al Mohler, Southern Baptist minister and seminary president, recently claimed Christians should support the death penalty.  Also-Baptist minister Chuck Queen argues why we shouldn't.

Wes Ellis, again, reacted to the most recent mass shootings with some balanced thoughts on gun control.  I agree with him that, in a global sense, the problem is about more than possession of guns.

However, other modern countries have demonstrated that restricting gun ownership does indeed reduce the number of murders and suicides by a significant margin.  Sooner or later, cowboy-Americans are going to have to come to terms with what the rest of the civilized world already accepts and benefits from.

Speaking of violence, Brian McLaren excerpts his own Time magazine piece on violence against Christians around the world, offering much-needed qualification and challenge and reminding us that we need to be part of the solution, not more of the problem.

And of course, the relationships - and even the basic humanity - of lgbt persons continues to cause debate and divisiveness.  Ben Corey challenges Christians who believe in love and forgiveness and all that stuff to practice their beliefs in relation to gay people.

And Tony Jones reflects on the ongoing marriage-equality discussion and the possibility of a "middle way" between the two hardened camps.  Basically, he says it's temporary, at best.

Why?  Because you can sit in the middle, not picking sides, for only so long; sooner or later, we're all going to have to say "yes" or "no."

Well, that's a lot of heavy stuff.  Some good news - friend and bluesman Walter Trout received a new liver last week, and so far he's recovering very well.

Praises be!  But he still needs to raise almost $20,000 (out of $250,000) in the next month....

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Easter Goes On & On

Yes, it does.  Our culture grants it a day (with a couple of weeks' preparation via store sales), but the Christian calendar considers the 7-week period from Easter Sunday to Pentecost as the season of Easter, or Eastertide.

I've been reinforcing that each Sunday since April 20, and I mention it again in a blog post for Columbia Faith & Values.

One of the things informed by Easter, as I see it, is the death penalty.  If Jesus is (wrongfully!) executed by the state, only to have God overturn society's decision, how can we People of the Resurrection support capital punishment?

Brian McLaren passes along an informative graphic from ArrestRecords.com.  Notice, for one thing, the company we're in as a nation that continues to execute criminals - not the folks we generally want to be associated with....

I'm still slogging through Jennifer McBride's The Church for the World.  Partly, it's slow-going; but partly, I want to make sure I "get" what she's saying, because I think it's important. In fact, her argument about how Christians ought to be involved in the world makes a lot of sense to me, and gives shape to some things I've felt for a long time.

For instance, McBride contrasts the typical American Christian approach to social change (whether one is liberal or conservative) as operating from a position of superior knowledge and morality.  However, her understanding of the witness of Jesus leads her to suggest a posture of humility and confession that identifies with others, rather than seeking to correct them.

Much of her thinking comes from her familiarity with the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, so there's lots of references to his work and that of Karl Barth.

As a lifetime member of the United Church of Christ, a denomination that's often been on the picket lines for this or that social issue, I find McBride to offer a much-needed corrective to the too-often self-important approach my religious brethren and sistren tend to take.

And an added bonus:  her approach will probably be better received and followed by the majority of local churches, UCC and otherwise.

I brought home a new CD the other day, Summer Horns by saxophonist Dave Koz "and friends" - primarily, fellow saxophonists Mindi Abair, Gerald Albright, and Richard Elliott (although he also features trumpeter and stellar horn arranger Greg Adams, formerly of Tower of Power).  Mary and I have seen them all in concert, mostly at the KSBR Birthday Bash in southern Orange County, so it brought back good memories.

One thing I noticed - and enjoyed - is something I've seen in recent years from other contemporary jazz artists particularly.  The CD is mostly covers of tunes the artists enjoyed in their teenage years - for Dave Koz, that means a lot of R&B, soul, Motown - styles that would have been horn-heavy.

In fact, another of our favorite CD's is by Mindi Abair, In Hi-Fi Stereo.  It features a song we heard at the last Birthday Bash we attended, before moving to Missouri.  To play "All Star," Mindi got every horn player in the concert line-up on stage at the same time, handed out parts, and they all just wailed!  Loved it so much I got it for a ring tone.