Thursday, September 11, 2014

Is It Time to Move On?



At the risk of igniting serious controversy (though limited readership makes that seem unlikely), I’m going to wonder aloud if it’s time for our nation to “move on” from September 11.

On this day thirteen years ago, two planes were flown into the Twin Towers in New York City, a third crashed into the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C., and a fourth crashed onto a Pennsylvania field.  A total of 2,999 people died in this tragic event.

Like many, I watched and listened to the news coverage that day and on succeeding days.  A friend worked in the Pentagon, and I worried about him and his family, emailing to find out if he was safe.  (He was.)

Like many, the church I served re-focused worship for the coming Sunday to reflect on what happened and how we might respond as Christians.

I was gratified to learn of the widespread international outpouring of sympathy, yet dismayed to hear of the prejudice and threats experienced by “Middle Eastern-looking” people in our own country.

I was heartened by the initial responses of our government, welcoming the world’s support, but deeply disappointed with the second (still ongoing) reactions of self-righteous crusading abroad and restricted civil rights at home, counter to the very principles on which our country was founded.

For those who lost loved ones that day, I know it is impossible to “move on,” and I would not counsel them to attempt it.  Some of our annual “remembrance,” therefore, may be in sympathy with those who suffered actual loss.

And perhaps – as with, say, a D-Day or Hiroshima observance – it is also appropriate not to lose track of “what happened” and who paid a price.

But for those of us with little or no personal connection to that day’s losses – why act as if 9/11 were the worst thing ever to happen in the history of the human race?  We lost hundreds more at the Civil War battle of Antietam, and that’s just American history.

Other lands and peoples have experienced much more and much worse than we.  A friend born in Europe used to gripe that Americans have no concept of what it’s like for war to take place within our borders.  To many, “American exceptionalism” is more like being spoiled.

I guess my real problem is that the annual call to “remember” just stirs up the jingoistic hyper-patriotism that wants to exterminate everyone not like us – “kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out” – that still seeks revenge for our wounded pride and violated soil.

That’s really what I want us to move past.  Working in a call center in California years ago, I first heard someone respond to a coworker’s self-pitying remark with “build a bridge and get over it.”

There was an opportunity, early on, for us to build bridges across the oceans and with other nations.  Sadly, that opportunity was cut off too soon by trumped-up accusations that dragged us into still-unended wars.

But shouldn’t that be what we do – build bridges and cross them – as those who now understand much more clearly the sufferings of others, committing ourselves to healing rather than more destruction?

For those who lost family and friends on 9/11, it may be too early.  But for the rest of us, I think perhaps it’s time.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Who Turned on the Time Machine?

Yesterday afternoon, we ordained a young man who grew up in our church and heard God's call to become a minister.  It was a moving service - made even more touching and powerful because less than three weeks ago, this young man began serving a church in Ferguson, Missouri.

Hardly had he begun his ministry - as an associate pastor with a particular emphasis on youth - than an 18-year-old black youth was shot and killed by a police officer.  The first night of marches-turned-riot went right past his new church.

In the past eight days, a lot of opinions have been aired.  I want to highlight three things in all of that which compel my attention and channel my thinking:
  • unarmed black teenager,
  • police violence against blacks, especially young black men,
  • resistance against acknowledging ongoing racism.
Let me begin by recognizing the "presumption of innocence" in our legal system in regard to the officer who fired the shots that killed Michael Brown, and the importance of providing him with due process.  Let me also state that riots and looting have the potential to destroy that neighborhood and its important institutions, worsening rather than solving its problems.

And I must also declare my trust that the vast majority of law enforcement officials are good, compassionate, and a credit to their uniforms.  They serve and protect, and our society would be much worse off without them.

I grew up in the 1960's and '70's.  I saw the photos of Civil Rights marches in the South, complete with police-wielded billy clubs and dogs attacking children.  But we all "knew" that was an aberration; "our" police weren't like that.  I mean, a uniformed officer helped us cross the street for school every day in Fairport Harbor.
What happened?  I honestly don't know.  But it sure feels like the '60's in the South again - or perhaps another country.  Here's how one writer compared typical news coverage of foreign unrest to the situation in Ferguson.

Others have written about the "code of silence" that ignores acts of police brutality until they're revealed on video.  Certainly, the increasing militarization of our country's police forces - initiated by the war on drugs, reinforced by the war on terror, and equipped by military surplus - has skewed the police-citizen dynamic.

And lots of folks - with better cred than I - have shared the experience of being black and male in America:
As a number of writers have suggested, Americans still have not faced the lingering legacy of racism in our society, and how it turns young black men into automatic enemies - "the other."
Something needs to happen - something different from what we're already doing - so that no more lives are needlessly ended.  And as always, the solution starts within.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Book Review Posted!

Columbia Faith & Values has posted my review of Jennifer McBride's The Church in the World: A Theology of Public Witness.

I turned this in to my editor shortly before attending another meeting of city clergy seeking to restore justice and dignity to all people in our community.  This meeting was, in some ways, a continuation of the one I mentioned in my last Columbia FAVS article and a colleague's post I linked to on Tuesday.

The group, overwhelmingly white and educated and well-meaning, still hasn't been able to "connect" to minority communities in general.  But steps are being taken to develop relationships in meaningful ways.

And I think that willingness to put aside agendas and simply listen is at least part of what McBride advocates.

The barriers of education and color, class and language still create huge divisions within our society.  But I am cautiously hopeful that, with a theologically appropriate and intentionally humble approach, we can begin to bridge those differences and become a community.   If so, we'll have the strength - of numbers and of spirit - to resolve the issues that plague us.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Another Bottle of Heinz

..."catch-up," that is.  Yeah, I know; lame....

But there's been a lot written since I was here last, on a variety of topics.  And here are the ones that have informed or challenged me.

My last post was autobiographical - how I became an LGBT "ally."  Wes Ellis shared his own journey recently, and having watched some of that happen when we worked together, I applaud his candor and his story-telling.

Kimberly Knight relates her own journey - and challenges, and disappointments, and outright attacks-on.  When I read her, I think of my daughter and other family members and friends.  And I wish this whole discussion were resolved.

Brian McLaren also has some thoughts - no surprise - on how the church may change in relation to homosexuality.  Of course, Brian has thoughts on lots of things, and they're usually enlightening, so just scroll through his blog.

I have to say Brian is challenging on the subject of Israel and Palestine.  I have friends on both sides of that issue, and much that is written - on both sides - is powerful and convicting.

I still struggle with just where to draw my own line.  I grieve at the loss of innocent life - on both sides; "collateral damage" is a self-serving evasion.  But I also am made anxious but the unrelenting threats on Israel and its people by those who will not accept the validity of their lives, much less their nation.

Wes Ellis, again, has a couple posts on theology.  One is about doing theology from a posture of humility rather than superiority, and it's brief and good.

The other is about "macho Jesus" - one of the latest "trends that will not die."  He contrasts a "theology of glory" which associates faith with power, rightness, cultural superiority, and privilege to a "theology of the cross" which emphasizes solidarity with the suffering and humility.

In one of the best, clearest, and most brilliant examples Wes quotes author John Bowlin on the purpose of the cross, relating it to a sacrifice bunt in baseball.  "The motive was not (directly) to 'get out'--to die--but to 'rescue the runner and move him toward home.'"  I can't wait for the chance to use that myself!

Rob Bell continues his series of posts on "What Is the Bible?"  He's up to number 61 now, on Ananias and Saphira from the book of Acts.

Last month I posted some thoughts about racial equality on Columbia Faith & Values.  Nationally recognized writer and pastor Carl Kenney reflects from his own perspective.  Carl's blog adds a much needed voice to this community's conversation!

Our church is stalled in the middle of a strategic visioning process; some other business needs to be resolved before we can move forward.  But Jeff the Coffeehouse Contemplative has some concerns about things like mission statements.

Near the end, he relates his experience of "pockets of committed people doing something that they're passionate about," and thereby nudging a congregation toward greater faithfulness.  It's something I'm going to keep in mind, and have occasional conversations about.

I hope to have another article for Columbia Faith & Values by the end of this week.  I've finally - FINALLY! - finished Jennifer McBride's The Church in the World: A Theology of Public Witness.  I'll be reflecting on it - and perhaps connecting it to the dialogue above on racial equality.

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.