Tuesday, July 21, 2015

And more questions...

First of all, let me say that I could post about the recent violent and senseless shootings, but that is all over the media and FaceBook, so I won't say anything except urge us all to pray for the families of the victims, the shooters' families, and the souls of the shooters themselves. I do believe our society has to come to grips with the incredible proliferation of handguns as well as the rapidly growing number of "carry permits" being issued across the States of this great nation. We are arming ourselves to the teeth, and often with the false sense that somehow this will protect us, while it makes guns easier and easier for criminals, persons who are mentally disturbed, or young drug gang members to procure. I don't believe there is any way we can "fix" all of the ills of humanity (including those listed above), so the only alternative we are left with is rational limiting of the availability of concealable firearms. Even if making guns less available--and harder to get--only saves ten percent of gun deaths annually, we'll have saved between 3,000 and 4,000 lives. Otherwise, are we just going to sit back and lament, "Well...what are ya' gonna' do?"

Here is another question from St. Paul's UMC's "Ask the Pastors" Sunday:

What should I say to my child who says they don't believe in God?

When a person makes a statement like that, she or he is being brutally honest, and such honest feelings--when expressed--are wonderful "talking points" for parent and child (or young adult?) to engage in meaningful conversation. I would begin the dialogue by asking, "Tell me about that..." There are many reasons a person would make this statement:

They have heard about or experienced something that causes them to doubt that "anyone's in charge." The comment that someone "doesn't believe in God" may just be a way of asking for help and understanding in the wake of a tragedy (for many people, even one they see on TV) or a personal event that "rocks their world." Don't assume it is a theological question at all. Begin at this level. You may find out quickly that God--or the lack of God--is just a scapegoat for fear or confusion. Work with that in your discussion. Leave "God talk" out of it at this point.

Younger children see the world very objectively. Back in the day, when most families went to church and Sunday School, kids just "grew up" in an environment where they were taught God exists, and in their objective worldview, they just accepted this. This "prevailing environment" period had its problems, too. When that same child matured and her or his mind made the transition to the subjective, questioning "adult" mode, the church often didn't know how to "update" the faith message to make sense to this new mental reality (or it didn't even take the time to try). Therefore, many a young adult "abandoned" the faith of their childhood because it didn't square with how they were beginning to see life, the universe, and everything. If the "child" in question is one of these young adults now doubting the existence of God, talk with her or him about your own personal faith, and your own struggles with it. They need to hear honest talk about how we all have doubts, and not just about the existence of God. Healthy people are questioning people. Never denigrate them for their current doubt. Urge them to keep seeking greater truths, and be an open-minded, loving witness to them of God's love and grace. The last thing a young adult needs in this period of maturation is someone telling them they will go to Hell, or spouting verse after verse of scripture at them. Some of the greatest Christian people in history wrote or spoke honestly about their doubts. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is an example of this. We grow through our doubts and questions--lock-step "believing" and rigid doctrine imprison the mind and stunt human development.

Now, back to the objective child issue. Today, so many families have little history of being "churched," and may be the first-generation seeking a relationship with a community of faith. Therefore the "objective" oriented child has no heritage that gives her or him a "picture" of the existence of deity. Hence, after attending a Vacation Bible School, Sunday School class, or other such event for the first time, she or he may make a statement like "I don't think I believe in God," based on the other lessons they have learned about what is "real" (observable, provable, a lesson learned from someone they trust). Again, this is not time to panic, or to say, "Oh Honey, but we should believe in God!" Talk to them about why they made this statement. It could be something as simple as their friend "Jimmy," with whom they spend hours playing and whose friendship they value, told them recently, "I don't think there really is a God." You may just be hearing a repeated sentiment.

For the person who is reacting to some "trauma" they have experienced by denying the existence of God, just offer your support and be a loving presence while they work through it. God is big enough to make godself known to them at the proper time. For the others who may just be going through a developmental stage, continue to provide a context for them to explore and question her or his faith. Keep the conversation open, and don't panic. If God is love, then just love them and embrace them, and God will show up.

Finally, let me say that, as a pastor, I much rather deal with a person who claims to be an unbeliever than those who feign faith and yet only give it lip service or follow a few rigid rules they then call divine. Questioning is always good. And as the ancient Rabbis taught us, not every question has an answer, but every question expands our knowledge.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

...And justice for all!

If you are a FaceBooker, you know that, in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage, the "posts" have been showing up like flies at a deer carcass. Now, anyone with even a little legal knowledge pretty much knew where this ruling was going to go. Justice dictates equal rights in situations like this. The only reason it didn't come sooner was the historical disdain with which same-sex marriage (or even relationships, for that matter) was viewed by the wider society, thanks in part to religious beliefs on the matter. That being said, the court ruling (based largely on the due process clause of the 14th amendment, as I understand it) means the U.S. Constitution allows for this freedom and resulting legal protection. Same-sex couples can enjoy the same benefits, protections, and privileges as heterosexual couples, under the law. The court did not (and cannot) dictate how religions treat the subject.

Some denominations just simply will not accept same-sex marriages. They won't condone them, host them, or perform them. That does not have to change under this legal ruling, and in many cases will not. Others are willing to affirm the legal justice of the ruling, and even affirm the full rights of same-sex couples, but cannot marry or host religious ceremonies recognizing them, based on their current denominational "rules." That is the case with my denomination, The United Methodist Church. At our 2016 General Conference, which is the every-four-years assembly that has the power to make changes in our rules, the topic will be furiously debated. I am one who believes our church should remove its restriction on LGBT individuals (our denominational rule book states that "...the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching...") as the shelf life on this particular rule has expired. Science, medicine, and psychology have spoken about how LGBT persons just "are," and that theirs is not a chosen "practice" or lifestyle. As a pastor, I would like the freedom to minister equally with LGBT persons, including perform marriages or holy unions for them, without jeopardizing my career or church. I am in favor of removing the restrictions, but not including new language that "requires" pastors and churches to engage in these activities. In this time of re-evaluation and "widening the circle," this would give each a chance to search her or his own conscience on the matter.

I won't get into "The Bible says..." debates, as this is a short blog, but I will say that my tradition, and indeed the entire Christian tradition (and Jewish tradition, for that matter) has regularly revisited and revised our interpretation of scripture, based on new information and changes in the societies and times in which we minister. We no longer make "slaves obey their masters" or tell the women, "keep silent in the church." Our denomination has ordained women as full Elders for 60 years (and it's sad that is all the LONGER we have done it!). I believe that the few verses that address "homosexuality" in the Bible were addressing specific dysfunction in that time and place regarding sexual practices. The Hebrew law code (the same one that condemns persons with tattoos or body piercings and suggests that children who sass their parents should be stoned to death) was dealing with barbarous and predatory sexual practices. And in Paul's writings, he was addressing rampant "sexploitation" of young boys in the Roman culture (just read a little history of the Roman Empire, and you will get the picture). It is my belief that the Bible does not address persons who are attracted to their same gender and wish to spend their lives together in a covenantal union.

Now, some of my most tolerant and accepting religious friends have remarked that they are OK with all of the legal freedoms--and even religious affirmations--LGBT persons are beginning to enjoy, but struggle with applying the term "marriage" to their partnering practices. I confess that I was a short-term holdout here, too, but not for any biblical reasons. When you spend 60-plus years locked into a single definition of that word, it just takes a little time to widen it in one's mind. However, after conversations with LGBT friends, expressing their desire to be married to the person they love in the same way their parents were, I began to understand and adapt. Actually, marriage is a legal thing, anyway. Bonhoeffer felt the church should get out of that business, and perform blessing services for church members after their "State" marriage ceremony by a civil justice. The Bible has no consistent set of "rules" about marriage. In the various periods in which it was written, "marriage" was arranged by the families, with the woman as "property." Love had little to do with it, nor had choice. Women who were raped were ordered to marry the rapist! Sons were told they had to marry their brother's widow. Our current "Say yes to the dress" model of hollywood marriage has absolutely nothing to do with the Bible, nor its ancient standards.

One irrational fear that some FaceBookers have been propagating is that now that same-sex unions are acceptable, then next will be polygamy and other liberalizations of marriage rights. The court has regularly been more open to protecting individual rights but conservative about rulings that could harm second parties or the society at large. Take, for example, the First Amendment freedom of speech: It is stringently protected unless the speech could cause irreparable damage to others, like shouting "FIRE!" in a crowded theater. Then the speech is NOT protected. Polygamy has great potential for societal harm. The economics and legal quagmire of multiple "legal" partners becomes staggering. At a time when fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, imagine what a mess the courts could be when polygamous relationships begin to self-destruct. And what of the rights and welfare of any offspring of such marriages? These are key reasons why polygamy has not been legal in most societies, and why I don't believe the Supreme Court would ever extend freedom and protection to it.

Another irrational fear is that same-sex relationships might in some way weaken heterosexual or "traditional" marriages. I can't figure out the logic of this assertion at all. In fact, if LGBT persons use their new freedom to marry to build stable, loving, and nurturing homes, then they certainly could teach the rest of us a thing or two. Did I mention that that fifty-percent failure rate in heterosexual marriages is actually higher among church folk?

My prayer is that Christians will continue to support the great rights and freedoms we have as American people. We can debate among ourselves the "religious" issues of these, but when we do, we should go back to the ones that have proven to be far more destructive, like the proliferation of firearms, or the rapidly growing disparity between the "haves" and "have nots," especially when it comes to the availability of a decent education.

Did I say short blog? This is longer than most of my sermons! Shalom, Dear Ones!

What's Next?

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