Wednesday, May 29, 2019

A Defining Moment...

How we define things pretty much sets the parameters as to how we view that which we define, how we will treat it, and how we will relate to it. Some examples:

I relate to one named "Dara" differently because she is defined as my partner in life, the mother of our children, and my best friend. I treat her like no other human with whom I relate, because of this specific definition. She is also a practicing Christian (and she's really GOOD at it!), and therefore I also treat her like a sibling in Jesus Christ. It gets complicated, because she is also a member of the church I serve, so technically, I am also her pastor, but the earlier definition severely clouds how I can relate to her as "pastor." I am able to teach her in a Bible Study, but if she needs to talk to a pastor about deep, personal issues (especially if any of them involves her husband), she would be better served by meeting with my colleague. (If we were serving in a solo appointment, she would have to seek out another counselor, though.)

Racism results when a person defines someone as another race as not just different, but inferior in some way, or as being a source of fear or anxiety. While irrational, unethical, and inhuman, racism demonstrates the power of definition, when we are the ones doing the defining.

Sexual harassment (or worse) may result when a person defines another as "object." It may manifest itself out of an affectation one develops for another, or out of a sense of dominance or entitlement, but the result is always a type of violence against the unsuspecting other. Ultimately, it stems from a perceived position of power one has over another.

We really struggle when our definitions vary greatly from the "norm." I define all snakes as dangerous, threatening, and repulsive, while a herpetologist would see things quite differently. In terms of the societal "norms," snakes have their place, and should stay in it, but the wider view is that they serve an important function in the animal kingdom. But the defining power of the individual is pretty strong: I hate snakes, even though I am intellectually fully aware of their value to the planet.

So, what is my point here? Well, there are two of them, actually. I believe that an important role of religion and spirituality is to help us with our definitions. Where they are so narrow as to cause us to shut out other people from our world, even to the point of anger or violence, our faith may use biblical values or teachings to assuage our fear of "the other" and alter our definition of them so as to form healthy relationships with them. Our religious teachings and values may also help us to enhance our definition of "spouse," "parent," "child," or "neighbor," thus altering our behaviors and our thoughts, with an aim toward deepening our appreciation of these persons and their roles, as well as adding compassion and empathy to our roles. Our religion goes afoul when it feeds our hurtful, divisive definitions of "the other." Jesus taught and modeled much broader definitions of "the other" while he was among us, and challenged us to "sacrifice" our flawed, harmful definitions, for the good of the Realm of God, and the human community. Perhaps only the cross is able to heal us and take away our "right" to define "the other," and to cleanse us from using the power to define to marginalize those not like us?

Let me go one step further. We get to define God. The writers of the Bible did this, from their own context and history, and in recording what they saw, heard, and experienced, they colored our view of the divine. That we believe the Bible is a "living book," and "God-breathed," its view of the divine is subject to review and re-definition. Our context is quite different from that of two-millennia ago, when the last verses were penned, and the faith communities described in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran, for that matter, have grown, changed, and adapted. It is impossible to "take the texts literally" in light of these facts. Hence, we are not only free to redefine how we understand a given scripture, but we must if we are to be true to what its purpose is in offering us guidance. Likewise, we must redefine God, from age to age. If we understand God to be the divine creator, parent to us all, like any parent whose role must change as "the kids" grow and mature, we must understand God differently. And as the divine, God "grows," in this sense, able to meet the needs and offer compassion to a larger, more diverse "family." Only harmful family systems are perpetuated if we parent only the way we were parented, keeping our minds closed to new information, and new ways to define the challenges we face.

Moses redefined God, argued with God, and won. The prophets redefined God in each era of Israel. Jesus redefined much of what we "knew" of the divine, and represented a God who related with God's people based on love rather than law. Then, the Gospels redefined Jesus! Paul pretty much wrote the definition of what the church would look like. Tillich redefined God as the ground of being, itself. Barth redefined God as The Word. Process Theology redefined God as being wholly present in all the structures and "occasions" of existence, from the atomic to the cosmic. Liberation Theology redefined God as aligned with the poor and the oppressed, and opposed to the power elites that oppress. Millennials are redefining God apart from doctrine, and forging deep relationships with the divine and without the church, in many cases. Have you ever thought that when the writer of Hebrews wrote, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever," she was not saying Jesus is the "same," but that Christ is able to be redefined in each era in such a way that redemption, reconciliation, and a life-changing relationship with the divine are offered to each generation in a way they can grasp it?

And did you ever think that when Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these" that he may not have been talking about just the "little children," chronologically? We are living in an age when many new definitions of life and faith are being written. If God is the God we profess to believe in, God is up to the task, and encouraged these acts of redefining, as we reinterpret scripture, love others according to the teachings of Jesus, and know that we have no right to be "right," if it denies anyone full access to the divine.

But I still hate snakes...

Monday, May 13, 2019

When ALL truly means ALL...


We are now flying a "rainbow" flag outside of the entrance to our church. While recognized as a universal sign of welcome to our LGBTQIA+ siblings, it is clearly serving as a welcome to more than just them. Since the LGBTQIA+ community is currently "front and center" as a marginalized group, especially among United Methodists, other persons who find themselves oppressed in some way (i.e. race, national origin, religion, gender, economic or legal status) see a symbol of welcome like this one and know they, too, are welcome here. The colors on this flag may represent many who might question whether they are welcome. Flying them in front of our entrance answers their question: "Yes, you are!"

While our church is a broad-based community of faith, meaning we have persons of all political and possibly even theological spectra represented in our congregation, I submit that this flag is in no way rebuffing the welcome we have extended to them, perpetually. Some who are “right of center” have suggested that by fully welcoming members of the LGBTQIA+ community, we have marginalized their views. I am unconvinced. Unfortunately, this is the argument being used by the Wesleyan Covenant Association and the makers of the Traditionalist Plan in the United Methodist Church--"If you welcome ‘them,’ then we are leaving." A similar sentiment spurred the Jim Crow laws in the South several decades ago--"We don't want ‘them’ here.” Powers that be in the United Methodist Church have taken to legislating their prejudices, attempting to disallow the kind of inclusion Methodism has been known for almost since its inception, or at least since Mr. Wesley wrote his famous sermon, "On a Catholic Spirit." Rodney King may have been right--"Why can't we all just get along?"

Our rainbow welcome flag is displayed in our evolving "Peace Garden." In the photo, you will see the sign on the right that displays the logo designed by a Pittsburgh artist as a peace offering after the devastating killings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill here. To the left, is our Peace Pole, an international symbol of peace, with the prayer for peace, "May Peace Prevail On Earth," rendered on each side in a different language. We chose English, Greek (for the New Testament), Hebrew (for the Hebrew Bible, and to honor our interfaith relationship we have with the local Jewish community, and Arabic (to honor our interfaith relationship with the local Muslim community). The Peace Pole is registered with the International Peace Pole movement, and its presence reminds these partner communities of faith that they, too, are welcome here.

I have clergy colleagues who disparage our commitment to interfaith solidarity and cooperation, suggesting that Christianity is an "exclusive" faith, and that it can't work beside these others because its message supersedes their messages of Torah and Quran. (You might notice the parallelism between this view and the theology that seeks to exclude LGBTQIA+ persons from the church because of an "exclusive" interpretation of scripture.) We resist and rebuke this exclusivism, even as Mr. Wesley, himself, would have. We seek to offer "our hand" in fellowship to all.

Here's why. The scriptures tell us that "God is in Christ, reconciling the world to God-self." This is God's action, not ours. As Christians, we are witnesses in this work, but not the drivers, and not the "reconciliation police." God is reconciling the world as God will, and we should not judge, based on a very narrow theological view, of what it means that this is happening "in Christ." As the scriptures also tell us, "God's ways are not our ways." If God seeks to reconcile the world, which I think means all people, who am I--or you--to close the gates or build walls to keep some out because of who they are or because their journey hasn't taken them to exactly the same places as ours has? I think Gamaliel, Paul's teacher, said it best in the Book of Acts: "If it is of human origin, it will die on its own, if it is of God, nothing will stop it."

By opening our doors to welcome all who wish to come, to work with us cooperatively in the case of our interfaith partners, or to attend our church and hear our message, in the case of worshipers, we're allowing the Holy Spirit to do her work in our midst. We're not giving a theology test as an entrance exam. In the words of Mr. Wesley himself:

O [person] of God, think on these things! If you are already in this way, go on. If you have missed this path before now, bless God who has brought you back! And now run the race that is set before you, in the royal way of universal love. Take heed, lest you be either wavering in your judgment, or faint of heart. But keep an even pace, rooted in the faith once delivered to the saints, and grounded in love, in true catholic love, till you are swallowed up in love for ever and ever! --"On a Catholic Spirit," Sermon #34

Friday, May 3, 2019

When Love isn't Enough...

"Can't we just love everybody?" This is a question I have heard countless times throughout my 34 years in ministry. Would you be surprised to learn that the question is most frequently used to "defuse" a tense situation, or to stop short an important discussion about someone who has been either dismissed, disrespected, or excluded? It's a valid question for church members, people of faith (virtually any faith, for all faith traditions tend to have "love" as a central aim) to ask, but it is too often disingenuously asked. One way this happens is when the person asking it is seeking to stop the pain they are feeling over being challenged by someone else who is protesting his or her own disenfranchisement by others, or an organization of others, such as a church.

A similar protest has been lodged, from time to time, against our congregation's "welcome statement," which, in the midst of its welcoming verbiage, spells out various marginalized persons or groups which may typically be excluded from the "church community." "Can't we just say we welcome ALL?" persons have asked. My answer is usually to ask this inquirer a question in response:  "Have you driven by many local churches whose signs say, 'All are welcome'?" In virtually every case, they answer in the affirmative, to which I ask two followup questions: "Do you KNOW that church? Are 'ALL' really welcome there?" Again, in virtually every case, the answer this time is in the negative. Hopefully this little exercise helps the questioning individual realize why our "welcome statement" spells out specific groups, some of which would most definitely not be welcome in a majority of those "All are Welcome" churches.

So, you see why "Can't we just love everybody?" is not an adequate response to some of the exclusionary issues facing the contemporary church, and most specifically at this time, the United Methodist Church? While the statement certainly sounds "Christian" enough, it glosses over and stops short of addressing persons who are not feeling very loved right now in this denomination. Recently, Keith Boyette, President of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (a splinter group of United Methodists who helped create and then backed the "Traditional Plan" that excludes LGBTQIA+ persons from marrying or from being ordained to ministry) wrote an apologetic piece about how that Association "loves everybody," including LGBTQIA+ persons. One had to read the "fine print," though to understand that they are "loved" only to the degree that they let Jesus "fix" them from their "sin" of being different, and as long as they eschew their "lifestyle." Not exactly a good way to make friends and influence people, I might say. I hazard to think how my marriage covenant would be holding up if I had decided to add a bunch of extra "rules" and conditions for Dara to maintain if she wanted to continue to be loved by me. I might even be dead by now.

Jesus did some stuff to demonstrate his understanding of love: healed the sick and the lame; ate with "tax collectors and sinners;" hung out with the outcasts (lepers, women, and Samaritans, to name a few); railed against the religious leaders who "strained out gnats and swallowed camels;" oh, and suffered and died on the cross in a final redemptive act, for all of humanity. I don't seem to remember him spelling out the names of the groups or persons he wasn't dying for, nor do I remember him shouting a bunch of conditions to be met in order to deserve his forgiveness and love. In fact, I believe he told a thief--whom we often call the "penitent thief"--that he would join him in paradise. The Bible doesn't seem to say anything about this "good thief" actually repenting, though, to receive this promise from Jesus. He just asks for it, and Jesus says, "OK."

So, might not our "Can't we just love everybody?" fall short of the actual Gospel version of loving others according to the teachings of Jesus? If we spend more time defining what "self-avowed homosexual" means than accepting and loving LGBTQIA+ individuals as redeemed children of God, might we be guilty of the very form of "empty love" Jesus condemned in the religious leaders of his day?

I don't want to be a part of a church that makes some of its members into "second-class citizens," and I don't believe the Bible endorses this either. If your definition of "biblical authority" isn't centered in the kind of love Jesus taught and practiced, then it has lost its power, and has turned the Bible into a rulebook. The world has enough of those. What part of "For freedom Christ has set us free" doesn't this church get? "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and of a sound mind." The author of II Timothy got it right. Maybe some of these "biblical authority" mavens should read a little further? When Jesus rebuked the disciples, "Let the little children come!", do you think he was just talking about "little children"? The mature Christian realizes this is a very, very wide invitation, friends. I, for one, will do all within my power to let them come. Better yet, to welcome them home. Shalom.

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...