Category: community

Eugene Peterson and the Age of Shibboleths

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I don’t know when it happened, but I’ve become a walking, talking shibboleth.

A shibboleth is a word or custom that signifies who is in the ingroup and who is in the outgroup.  Think of it as an old fashioned version of virtue signaling.

Now, I didn’t personally become a shibboleth, but the fact that I am gay and in a same sex marriage does make me shibboleth in our neverending culture wars.  How one views same sex marriage either makes your virtuous or a sinner.

This past week, the pastor and author Eugene Peterson was interviewed this past week by journalist Jonathan Merritt.  Peterson is a well-known author and is most known for his version of the Bible, the Message.  During the interview, Merritt asked Peterson about his views on gays and lesbians in the church and if he would perform a same sex marriage.  Here’s what he said (the words of Merritt are in bold):

I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over. People who disapprove of it, they’ll probably just go to another church. So we’re in a transition and I think it’s a transition for the best, for the good. I don’t think it’s something that you can parade, but it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.

RNS: A follow-up: If you were pastoring today and a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith asked you to perform their same-sex wedding ceremony, is that something you would do?

EP: Yes.

This set off alarm bells among evangelicals who are some of his fans and it caused people to speculate about his motivations. Writing in First Things, Samuel James thought his change of heart was about trying to be accepted by a changing society:

Says Peterson, “I wouldn’t have said this twenty years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over.” Why is the “debate” over? Because the LGBT people Peterson knows are good, spiritual people. How can that knowledge—not the knowledge of doctrine, but the knowledge of human beings—comport with an antiquated definition of chastity and marriage? What use are theological disputations when it comes to looking real gays and lesbians in the face, living with and loving them, and affirming their humanity and worth?

The question for our generation is increasingly not, “Is this doctrine true or false?” Rather, the question is, “Can I live with it out there?”

He continues rather pointedly:

What I wish people like Eugene Peterson would see is that there is no safe corner of the Christian story that is completely intuitive or unfailingly neighborly. Every element of the Gospel can and will grate against our modern sense of “real life.” If the doctrine of marriage is untenable in “real life,” what doctrines are tenable? “Real life” doesn’t teach us to desire the good of our enemies. It teaches us to shame them, on either Puritan scaffolds or progressive college campuses. “Real life” doesn’t support the notion that justice will ultimately prevail. It reinforces our sense that we must kill or be killed. There’s no intersection of Christ and culture that finally finds both running parallel all the way to glory.

Russell Moore wrote a more softer article expressing disapointment, but also seeing that good that Peterson has brought to his life.

His statement was could have cost him literally. Lifeway, the national Christian bookstore chain, was ready to stop selling Peterson’s books in their stores.

The rancor made him retract his words a short time later. He wrote:

“I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything. . . . When put on the spot by this particular interviewer, I said yes in the moment. But on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that. That’s not something I would do out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage. That said, I would still love such a couple as their pastor. They’d be welcome at my table, along with everybody else.”

He might have been recieved back into the good graces of evangelicals, but now he pissed off progressive Christians who saw him as greedy, feeble-minded or uncaring. Rachel Held Evans apologized to the LGBTQ community for Peterson’s reversal.

Another writer said Peterson was selfish and greedy:

A man who wrote one of the most popular interpretations of the Bible said my son and his peers are equal. So equal that he would perform wedding ceremonies for them. A bookstore chain run by a Christian denomination says it will cost him money. When he realizes it will cost him money, my son’s life does not matter.
Equality does not matter to him. Civil rights does not matter. Bullycide does not matter. Suicidal ideations, increased violence and sexual assault to LGBTQIA youth does not matter. What matters is the bottom line of the bank account.
Now, let’s take a look at who runs this bookstore chain? The SBC was founded in the 1840’s to protect their precious Bible from the threat of abolitionists. That’s right, to them slavery was biblical. More recently the SBC made the news because they had controversy over an issue. That issue? Should they condemn the actions and philosophies of the alt right.

The SBC is the nation’s largest protestant denomination. Historically founded to fight for slavery as a biblical principle. This same group had to discuss the merits of condemning white supremacists. They are also anti LGBTQIA. And they own a chain of bookstores.

This is who Eugene Peterson relies on to sell his Bibles. He needs their money more than he needs the strength of conviction to say my son is equal.

As a gay Christian man in a same sex marriage, I have to call bullshit on both sides.

For conservatives, it seems like people are willing to love and adore a pastor’s teachings- as long as he adheres to their viewpoint. If he doesn’t he is to be treated as if he said Jesus was equal to Bozo the Clown.

But Progressives don’t fare better. They loved this guy the moment he said his initial statement, but when he retracted, people were swearing to never use the Message Bible and deem him a greedy SOB who doesn’t care LGBTQ persons are dying.

This is why I say I am now a shibboleth. How you look at me and my marriage determines whether a group will love you or condemn you.

Would I have like him to stick to his guns on same sex marriage?  Yes.  Am I dissapointed that he retracted? Yes.  But that’s one flaw in a person that has a lot of good to share.

As gay rights move forward in our society, we aren’t learning to live and let live.  All of the knives are out and we are looking for someone to say anything that is against their views and getting ready to punish that person.

To conservative Christians: what does it say that you seem to be willing to just dump someone because of one paragraph in an interview?  Is it more important that he follow toe the line on this issue than it is to judge his whole character?

And now progressive Christians:  What happened to grace?  What happened to praying for someone like Peterson, for courage and strength?  Are you going to stop reading his books for one stupid loss of nerve?

It feels like people on both sides are playing for keeps and there is very, very little room for love. Peterson stopped being a flesh and blood and imperfect human being and became the latest pawn in the culture wars. As a tweetstorm said this week, “We see people as collections of beliefs and ideas, which makes it easy to avoid seeing the whole person.”

In the real world, I know people who I know think I’m engaged in sin.  And I think they are very wrong.  But I still keep relationship with them because it is important to see them as more than their view on this one issue.  There is a lot that we can agree on beyond sexuality.

No matter if we are evangelicals or mainline Christians, we are called to love one another.  And that means loving people even when we disagree.

Love doesn’t excuse sin, but it should make us look at each other differently. Let’s put down the shibboleths and learn to love one another.

Yet Another Post on Church Planting

It’s been a bittersweet time for me.

sixfour_333_ChurchPlantingOn the one hand, I am excited of being pastor at First Christian.  There are a lot of challenges; the church is down a faithful few and we are starting to find ways to grow numerically and spiritually as well.  Most churches that are down to a handful would just close and that was suggested to the folks at First.  But they decided to stick together and keep on keeping on.  I am amazed at their faith and feel honored to journey with them as First-St. Paul becomes something new and yet the same.

But there is also a lot of frustration when it comes church planting.  As many of you know, I was heading up an unoffical group in my Region dealing with new church.  Without going into much detail at this point, the New Church Team is on hiatus.  I’m not heading it up anymore (though I’m still on the team) but I don’t know when if ever the group will start up again.

As I’ve said before, last year was a dissapointing year when it came to church planting.  There were a number of people who expressed interest in church planting, but for the most part all the talk was just that…talk.  Add to that is the failure of a Region-sponsored church plant in Rochester, MN and 2013 just seemed bad.

It’s not all a failure.  Our joint ministry with the United Methodists in North Dakota is doing rather well. I am thankful for Ward and Theta Miller and their heart and passion for ministry.  I’m also thankful for having the chance to help the Millers make their dream a reality.  The success with New Roots in North Dakota, made me hopeful and looking forward to helping birth another faith community.  I was hoping to help my Region have a better track record with starting new churches and at least from my vantage point, I failed.

My passion (actually, it’s my aspergian obsession) with new churches is part of a bigger passion that is only now coming together in my mind.  You see, I am passionate about new churches, but I am also passionate about keeping churches open.  I don’t believe that you should never close a church.  As a mentor once said, there are no churches around that have existed since that Pentecost Sunday.  But I think that Regions and other middle judicatories need to think long and hard before shuttering the church’s door.  Church should be a place where God’s people gather, remembering their calling and being sent into the world to preach the good news.  We can’t do that if we aren’t learning how to be a faithful living community of believers. We really can’t do it if we lack a passion for evangelism and that is something that is found in spades in mainline churches:

Mainline churches have always been good when it comes to social justice, but when it comes to what drives us, the passion of Christian committment, well, not so much. I think part of the reason there seems to be little urgency when it came to church planting is because it seems so old fashioned. We mainliners don’t want to look like those fundamentalists, trying to shove their faith down people’s throats.

But our approach hasn’t been a whole lot better. At times it seems like we have no passion, that we are going through the motions.

 

We seem to have a hard time starting churches, but we seem to be able to close long-standing congregations such as those in Fridley, Rochester and Mankato.  In some cases, these churches had outlived their ministry, so I can understand closing a church.  But we aren’t planting new churches in these areas and other parts of the state.  The reason we plant new churches is  to create communities where people can see what God is all about.  To be blunt, churches exist to show the wider community the love Jesus.  Do we understand that?  Do I?  This is what Episcopalian Robert Hendrickson said in a blog post from 2012:

Current trends in the Church point toward a revolution of profound and disturbing significance. We no longer seem able or willing to say how it is that God transforms us as individuals and as a Body because we are uncomfortable with difference. The underlying message of the Diocese of Eastern Oregon’s proposal to endorse Communion without Baptism was first that we have failed to bring new people to the Church and second that the failure really isn’t that important because people are fine as they are and not in need of Baptism.

The message of the Church cannot only be “you’re fine as you are.” This kind of undifferentiated affirmation results not in an inclusive community but in a community without an understanding of its own purpose, message, identity, or goal.

I am not advocating that we return to fire and brimstone or rest our teaching on moralizing about private lives but I do think we need to be honest that God is calling us to be different, to change, to be transformed. Christ’s message was not one of affirmation alone but an invitation to die. It was an invitation not to live today as we did yesterday but to know our old selves as dead. This was the invitation of Baptism. This was the difference.

The Church comes together to celebrate Sacred Mysteries. It exists to say the Mass together and share in the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving – in Communion with Christ. It exists to baptize new believers into the Body. It exists to be a Body of reconciliation and forgiveness. It exists to call people into union with one another in Christ. It exists to heal and to offer hope for the life to come.

The Church exists to change us and all those around us in sacred moments by sacred mystery. It exists to make us different – to make us one in Christ.

In some of my discussions about church planting, a few fellow pastors have suggested that I plant a church.  I am giving it some throught.  However, I am already working with one church and I feel I need to let them know I am with them as they try to survive and thrive.  I will see how God leads.  I don’t know if I could do two churches at the same time, but who knows.

With only a handful of Disciples churches in Minnesota, I want to see new churches.  But I am wondering if this is the time to give up, or take a “sabbatical” and start again.  Maybe this is a sign that I need to take a break.

I just hope at some point there is a passion at the Regional Church and congregational level to start new communities that will reach out to the growing diversity that is the Upper Midwest.  All I can do is trust that God will work through me and others.

God help me.

Sermon: “But We Had Hoped…”

Luke 24:13-35
Third Sunday of Easter
May 4, 2014
First Christian Church

Mahtomedi, MN

 

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

 

The_Road_To_EmmausThese are the words of John Wesley, known as the founder of the Methodist Church.  Wesley was going through a time of doubt and depression and while sitting in a church in England he had an encounter with Jesus.  He felt “strangely warmed” as he said.  He went into the service full of despair and left feeling he could place his trust in Christ. When most people hear this story, they focus on the whole warming of the heart.  What we tend to forget was that Wesley came in to this church a broken man.  He didn’t come in with much hope.

It was a little over ten years ago that I worked as a chaplain at a nursing home in Minneapolis.  This is one of those requirements you have to do before getting ordained.  Clinical Pastoral Education is a time when your faith comes face to face with life.  You have to figure out how to be Christ in a very vulnerable moment.

I worked at Luther Hall, which was a transitional care facility.  Some of the people I met were only there for a few days after a surgery.  Others were there for a longer stay.  I remember one of my first visits was to stop by the room of a patient.  He was unconscious and this family was all around him.  The man had a brain tumor it didn’t look like he was going to make it.  However, the wife kept saying that he was going to get better.  This was hard for me.  I couldn’t just be frank and tell them he wasn’t going get better.  I couldn’t  pray that he would be miraculously healed.  I was facing a moment where there seemed to be no hope.  I did the best I could to not do something that would offend them.

How do you minister to someone when there is no hope things will get better?  Those events happened thirteen years ago and I still don’t have a really good answer.

The this story about the Road to Emmaus is an fascinating story.  We hear a story about two disciples and we don’t really know much about them.  We don’t even know why they are walking to this town.  What we do know is that they are heartbroken.  This is only a few days after Jesus was crucified and now on this day they have heard the story of an empty tomb.  These two people were crushed by the news.  First their friend was killed by Rome and now there isn’t even a body left to mourn.  Their emotion is distilled down to a few words: “But we had hoped.”

The two believed that Jesus was going to come and redeem Israel, that he was going to free Israel from Roman occupation.  Now, that wasn’t going to happen.

But we had hoped…how many times have we echoed those words?  But we had hoped to have twins.  But we had hoped to keep my job.  But we had hoped we would not lose our house to forclosure.  But we had hoped to see our child graduate.  But we had hoped it wasn’t Alzheimers.  But we had hoped he wouldn’t walk out on his wife.  But we had hoped.  Those four words pack a punch.  It tells us all that we need to know; hoping for something, excepting something better and to not have those dreams come true.  Ernest Hemingway was once challenge to write a story with only six words.  He responded: “For Sale: Baby shoes, never used.”  Everyone of us has dealt with some kind of heartbreak, failure or loss.  But we had hoped.  It is one of those mainstays in life.

As these two men walk, another stranger starts walking beside them.  Jesus had joined the the two men.  Even when we don’t feel there is hope, when we think nothing will ever get better, Jesus is there.  But it’s hard to see that when you are mired in despair.  It’s also hard to walk with someone who is in pain.  How many of us don’t know what to say when someone levels a bombshell of pain on you?  I can tell you it’s not easy.  It’s uncomfortable.

A little later, the two men invite Jesus to stay with them the night.  They sit down to have a meal and Jesus blessed and broke the bread.  It was then that they knew Jesus was there.  It was at that moment, hope came alive.  Jesus was there all the time and they have to go and tell the other Disciples.

As Christians, we gather every Sunday and have communion.  It’s easy to just go through the motions.  I’m pretty sure we don’t expect much to happen as we eat a cube of bread and a thimble of grape juice.  But the thing is, the Lord’s Supper is a reminder that Jesus is with us now.  Communion is a reminder of what Jesus has done, but it is also a powerful reminder that Jesus is with us now, even when we can’t sense God.  Christ walks with us even when we don’t know. Because we are humans that tend to forget God is with us, we need this holy meal.  We need to know that when say “but we have hoped” Jesus responds by breaking bread and revealing that God has been with us all along.

This is the reason we need church.  Evangelical theologian Scot McKnight was recently interviwed about them importance of the church. He call the church a “kingdom society where God’s will is done as a result of Christ’s redemption.  It is being part of a community that we learn about how God operates and where we can see Christ in each other, as well as in bread and win.

When they realize they were talking to Jesus, the disciples ran and told the others.  We are called to go and tell others that Jesus is alive and is with all of us.  The result of breaking bread with Jesus, as we do every Sunday is to go and tell the good news.  There will still be heartache, at least on this side of heaven.  But we can tell others that Jesus is with us even when we don’t know.

As we continue our journey this Easter season, let us know that Jesus walks with us- even when we don’t feel it.   And let us go and tell the world. May our prayer be this passage of the well known hymn, “Let us talents and Tounges Employ:”

 

Let us talents and tongues employ,

reaching out with a shout of joy:

bread is broken, the wine is poured,

Christ is spoken and seen and heard.

Jesus lives again; earth can breathe again.

Pass the Word around: loaves abound!

 

May it be so.  Amen.

Listen to the Sermon

Shower the People

The pastor of a Disciples of Christ congregation in Colorado shows another way to help a church turnaround from decline: simply love the people:

When I came to Mountair I had a close friend tell me to do nothing but love people for a year.  I didn’t like that advice much.  I saw so many things that needed to change!  I don’t like the status quo.  But by the grace of God (and my respect for my friend) I heeded his advice (mostly).  I spent a year listening to stories, making hospital visits, doing my best in preaching and Bible studies, holding my tongue on many things I knew needed to change.  In that year a funny thing happened–I learned to truly love and care about our elderly congregation and they learned to love me as well.

When love enters the picture it changes things.  I still knew many things needed to change and that people wouldn’t like many of the changes, but I also knew I didn’t want to hurt people in the process.  So we began tackling one thing at a time.  To me it felt like we were trying to put out a fire with a thimble of water at a time.  To them it felt like I was spraying them with a firehouse.  But in the midst of that tension we loved each other.

Another thing I’ve learned along the way is that momentum matters.  As we changed something and the world didn’t end people were more willing to talk about changing the next thing.  As they saw success happening–even a little at a time–it made them more willing to move into the next challenge.  I can’t lie, at times it’s been excruciating taking what to me is such a slow pace, but the thing that has kept me from turning into the proverbial bull in the china shop is my love for the people.

It’s been two years and nine months.  In that time we have reformed some unhealthy leadership structures, had elders go from sharing a communion meditation in the service once a quarter to seeing themselves as leaders in the church, moved from a “no” to a “probably” disposition in regard to change, spent $25,000 updating the building so it wouldn’t be a deterrent to reaching the people in our community, began a Missional Community where people are taking the initiative to engage our surrounding community, become a church of 50% long-time members and 50% people from the community, agreed to spend money from savings to hire an Associate Pastor to help us move into the new ministry we’ve been dreaming about, and had the older people give permission for me to run with some new things that will hopefully make Mountair a presence for the gospel in our community for decades to come.  It’s seemed slow but a lot has happened in two years and nine months, and we’ve loved each other in the process.  (And what I’ve written here is really only a fraction of the story.)

I think this is something we almost never hear about when we talk about trying to rejuvenate declining churches.  We tend to blame the people in the pews more than we love them.

I am reminded of the response of a member a few years ago at a church board meeting.  I shared a story about mainline churches and how they need to change and the man responded that he was tired of hearing how things are his fault.

Congregations can have a role in the success or decline of the congregation.  While churches must change, that doesn’t mean we forget the people.  We have to learn to love the people we serve, which is probably the only way to lead a church towards change.

via Another Way to Turn a Church Around.

PS:  This was a good excuse to use one of my favorite James Taylor songs.

Constitutional Amendments and the Church

This fall, Minnesotans will go to the polls to vote on two constitutional amendments.  The first one would ban same-sex marriage and the second one would require photo ids before a person could vote.

Now I have my own opinions on the amendments and I’m not shy about sharing them (I’m strongly against the first and somewhat in favor of the second).  However, when it comes to the context of church and in my role as a pastor, I am less comfortable in telling people how they should feel on this issue, let alone how they should pray.

Recently, during a time when prayers were being offered, someone asked prayers on both amendments and stated their viewpoint.  It was a little bit uncomfortable for me, mainly because the prayer focused on one side of the issue and because I knew there might be folks that had differing opinions on both issues.

Normally I would say something about how we are the Body of Christ and that at the communion table we are a diverse bunch but united together in Christ.  I would say something about how churches have people from all walks of life and we need to be aware how to be church amidst the differences.

I would say all of this…but in these polarizing times, I’ve come to believe that we don’t even see the church as a place where different people come together.  Churches are becoming like everything else in society: filled with people who tend to agree with each other.  So maybe it wasn’t so odd to see someone stating their views on a political issue as if there were no other folks who might disagree; they might believe that church is just “for us.”
I’m not advocating that we never talk about politics in the church.  But is there a way to talk about these issues without claiming that God is only on our side?

I don’t know the answer to that.

We Can’t Be Friends

It was about 20 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC.   The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today.  Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, along side a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.

The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to the join the good-sized multi-pastor staff.  The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills.  At the time, there was a bit of controversy because she was pro-gay and some of the evangelicals in the church weren’t crazy about that.

I was at a meeting where a member of the congregation stood up.  She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a “traditional” understanding on homosexuality, but she spoke in favor of calling the pastor.  You see, the pastor had been involved with congregation for a few years and the two had gotten to know each other.  “We don’t agree,” I recall this woman saying when talking about the issue they didn’t see eye-to-eye on.  But this woman was a good friend and she saw her as the right person for the job.

What’s so interesting about this story is that I don’t think it could happen today.  Churches like the one in DC really don’t exist anymore.  Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don’t really know each other.  Which only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.

When it comes to the issue of gay rights the two camps talk past each other, having very different objectives that the other side just doesn’t get.

For liberals, this is about equality.  Framed by the story of the civil rights movement, they see any attempt to block same-sex marriage or gay clergy as akin to denying African Americans the right to vote.

For evangelicals, this is about conscience.  They feel they must be faithful to what they believe the Bible is telling them when it comes to sexual morality.  They see any approval of gay sex as going against God’s commands.

These differences were there 20 years ago, but I think there might have also been more opportunity to come together and meet the other.  Our self-selected society allows us to basically pick our friends instead of trying to build bridges with those who might be different.

Why am I telling this story?  I don’t really know, except that maybe I would like us to find ways were we can learn to disagree without being so disagreeable.

Civility is all the talk in our political culture, mostly because it seems like we have less and less of it.  We have made it a civic value, but I want to lift up the fact that it should also be a moral and biblical value.  We have to learn ways to respect and honor one another; not papering over our differences, but finding ways to still care for each other even when we disagree.  Evangelical church planter Tim Keller said it best a year ago:

AMANPOUR: You talk about polarization between left and right. It does seem to be extreme, at the moment, in the United States politically, socially. Is there any hope that that can change, do you think?

KELLER: It will start if we stop demonizing each other. I — my — my — my elderly mother once said that up until about 15 years ago, if you voted for a different person for president and the person you voted against became president, you still considered him your president. He said — she said 15 years ago, that changed, that if you voted against that guy and he became president, you actually act as if he’s illegitimate. And I’m not sure that is a big social and cultural difference. We — and it really means the other side isn’t really just wrong, they’re kind of evil. And that’s pretty bad.

MANPOUR: I have to say that many would say the church plays into this highly acrimonious debate — public debate, not all church, but certainly some parts of the church. What should the church be doing different?
KELLER: At the very least, we should be creating individuals who know how to talk civilly. The gospel should create people who say, I’m loved by God but I’m — I’m a sinner. So there — there should be a certain humility and graciousness about the way in which you talk to everybody. As an institution, most of the churches have lost a lot of credibility. So I think my job is to create individuals who can participate in civil discourse.

AMANPOUR: You’re saying institutionally, the church has lost credibility?

KELLER: The mainline church identified with liberal politics, the Evangelicals have identified, at least they’re identified in people’s minds, with conservative politics. The Catholic Church has had the sex scandals. And so institutionally, each church has lost credibility. So I think it’s our job as individual congregations to care for the poor, to produce civil — people who speak civilly, to just serve our neighborhoods and serve people and be careful about speaking ex-cathedra, you know, about these great political positions on issues.

 I would disagree with Keller in that I do think the church has a right to speak out on issues and there are some issues where we have to be clear where we stand.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t try to look at our sister and brothers as if they are evil.  We can find ways to be civil in maybe in some way speak to people about what church is all about.

What a witness that would be.

Repost: In the Middle

The following post is from April of 2008.  In light of the recent goings on at the United Methodist General Conference, I thought this might be a good post to share again.

I’ve been a mainline Protestant for about 16 years. I grew up in the evangelical and black churches and found the mainline churches a breath of fresh air…for a time. In many ways it still is a better option than what I grew up with, but as I stayed, I started to notice that a more liberal Christianity had some of the same blind spots that their more conservative brethren had.

One thing I’ve noticed is how much many progressive Christians talk about the importance of community.
I agree with that. But at some point, I’ve noticed that for some community is less a place where there are people with different thoughts and backgrounds, than a place where everyone thinks the same and where no one has to be challenged with a different viewpoint.

Carroll Howard Merritt shares in this post about how good it is to be in a place where she can preach what she wants to preach. She notes:

I’m in a progressive church now. There are very few things that I can’t say here, as a peace-loving feminist. I spend a lot less time worrying, and a lot more time ministering. With that freedom, my preaching’s gotten
much more authentic and a whole lot better.

And I can’t help but notice that my writing’s gone from a crashing, swirling, damned-up pool
to a steady, flowing stream, because I’m not calculating the consequences of every word. My mind has more space to think. I don’t have to worry about losing my job if someone takes the time to read what I have to say. I have more creativity here, I sense the Spirit moving more.

This leads me to thinking. Maybe the Spirit is moving, but maybe it’s also that she is in a place where everyone
agrees with what she is saying. It’s easier to be “prophetic” when you are preaching to choir.

She also is frustrated by those who are looking for a middle way:

So, is there any way that we can move our discussions from looking for some sort of middle ground to allowing freedom for people? Instead of rushing to moderation, could we each forge a path where we are and have a vision for more than one way? Or is that an inherently liberal position?

You know, I’m just concerned about all those people who are trying to find their way. I know there are members in our church who couldn’t attend most congregations in the country. But they’ve found
a path to God in our progressive Christian community. And, I admit, I’m concerned about me. And other leaders on this path. Because it’s just so much easier when we don’t have to pretend to be a moderate.

Her concern is that rushing to the middle leaves out those on the edges. I can understand to a point, but what about those who are truly in the middle? Not all of us are out protesting at abortion clinics or at a peace march. We have our issues, but we aren’t as strident those on the edge. In many cases, we want the church to focus on worshipping God
and feeding the hungry instead of fighting the latest battle in the culture wars. I think sometimes there is a rush to the middle because some of us don’t want a repeat of what we see in the wider culture, where everything is seen in the terms of red/blue, liberal/conservative.

And maybe instead of seeing this as the middle, it’s more about trying to live in true community. You see, when I think of community, I think more of something like living in a small town or your family. You have relatives you love and those you don’t care for. But they are all part of the family and you try to live together. My problem at times when I hear churches talk about “community” it’s really about creating spaces where everyone thinks just like you do. But in my view, that’s not
community.

Community is when you can worship with an old man who doesn’t condone you being gay and yet cares for you and likewise. Community is when you can still love your fellow pastor even when they rant about
the President or the way and you happen to have opposite views. I think the “middle ground” is a place where we can see all of our
differences and yet see Christ in each other. That’s community.

Repost: In the Middle

The following post is from April of 2008.  In light of the recent goings on at the United Methodist General Conference, I thought this might be a good post to share again.

I’ve been a mainline Protestant for about 16 years. I grew up in the evangelical and black churches and found the mainline churches a breath of fresh air…for a time. In many ways it still is a better option than what I grew up with, but as I stayed, I started to notice that a more liberal Christianity had some of the same blind spots that their more conservative brethren had.

One thing I’ve noticed is how much many progressive Christians talk about the importance of community. I agree with that. But at some point, I’ve noticed that for some community is less a place where there are people with different thoughts and backgrounds, than a place where everyone thinks the same and where no one has to be challenged with a different viewpoint.

Carroll Howard Merritt shares in this post about how good it is to be in a place where she can preach what she wants to preach. She notes:

I’m in a progressive church now. There are very few things that I can’t say here, as a peace-loving feminist. I spend a lot less time worrying, and a lot more time ministering. With that freedom, my preaching’s gotten much more authentic and a whole lot better.

And I can’t help but notice that my writing’s gone from a crashing, swirling, damned-up pool to a steady, flowing stream, because I’m not calculating the consequences of every word. My mind has more space to think. I don’t have to worry about losing my job if someone takes the time to read what I have to say. I have more creativity here, I sense the Spirit moving more.

This leads me to thinking. Maybe the Spirit is moving, but maybe it’s also that she is in a place where everyone agrees with what she is saying. It’s easier to be “prophetic” when you are preaching to choir.

She also is frustrated by those who are looking for a middle way:

So, is there any way that we can move our discussions from looking for some sort of middle ground to allowing freedom for people? Instead of rushing to moderation, could we each forge a path where we are and have a vision for more than one way? Or is that an inherently liberal position?

You know, I’m just concerned about all those people who are trying to find their way. I know there are members in our church who couldn’t attend most congregations in the country. But they’ve found a path to God in our progressive Christian community. And, I admit, I’m concerned about me. And other leaders on this path. Because it’s just so much easier when we don’t have to pretend to be a moderate.

Her concern is that rushing to the middle leaves out those on the edges. I can understand to a point, but what about those who are truly in the middle? Not all of us are out protesting at abortion clinics or at a peace march. We have our issues, but we aren’t as strident those on the edge. In many cases, we want the church to focus on worshipping God and feeding the hungry instead of fighting the latest battle in the culture wars. I think sometimes there is a rush to the middle because some of us don’t want a repeat of what we see in the wider culture, where everything is seen in the terms of red/blue, liberal/conservative.

And maybe instead of seeing this as the middle, it’s more about trying to live in true community. You see, when I think of community, I think more of something like living in a small town or your family. You have relatives you love and those you don’t care for. But they are all part of the family and you try to live together. My problem at times when I hear churches talk about “community” it’s really about creating spaces where everyone thinks just like you do. But in my view, that’s not community.

Community is when you can worship with an old man who doesn’t condone you being gay and yet cares for you and likewise.

Community is when you can still love your fellow pastor even when they rant about the President or the way and you happen to have opposite views.

I think the “middle ground” is a place where we can see all of our differences and yet see Christ in each other. That’s community.

Planned Parenthod vs. Susan G. Komen: Same S*%!, Different Day

I’m not going to get into the specifics of the whole Komen controversy because its been done ad nausem.  But I do have one question: where should the Church be in all this?

The whole mess concerning the two groups was one more annoying incident in the culture wars.  Each side, including many a Christian, took their usual sides in this forever battle.  We slunged mud at the other side with equal ferocity, all in the name of being on the side of right, of course.

But how should followers of Jesus respond?  How do we handle issues in ways that aren’t aping what we seeing the wider culture?  Why are we so quick to turn even an issue that everyone agrees is a major problem: breast cancer, into war of words?  Why are people so willing to paint everything as black and white and not try to see another viewpoint or veiwpoints?

What is sorely missing in the life of the church today, no matter what side you are on, is how to think theologically and engage culture.  What we tend to do is hold on to our positions, convinced they are God’s instead of sitting down and trying to discern things.  Instead of trying to find God’s will, we have already decided we know God’s will and need to tell those other guy how stupid and evil they are.

The Church, liberal and conservatives, have acted like asses in the last few days.  When it comes to showing a “more excellent way” of being in the world.  We fall short.

Epic. Fail.

Talking Back to the Strawman

As much as I love following and engaging in politics, I’ve have come to the opinion that politics is nasty business; especially for Christians and especially in these highly polarized times.

The diversity of political opinion as well as healthy debate are hallmarks of a democratic society.  My mom talks about growing up in her native Puerto Rico and hearing her adult relatives chatting about politics.  The opinion of the group spanned the ideological spectrum, from conservatives to socialist.  I do wonder at times, if the talk got heated, but I think that at the end of the day, people still cared for each other because they were family.

But like everything in the world, politics can have a dark side.  One of its more darker passions is the ability to demonize opponents.  That’s something that has become increasingly common in American life these days.  Both left and right have jumped into the fray, and so have Christians.  Conservative Christians have long been tempted to demonize their opponents, and now it looks like Liberal Christians are joining in.

A week or so ago, fellow Disciples of Christ pastor Christian Piatt penned a blog post entitled “GOP Nostalgia is a Symptom of Privilege.”  While I think that some of what he describes is a problem among conservatives, much of what Piatt wrote was hyperbolic stereotyping that just added more fuel to the partisan fire, not less.  Piatt creates a strawman that filled with every stereotype of Republicans to knock down which paints every Republican in the same brush.


Here’s a sample of what Piatt has to say:

There’s an awful lot of talk in the political forum lately about
restoring America to some nostalgic state of yesteryear, when supposedly
everything was better. If we could only get back there, everything
would be all right again.

I guess that depends on who you ask, doesn’t it?

Author Melissa Harris-Perry recently appeared on “The Colbert Report” to speak about her new book, “Sister Citizen,”
which examines a number of stereotypes of African-American women. As he
often does, Colbert teed up a common conservative talking point about
“going back to he good old days.” Perry’s response kept ringing in my
head for days afterward.

She said that there is no time in American History you would want to go back to as a black girl.

 

The point is simple but compelling. Those in the position of
privilege to write history are the ones whose story is most prominently
told. So when we talk about going back to some better time, it’s with
the lens of that same privilege that we’re looking back.

The fact
is that, unless you’re a white, Christian, straight male, there’s little
to look back to and say “yeah, I was better off back then.”

After rightly or wrongly trashing some of the GOP presidential candidates, he then says what’s behind the desire for traditional values:

What underlies this sort of nostalgic talk is privilege. The longing
is to go back to a time or place when their particular way of viewing
the world was considered “normal,’ and all others were not. There is
some selective memory at work even in these cases, however, since most
who call for the return to ways of the past would readily call for
exceptions in the case of blatant racism and (for some at least) sexism.

To
call for a return to the good old days is, in some ways, a
marginalization of those for whom history has meant progress. For the
majority of Americans today, turning back the clock means losing ground,
acceding power or opportunity and returning to a time of greater
imbalance and division.

Piatt makes some good points, some that I have made.  I think at times social conservatives look back at the past selectively, avoiding the more ugly bits.  But the fact is, we all have selective memories of the past.  For example, many on the left want to go back to an economy that we had in the 1950s, even though things weren’t that great back then either.


What bothers me, is that Piatt seems to be saying that any Republican candidate or rank and file member is someone that doesn’t like anyone who isn’t white and male.  It’s an old trope made by folks who frankly learn about Republicans only by what they see on the news.  They never have actually met a Republican who is a lot more complex than the strawman he creates.


As a Republican who is gay and is also African American, I can say that while there are problems that need to be addressed, I’ve met Republicans who are gay, women, black, female and Latino.  They aren’t all “bubbas” who drive around with Confederate Flags bumper stickers.  (and even the “bubbas” aren’t such a stereotype.)


But this kind of trash talk is troublesome not simply because it disses Republicans.  I have a bigger problem in that Piatt’s post is a sign something that is happening more and more in society: Christians engaging in the same kind of smashmouth politics so popular in the wider culture. Christians on the left and the right mimic what is going on in the society; the only difference is that we flavor our ideological snarkiness with God-talk.

Frederick Schmidt thinks that it’s time we stop yelling and start listening:

Are we listening to ourselves, friends?

Can we hear that our language is indistinguishable from the political hue and cry going on around us?

Do we notice that a third voice—a God-given perspective—is completely
missing from a conversation where voices left and right have all the
representation that they need?

Are we so hungry for relevance that we are willing to allow ourselves to be used as an instrument of party politics?

Have we forgotten that our communities include people who subscribe to both political parties?

Do we really believe that there are no Republicans who care about people?

Do we really believe that there are no Democrats who are not closet communists?

Do we really want to risk our relationships with people who belong to
one party or the other, in the name of venting our emotions in public?

Can we be sure that we haven’t already alienated some of those people?

Do we really believe that by labeling and libeling people that we illuminate the truth?

This is not prophetic speech. It is not speaking truth to power. It
is not persuasive. And it does not make the church more relevant to the
political process. In fact, it makes it possible to dismiss Christians
as a subset of political opinion left and right  — people with quaint
motives for being involved—but little to add to the debate.

As I’ve said before, we Disciples do something every Sunday in our worship- we have communion.  In our heritage, there was a strong belief that there be no fences around the communion table.  I’ve worked to make sure that my fellow gay sisters and brothers have a place at the Table.  But the table also needs to be a place where our ideologies are set aside.  The Table needs to be a place where we can disagree, and yet be church to each other and provide an example to a world full of divisions.

Can the church be that place where we can show a new way of being community that transcends the left-right axis?

Sometimes I wonder.