Category: social justice

Adventures In Church Planting: 2013 (REPOST)

Writer’s note: I was going to write another post about church planting in Mainline churches, and I still plan to, but I think this post sums up a lot of what I am feeling still. One update: I am not leading the new church team anymore.

The Clockwork Pastor

As most of you know, I’ve been the head of a new church ministry in my Region.  There have been some good and not so good developments in the area of church planting last year, though for the most part it was a down year in many ways.  The good news is that our group got bigger as a few more people expressed interest in being involved.  The so-so news is how I’m leading.  I want to give people the chance to step up and take part, but I have to balance that with the need to just get something done.

church planting quoteThe not-so-good things is the fact that a lot of potential church plants just died on the vine.  One planter looked like he was going to plant a new community in the eastern suburbs of the Twin Cities.  Things seemed to be moving ahead and then he back out…

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God Is A Concept.

johnlennonWhen I was in journalism class in high school, I remember seeing a poster in the teacher’s classroom that caught my attention.  It was one of those posters that shows something like a big sky or the stars at night.  At the bottom of the poster were these words: “God Is A Concept.”

I really didn’t know what it meant.  I originally thought it was nice to talk about  God.  I remember talking to the teacher about it and while I can’t remember the words she said, the point was made that we didn’t have the same view of God.  God wasn’t as much of a person in her view, but an idea.

I thought about that as I read David Watson’s recent blog post.  Watson is a Methodist minister in charge of United Seminary in Ohio.  In this blog post he talks about the “starting point” for mainline churches and theologians.  The starting point or organizing principle is the nature of evil or more to the point our response to evil.  Watson writes:

Much mainline Christian theology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been a response to the problem of evil. For liberal Christian theologians of the mid-twentieth century, two world wars and the Holocaust made any strong notion of divine action unbelievable. Unlike evangelical cessationists, who believe that miracles ceased after the biblical period, liberal theologians, who were extremely influential in mainline Protestant schools of theology, simply held that these so-called “miracles” never took place. They were the product of an ancient worldview, one that modern people could no longer hold credible.

The result was that mainline Protestants ceased believing in any kind of divine action:

One result of this liberal theological position has been that mainline Protestants have by and large ceased to expect any significant type of divine action. If someone in our churches received a world of prophecy that he or she wished to share with the congregation, would we receive this as legitimate? Would we take the time to test the prophecy against scripture and discern its truthfulness within our ongoing life together? Would we let the person speak at all? Or, as another example, when we pray for healing, are we taking a shot in the dark when all other hope is lost, or do we pray with the expectation that God will show up? Another example may hit closer to home: when we receive the Eucharist, do we believe that we are changed in that moment, that we have really and truly received the spiritual presence of Christ into our bodies and that the work of sanctification is taking place within us?

For many mainline Protestants, God has essentially become a construct. God gives weight to our ethical claims, credence to our feelings about social justice. God is not, however, an agent who can directly and radically change the course of events in our lives.

God is a concept.  It’s funny, as much as I don’t want to believe this way, the fact is it has seeped into my way of thinking.  When you pray for a sick friend, you don’t pray believe healing just might happen, instead we pray for “spiritual healing.”  We don’t talk about any kind of afterlife and tell ourselves that we have to focus on this life more than the life to come.  But deep down, we really don’t believe there is a life to come.  We feel leery about the whole Jesus dying a bloody death at least as a way to bring salvation for the world.  We love to ask questions, which is a good thing, but behind our seeking is the feeling that all of this is not real, that it doesn’t really have any impact in changing us and our world.

As Watson notes, God and Jesus or the idea of God and Jesus gives weight to our beliefs in social justice and inclusion, but God in no way makes a difference in our lives.

Watson notes that the result is that many mainline churches aren’t exciting places.  More to the point, Watson says what is missing in so many of our churches and in the lives of those who sit in its pews is…joy.

The thing is, if you believe in a God that “woke me up this morning, started me on my way” then you are going to be joyful even when times aren’t so good.

About a month ago, I went to the funeral of member of the congregation.  The service was held at the senior living facility where he had spent the last five years of his life.  I only met this man a few times, but he was the most joyous 102-year-old I ever met.  I wish I had a chance to get to know him better.  During the service in the chapel, the Episcopal priest noted that this man saw his Christian life as joyful.  The priest was surprised to hear this.  As I thought about her reaction more and more, I was a bit surprised at her response.  Even I’ve read Paul’s letter to the Phillipians which is a letter of joy even in the darkest times.  How could a pastor NOT know about the joy that the Christian life brings?

Like David Watson, I don’t want to minimize the role of evil in our lives and in the world.  Mainline Protestants do well in pointing out that life can be hard.  We can do well in saying that all is not right with the world.  There is evil out there.  There are men knocking their wives unconscious.  There are parents discipling their children to the point of severe injuries on the child’s body.  There are police who are so scared they use full force on black men and boys.  There are priests who abuse their office and inflict unspeakable crimes on children.  Yes, there is evil.  But God is also present.  God hasn’t given up on creation.  God has already overcome the world.  THAT should bring people joy; a joy that endures even in the midst of suffering.

I’m not leaving the mainline church.  I couldn’t go back to my evangelical beginnings even if I wanted to.  I bear no ill will to my evangelical sisters and brothers, it’s just that my views have changed.  But even though I am not in that camp anymore, there is much to learn from my former home, one of which is to believe in God that is present and alive, one that is most definitely not a concept.

I think it’s way past time for some sort of revivial in liberal Christianity.  We need to pray and believe that God is active in our churches, in our lives and in the world.

I believe it’s in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that someone says “Aslan is on the move.”  Aslan, the God-figure in the novel is making himself known again in the land of Narnia.

“Aslan is on the move.”  It’s time we believe that again.

 

What Does It Mean to Be Prophetic, Part Three

JayWhiteMoralMondayNC

It was two years ago, that I wondered aloud what it meant to be prophetic.  I’ve heard that phrase a lot in many of the progressive circles I’ve been in, but I’ve always wondered if what is called prophetic is nothing more than espousing your ideology and wrapping it up in God-language.

What does it mean to be prophetic?  The reason I ask is that I think a lot of folks have an idea what it means to be prophetic that I think is a bit wrong.  I will see a pastor who will get up and talk about some of the major issues facing our world and it is billed as “prophetic.”  But more often than not, what I hear is more of a political agenda than it is calling the church to present the Kingdom of God.  Since I move around mainline/progressive Christian circles, I tend to hear what sounds like a churchified version of the Democratic party platform, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of what might pass as prophetic in evangelical circles just mirrors the GOP agenda.

So, what does it mean to be prophetic?  What does a prophetic church look like?  I have to think that it’s more than a party platform sprinkled with lots of Jesus.  I’d like to know, because what I see passing as prophetic kind of falls short.

Methodist pastor Drew McIntyre is asking the same question.  He comes up with an answer that is shocking (at least to me,) but true.  Quoting Henri Nouwen, he remarks that there is very little theological reflection in the church today:

In his wonderful little book In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen names temptations common to leadership and offers particular disciplines as solutions.  He concludes this brief treatise by discussing the temptation “to be powerful.”  In different ways, both the right-wing and left-wing perversions of the prophetic are temptations to power.  Fundamentalists manipulate Scripture to show forth their own insight and giftedness, unlocking “secrets” of the end times heretofore unknown.  In so doing they often amass large followings (and bank accounts).  Progressives too quickly make use of the prophetic role to mask their own ideological agendas with a veneer of Biblical authority, and claim God’s voice for whatever the cause happens to be that week.

For Nouwen, the solution is “theological reflection.”  He concludes,

“Few ministers and priests think theologically. most of them have been educated in a climate in which the behavioral sciences, such as psychology and sociology, so dominated the educational milieu that little true theology was being learned. Most Christian leaders today raise psychological or sociological questions even though they frame them in scriptural terms.  Real theological thinking, which is thinking with the mind of Christ, is hard to find in the practice of ministry.  Without solid theological reflection, future leaders will be little more than pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, psuedo-social workers.” (65-66)

Theological reflection is critical because without it, we will too quickly mistake our words for God’s, and so make fools of ourselves when speaking on His behalf (as a pastor, I’ve done this more than once).  This discipline is sorely lacking in every corner of the church, Mainline or Evangelical, Catholic or Charismatic.  Such a poverty of theological insight is all the more problematic because we (all of us, including the author) are quick to forget that we are not brilliant by virtue of living in the 21st century or having masses of education.  The great missionary and ecumenist Lesslie Newbigin points out that we may come to different conclusions than Paul, but that doesn’t  make us Paul’s moral superiors; we are apt to be as blind to some things in our day as Paul may have been to certain obvious evils in his.

McIntyre briefly talks about the Moral Mondays campaign in North Carolina.  The movement happens to be led by a Disciples of Christ pastor.  Mother Jones magazine has a pretty good profile of Barber, but in reading you have to wonder: is this about following God or following a party platform (and protesting the other party)?  Would there be Moral Mondays if instead of a conservative legislature and governor passing conservative legislation, there were liberals in power. The answer of course is no and that’s the problem. If you are willing to protest Republicans who you are against and not Democrats that you agree with, then what you are doing isn’t prophetic and you need to quit fooling yourselves.

I tend to think that a true prophet is not going to be liked by either liberals or conservatives.  Another Methodist pastor, Alan Bevere had this to say in 2012 about prophets:

I have spent some time this week in the Old Testament prophetic books. I do not find it surprising that most prophets are not accepted in their own time. Their cutting words of truth at best fall on stopped ears. Then, in order to reinforce their words, they resort to symbolic acts which, if committed in the 21st century West, would be more than sufficient cause for them to be put away in special places reserved for people who walk naked in public (Isaiah) and who eat paper (Ezekiel), and walk around with an oxen yoke on their neck (Jeremiah). The people of God today have no more clue on how to recognize a prophet than the ancient folk. Every time I hear someone referred to as prophetic, it’s only because they are speaking words that the hearers who so designate them agree with. But that’s precisely the problem.

When God used Amos or Micah, it wasn’t because God wanted to raise the minimum wage or ban gay marriage.  God had a covenant with the Israelites and from time to time, God would tell the people when they were off track or when their worship wasn’t matching with their lives.  The closest parallel to this is God talking to the church today.  The prophets were speaking for God, calling the people back to righteous living.  The prophets were not setting policy.  They weren’t talking about voting rights, or same sex marriage or abortion, or the minimum wage.  It’s okay for Christians to work on these issues, but don’t use the prophetic writings for your own agenda.

This brings me back to Nouwen.  I think he’s correct that the church is sorely lacking in thinking theologically.  In a lot of cases evangelicals and progressives have basically adopted the ideologies of the main political parties and sprinkled God talk around them.  I’m starting to think that thinking theologically would mean spending time discerning issues and reflecting on what scripture and tradition have to say about an issue.  That isn’t attractive to a smashmouth church culture, but slowing down to find out how to listen to God and to each other might present a real third way to how the church responds to the outside world.

None of this means that churches should withdraw from the world.  But we need to be able to standback from an issue and see what God is saying.  Maybe in that time of listening we will learn what truly is prophetic.

* I know there have to be a few folks wondering why I didn’t take conservatives to task for doing the same thing.  I didn’t do that because that observation has been used ad nauseum for years.  We all know that the Religious Right jumped into bed with the GOP.  There’s no sense in repeating what we already know.  What a lot of people don’t know is how liberal Christians have basically done the same thing.  I condemn both, but the latter is a story that is not always told.

Silence of the Drones

Michael Kruse has a good post that deals with my long quest to find out what is truly prophetic and what is just a poser.  Here’s a taste:

The Christian Left (or progressives) hold themselves up as the antidote to this unholy alliance between the church and state. They are prophetic. Unlike conservatives who were in the tank for Bush and the Republican Party, they stand unflinchingly for justice. Addressing the issue of torture is a good example.

The Bush administration used “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding. This was torture and torture is never justified, we were told. No amount of oversight, no amount of justification can EVER justify torture. Not only is torture not Christian but it violates commonly agreed upon ethics in the community of nations. There are no exceptions. Add to this Guantanamo Bay and holding prisoners without due process. Bush is not a Christian because no Christian would engage in torture. Bush and his administration are war criminals. Bush should have been impeached but even today he should be brought up on charges of war crimes. The church must take a prophetic stand against injustice. Five and six years ago I can remember a relentless stream of social media posts and conversations by my progressive sisters and brothers in the faith along these lines.

Now fast forward a few years and see where we are now. President Obama’s team has not been using “enhanced interrogation techniques” (as far as we know). They simply send in drones to, not torture, but kill anyone they suspect might be a threat, apparently while occasionally killing innocent bystanders. We are learning now that apparently these clandestine acts could be targeting Americans abroad who are suspected of terrorist activity. And, oh yes, last I checked, we are now in Obama’s second administration and Guantanamo Bay is still open with no foreseeable end. Where are the prophetic voices today? Cue the soundtrack with crickets chirping.

Read the whole thing. It’s a good take on what is prophetic and what is social hostility wrapped in prophetic clothes.

Repost:Why Theology Matters

We are going waaay back on this one to 2005.

In the mail today, I recieved a mailing from the Disciples Peace Fellowship, the peace and justice caucus within my denomination, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The newsletter had a quote that struck me. It said:

“No amount of theology about God and the Bible and ethics and theology is equal to the smallest amount of action taken in behalf of another human being.

I thought about that, because I’m someone that has always loved to think about the Christian faith. Does this mean theology has no place in our faith when it comes to helping our fellow man? If this means that all that we have to do is treat our neighbors right, then why bother with church or God?

I posed the question to my housemate and best friend, Erik, who is a frustrated theologian working as a help desk worker. He noted that theology is important because as Christians we have to know why we do what we do. As I thought about it, it made sense. I’ve been involved in several things that might be considered peace and justice. I’m the head of the state chapter of Log Cabin Republicans working for the equality of GLBT persons. I helped start a church that is welcoming to gay and lesbians. I don’t do these things simply because it’s the nice thing to do. I do it because in the Bible I’ve learned of a God who cares for the poor and needy. I read about God revealing himself in the person of Jesus Christ, who made friends with the outcast. I do what I do because I’ve learned it from what God has done.

Some people think theology happens in seminaries far away from the pain and suffering of the world. What good is it to think about God when there are hurting people, they think. In my view, theology and action, have to go together. Simply thinking about God and doing nothing to help your brother or sister in need is faith with no substance. In contrast, doing action with no thought about faith can lead to taking care of the physical needs without feeding the spiritual needs. Anglican blogger Barry Vaughn explains it a tad better than I can:

Isn’t loving our fellow men and women the only way to love God?

There was a time when I would have said that it was redundant to say “Love God and love your neighbor”, but I’m no longer sure about that.

I think that Jesus identified the “great and first commandment” as “love God” and then followed quickly with “and love your neighbor as yourself” because it is possible to love others or at least be concerned with the needs of others without taking into account the spiritual, the transcendent, dimension of human life.

There are those who are passionately concerned with the care of the hungry and the homeless who nevertheless have no awareness of the spiritual nature and spiritual needs of human beings. I honor them for their actions and fierce commitment to justice. However, I think that they are making an error which will prove very costly in the long run.

Rabbi Harold Kushner points out that “the difference between a person who relies only on himself and a person who has learned to turn to God for help… is not that one will do bad things while the other will do good things. The self-reliant atheist may be a fine, upstanding person. The difference is the atheist is like a bush growing in a desert. If he has only himself to rely on, when he exhausts his internal resources he runs the risk of running dry and withering.

“But the man or woman who turns to God is like a tree planted by a stream. What they share with the world is replenished from a source beyond themselves, so they never run dry.” (Who Needs God? quoted in The Reader’s Digest, Nov. ’96, p. 90)

Finally, note what Jesus did not say. He did not say “serve God” or “obey God”; he said “love God”.

From first to last the Bible is a love story. It is first the story of God’s love for Israel and then of God’s love for the church. First, God’s covenant people are wooed and then they are invited into relationship.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind” is less commandment and more invitation. It is an invitation to love One who has always loved us. It is, in fact, an invitation to become more human. For we were created in the image of God for one reason above all others — that we might love God and others as God loves us.

Can one do good things and not talk about God? Yes. But for Christians who know the story of God’s love for us, why would you want to?

Just a thought.

Repost: What Does the Lord Require?

Originally posted in November of 2011.

A few weeks back, I happened to be browsing the religious website Patheos and came accross a blog post by Greg Garrett called “God Commands Compassion, Not Evangelism.” The title fascinated me and the excerpt was even more interesting: “Christianity is not about praying in a certain way, or believing a certain thing, or making converts, or building a nice cabin at church camp.” The excerpt spells out what this post is about but here is a part:

In my book The Other Jesus, I talk about how Christians are called to do more than praise God, although I believe we are called to do that. We are called to do more than tell people what God has done and is doing in our lives, although I believe we are called to do that. We are called to do more than invite other people to be in relationship with that loving God, although I believe we are called to do that. The larger message of the Bible is about participating in the reality that God wants to bring into being to replace the sinful mess we have made, and a large part of that participation is about reaching out to those who are in need. God’s advocacy for the downtrodden against the powerful is clear throughout the Hebrew Testament. A wonderful way to read the Old Testament’s sections on the patriarchs, the subjection of their ancestors in Egypt, and their deliverance in Palestine is through the lens of God’s choice of the poor, the outcast, and the unexpected to be the recipients of His love and grace. Youngest children (not the oldest sons, expected to inherit everything), women (of no social value), and exiles (not even part of a society) are chosen by God for special roles.

  I would agree with Garrett that our faith is about a lot more than making converts or getting people to heaven. I think that if we say we love Jesus, but don’t try to care for the poor or alien in our midst, well our actions speak a lot louder than our words. Having said that, I do take pause with Garrett’s words. I get the feeling from him that all that faith is about is social justice. Again, working to help those who are homeless or making sure that all are welcomed at God’s table (the inclusion of GLBT folks) is important and valuable. But our faith in God is about more than that, or at least it should be. In his latest column, Frederick Schmidt writes about the “Issue-Driven Church.” This kind of church is one that is driven by the agendas of the day:

In many ways The Issue-Driven Church thrives at the denominational level, among judicatories, within church agencies, and Conventions, Conferences, and Synods. But local parishes are often drawn into the orbit of The Issue-Driven Church. And even when they aren’t, local congregations are forced to do their work in an environment that is often shaped by The Issue-Driven approach to doing church. That’s part of the reason that an increasing number of churches are omitting any public indication that they are affiliated with a denomination. They simply can’t pay the price of owning an association that drives people away before they ever get acquainted with the community. Now none of this is to say that the church doesn’t need to address issues. Anyone who has read the prophet Micah or heard the story of Jesus won’t think for a moment that you can take the Gospel seriously without finding yourself at odds with the world around you. The Christian life is not about hiding out with your rosary waiting for comforting moments of enlightenment while the world goes to hell in a hand basket. Speaking out against racism and sexism, the exploitation of the helpless—there’s a long list of issues that show up in what might be considered the contemporary business of doing justice and loving mercy. But there is a difference between speaking to issues and being issue-driven.

Schmidt then goes on to describe what is the big problem with issue driven churches or to put it more plainly, the logical result:

The problem, of course, is there is really no reason to be part of a church like that—apart from the opportunity to somehow engage the issues. And, if you reflect very deeply on it at all, you will eventually conclude that the church is a dispensable vehicle—even for engaging the issues. In the meantime, as a result, life in the church has become like life everywhere in America, except for hymns and rituals: “Issues are Us.” Issues divide us and there is often little more that brings us together. The nation is facing the twilight of common dreams and the church is a house divided.

If a church is only about the issues, at some point people are going wake up and realize that the church isn’t needed. Why be part of a faith community in order to support your favorite cause? I don’t begrudge those who feel called to speak out on issues. And while I lean more to the right, I have no problem with someone in a congregation who believes their faith calls them to urge for more government funding. The problem is that churches and people can glom on to issues and make that the grounding of their faith rather than Christ. Justice is important, but it flows from the life, death and ressurection of Jesus. Christ has to be the unifying force in our community, not our stance on Social Security. So much in our society is splintered and factured according to partisan lines. The church needs to be a place where people can see a different vision, one where people come together despite different opinions and views and seek to do justice-not because it’s an issue, but because they are called, gathered and sent by the living God.

So, What’s Homophobic?

I’ve been noticing a meme going around social media lately about the Salvation Army.  Most of us know the group for it’s thrift stores and the red kettle campaign during the holiday season. 

The new push is for people to boycott those red kettles this year because of the organization’s position on homosexuality. 

Here’s how the policy reads:

The Salvation Army believes that homosexuality can be properly considered only in the broader context of a biblical understanding of human sexuality in general. The creation account set out in the opening chapters of Genesis reveals the following truths: <random bible quotes. go to the page directly to see all of them>

The Bible thus teaches that God’s intention for mankind is that society should be ordered on the basis of lifelong, legally sanctioned, heterosexual unions. Such unions (marriages) lead to the formation of social units (families) which are essential to human personal development and therefore to the stability of the community.

Scripture opposes homosexual practices by direct comment (Leviticus 18:22, 23; 20:13; Romans 1:26, 27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10) and also by clearly implied disapproval (Genesis 19:1-29; Judges 19:1-30; 2 Peter 2:1-22; Jude 3-23). The Bible treats such practices as self-evidently abnormal. They reject both the obvious implications of human physiology and the potential for procreation. Romans 1 sees homosexual acts as a symptom of a deeper refusal to accept the organising scheme of God for the created order (Romans 1:23-25).

The Army recognises that same-sex friendships can be enriching, Christ-honouring relationships, bringing joy through mutual companionship and sharing. However, same-sex relationships which are genitally expressed are unacceptable according to the teaching of Scripture. Attempts to establish or promote such relationships as viable alternatives to heterosexually-based family life do not conform to God’s will for society.

Now, I’m not crazy with that viewpoint, but does it cross the threshold of being virulently homophobic? 

My own view (you knew I was going there) is that there’s homophobic and then there’s homophobic.  The Sal Army’s view is not favorable to someone like me, but I’m wary of branding it with the broad homophobic brush that many others are.  For one thing, it might be fashionable to ignore those folks ringing the bells in front of stores, it’s not such an easy thing for me.  The Army is a group that is involved heavily in the Twin Cities in helping folks find shelter.  They happen to run one of the largest homeless shelters in the area.  In my role as an Associate Pastor, I’m on a coalition of faith communities dealing with homelessness in Minneapolis.  The coalition is pretty diverse, with Christians, Jews and Muslims working together.  The Army is the newest member of that group.  A number of our congregations are very gay friendly.  So, should we not work with the Salvation Army because of their stance?

I know that for a lot of folk, the gay rights movement is similar to the civil rights movement.  We tend to view those that might disagree with us on gay rights as tantamount to a modern day Klansman.

But I don’t feel comfortable with that viewpoint.  A conservative Christian that might think homosexual acts are sinful, might also have gay friends.  Yeah, I know, that doesn’t make sense, but the fact is it happens.  Not every person that hues to what has been the traditional view on what the Bible says about homosexuality is a full-on bigot.  The Sal Army might not agree with me, but unless they are leading anti-gay campaigns, I’m not going to boycott them.

Also, I don’t know what good a boycott will do.  Since a lot of the money raised will go to, you know, help poor people, a boycott means less money for the poor, and less for homeless folk here in Minneapolis, which happens to get cold every so often.

So, I’m not going to boycott the Army.  I’m going to live out and proud and be a witness to them- and work with them to help the “least of these.”

So, What’s Homophobic?

I’ve been noticing a meme going around social media lately about the Salvation Army.  Most of us know the group for it’s thrift stores and the red kettle campaign during the holiday season. 

The new push is for people to boycott those red kettles this year because of the organization’s position on homosexuality. 

Here’s how the policy reads:

The Salvation Army believes that homosexuality can be properly considered only in the broader context of a biblical understanding of human sexuality in general. The creation account set out in the opening chapters of Genesis reveals the following truths:

The Bible thus teaches that God’s intention for mankind is that society should be ordered on the basis of lifelong, legally sanctioned, heterosexual unions. Such unions (marriages) lead to the formation of social units (families) which are essential to human personal development and therefore to the stability of the community.

Scripture opposes homosexual practices by direct comment (Leviticus 18:22, 23; 20:13; Romans 1:26, 27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10) and also by clearly implied disapproval (Genesis 19:1-29; Judges 19:1-30; 2 Peter 2:1-22; Jude 3-23). The Bible treats such practices as self-evidently abnormal. They reject both the obvious implications of human physiology and the potential for procreation. Romans 1 sees homosexual acts as a symptom of a deeper refusal to accept the organising scheme of God for the created order (Romans 1:23-25).

The Army recognises that same-sex friendships can be enriching, Christ-honouring relationships, bringing joy through mutual companionship and sharing. However, same-sex relationships which are genitally expressed are unacceptable according to the teaching of Scripture. Attempts to establish or promote such relationships as viable alternatives to heterosexually-based family life do not conform to God’s will for society.

Now, I’m not crazy with that viewpoint, but does it cross the threshold of being virulently homophobic? 

My own view (you knew I was going there) is that there’s homophobic and then there’s homophobic.  The Sal Army’s view is not favorable to someone like me, but I’m wary of branding it with the broad homophobic brush that many others are.  For one thing, it might be fashionable to ignore those folks ringing the bells in front of stores, it’s not such an easy thing for me.  The Army is a group that is involved heavily in the Twin Cities in helping folks find shelter.  They happen to run one of the largest homeless shelters in the area.  In my role as an Associate Pastor, I’m on a coalition of faith communities dealing with homelessness in Minneapolis.  The coalition is pretty diverse, with Christians, Jews and Muslims working together.  The Army is the newest member of that group.  A number of our congregations are very gay friendly.  So, should we not work with the Salvation Army because of their stance?

I know that for a lot of folk, the gay rights movement is similar to the civil rights movement.  We tend to view those that might disagree with us on gay rights as tantamount to a modern day Klansman.

But I don’t feel comfortable with that viewpoint.  A conservative Christian that might think homosexual acts are sinful, might also have gay friends.  Yeah, I know, that doesn’t make sense, but the fact is it happens.  Not every person that hues to what has been the traditional view on what the Bible says about homosexuality is a full-on bigot.  The Sal Army might not agree with me, but unless they are leading anti-gay campaigns, I’m not going to boycott them.

Also, I don’t know what good a boycott will do.  Since a lot of the money raised will go to, you know, help poor people, a boycott means less money for the poor, and less for homeless folk here in Minneapolis, which happens to get cold every so often.

So, I’m not going to boycott the Army.  I’m going to live out and proud and be a witness to them- and work with them to help the “least of these.”

What Does the Lord Require?

A few weeks back, I happened to be browsing the religious website Patheos and came accross a blog post by Greg Garrett called “God Commands Compassion, Not Evangelism.”  The title fascinated me and the excerpt was even more interesting: “Christianity is not about praying in a certain way, or believing a certain thing, or making converts, or building a nice cabin at church camp.”  The excerpt spells out what this post is about but here is a part:

In my book The Other Jesus, I talk about how Christians are called to do more than praise God, although I believe we are called to do that. We are called to do more than tell people what God has done and is doing in our lives, although I believe we are called to do that. We are called to do more than invite other people to be in relationship with that loving God, although I believe we are called to do that.

The larger message of the Bible is about participating in the reality that God wants to bring into being to replace the sinful mess we have made, and a large part of that participation is about reaching out to those who are in need. God’s advocacy for the downtrodden against the powerful is clear throughout the Hebrew Testament. A wonderful way to read the Old Testament’s sections on the patriarchs, the subjection of their ancestors in Egypt, and their deliverance in Palestine is through the lens of God’s choice of the poor, the outcast, and the unexpected to be the recipients of His love and grace. Youngest children (not the oldest sons, expected to inherit everything), women (of no social value), and exiles (not even part of a society) are chosen by God for special roles.

 

I would agree with Garrett that our faith is about a lot more than making converts or getting people to heaven.  I think that if we say we love Jesus, but don’t try to care for the poor or alien in our midst, well our actions speak a lot louder than our words.

Having said that, I do take pause with Garrett’s words.  I get the feeling from him that all that faith is about is social justice.  Again, working to help those who are homeless or making sure that all are welcomed at God’s table (the inclusion of GLBT folks) is important and valuable.  But our faith in God is about more than that, or at least it should be. In his latest column, Frederick Schmidt writes about the “Issue-Driven Church.”  This kind of church is one that is driven by the agendas of the day:

In many ways The Issue-Driven Church thrives at the denominational level, among judicatories, within church agencies, and Conventions, Conferences, and Synods. But local parishes are often drawn into the orbit of The Issue-Driven Church. And even when they aren’t, local congregations are forced to do their work in an environment that is often shaped by The Issue-Driven approach to doing church.

That’s part of the reason that an increasing number of churches are omitting any public indication that they are affiliated with a denomination. They simply can’t pay the price of owning an association that drives people away before they ever get acquainted with the community.

Now none of this is to say that the church doesn’t need to address issues. Anyone who has read the prophet Micah or heard the story of Jesus won’t think for a moment that you can take the Gospel seriously without finding yourself at odds with the world around you. The Christian life is not about hiding out with your rosary waiting for comforting moments of enlightenment while the world goes to hell in a hand basket. Speaking out against racism and sexism, the exploitation of the helpless—there’s a long list of issues that show up in what might be considered the contemporary business of doing justice and loving mercy. But there is a difference between speaking to issues and being issue-driven.

Schmidt then goes on to describe what is the big problem with issue driven churches or to put it more plainly, the logical result:

The problem, of course, is there is really no reason to be part of a church like that—apart from the opportunity to somehow engage the issues. And, if you reflect very deeply on it at all, you will eventually conclude that the church is a dispensable vehicle—even for engaging the issues.

In the meantime, as a result, life in the church has become like life everywhere in America, except for hymns and rituals: “Issues are Us.” Issues divide us and there is often little more that brings us together. The nation is facing the twilight of common dreams and the church is a house divided.

If a church is only about the issues, at some point people are going wake up and realize that the church isn’t needed.  Why be part of a faith community in order to support your favorite cause?

I don’t begrudge those who feel called to speak out on issues.  And while I lean more to the right, I have no problem with someone in a congregation who believes their faith calls them to urge for more government funding.

The problem is that churches and people can glom on to issues and make that the grounding of their faith rather than Christ.  Justice is important, but it flows from the life, death and ressurection of Jesus.  Christ has to be the unifying force in our community, not our stance on Social Security.

So much in our society is splintered and factured according to partisan lines.  The church needs to be a place where people can see a different vision, one where people come together despite different opinions and views and seek to do justice-not because it’s an issue, but because they are called, gathered and sent by the living God.

Sex vs. Poverty

Via Michael Kruse, a Presbyterian pastor believes the biblical call to care for the poor doesn’t have to mean increased government spending:

Yes, I know that the Bible does teach us to care for the poor, and I accept that, in principle, just as my colleagues accept fidelity and (to some extent) chastity – in principle. But if we begin to ask the same questions about caring for the poor that my colleagues have asked about sexuality, the Bible’s teaching becomes not so clear or imperative.

The Old Testament clearly teaches care for the poor. For me, that’s good enough. But that’s not good enough for those who wish to play the home version of the game “Marcion.” If we can dismiss the Old Testament’s teachings on marriage and sexuality as outdated and non-binding, the same can be said with equal force about its teachings on the poor, or any of its other teachings. And if we say that Jesus assumed and reaffirmed the Old Testament’s teaching on the poor, the same can be said for his stance toward its teachings on sexuality. As Jesus proves in his teaching on divorce, if Jesus had disagreed with the Judaism of his day on any subject, he would have undoubtedly corrected our misunderstanding…

The understanding that Jesus comes to us in the face of the poor and needy whoever they are (a la Mother Teresa) is a relatively late development (post-Enlightenment), as shown in the historical survey in Sherman Gray’s dissertation The Least of My Brothers. And certainly all of us have seen a long line of panhandlers and abusive needy people where we could say, if that’s the face of Jesus, then atheism begins to look extremely attractive. No, not every poor person is the face of Jesus. I believe that Jesus never intended his words to be understood that way. Could it be that God now expects us to understand it that way? Could be, but that’s more of a leap of faith than to believe that God created us to be heterosexual and monogamous.

I know it’s popular to dismiss the apostles as inferior to the red-letter teachings of Jesus. But actually, the apostles do a clearer job making Jesus’ teaching more explicit for the rest of us. James asks, What good is the faith that says to a destitute person, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” without giving the person what they need? (Jas 2:15-16) Likewise, 1 John 3:17 asks how God’s love can abide in someone who sees a fellow believer in need but sends them away empty.

But now it’s time to hit the Context button. Look at this issue in context. What we consider “poor” in 21st century America is a far cry from the poverty that Jesus and his apostles were talking about. What is God’s authoritative poverty index? Read Robert Rector’s article about “Plugged-In Poverty.” Today’s poor in the developed world have a standard of living that would have made Caesar green with envy: 63.7% of our poor have cable TV, 54.5% have a cell phone, but only 1.3% of our children suffered “reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns,” according to the USDA.

Perhaps I sound like W. C. Fields reading the Bible “looking for loopholes.” Such is also what it looks like when I see those who reject the historic understanding of the Bible on sex. Let me make it clear, I do believe that the Bible does command us to care tangibly for the poor. I struggle to obey, and I try not to make excuses to avoid doing so. I have no intention of scrupling that command. I would prefer that we accept both the Bible’s teachings about sex and about poverty as equally authoritative.

Kruse adds the following:

Hobson is right in one important respect. Each ideological camp tends to be able focus, with laser precision on, the nuanced contextual readings of Scripture that show that the text does not mean what their opponents think it means (for example, debunking six-day creationism or traditional sexual standards) while simultaneously proof-texting favored agendas (for example, anti-markets or more open boarders.) I think most of us overreach for biblical justification for our political agendas. Instead of saying, “Here is my reasoned perspective,” we want our views to carry the authority of Scripture and deny that authority to our opponents.

 

I think both authors have a point.  While I do think there is a biblical call to care for the poor, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t say anywhere that it has to be via increased government spending.  That doesn’t mean I don’t think there is a case to be made for government spending more to care for the poor, I just to don’t think God commanded one and only way to do it.

Kruse’s point is also important, because I think more often than not most American Christians use the Bible to further their own agendas without even knowing they are doing it.  At the end of the day, though, the Bible isn’t a rule book to be used to slam those we don’t agree with; it tells the story of God working in history and it helps us see where God is in our own story.

Love to know what others think.