Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Word for Christians

Dear Christians, especially those who name themselves “evangelical,” I have a word for you. I believe it is a word from the Lord. Those of you who know me know that I do not say this lightly. That, in fact, I am leery of anyone who claims to speak a “word from the Lord” because I believe the scripture is clear that if a person claims to speak from God and the word is not from God, that person will be judged. I pray that God will judge me if this word is not truly God’s so that God’s will may be evident.

I am writing this partly in response to a variety of news reports. One, from Sam Sorbo of Fox news gets the problem right, but the solution dead wrong. Or the story by Philip Wegman in the Washington Examiner talking about Jim Ziegler defending Judge Roy Moore by using the bible. In some ways, I am also responding to the comments I have see on Facebook and other places through the years justifying the immoral behavior of Donald Trump because he is “pro-life” (too many sources here to cite) or the immoral behavior of Bill Clinton because he is “our guy.” Justifying immorality because someone is on your side is a whole topic to itself, though not the one I am addressing today. But mostly I am writing this because I think I need to say it.

Here is the word: Please, please stop being concerned for and fighting for your “rights” as Christians. Stop supporting those who are hypocrites and purveyors of evil in the name of putting those into office who will ostensibly support the rights of Christians. Christians in America, you must stop believing that you are oppressed and persecuted. You are not oppressed or persecuted, not in any real sense in this country. There are Christians in the world who are being persecuted or killed for their faith. Do not trivialize their faith and their experience by comparing your “persecution” to theirs.

If you have:
                A roof over your head
                Food to eat
                The ability to see the doctor when you are ill and get the medicine you need
                A job that pays enough to support you and your family
                An education
                The vote and the ability to use that vote
If you can walk down the street in your neighborhood and not be accosted by police because you look different from others in your neighborhood. If you have never been stopped because you are “driving while black.” If you are not afraid of the police. If you have never had to use a public defender in our justice system. If you are not afraid of a knock on the door that might be ICE. Furthermore, if any of these things has, in fact happened to you, but not because you are Christian, THEN -  you are not being deprived of your rights as a Christian.

Instead of fighting for our rights, Christians should be the ones who fight for the rights of those who truly are oppressed and persecuted – the “widows, orphans, and aliens” of our time. Our call, going back to Abraham (in Genesis 12:1-3, if you are interested) is to be a blessing to all the families of the world. Not just the Israelite families. Not just the Christian families. Not just the families who attend our churches. ALL the families of the earth. Now we can wrestle with what it means to be a blessing. We might have some disagreements over how to be that blessing. But our call is to be a blessing.

Through the years I have heard a lot about how the government should not guarantee food, shelter, health care, etc. I have heard a number of Christians say that is the job of the church. I’ve said it myself in the past, to my shame. Well then, God is asking us - why aren’t we doing it? Why are there still homeless, hungry people? Why are there still people who are not able to find health care or who have to choose between paying the electric bill or buying the medicine they or their child needs? Why is there a whole island of Americans many of whom do not even have electricity? If you have what you need and someone else does not, why? I am asking these questions of myself as well as of you. Why do I deserve to live in a safe warm house when there are those who are out in the cold and rain today? The cry is not “how long, O Lord?” but “how long, my people?” The only answer that I can come up with is that I am a coward. I am unwilling to be faithful enough to give everything I have so that others may have what they need. I pray that God will help my unbelief.

We in the U.S. want our country to guarantee our “rights” as Christians, because we are unwilling to trust in God for our protection and sustenance. We are like the Israelites of old who wanted a king “like other nations” (1 Samuel 8:5) instead of being satisfied with trusting in God to lead them and provide for them. The prophets continually warned the kings against making political alliances in order to guarantee the safety of the people. But those political alliances, while temporarily useful, led to the destruction of Jerusalem and exile for the people. Be assured that if we trust in our political leaders to be the source of our strength, we too will fall.

I strongly suspect that we want to think of the U.S. as a “Christian nation” so that we do not have to take responsibility for Christian action ourselves. Here are some examples:

Take for instance teachers or workers who complain that they not able to have a bible on their desk or wear a cross in the classroom or workplace. These things mean nothing. If you think your rights are being violated, I ask you this: Are you praying for your students or your co-workers by name each night? Are you treating them with love and grace? If you are not letting the bible form your life then don’t complain that you can’t have it on your desk. It needs to be in your heart, not on your desk. If you are not praying for those around you, then don’t complain about not being able to pray in public. Jesus tells us to go into our room and pray in secret. I am not opposed to praying where people can see – I pray in restaurants. But Jesus was clear that our public prayer was not to convince others of our piety.

Are you against abortion, calling yourself “pro-life?” Have you adopted or at least fostered a child who is unwanted? Have you spent time getting to know and care for teenagers who might be vulnerable to having an early pregnancy? Are you serious about providing for the children who are already in this world? We need a holistic pro-life policy; if we believe that each child is precious to God and want to save the unborn, then we also need to save the born. I say this as someone who identifies as pro-life.

You may be one of those who owns a business and doesn’t want to serve those of other faiths or other lifestyles. As a citizen of the United States of America, I personally think you should have the right to refuse service. But as a Christian, what is the more powerful witness – refusing service because of religious conviction, or humbly serving those with whom we disagree even while being clear that we disagree? And if you decide the former is a better witness in your situation, then you must be prepared to pay the price for your witness. And to your Christian brothers and sisters who agree with you, I say this: for those who are suffering from their witness, be the Christian community. Pay their mortgage. Make sure they have food to eat. Find them work that will not conflict with their consciences. Surround them with care. And, if you wish to change the laws as an American who is guided by Christian principles, then do that using our political system. But do not think that working through the political system is the only way to change things. Do not think that as Americans you have rights that do not apply to those of other faiths or no faith. And do not confuse being American with being Christian.

Are you horrified at the shootings that have occurred in all kinds of public places? Be horrified that we think of more guns as the solution to this problem. We are to be about the ministry of reconciliation, (see 2 Corinthians 5:18-19) not the ministry of open carry. We cannot stop evil by using the same methods as evil. Which brings up another point. 

We see the conflict in our society, in our country. And we don’t want that conflict to have an impact on our lives. But we, as Christians, have let ourselves be co-opted by the methods and agenda of the Enemy. We have been fooled into thinking that we need something we call “power” in order to change the world. We don’t. While you were reading in 2 Corinthians 5, did you notice what followed in chapter 6? Paul was willing to suffer for the sake of the gospel, because he knew that the glory of sharing Christ with the world was far more than any suffering he might endure. At some point Paul used his “rights” as a Roman citizen, yes; but not to avoid suffering. He used his standing as a Roman citizen to gain the ability to go to Rome to preach the gospel at the center of the world – or the ends of the earth.

Take a look at Philippians 2, where Paul reminds us to " Let the same mind be in you that was1 in Christ Jesus,  6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,  7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross." (Phi 2:5-8 NRS). My friends, we follow a crucified Messiah. We are not called to be powerful in the way of the world, but to call upon the power of God to fight our battles. And then to trust that God will do so. We may not always understand what that will look like, but we can be assured that it will happen.

In the meantime, we are to be a blessing. We have been told how. " 8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Mic 6:8 NRS) We are called to work for justice for the immigrants, to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves, to enable each person in our society to live out the image of God that is given to them.  Even if you believe you are persecuted because of your faith, seeking your rights is not the biblical way:   "39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," (Mat 5:39-44 NRS)

We promise in our baptismal vows (at least in the United Methodist Church) to resist evil and injustice in whatever forms they present themselves, but we resist those things for the sake of the world, not for our own sake. And we also promise to remember that it is God who gives us the power to resist, not our own power.

My confession and my sorrow is that I am not very good at taking all this to heart. I desperately need both the word of God in the scriptures as a daily part of my diet, and intense pray time. But I also desperately need the Christian community to help me in my faith. We are called and gifted (all of us, not just the pastors) to build up the body of Christ. Without the other Christians in my community of faith using their gifts to build up the body, I am a lesser Christian. 

So, the final word is this: be a part of your Christian community. Like it or not, you are a part of the body of Christ if you claim to be Christian. Like it or not, you are needed in your Christian community. To deny that is to deny God. But remember that the Body of Christ exists to bring blessing to the world. We build up the Body of Christ so that we may bless the world.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Lord, Hear Our Prayers

I am fasting and praying today. Hunger and prayer can focus the mind. It occurred to me as I was praying that hundreds, perhaps thousands of people around the world who are connected to the United Methodist Church are fasting and prayer for the same reason as I am today: because the Judicial Council of the UMC will soon be making a ruling on the legitimacy of the election of a lesbian bishop. I know that so very many of us are praying – but as I prayed I realized that others are praying for the opposite outcome to the one that I want. We are all fervent in our prayers. We all want the Holy Spirit to work. What happens when the decision comes down?

Will the “losing” side believe that God did not hear their prayers? Will they claim that the Judicial Council did not listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit? How do we answer those questions?

As I prayed, it occurred to me that maybe we are all going to lose. And maybe that is God’s answer. Church, maybe this is a Babel tower time for us. The story in Genesis 11 tells us that the people of the time were trying to build a tower to reach the heavens. Contrary to what we often think about this, they weren’t trying to get up to heaven – and the gods – they were trying to provide a path for the divine to come down to them. They wanted to make a name for themselves as the ones through whom the divine entered the world. But God doesn’t work that way.

In fact, God has already entered the world and we keep trying as hard as we can to forget how and when and why that happened. We have been focusing on making the UMC the right kind of church that will provide a path for the divine to come to us. But God is already here. And the initial command was to spread throughout the earth, filling it with the fruits of our labors and the knowledge of God and wisely overseeing the beautiful creation of God. Instead of going out into the world, the people collected together. Instead of sharing knowledge of God with the world, they wanted to share how great they were.  And here we are again.

Regardless of the outcome of the Judicial Council ruling, maybe we are being scattered for a reason. The call to Abraham – the remedy for all of the sin and evil in Genesis 3-11 – was to bring blessing to all the families of the earth. Now we get to choose: will we be sons and daughters of Babel or Abraham?

God has already entered the world in the person and work of Jesus. The church was inaugurated at Pentecost. Nothing and no one can stand against the true church of God, the body of Christ. Are we a part of that body? Both sides? Yes! If there is anything to be gained from a study of the Hebrew Bible (not to mention a study of the history of the Church) it is that God can use highly imperfect people – selfish, greedy, quarreling, proud people – for God’s purposes and to somehow further God’s blessing. I’ll admit I don’t always get it. But somehow God has continued to work regardless of how humankind has resisted.

I spent two years studying the Acts of the Apostles with a group of pastors. Now I will be moving to a new church and a new town that I have been warned is “very secular.” More secular than the Roman Empire? Not hardly.

God has already entered the world. Evil, sin, and death threw their full weight against God who came in Jesus. We just celebrated Holy Week and Easter. We remembered on Good Friday that the fully human man who was also fully divine died on a cross. We think about the miracle of the resurrection, but do we recognize the miracle that we are talking about when we say that God died? But here’s the good part: Evil, sin, and death threw their full weight against God who came in Jesus and they failed. Evil, sin, and death were overcome. God raised Jesus from the dead and began at that moment to reclaim the earth. To bring together the heavens and the earth. To make Jew and Gentile one people again. And at Pentecost, God began again to create a people who would be – not perfect – but sent out to be a blessing. Sent out to spread the word that Jesus is Lord of the heavens and earth whether anyone acknowledges it or not. That means Lord of the straight and the gay, Lord of the Democrats and Republicans, Lord of the atheist and the Muslim, the Buddhist and the Christian, Lord of the United States of America and North Korea. Oh, we’ve a long way to go before that Lordship is acknowledged and God’s perfect rule is finally made real everywhere. But the new creation, the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated and if we are anything, church, we are supposed to be the bearers of those glad tidings!

We also have to remember that the fruit of the Spirit is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control." (Gal 5:22-23 CEB) Which means that even though we will continue to disagree and we might scatter after the Judicial Council ruling comes out, we are called to act in very particular ways. Which means that we all lose if we fail to preach the Gospel with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Which means that we all win if we find a way to shower the world with God’s blessing. This will be difficult, because we don’t always agree on what it means to bless the world. So that is what we need to focus on.

I am praying and fasting today. But my focus has changed. I am praying that God will show me, and the rest of those who identify with the UMC, how to bring blessing to the world. I am praying that we will learn to see that God is working through all of us on different sides of a difficult issue and that the Holy Spirit will work regardless of the decision of the Judicial Council. I am praying that I will be able to live as a disciple and preach as an apostle in my new appointment.

I am praying that after this Babylonian tower moment, we will have a Pentecost time, when, as we are fasting and praying together, the Holy Spirit will fall afresh on us all and send us out into a hurting world to be a fresh wind of grace and love.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

On the building of walls and Making America Great Again

One of the promises of our new President that most troubles me is the promise of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. I oppose the building of a wall, in part because of my orthodox Christianity.
The concept of a wall between us and Mexico is problematic on a number of counts. The idea grows out of the broader notion that we should put America first in all things and that the building of this wall to secure our border will somehow make us better off. Though I am opposed on religious grounds, let’s also look at some historical and economic ones as well.
For me talk of a wall conjures up the images of the Berlin Wall, the wall between North and South Korea, and the wall that the Israelis built to keep out the Palestinians. Are the relationships that were and are represented by these walls the kind of relationship that we want to have with Mexico? Do we believe that Mexico is our enemy and that we should have armed guards along the border wall that shoot first and ask questions later? I have not personally been to any of these walls, but I have known many who have. They describe a palpable tension and sense of animosity attached to those walls.
Walls do not, in fact, seem to make good neighbors. What would make for good neighbors? I suggest that reasonable, fair immigration and foreign worker policies would help. I suggest that good relationships with our neighbors will make us far safer than any wall. Why do I think this?  Think about Canada.
As far as I know, no one is suggesting a wall along our border with Canada. Why don’t we need a Canadian wall as well as a Mexican wall? Perhaps because we have good relationships with Canada. I know some will argue that Canadians don’t come to the U.S. in large numbers such as those we see from Mexico and that is true. Immigrants from Canada tend to be wealthier and better educated than those from Mexico. But if anything, we might should build a wall with Canada to keep our citizens in. Canada is quite welcoming to folks from the U. S. who have specialized skills or who are entrepreneurs willing to invest in their country.[i] Are we “putting America first” when we allow our valuable citizens to leave the country?
From a further economic standpoint, Mexican immigrants, legal and otherwise, are actually good for our economy. According to the Economic Policy Institute:[ii]
Unauthorized immigrants are a net positive for public budgets because they contribute more to the system than they take out.16 Unauthorized immigrants generally cannot receive benefits from government programs, except in some cases, such as when unauthorized immigrant children receive public education, and in some states that allow unauthorized immigrants to attend state colleges at in-state tuition rates. Nevertheless, most of these unauthorized immigrants will still pay taxes. The vast majority pay sales taxes in states with sales taxes, and property taxes through properties that they own or rent. Additionally, most unauthorized immigrant workers also pay payroll and income taxes. The Social Security Administration estimates that 75 percent of unauthorized immigrants are actually on formal payrolls, either using fraudulent Social Security numbers or Social Security numbers of the deceased.17 Unauthorized immigrants pay into Social Security via automatic payroll deductions, but they can never claim Social Security benefits. In 2005, it was estimated that unauthorized immigrants paid about $7 billion per year in Social Security taxes that they will never be able to reclaim.18
I would expect that money spent on a wall and the resources to guard it are going to eat into the net positive effect of immigrants.
The historical, political, and economic reasons that I oppose the wall are important, but what is most important to me is the religious/theological aspect. Rev. Jeffress used Nehemiah as an example of a “builder” that God called.[iii] From reading the book of Nehemiah his takeaway is that “You see, God is NOT against building walls!” But let’s look at Nehemiah in some detail and see if the comparison to Donald Trump is warranted.
Nehemiah was not a builder by profession. In fact, he was cupbearer to the King of Persia. When he heard of the disrepair of Jerusalem -  not only the walls but the city and the temple as well – he wept and prayed. Here is his prayer:
4 When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.  5 I said, "O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments;  6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned.  7 We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that you commanded your servant Moses.  8 Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, 'If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples;  9 but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place at which I have chosen to establish my name.'  10 They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great power and your strong hand.  11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man!" At the time, I was cupbearer to the king.
 (Neh 1:4-11 NRS)
Several things to note: Nehemiah’s first act in his prayer was to confess his own sins and the sins of his family and his people. Have we heard such confession from President Trump? We might say that President Trump has more in common with the King of Persia than with Nehemiah, but that was not the comparison made by Rev. Jeffress.  Rev. Jeffress also asserts that President Trump has been “called by God” and because of that he has no need to “stop and answer [his] critics.”
However, this is not how God set up the monarchy in Israel. As it happens, the monarchy was always subject to the “critics” that we call prophets. In Deuteronomy, God makes it clear that the King of Israel was obligated to listen to prophets: “I myself will hold accountable anyone who doesn't listen to my words, which that prophet will speak in my name. (Deu 18:19 CEB)” The King was not to listen to “prophets” who led him and the people away from the Lord, but a true prophet was one who called the King to account. In the book of Jeremiah, one of the great themes is false versus true prophecy. At one point Jeremiah faces another prophet, Hananiah. Hananiah promises peace for Jerusalem; in effect, he promises that the king will “make Israel great again.” Jeremiah’s response is this:
5 Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the LORD;  6 and the prophet Jeremiah said, "Amen! May the LORD do so; may the LORD fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the LORD, and all the exiles.  7 But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people.  8 The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms.  9 As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet."
 (Jer 28:5-9 NRS)
Jeremiah also prophesied the death of Hananiah. That prophesy was fulfilled, despite the fact that Jeremiah was the one who was thrown into the pit by the King.
Does Donald Trump listen seriously to Godly men and women who oppose him? Or does he, in essence, throw them into the pit when they speak words that he does not want to hear?
Rev. Jeffress tells the President that “the true measure of a leader is what it takes to stop him.” This may be true if what we call effective leadership is someone who got done what he/she wanted to get done. However, there have been many “effective” leaders who have not been on the side of God – at least from my perspective. Herod was an effective leader. Hitler, Stalin, Osama bin Laden – all effective leaders who were difficult to stop. According to Deuteronomy, the ideal king is one who does not seek riches or exalt himself over others in the community but studies diligently in order to teach the people the righteous ways of God.
16 Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the LORD has said to you, "You must never return that way again."  17 And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself.  18 When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests.  19 It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes,  20 neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.
 (Deu 17:16-20 NRS)
Well, President Trump is not a king (though he seems to think he is one at times) so perhaps this should not apply.
In the New Testament, Jesus says this:
Whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave;  28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
 (Mat 20:27-28 NRS)
This would have been a good scripture to use for President Trump as a reminder.
Finally, Rev. Jeffress does remind the President that he only has to call on God for God to give help. However, when President Trump chants, “Make America great again!” I don’t have the impression that he understands great in the way that Jesus would.
If you want to know what Jesus would consider great, re-read the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7. He says things like, “Pray for those who persecute you.” (I am not mentioning the teaching on divorce!)
So how does all of this relate to being against the building of a wall? From a Christian point of view, building a wall is simply not consistent with being the kind of neighbor exemplified by the Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). It is not consistent with shining our light for all to see. It is not consistent with an attitude of welcoming the stranger, one of the most consistent commands in the Old Testament. I acknowledge that we are not all Christian in this country, and, in fact, would argue that this is not a “Christian” nation and shouldn’t be seen as such. However, that said, I do believe that Christians in this country have the responsibility to live out our faith in the public arena. Even if that gets us in trouble.
So, if you are a Christian who places him/herself under the authority of scripture, even if you don’t agree with the historical, political, and economic reasons for opposing a wall and think that building a wall will contribute to making America great again, I would argue that you have to oppose it on religious grounds.
If you choose to comment on this, I respectfully ask that you please keep comments civil and debate me on my reasoning, not on my character.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

What Voices Have Not Been Heard? - An Open Letter to the Council of Bishops of the UMC

Dear Council of Bishops,

I read your letter to the church this morning. In it you claim that your proposal is a way forward that commits to “having a different kind of global conversation that allows all voices to be heard.” I have to admit that every time I hear this statement I am puzzled. With respect, Dear Bishops, What voices have not been heard?

I ask this question because prior to General Conference I listened to the Connectional Table conversations which were taken over by the ironically named “Love Prevails” group. I followed almost every word of the livestream at General Conference and saw the demonstration by the LGBTQI supporters on the floor of General Conference – within the bar and therefore supported not only by the Marshalls who were supposed to protect the bar, but the bishops who allowed the demonstrators access. I watched the feed from the RMN coalition as they “ordained” Sue Laurie and as they presented various people who told their stories from an LBGTQI perspective. I have listened to the voices of the African delegates on the floor and in previous years I have listened to them in person (having been a recorder and transcriber at the two previous General Conferences). I also followed the videos and blogs put out by the Renew and Reform Coalition. All of these were loud and clear, so I ask again, What voices have not been heard?

We have at least four Annual Conferences in the United States that have vowed to break their vows of ordination and ignore the Discipline. We have 120 clergy and clergy candidates that have “come out” and have acknowledged that they lied to their own Boards of Ordained ministry. We have 2000 and counting clergy who have signed a letter of support for those who have and will in the future come out and/or break the covenant by performing same sex weddings. So I ask again, What voices have not been heard?

I have a Facebook friend who suggests that the chair of the commission should be a Ph.D. level ethicist and that it should contain “at least one scholar trained in the behavioral sciences who has done research on persons with a same gender orientation.” I have my own suggestion: that the commission contain at least one biblical scholar who has worked on developing a theology of sexuality based on the whole bible and not on either the “7 clobber passages” or a vague “God welcomes all” reading of scripture. If there is any voice I have not heard, it is this one.

I haven’t heard a lot of voices like mine, either. I have spent the last twenty-five years or so listening to the voices of those who are LGBTQI. Being scientifically trained, I have been keeping up with the scientific research into gender, reading not just the popular literature, but the scientific journals. As a biblical scholar, I have looked at both sides of the debate from a biblical point of view, reading and listening to scholars with a wide variety of hermeneutical and exegetical approaches. As a pastor, I have welcomed LGBTQI people into my congregations and made it clear to the congregations that all are welcome to come to the table. I have come to my conclusions after a great deal of study, listening, and prayer. I deeply resent being labeled “homophobic and evil” as I have been on numerous occasions, though I have tried to respond graciously. I also resent the attitude that I am just not as far along in my thinking as the “progressives.” I am usually represented in debates by those who are clearly far more conservative than I am and who do, in fact, lean toward a homophobic attitude. All of this to say, that if there are voices that are not being heard, they are voices like mine from people who have agonized over this issue for years and have come to some conclusions that the LGBTQI community doesn’t like. Honestly, I don’t like them either; I would rather be one who just goes along with the culture and lets people do what they like. But I can’t. All of that study, listening, and prayer has led me to the conclusion that I can’t.

So, Dear Bishops, though I really think that the voices which claim to have been silenced have spoken loud and clear and that this commission is an attempt to wait out those of us who are not “progressive,” I beg you to hear voices like mine. I beg you to place on your commission people who have listened with compassion, studied diligently, prayed fervently and yet still believe that 1) while love is from God, not all love must be expressed as sexual intimacy, 2) that one does not have to express oneself sexually to be a whole person, and 3) that sexual intimacy between two human beings is a gift from God to be shared only within a covenantal marriage between a man and a woman.

Along with many in the United Methodist Church, I will be praying for the work of this commission.


Rev. Dr. Martha Myre
Elder on Leave of Absence
North Texas Annual Conference

Monday, July 6, 2015

On the Baking of Cakes and the Claiming of Rights

There has been a lot of press lately about a bakery in Oregon that refused to bake a cake for a lesbian wedding and was subsequently fined over $100,000 for violating Oregon’s law. I have recently posted a video of a man who called a lot of gay bakeries to ask for a cake to be made for a traditional marriage event that said “Gay Marriage is Wrong.” This generated a lot of discussion and a lot of assumptions about what I do or don’t believe.  And far from being a trivial issue I think the question of what is appropriate for a Christian in business is very important.

I am writing this post mainly to and for conservative Christians and conservative/orthodox pastors who are considering their responses to this question. I was not actually sure where I stood on this for a while, so I have done what I usually do, which is study and pray. I have a biblical argument to make, so I don’t necessarily think non-Christians or even liberal/progressive Christians will be interested, but for those folks who share a common sense of the authority of the Bible, I want to share this view in the hopes that it will encourage them to think about this issue in a different way. I would welcome reasoned critique and discussion, particularly (but not exclusively) from my conservative/orthodox brothers and sisters.  I am certain some of you will disagree with me.

Let me say this as clearly as I know how: I do not support the bakers or any other vendors who deny service to those who are LGBT or those in other religions. I don’t think that serving someone is equivalent to supporting their belief system or even supporting their actions. And though it may be the legal right of someone to deny service, I don’t think Christians should claim that right. In fact, I think Christians should be far more concerned about their responsibilities to serve the world than about their rights in the world.

The bible does not say to reject commerce with other peoples except in some very narrow circumstances. It says not to worship the gods of other nations, but not to stop trading with them. In fact, through the prophet Jeremiah, God told the Israelites who were in exile:
 4 The LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon:
 5 Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce.
 6 Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don't dwindle away.
 7 Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare.
 (Jer 29:4-7 CEB)
“Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” does not mean, “worship the Babylonian gods,” but it must mean to work with the people of the city.

In Exodus we have commandments about the importance of treating well those among you who are strangers, aliens, immigrants, what-have-you, and the reason given is that you should remember that you were once a part of that group.  21 Don't mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt. (Exo 22:21 CEB)  The immigrants mentioned here are not necessarily worshipers of Yahweh, so upholding their legal rights has nothing to do with them and their beliefs. It has everything to do with the nature of God and of the covenant call to be a blessing to all families of the earth.

Another passage that I think bears on the situation is also in Exodus:
4 When you happen to come upon your enemy's ox or donkey that has wandered off, you should bring it back to them.
 5 When you see a donkey that belongs to someone who hates you and it's lying down under its load and you are inclined not to help set it free, you must help set it free. (Exo 23:4-5 CEB)
You are not required to agree with your enemy, but you are required to help him.

If we are going to take seriously the moral commands in the Old Testament, we need to take these moral commands seriously as well. I don’t want to do these things, but I don’t see God really giving me a choice if I am going to be faithful.

When we come to the New Testament, Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount need to be carefully considered. I think the most relevant portion is this:
38 "You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
 39 But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well.
 40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too.
 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two.
 42 Give to those who ask, and don't refuse those who wish to borrow from you.
 43 "You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you
 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.
 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don't even the tax collectors do the same?
 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don't even the Gentiles do the same?
 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. (Mat 5:38-48 CEB)

If the commentators are correct, the “force you to go one mile” refers to the ability of Roman soldiers to commandeer people to carry their supplies for a mile. So Jesus is saying to do the second mile out of love. Carrying the supplies of the Roman soldiers did not imply that one was in agreement with the Roman government or with the wars of the Romans.  It did mean that you were to witness to them, not by standing on your rights – I only have to carry this one mile – but by showing love through service – I willingly bear this burden for a second mile because I want to display God’s love for you. Also remember that Jesus healed the Roman centurion’s servant and was able to recognize the man’s faith even though Jesus certainly challenged the authority of Rome.

Verses 46-48 are the kicker: if you only love those who love you, you are no better than anyone else. How will that show the nature of God to the world? Only by showing God’s love will you be able to shine your light. 

Jesus was able to say these things and still call people to account for their sins, so showing love is clearly not equivalent to acceptance of sin. In fact, Jesus came to destroy the power of sin, so that we would not be ruled by sin and evil any longer.

Another passage that seems to have something to say is that of the “Good Samaritan.” The Pharisees knew that they were supposed to love God and love neighbor, but were not sure who their neighbor was. The parable did not tell them who their neighbor was, instead, the parable suggested how to be a good neighbor – which included caring for someone who was outside of your own religious and racial group.

I have expressed concerns that those who want to justify gay marriage are stretching the scriptures about “love” way too far. I think that what I have called the “Gay Agenda” is more interested in the rights of LGBT folks than in the rights of Christians. However, I am suggesting to my conservative and orthodox brothers and sisters that our own sin has been in narrowing the scriptures that I have referenced way too far.  Our sin has been in believing that our rights were more important than our witness. They are not.

I believe with all my heart that we should hold fast to the teaching that we are given; that we should not be blown about by every new doctrine that comes along. I don’t think the Holy Spirit contradicts scripture in a “new” teaching. But these are old scriptures, and old ideas, not new ones. We are called to be salt and light, which includes both telling the truth about what we believe is wrong and sinful, but also telling the truth about God’s redeeming love. I, for one, find that being salt and light and loving those who seem to be my enemies can be extremely uncomfortable at times. But these are not suggestions from Jesus, they are commandments.

So I would say – bake the cake. Bake the most beautiful cake you can. You don’t usually even know the circumstances of the two people getting married (even if it is man and woman) – you might not approve if you did – but it isn’t their beliefs that matter. It is your beliefs that matter. And most importantly, it is the nature of your God that matters. Witness to the nature of God by serving and loving not just the Christian community, but all the families of the earth.

Postscript 1: I'm not very good at this yet. All I can say is that I am better than I was 5-10 years ago and I hope that in 5-10 years I will have moved forward in my ability to love and serve. I am grateful to have a God of wrath who is trying to destroy the sin and evil in me, a God of grace who forgives my many failings and a God of love who has a lot of work to do to make me into God's image. I shudder to think what I would be like without God.

Postscript 2: In case you wonder, I do not believe that the requirement to serve extends to clergy. Our performance of a marriage ceremony is a clear demonstration of acceptance. This is why we have the ability to refuse to marry or to require counseling. I think that just as a priest would have refused to offer up an animal that was not suitable on the altar, we cannot offer up a marriage that we don’t believe God will bless – whether it is a same-sex marriage or one between a man and a woman that we don’t feel is healthy. Marriage may not be a sacrament in the UMC, but I believe it is sacramental in nature, a means of grace, and an act of worship, as well as a sign of God’s covenant with the people of Israel and Jesus’ covenant with the church. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

What it means to be poor and how to help

No, this post is not about sexuality issues. It’s about something I think is much more important – what it is like to be poor in America. It is also about me needing help – not for myself, but for a family that I have grown to know and love. I am not poor, at least not in the sense that I am talking about, but I have gotten to know a family that is. Let me tell you about them and what I have learned and why I need help.  There is a GoFundMe page available to make donations.

How we met
I got to know this family when I was the pastor in a small town. The mom had 5 kids and one on the way. They lived right behind the church in what looked to me like a house that was falling down. Initially she had asked for help getting the water connected; which the church was able to help with.  Over time I got to know this mom and her kids. She asked for help occasionally, but never until it was absolutely necessary and never more than really needed. During her pregnancy I took her to most of her doctor's appointments and was going to be at the birth, but the baby decided to come when I was on vacation! 

Even though the house looked like a shack to me, my friend made it into a home that was as clean and comfortable as possible for her children, painting the inside with paint leftover by the landlord, planting flowers outside, and always keeping it fresh and clean. I was amazed that she could do that with six kids!

When I moved back to my home in another county to be with my husband (I had been living in the parsonage) I continued my relationship with this family. I became the representative payee for the mom and got to know all of the kids. 

My husband died unexpectedly in March 2014 (I found him one Sunday afternoon in the living room) and I was left with a large 4 bedroom house, far too big for me to take care of.  My son and I used insurance money to pay cash for a smaller house closer in to the city.  

I decided to ask my friend and her family if they wanted to move into my house.  I wanted them to be able to live in a place that was safe and had good schools for the kids. I also hoped that eventually my friend and her guy would be able to find jobs (once the kids were old enough). I told her I would not charge any more than they were paying for the shack ($300). I also charged another $300 a month for utilities.

The family moved last August and the kids have done extremely well at school. My friend is an excellent mother and even with the 6 kids keeps the house cleaner than I ever did. The problem is that my expenses for the house exceed what they can pay. She only gets about $1450 per month. $600 for rent and utilities is way cheaper than anything else she could get, but is still difficult to pay. And my expenses on the house with mortgage and utilities run about $2000 a month (somewhat more in the winter months).  I have been willing to take the financial hit because it just doesn't seem fair to me that I should have comparatively so much and this beautiful family has so little.  I used to preach about the Kingdom of God and how we needed to share with our brothers and sisters and I am trying to do that.

When you are poor
I never really understood what it meant to be poor until I became friends with this family. My friend grew up in a poor family and lived in the “projects.” She graduated from high school, but they didn’t really bother to see if she learned anything. She was certainly never encouraged to go to college. She is the youngest of a large family, but her mom died when she was 16. Everyone basically told her she was worthless. She had a mentor or two for a while, but got pregnant young and started having babies. One you start down that road, there is really no reason to stop. 

When you are poor, and live on disability, there doesn’t seem to be anyway out of poverty, so you don’t look further ahead than the next SSI check.  If you work, the amount that you receive goes down, so working doesn’t seem to be a good idea.  With no real job skills, and a very low minimum wage, working is actually a bad idea because it is not possible to work enough to feed and house your family. So you stick with the government checks and you try to do a little here and there to get some extra.

When you are poor and have a representative payee who receives your money for you, you aren’t allowed to have a bank account, and obviously, no credit or debit cards.  Hence no credit. You can’t buy things online, so you can’t get cheap deals. You have to pay things like utilities in cash.

When you are poor, however, you don’t have transportation. So how do you get to the offices where you pay in cash? Money orders, cashier’s checks, all of those things cost money, so if you have to use one of those methods, there is always an extra cost.

When you are poor, and don’t have transportation, of course, that makes the job thing harder as well.

When you are poor and on Medicaid you find out that a lot of doctors and hospitals don’t take Medicaid, or they don’t take your version of it.  Did you know that there are different kinds of Medicaid? I didn’t.  Let me share an experience: three of my friend’s children needed glasses. Because she had moved counties, she had to go through the process of getting the Medicaid straightened out.  She called to see what kind of Medicaid was accepted by the Optometrist at the local Wal-Mart and changed her children to that company. When she finally got all the cards we took the kids to get their eyes checked and then discovered that the optical shop in that Wal-Mart did take some kinds of Medicaid, but not the one she had. Took the one she used to have, but not the same one as the Optometrist. We asked them if they could tell us if any of the Wal-Marts took her insurance and they sent us to another location. It took us three tries to find a Wal-Mart Optical store where we could get the glasses. All of this, which should have taken an hour and a half, took about 5 hours and multiple trips. If she had had to pay someone to provide transportation, the cost of that would have skyrocketed as well. If she had had a job, she probably would have missed at least half a day of work.

When my friend was pregnant with her last child, I think she probably got way more prenatal care than she had with her other pregnancies because she had someone (me) who committed to taking her to her appointments. The appointments were 20 miles away in a different town and we had to take the two youngest kids with us. Sometimes she had to go to a doctor 30 miles away for some kind of specialty appointment. These don’t sound like long distances for those of us who have cars and drive all the time. They might as well be China if you don’t have transportation.

Though she has to spend an enormous amount of time doing it, my friend makes sure that all her kids have all their shots, checkups, etc. Take the time you think you would normally have to spend on healthcare for six children and triple that and you might understand how long it takes.

When you are poor, you have three options for housing: subsidized housing (including Section 8), low rent houses and apartments that are often not in good shape, and homeless shelters. Subsidized housing is hard to get into. There is often a waiting list and if you have ever had any problems anywhere with the folks who run the subsidized housing and are kicked out of the system, it is very hard to get back in. Section 8 housing has a waiting list a mile long, so that is an unlikely prospect. My friend chose a house in a small town to accommodate her family. The place was cheap, but it had almost no air conditioning and very little heat (so we bought them heaters in the winter). Windows were cracked; there was no insulation to speak of and the electric bills were ridiculously high because of the inefficiency of the house. My friend kept it spotlessly clean – or at least as clean as you can keep a house that is not in good shape to begin with – but it still looked like it was going to fall down around them.

Then there is education. When you are poor, people don’t always take your kids seriously. At their previous school, my friend’s children were not being taught. I suspect this is because the teachers really didn’t expect anything out of them. One of the boys is developmentally delayed and at the age of 5 was only saying a few words. They said he had behavioral problems. At the new school in my old neighborhood, the delayed child has acquired a much broader vocabulary and turns out he isn’t a behavior problem – he was just frustrated at not being able to communicate. Now his sweet personality is coming out and he is a sunny and loving child. One of the kids was diagnosed with dyslexia – he is also the one who is a very creative artist. All of the kids have caught up in reading. And none of them missed even a day of school! My friend made sure that they were there and on time every day, homework in hand.

Of course, when you are poor it is hard to participate in extracurricular activities, because they all cost extra money, but at least the kids are now in a situation where the teachers are good and they are learning well.

By the way, did I mention that this family is black? They are and with everything else they have had to deal with racially motivated hatred and bullying in my neighborhood –which just burns me up.

Fixing the problems
I would love to be able to fix the issues that America has with poverty. We need healthcare, daycare, better educational opportunities, jobs programs, housing, higher minimum wage, etc., etc.
However, I can’t fix all those issues. At best I can vote to elect people who will put into place the programs we need. Will that mean higher taxes for me? Probably so. That’s ok.

Though I am not able to fix society, I would at least like to improve the lives of a few. I mean, if everybody did that, maybe we wouldn’t need to fix society. I also am a Christian and my understanding of how to live out the Christian faith is based in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. I believe that the Kingdom life can only be lived fully if we live it in service to others. I believe the things we have are only “blessings from God” if we share them and bless others. So, I shared my house as long as I could. I said above that I was charging a total of $600 a month because that is what the family was paying elsewhere. What this means is that I have been losing money. I’m sure this sounds stupid to a lot of people, but I have been deeply blessed by seeing how this family has thrived.

Now, however, my financial situation is such that I need to sell the house and the family will need to move. I am trying to rent a smaller house in the neighborhood for them. I expect I will have to put up most of the year's rent in order to get them approved. I am doing a GoFundMe campaign to see if I can get some help.  I know that there are shelters and places they could go, but if they were my children/grandchildren I would do everything I could to help, and they have become part of my family of the heart. [Update: I didn't make them move; instead I decided to try to make it work. I have a part-time job, but the other job I was hoping for didn't come through. I am also trying to finish some classes. I have received a little from the GoFundMe, but not enough, so I am back in a quandary. On the upside, the dad has a job.]

Financial help is needed, but other kinds of help are needed as well. I know there are programs that will train groups to work with families in poverty, but I am really bad at recruiting for that kind of thing. This family needs help with transportation, childcare, job training, employment, and just negotiating the system. If they are ever going to have a better life they need to get off of government subsidies and support themselves, but that is an overwhelming task. My friend needs to learn to drive and then she needs a car. And then she needs childcare. And then she needs a job. And then . . .

So I am asking for help. They don’t like to ask for help and I hate having to admit that I can’t do all that needs to be done for them, but I want those beautiful children to grow up and have a better life. I want them to be able to go to the zoo. I want them to be able to take music and art and dance lessons if they want. I want them to be able to play sports and be in Boy Scouts. I don’t know how much of this is possible, but I know it will only be possible if we form a community around them and each take a part of the task.

Is it worth it? Obviously I think so.  I hope others will, too, and be willing to help. If not, I will simply continue to do what I can and pray that God will direct their steps and guard their ways. 
Note: The family lives in Denton County along the 380 corridor.