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. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Question of Hobby Lobby and the First Amendment

A lot of discussion was generated on Facebook after I posted a story about Hobby Lobby ( Hobby Lobby evidently pays a beginning wage that is 93% higher than the federally mandated minimum wage. They also pay a higher wage to part time employees.  They are, of course, embroiled in a debate over whether or not they have to provide certain kinds of birth control (that they consider abortifacients) as a part of their health insurance coverage. 

I want to make clear up front that I don’t actually agree with Hobby Lobby’s stance on the birth control methods (at least as far as I am able to determine). But that isn’t the issue.  For me the issue is whether or not a company has first amendment rights. One argument is that they should abide by the laws that the majority has decided on. However, the point of the Bill of Rights was to protect the rights of the minority.[1]  I have also been asked why the owners can’t just privately practice their religion by not using IUD’s or morning after pills. I want to address that question and then provide a scenario to think about.

For many Christians keeping religion private is not a viable option. We believe that Jesus is Lord of the whole world, not just of the church. Now before you go accusing me of wanting a theocracy, let me assure my readers that I want no such thing. A theocracy didn’t work in ancient Israel and it wouldn’t work now.  And Jesus was pretty clear that he wasn’t interested in creating earthly power structures. In my opinion, a theocracy put in place by even the most well-meaning Christians would eventually, if not rapidly, degenerate into a pretty horrible parody of the Kingdom of God. However, we are called to live our lives under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. So we are faced with something of a dilemma. If we are trying to live under the rule of Christ, then we have to place everything in our lives under that rule – personal and public lives, home and work.

As far as I can tell, Hobby Lobby has a higher minimum wage than necessary because they have placed the world of work under the Lordship of Christ. Have they done this perfectly? No. But they are trying. And the health insurance is a part of that.  Both the desire to pay better wages and the unwillingness to pay for what they see as abortifacients grow out of the same religious conviction. And, I would argue, they have the right to make that decision.  No one is being forced to work for Hobby Lobby. No one is forced to buy from them. They don’t provide a necessary public service (except for those craft-a-holics out there – you know who you are!). 

So here’s a scenario: the owners of Hobby Lobby lose the case and decide that they cannot contribute to what they see as violating their religious beliefs. So they sell their stores to a non-Christian company (we will call them the “Law Abiding Company” or LAC) that doesn’t try to align company policy with the Kingdom of God. LAC puts the appropriate insurance into place for all at the company who qualify. However, since they are not required to keep the salaries the same, or the hours, they decide (as a cost saving measure) to lower all beginning and part time salaries to minimum wage. Further, they know that it is far cheaper to more part time employees than full time because they would no longer have to provide health care. They could just let their employees, many of whom are now working fewer hours for less pay, buy their own insurance under Obamacare.  Thus, though LAC theoretically provides the “right” kind of health insurance to full time employees who can now get any kind of birth control they want, far fewer of their employees are on that health insurance.

LAC also decides to open on Sundays, since they have no religious reason not to, and they require their employees to make themselves available on that day if needed. Everyone has a rotating schedule, so probably no one has to work Sundays all the time, but if that is your schedule, that is when you show up.  And, of course, prices do not go down because the company owners are interested only in profit, so they are going to take that profit for themselves.

My questions are these: Is society better off? Are the people who work for Hobby Lobby better off? Who actually benefits from the decision not to allow Hobby Lobby to abide by their religious principles?

And a broader question is this: Does our society have to be so rigid that there is no room at all for differences of opinion? This is not an isolated incident and the implications are far greater than simply what happens to Hobby Lobby.  Perhaps there really isn’t room for diversity in our society, but I hope we think long and hard about what we are aiming for if that is the case.

[1] There are cases in which I think that First Amendment rights should be overridden, such as when a person’s life or public health is at stake, but this is not the case here.