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.