Monday, April 30, 2012

Cross and Kingdom

I just finished Scot McKnight's great book called the King Jesus Gospel and I've started reading N.T. Wright's book How God Became King.  Both deal with what the Gospels are really all about though from different theological traditions; McKnight from an evangelical perspective and Wright from a more Mainline Protestant view.  McKnight has some good views on how hard it is for Christians to keep the Kingdom of God and Christ's Cross together:

It is too easy to want kingdom and forget the cross, or make it part of one’s agenda; and it is too easy to want cross, and not know what to make of the kingdom. But Israel’s Story, Israel’s God, the people of God, and the clash of the forces of evil with the ways of God always combine kingdom with cross.

I see the temptations this way, and I see them too often: for some the kingdom is about justice and the first thing that disappears when folks get tied into social justice too often is a weakening of the atoning cross (the cross becomes the story of sacrifice for others or the greatest injustice). For others the cross is so central, and by that I mean substitutionary atonement and the mechanics of how that cross works, that kingdom becomes little more than those who have experienced personal salvation or justification or reconciliation.

If you haven't read either book, do so now.  

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Paul Ryan, Mother Teresa and Satan

There's been a lot of talk lately, criticism really, about the budget released by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan.  I wrote on my political blog about a year ago that I thought it wasn't a perfect budget and even had some problems with it, but that it was a good start by the GOP.  Then as now, there has been a cascade of criticism from folks about how the Ryan plan "radical"  and some even questioning Ryan's faith.  What has bothered a lot of folks is that Ryan said that his Catholic faith helped shaped his budget.  Here's what he said earlier this month:

...Ryan made a moral case for his budget, saying that the government shouldn’t be responsible for lifting its citizens out of poverty — rather, that it’s the obligation of the citizens themselves to be society’s caretakers.

“Through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good, by not having Big Government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities,” Ryan said.

“Those principles are very, very important, and the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life, help people get out of poverty, out into a life of independence.” ...
Presbyterian blogger Michael Kruse is half joking when he responds to the article:

So is it possible that people from different political vantage points who genuinely care about poverty might come to dramatically different conclusions about the moral thing to do? Nah. I'm going with one side or the other has to be Satan incarnate while the other is Mother Teresa. ;-)

Obviously the answer to Kruse's question is, no, people of faith can only have one viewpoint on how to deal with poverty.  Columnist Dana Milbank takes Ryan to task and lauds the Catholic bishops and theologians who have spoken out against Ryan:

There is something un-Christian about the Gospel According to Paul Ryan. So, at least, says Ryan’s Catholic Church.

In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody this month, Ryan, the author of the House Republican budget endorsed by Mitt Romney, said his program was crafted “using my Catholic faith” as inspiration. But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was not about to bless that claim.

A week after Ryan’s boast, the bishops sent letters to Congress saying that the Ryan budget, passed by the House, “fails to meet” the moral criteria of the Church, namely its view that any budget should help “the least of these” as the Christian Bible requires: the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the jobless. “A just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons,” the bishops wrote.

In fact, Ryan would cut spending on the least of these by about $5 trillion over 10 years — from Medicaid, food stamps, welfare and the like — and then turn around and award some $4 trillion in tax cuts to the most of these. To their credit, Catholic leaders were not about to let Ryan claim to be serving God when in fact he was serving mammon.

“Your budget,” a group of Jesuit scholars and other Georgetown University faculty members wrote to Ryan last week, “appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.”
 What bothers folk is that Ryan uses his Catholic faith as reason for his budget.  Frankly, I don't see anything heretical about that arguement.  Just as say, someone like Congressman John Lewis is grounded in his Baptist faith.  It is possible to be people of faith and yet come to different conclusions on issues.  That doesn't mean that I love his budget wholesale.  But I do think its important to give people the benefit of the doubt and trust that two people from the same faith can come from different conclusions on the same issue.  It's one thing to think his budget has issues and needs refinement, it's another to basically slam him for coming to different way of seeing things from how you see them.

What bothers me about the criticism against Ryan is the assumption that to governmental support to care for the poor is supported in the Bible.  The thing is, the Bible talks a lot about caring for the poor, but it never says how to do that.  For some, caring for the poor means giving to local and international charities.  For others, it means creating government programs.  I'm not arguing that we should never use government to help the poor, but I am saying that the call to aid the least of these with government help is not supported in Scripture.  God doesn't tell us how to care for the poor, but demands that we get it done.

Which gets me back to Michael Kruse's "joke."  The bile that has risen against the Ryan budget makes me think that debate even among Christians on public policy is becoming increasingly impossible.  If we can't debate the merits and demerits of this budget without delving into demonization, then what can we discuss? 

(I need to add that conservatives are not better when it comes to debate and discernment either.)

What I long for is finding ways that people of faith can come and debate an issue and be open to where the Spirit of God leads instead of immediately pointing fingers, hiding behind the Bible and condemning others that don't agree with them.  I wish we'd stop seeing ourselves as Mother Teresas and the other side as Satan incarnate.  I long for the time when the people of God are more willing to discern than to demonize.

Repost: Aspie Reflections: What Do You Do With An MDiv?

The following post is from May 2008, just after I received my Aspergers diagnosis. One of things I was thinking of back then is how to be a pastor with autism.  I don't think I have the answers today, but I think I'm a bit more confident that God does have a place for me in ministry.

Last night, I watched the Associate Pastor at the church I am a part of. We had our weekly prayer service- now biweekly during the summer months- and she was talking with two members of our congregation whose daughter, son-in-law and children were brutally affected by a tornado that hit the northern Twin Cities suburbs. She was skilled in being truly a pastor to them during this horrible time. As watched this scene, it occurred to me: I couldn't do what she is doing- or at least it doesn't come to me as naturally.

Today, at another meeting, I saw a young guy who is a pastor at a local UCC church. Again, he has the social skills that make him an excellent pastor. And I thought again, I don't have those skills.

While I am relieved about my diagnosis of Aspergers, it leaves me with a big question regarding vocation: what in the world do you do with a pastor that has autism?

I've been around long enough to know that pastors tend to be social beings. They are supposed to be the kind of people who can connect with others. They "get" social cues. They know how to deal with sudden change. So what about someone like me who isn't any of that? How in the world can I be a pastor if I don't have those skills?

This doesn't mean I am planning on hanging up my stole (though that has crossed my mind). But I just don't know what to do here. I know that I can't be a solo pastor of a church. There is way too much instability for me to process it all and I know I would end up pissing people off with my aspie ways.

For a long time, I've wondered where I fit in the church. I knew I didn't fit, but didn't know why. But now I need to figure out how to use my gifts in ministry, how to use my Aspergers not as a deficit, but as an advantage.

I know that I need to be in environments that are structured and have some sense of stability. That has made me think of some kind of Associate Ministry. However, at least in the metro area, there are no possibilities for that kind of ministry among Disciple churches and very few in UCC circles. I guess I could start looking outstate and see what happens.

What I have wanted to do is to maybe create some kind of ministry in a congregation where I would be on staff probably bivocational. Maybe it would be to perform worship or lead Christian Education. But it would be something that is regimented.

One of the stories in the Bible that I love is the story of Gideon. Gideon was called by God to lead an army against the Midianites. The trouble is, Gideon is a coward. But God uses him and just to make sure Gideon knows that it is God doing this and not Gideon, he sends Gideon into battle with only 300 men using pots. It was that ragtag army, led by a scaredy cat, that defeated the mighty Midianites.

The story shows that God doesn't use the most qualified persons to do God's will. So if God can call someone like Gideon, God can call me.

I just need to find what in the world that is.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Making a Case for Being Open and Affirming

The church where I'm the Associate Pastor (First Christian Church in Minneapolis) is considering becoming an official Open and Affirming Congregation in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  The congregation has a long history of welcoming gay and lesbian folk into the life of the congregation, so in many ways they have been a living example of being Open and Affirming.  I wrote this for the church newsletter sharing why the church should take this next step.  My one frustration is that I really didn't do as good a job on making a theological case.  The text is below.

So, What’s the Big Deal?

At the April board meeting, a proposal was put forward to have First Christian become officially an Open and Affirming congregation.  For those who are unaware, Open and Affirming is a network of churches within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that openly welcome gays and lesbians.

This isn’t the first time First Christian has considered this.  Whenever the issue has been brought up, there is a common refrain that I hear: “we already welcome gays and lesbians.  Why do we need make this step?”

I understand this because I’ve seen how you have lived out your welcome to everyone that enters the door of the church.  You have welcomed gay and lesbians to not only worship and participate in the life of the congregation, but you have also supported having LBGT persons in positions of leadership.  Speaking as an openly gay man, I am ever thankful for your acceptance of me and allowing me to be one of your ministers.  So, I don’t doubt for a moment that you while you might not wear the name “Open and Affirming” on your sleeves, you live it out in your daily walk.  You truly believe that God welcomes everyone to the Table and you put that faith into action.

So, why should First Christian take this step?  

I have two reasons: one is more practical and the other more theological.

People wonder why we need to publicly welcome gay people in a way that we don’t do when it comes to other groups such as African Americans or Hispanics.  The difference though is that being gay is somewhat different that being African American.  You all know that I’m African American by looking at me.  But you can’t tell by looking at me that I’m also gay.  Being gay can be somewhat of a “hidden” difference.  You can’t really tell someone is gay until they say they are gay.  Because it is hidden, this leads to a lot of assumptions.  If a young woman comes to church, people might assume she either has a boyfriend or husband instead of thinking she might have a girlfriend.  Also because there has been a history of churches not being so friendly to homosexuals which causes gays and lesbians to assume that a church is not friendly towards them- unless there is a visible sign that says they are welcomed.

The second reason is theological.  The ministry of Jesus and later the ministry of the church was one that tended to cross various boundaries.  Jesus engaged people who were outside of the Jewish community he was born into.  He talked to Samaritans and Romans and always brought salvation to those who crossed his path.  The early church also was led by the Holy Spirit to minister to the wider Roman world, which was a melting pot of various ethinicities.  The church of the 21st century is also a diverse place, and the Spirit calls us again to go out and minister to various cultures, preaching the message of salvation in Christ.  Welcoming gay and lesbians publicly is a way of stating that the gospel is for them as much as it is for anyone else.  The apostles of the early church were witnesses to the saving acts of Christ, and two millenia later, we are still called to be witness to the Jesus we encounter.

In the words of the design of the Christian Church, First Christian really has “In Christ's name and by his grace we accept our mission of witness and service to all people.”  We have lived our inclusive witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I think it might be something we want to tell the whole world about.

New Name

As you can see from the banner, I've changed the name of the blog (again).  I think this should be the last change.  The reason was Questor Pastor was a little to obscure for folk, unless they happen to know about the 1974 TV-Movie the Questor Tapes, written by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.  There were hopes it would become a series, but it never did. 

Anyway, back to the story.  I wanted to find a title that still focused on robots and ministry and the title that came up was The Clockwork Pastor.  I don't know if I've found my robot yet, so the old one will work for now.

The URL or Feed doesn't change, so don't worry about having to learn a new webaddress. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Repost: The Positives of Being an Apsie Pastor

Since it's Autism Awareness Month, I wanted to share some old posts on being a pastor with autism.  This one is from 2008 and talks about the positives of being a minister who happens to be autistic.

I've been wondering for a while what good is it to have Apergers when you are a pastor. I know I won't be the bubbly personality that churches long for, and I won't be able to handle situations where everything changes constantly.

But I do think there are some things a pastor who has Aspergers can do. I stumbled accross a list of positive traits of those with an autistic spectrum disorder. Here are some that I think are important in my situation:

2. People on the Autism Spectrum Live in the Moment

What I have found so interesting as a pastor, is how churches tend to be focused everywhere but right now. If someone has an idea, the first thing people want to do is study it. That isn't a bad thing, but sometimes it seems like a way to not do something. I think that Aspies tend to be focused on the now and aren't thinking far ahead about consequences.

One morning, I talked with Daniel about my lack of common sense. He noticed that I just tend to do something, not thinking about the consequences, while he is thinking about every possible reaction.

Churches seem to want to wait for something to happen. When the right pastor comes. When the new bishop arrives. When the new youth pastor is hired. Then something will happen. But the fact is NOW is the time. If churches and especially mainline churches are going to change and thrive, they have to stop waiting for When. They need to start living in the NOW.

4. Autistic People are Passionate

My biggest passions are trying to get the church out into cyberspace and good worship and preaching. My eagerness in those areas tend to bother others, probably because I'm so focused and passionate on those things. But really, don't you WANT to have a pastor that's excited rather than one that is friendly, but passionless? I've been around enough pastors that are basically coasting, and it ain't pretty. You might have an odd pastor if you call one that is an aspie, but they will be passionate about their call.

5. People with Autism Are Not Tied to Social Expectations

For some reason, pastors are some of the best people at trying to keep up appearances. They might be suffering from terrible depression, but will never reveal it to others or even get help because of pride.

An aspie pastor doesn't care about social expectations. They are who they are. I recently shared my diagnosis with a fellow pastor and he was glad I was being so honest about this since most pastors tend to not share their messy parts. I found that rather odd and still do. Why would one hide their problem? Why would one not seek help? Isn't that the logical and Christian thing to do? Aren't we supposed to live honest lives?

The fact is, my having Aspergers doesn't mean I need to give up my call. No, I won't be your typical pastor. But as the old saying goes, why be normal?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Repost: Notes from a Reluctant Liberal Christian

This was originally posted in January 2011.

A few years ago, a dear friend of mine described me as an evangelical turned liberal Protestant.  I remember blanching at that definition.  Politically, I tend to lean more center-right/libertarian.  Theologically, I'm pretty orthodox.

But the fact is, I am a liberal Protestant these days.  I'm ordained into a mainline Protestant denomination (Disciples of Christ) and I have standing in another denomination that in some cases is the very embodiment of liberal Protestantism (the United Church of Christ).

I've been a part of mainline Protestantism for nearly 20 years.  In the years after college, I found the evangelicalism of my youth wanting and left it seeking a better fit.  I found that in mainline churches.  I should add, that I never looked down on evangelical past; I think it is still a worthy tradition and it made me who I am.  But, my home is now in a different tradition.

And yet it has at times been an uneasy fit.  Don't get me wrong; I am thankful for a tradition that honors diversity.  My evangelical roots would never accept an open gay pastor, but liberal Protestantism did.  It has also been on the forefront of issues such as civil rights and helped give women a more equal footing in America.

But while in many ways, I am liberal in my theology, I feel at times that the liberalism I am talking about is from another era.  Some of my uneasiness is reflected in Bruce Reyes-Chow's excellent essay on the good and bad liberal Christianity.  Unlike me, he is way more comfortable wearing the liberal label, but he also able to be critical of it:

Over the past few months I have found myself frustrated a lot.  Sitting on the sidelines observing a few interactions between Christians with whom I find theological and ideological commonality, I've found myself whispering under my breath, "I love ya. I agree with ya. But you are really not helping." It seems that in an attempt to respond to actions and words that we liberals feel are wrong, even destructive, we often do more harm than good.

Now I realize that for me to make such broad sweeping statements is pretty arrogant and I fully admit my participation in most of the following accusations in my life. But let me be equally arrogant in saying that if the liberal or progressive church - and we can fight over "liberal," "progressive," etc. definitions HERE - is going to lead the way forward in the church and be part of a larger cultural conversation about morals and faith, we have got to quit shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot and driving people away from our particular approach to faith and life.

His post reads as a love letter to his fellow liberals, telling them to do good work, but also calling them on where they fall short.

On the other hand, Walter Russell Mead's essay from last year reads like a letter from a longsuffering wife to her cheating husband.  He rails against liberal Christianity's willingness to get in bed with the political left at the expense of the life of the church:

In the mainline churches, which is what I know best, the political views leaders express are generally those of what could be called the ‘foundation left’ — emotionally grounded in concern for the poor and development, historically linked to the ‘new left’ mix of economic and social concerns as developed in the 1960′s, shaped by an atmosphere of privilege and entitlement that reflects the upper middle class background of the educated professionals who run these institutions.  The social sins they deplore are those of the right: excessive focus on capitalism, too robust and unheeding a promotion of the American national and security interest abroad, insufficient care for the environment, failure to help the poor through government welfare programs, failure to support affirmative action, failure to celebrate and protect the unrestricted right of women to abort.  I am of course speaking very generally here and there are lots of individual exceptions, but many of these folks are generally tolerant of theological differences and rigidly intolerant when it comes to political differences: they care nothing at all about doctrines like predestination but get very angry with people who disagree with them about issues like global warming or immigration reform.  Theological heresy is a matter for courtesy and silence, but political heretics fill them with bile.

Back in the days of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, it was news when Episcopal bishops sided in public with liberal causes.  It took real courage for bishops and priests to speak up in some cases; one of the clergymen in the town where I grew up had been driven from his last parish in Alabama because he spoke up for the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King.  Other priests received death threats; some who participated in the Freedom Rides and other demonstrations were beaten by angry mobs.

But these days an Episcopal bishop would have to go to a lot of trouble to get into the news for backing a liberal political cause.  The headline says it all: Liberal Official of Small, Declining Liberal Denomination Endorses Liberal Idea.  This isn’t news for two reasons: it is utterly predictable and it doesn’t matter.  Trivial and predictable are not news, and the political stands that the mainline clergy take are almost always both.  A statement by an Episcopal bishop will not change one mind or one vote; at least in all my years in the pews I’ve never met a single Episcopalian who said that the opinion of a bishop does or should have the slightest influence on how Episcopalians vote and if the churchgoers aren’t paying attention to the bishops I can’t imagine anyone else is.

I’m not urging the bishops to change their politics.  I’m urging them to shut up.  More precisely, I’m urging them to base their ministry on a clearer understanding of their situation and their role.
It's important to note that both Reyes-Chow and Mead are liberal Christians from mainline Protestant denominations.  Both talk about the decline of the mainline church.  But where Reyes-Chow has a more sunny and hopeful view, Mead is far more dire- his post is fire and brimstone.

In many ways, I feel that I have both views living inside of me.  There are days that I am more like Reyes-Chow, wanting to gently admonish people who I consider my friends, and there are days I want to rip them a new hole.

I would agree with Mead that liberal Christianity has become too chumy with the political left.  I've long agreed that American evangelicalism sold itself out to the GOP, but it didn't take me long to figure out that mainline Christians had done the same with the Democrats.  What's frustrating at times is to see Christians have mirrored the larger world: Team Red on one side and Team Blue on the other.

I'm not asking that liberal Christians who are politically liberal change their ideology, but could we not try to ape the larger society?  Can  we be willing to critical of the political left as we are of the political right?  Can we worry less about getting people to support this viewpoint and give people the tools to think as Christians in the world, influencing culture in different ways? Can we find a way to separate partisan politics from faith? Can the church be follwers of Jesus and not try to make Jesus the mascot of either party?

I guess what I'm asking is that we find ways to talk about justice without it devolving into some kind of pep-rally for this or that political party.  When I work on issues like homelessness or poverty, I want to help people think of how they can put their faith to work, not to tell them to support an agenda.

Blogger Nathan Gilmour had this to say about justice, the political left and right in a commentary on last Sunday's texts:

...far too often any old cause of the New Left gets baptized in the name of being not-fundamentalist, and far too little inspection and criticism happens, especially when libertarian/capitalist categories of “choice” and “rights” rather than Christian practices like hospitality and thankfulness govern Christian discourse about “issues.” The univocality of Being once again threatens what I take to be genuine Christian reflection in these circles as well: throwing one’s time, effort, money, and sometimes more behind the DNC (just as much as the GOP) machine far too often requires participation in the Manichean machinery of American political discourse, and  such participation far too often loses sight of the common lot of mortals in light of the strong analogical difference between God and humanity.  (And there are few more dishonest moments than when a dedicated New-Left Democrat says that “this is not a left-right issue”: if I had money to gamble, I would bet every time that the next line out of the New-Left Democrat’s mouth is going to be party-line social liberalism.)  Not unlike the Right-Wingers that the Christian Left (rightly) holds in suspicion, the stance in favor of some kinds of Social Justice tends towards a strong division: contract-enforcement for one’s political enemies and seeking-for-shalom for one’s political friends.  The urge is neither inhuman nor unexpected, but it’s not all that different from its mirror image.  The hesed and the mishphat that Micah points to in this week’s reading call everyone to account and to repentance, not in the spirit of some flattened “moral equivalence” but in the realization that, when seen in the light of analogically different divine justice and kindness, no mortal’s sense of the good life should remain un-illuminated.  Perhaps the best place to start is indeed to walk humbly.

Walking humbly.  It sounds like a good start for all of us.

Repost: Why Gay Marriage IS a Big Deal

I wrote this post originally back in 2009 on my political blog, NeoMugwump.  Some things have changed since then, such as Washington State moving towards the legalization of same-sex marriage.  In light of the upcoming vote this November in Minnesota to define marriage as between a man and a woman, I thought about digging up this post again.  I still think those of us that support same-sex marriage are still making some of the same mistakes today.  

Like many gay Americans, I awoke this morning to the news that Maine voted for repealing a law allowing same sex couples to marry. I was saddened by the fact. And like clockwork, a lot of my friends starting saying bad things about the people of Maine and threatening not to spend any money there.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Washington State approved a referendum that allowed domestic partnerships in the Evergreen State.

The win apparent win in Washington (which has seemingly been ignored among gays and our supporters) has started me thinking about how to best allow gays marriage rights. I've vacilated between calling for full marriage equality and calling it a marriage, and asking for something like a marriage ala civil unions. Yesterday's decisions has made me think that it's time to change how we work for marriage rights.

I think one thing that those of us who support same sex marriage have to admit is that asking that straight America get used to two people of the same sex getting married is a radical shift in how we think about marriage and love. Yeah, I know, getting married is not radical, it's as normal as two hetros getting married. But the fact is, that the thought of two people of the same sex getting married is still something that a lot of Americans can't get their heads around. It's not that they are all closet bigots. They can understand and accept gays in society. They can understand that gay people fall in love. But when we start talking about marriage, it starts to get confusing for them. Think about it for a moment. When the average Joe thinks about marriage, they think about bridal gowns and bachelor parties. But all of this is lost on most of us that support gay marriage. Listen to what Conor Friedersdorf says:

Would the legalization of gay marriage really be a “radical redefinition” of the social and cultural institution? Maybe same sex marriage is a radical departure from marriage as understood by orthodox Christians, or people for whom it is primarily a procreative union.

But I submit that a majority of Americans subscribe to a definition that more closely resembles the following: Marriage is the union of people who fall in love with one another, decide that they want to spend the rest of their lives together, and commit to do so monogamously. The definition I’ve offered isn’t merely more commonly accepted among Americans than whatever Rod Dreher would describe, it is perfectly consistent with marriage laws as now written.

I think Conor is off on a lot of points. For one, most gay marriage supporters, myself included, think about marriage as a contractual and legal mechanisim in addition to all the things about love and monogamy. But I would argue that most Americans don't think about marriage in such terms and focus on all the cultural aspects: the photos, the bridal gown, the wedding ceremony and the like. All of that contractual stuff is handled off to side usually after the wedding ceremony, where the state certified officant and the bride and groom sign their marriage license. It's an afterthought.

Second, if most Americans think this way, then why has our side lost everytime the subject of gay marriage comes up for a vote? If we won a few and lost a few, I could agree but when we have lost each and every time, then we have to start wondering what are we doing wrong.

I think that one way we can advance the cause of gay marriage is by doing a few things: first, redefining what victory means; second, listening to our opponents, and three divorcing gay marriage from the civil rights movement.

First off is redefining victory. What this really boils down to is lowered expectations. It means pushing for marriage rights without using the word marriage. I know that many will say that not pushing for full marriage equality is rendering gay people to second class citizens and I would agree. But I would respond by showing those losses again. Thirty-one losses. Do we want half-a-loaf or none? The thing is, most European countries went through a period of calling same sex marriage for gays something else before marriage was made legal. The UK currently has marriage rights, but they don't call it a marriage at this point. Like Europe, I think most Americans are willing to give gay couples some marriage rights but at this point can't rationally wrap their minds around concepts like same sex marriage. I'm not saying that we should never call gay marriage a marriage or stop pushing for full marriage rights. But sometimes we have to find ways to make change happen incrementally, rather than betting the farm and losing it in the process. My own suggestion is that states like Maine and California should be pushing for civil unions and domestic partnerships first, and then move towards full marriage rights later down the road. Push for something that is marriage, but just don't call it marriage. It's just too emotionally charged.

Second, we need to listen to those that voted against same sex marriage. Instead of automatically branding these people as bigots, we need to understand why they voted against these measures. I really doubt that the good people are of Maine are all homophobes. But there has to be a reason they voted no. And let's stop whining about the Catholic Church or the Mormons or the Masons, or what-have-you. We need to find out what is keeping them from supporting same sex marriage rights and then tailor future campaigns in light of what these people say.

Finally, gay people need to stop linking their movement with the civil rights movement. I'm sorry, but one size of oppression doesn't fit all. I used to think that these two movements were alike, but while their are some similarities, there are also a ton of differences. As someone who is both African American and gay, I can say there are big differences. Let's start with marriage. Yes, many states in the South prohibited interracial marriage until the Supreme Court struck it down in 1967. Gay rights supporters have tried to link interracial marriage to same sex marriage, but the similarities are, pardon the pun, skin deep. An interracial couple that wanted to get married in say 1959 had no option to get married. At all. Also, you have to add the whole stigma of the races mixing, especially when it was a black man with a white woman. If the two were seen together in an intimate setting, then you could be sure the black man might end up in a noose a few hours later.

If two gay people are denied marriage, we have options. They aren't perfect or desired, but they are options. Also, there is less stigma attached to same-sex relationships as there are to interracial ones circa 1959. It's not great for gay couples, but it's not as dangerous either.

The other problem is that many gay marriage activists tend to copy the history of the civil rights movement using the courts to solve racial segregation. But again, the similarities are cursory. For African Americans, the courts had to be used be other venues of redress were not available. State legislatures in the South were filled with segregationists, and Southern Democrats made sure that civil rights legislation would come in its own sweet time on Capitol Hill. The courts were the last venue for justice.

For gay rights proponents, we too often want to head to the courts first, even though the passage through state legislatures is not as treacherous as it was for African Americans. African Americans used the courts in the 40s, 50s and 60s because we had no other choice. Gay Americans do have some choices.

Do I want to see gay marriage become a reality? Yes. But I'm learning that we need to learn to pick our battles and settle for partial victories on the way to ending the war. I'm also learning that not everyone who is queasy about gay marriage is a bigot ready to bash me. I'm learning that if we want to get to a point where same sex couples can have equal marriage rights, we are going to have to think and strategize and find the best steps to get to that point even if it means gradual change.

Marriage is a worthy goal. Let's think about how best to get there.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Try Walking in My Shoes

A friend from high school who has a son with autism shared this video on what's it like for someone that's autistic to take a walk down the street.  After watching the video, I can say it's a pretty good simulation of what I and others live with all the time. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Jesus is a Cat Person

One of the more common understandings of Christianity that I've found in Mainline churches is that God is all about love. 

I struggle with that belief.  I know that God is a loving God, and as expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, we get to see a God that really did love those that one might think were unloveable.  As a gay man, I understand how faith has been used to kick people out of church and how important it is to see a God that cares for us no matter who we are.

It's become fixed in our culture that God all about love and nothing else.  We focus on the stories that talks about God loving sinners, like the parable of the Prodigal Son.  We want God to be the Big Daddy that loves us no matter what we do.

But there's something about that which bothers me.  It's not that none of this is true- it is.  But I always feel that what we are getting in Mainline and probably other parts of Christianity in America is only part of a picture of God, a part that we agree with.  I feel that we tend to ignore or explain away the other half that is not so nice to see.  We are as good with cherry-picking Scripture as our more conservative sisters and brothers are.

Alan Bevere has a great post up today that explains how people tend to pull Jesus out of the context that's found in the Bible and reimagine him to suit our own purposes.  Here's a sample:

Now before I get all the comments and emails reminding me of how much Jesus and the New Testament writers mention love, let me respond by saying that I know such is the case. I am not exactly ignorant when it comes to Scripture. The problem is that the modern tendency to dehistoricize and detheologize Jesus and his ministry into principles and concepts robs us of the context which makes the biblical notion of love intelligible. Without it we lose what it truly means for Jesus to tell his followers to love one another. The great sacrifice of cross and the wonderful victory of resurrection by which Christian love is understood is replaced by the modern romanticism of love as primarily a feeling, as the justification for behavior without consequences, and living a life devoid of transformation. We move from Jesus' statement that no greater love can be displayed in laying down one's life to it doesn't matter how we behave because God loves us no matter what.

It doesn't take a profound thinker to know that the primary motivation for this dehistorizing and detheologizing of Jesus is to domesticate his life and work into something more palatable to modern sensibilities. The Jesus who comes to us from the pages of the New Testament demands too much from us. Moreover, in our modern cosmological reductionist assumptions, we simply cannot have a Jesus running around doing miraculous things. So in Bishop Spong and John Crossan fashion we first demythologize Jesus and then we remythologize him after our own image and our own expectations. Jesus now becomes safe to follow. Yes, Jesus is still presented as a radical, but he is a domesticated revolutionary. He is one who looks like a hippie from the 1960s or a political activist whose methods of power and coercion look no different from the politics of the nations.

But a domesticated revolutionary will not bring about serious change; he will just reinforce the agendas of those who are frankly doing nothing more than using Jesus as a prop to get what they want. Jesus was crucified because he presented a true alternative to the ways of the world that could not and will not be displayed in the politics of the current age. Jesus was not killed for promoting right-wing violence on behalf of the state, and he was not crucified for advocating a progressive social agenda. Jesus was crucified because he presented a serious threat to the status quo in all forms; and it will not do just to present his life and ministry as supporting any modern political and social agenda. And those Christians who attempt to do so are domesticating Jesus into doing their bidding.

We all want a Jesus that is more to our own liking.  That was what Andrew Sullivan was getting at in his essay last week.  So, we do just what Thomas Jefferson did, just without the scissors; taking out bits and pieces that don't fit our own agenda and come up with a Jesus we can stomach.

But I don't think we are supposed to be comfortable with Jesus.  I think Jesus is supposed to make us uncomfortable in how he lived his life and in what he did.  I think more and more we have to live with this Jesus that we don't want to hang out with and be open to how we will change in meeting with Jesus and not try to make Jesus fit our own life.

I've said before that there is a reason why C.S. Lewis portrayed Aslan, his God-figure in the Chronicles of Narnia, as a Lion- a wild creature that can't be easily tamed.

We all want Jesus to be like a dog, someone that's lovable and faithful to us and is always there when we need them.  They expect nothing more than love from us. 

But Jesus is more like a cat; pushy, demanding, intrusive and is sometimes just a jerk.  But there are also times when Jesus can cuddle up to us and just be present at the end of nice day. 

Mr. Beaver in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, says this when asked about Aslan the Lion: he is good, but he isn't safe. 

Jesus is a cat; and cats are never safe. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Doubt, Fear and Church Planting

On this upcoming Second Sunday of Easter, I wanted to share this sermon I preached back in 2006.  It dealt a bit with some of the struggles of church planting and relating that to the fear of the disciples in the locked room.  Here's a snippet:

You know, I’ve learned something about starting a church: it’s damn hard.

Okay, you probably didn't expect a pastor to use the word “damn” in a sermon, but the fact of the matter is, planting a church is hard. It’s hard for a lot of reasons, but mainly because those involved in planning the church have such grand visions. I had hoped tons of people would show up and that our denominational bodies would give us tons of money to help us get started. In a way, I’m like the person Gordon Atkinson is talking about: I wanted to create this really cool church with a swingin’ pastor that would just be kick-ass.

What happened? Rev. Sanders got introduced to little thing called reality. Lot’s of people haven’t shown up. Some have stayed for a while and then moved on. Others made tons of excuses. As for the money, the denomination isn’t in the position to give us loads of money, though the money we have received has been helpful. To top things off, I worry about my colleague and fellow co-pastor who is trying to look for work and keep his financial ship from sinking. I can remember preparing wondering worship services with mind-blowing sermons and only two people show up. And there are times when I feel that no one cares about Community of Grace and no one would miss us.

Maybe that's why today's gospel text is so important for me, and someone must have thought it was an important word for the Church to hear, because it's the only text that appears during all three years of the revised common lectionary. As the story opens, ten of the disciples are in a locked room in Jerusalem. They were scared. The religious leaders and the Romans had succeeded in killing Jesus and they were probably fearful that they were next.

Read the whole thing.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Autism and Grace

Rod Dreher, who has a son who is also autistic, wrote a post called the "Gift of Autism," and he said he wrote that title with some trepidation.

As someone who is autistic, I can understand that.  I know the common thing among those of us who are autistic is to talk about how wonderful being autistic can be and how we are just different and all.  I get that and understand it to a point.

That said, autism can also be a pain in the ass.

It's not easy being around someone who is autistic.  It's not easy for the person, for their loved ones or their co-workers.  It can be a chore.

For me, this means that I make a lot more mistakes in my daily life than those that aren't autistic.  And I have to spend a lot more time trying to rectify those mistakes.  The worse thing about it?  Most of the time I don't know that I'm pissing people off by not doing something or not asking something.  I come off as an uncaring ass even when I don't mean to be.

But being autistic has made me more aware of the need for grace, the need to learn to love others even as they make mistakes.  I'm not always good at being patient, though reminding myself how I can be makes me remember that I need a lot of grace from others and so do those others.

Being a person with autism means you are going to make mistakes.  There is no way around that.  I can't pretend I have my crap together because I don't.  It's all out there.  I can't hide.

As humans, we pretend that we do have it all together.  Grace is supposed to remind us that we aren't all that and a bag of chips.  But we find ways of hiding, of telling ourselves how great we are and basically telling ourselves and each other we don't need God. 

And yet, God loves us. God gives us a second chance.  Just like so many friends, employers and loved ones give me a second chance.  It's a chance to try again, to know that you are loved for who you are, but also loved with a love that makes you want to get right and be better, not so that you can be loved, but because you are loved.

So, yeah, autism can be a gift- not in the sense that it's wonderful, but in the sense of letting me know that I am human after all.

And I am still loved by God.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Problems With Following Jesus

I finally finished reading Andrew Sullivan's Holy Week essay on Christianity in Crisis.  There's a lot of think about in this article, so I have a list of what questions came to mind as a read this.

  • We really can't know Jesus without the church.  Sullivan seems to think there is the pure Jesus out there that is not corrupted by politics. But as Joel Miller notes, Jesus never wrote anything, unlike say, Mohammed did.  The whole life of Jesus has been mediated others.  There can't be a pure Jesus not diluted by the church because everything we know about Jesus is through other people, those who were close to him and those who learned about him decades after he walked the earth. Here's what Miller writes:
  • It's a trendy thing to say, but how do we know what Jesus asks of us? Unlike Muhammad or L. Ron Hubbard, Jesus didn't scratch out a word of Scripture. We only know what Jesus said because his followers wrote things down. These followers and their community -- that is to say, the church -- then curated that message. That means we have to understand Jesus' words in a matrix that includes the thoughts and writings of the early church: its bishops, priests, poets, monks, theologians, and artists. Divorcing Jesus from the church is conceptually impossible.
     It is trendy to say we can get to Jesus without the messiness of the church, but you just can't understand who Jesus is without the writings and traditions of the church. That leads me to the next point:
  • The problem with church is that it's filled with humans.  I know Sullivan is upset at how his own Catholic Church failed to protect children from abusive priests.  I get that.  When people abuse their power or try to bar people from coming  to God's table, it reflects badly on the church.  Sadly, the church is filled with people who did not stand for justice and righteousness, but either stood aside or actively participated in evil.  The church is filled with weak willed, obstinate people.  But for some odd reason, Jesus entrusted his mission to a group of people who more often that not did not understand Jesus and sometimes got it terribly wrong.  The church is made up of fallible beings, and that's kinda how Jesus intended it to be.  I'm not saying we should take a pass on things that go wrong in church.  What I am saying is that this thing called Christianity is made up of folks who sometimes fuck up.  An institution made up of humans is going to make mistakes, BIG mistakes.  But somehow, God still works through this fallible gathering and people are able to feed the poor, free the slaves and stand for righteousness.  
  • Jesus gets me.  Now, I tend to agree more with Sullivan on stuff than disagree with him, but I find it odd that Jesus seems to agree with everything that he happens to like or dislike.  I don't know if we do this on purpose or not, but more often than note we tend to fashion a Jesus that is basically us, but way cooler.  Maybe it's just me, but the Jesus I read in Scripture was one that was hard to follow.  He was always asking us to do stuff (like giving up everything we own, dissing our families) that we don't always have the balls to do.  Why do we make Jesus a cheerleader for our own politics?  Why can't we allow the Jesus we encounter to bother us and shake us up instead of domesticating him to our ideology?
  • We can't follow Jesus.  Yes, Jesus does ask us to follow him.  And I believe we have to.  But we shouldn't trick ourselves into thinking its easy or that we won't be driven off the past by our own wants and passions.  The reason we talk about the cross and the empty tomb this week is because we are reminded that we can't follow Jesus on our own.  We follow Jesus only through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Let's look at Sullivan's (or Thomas Jefferson's) list that describes Jesus:
 What were those doctrines? Not the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations. Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made. Above all: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching. That’s why, in his final apolitical act, Jesus never defended his innocence at trial, never resisted his crucifixion, and even turned to those nailing his hands to the wood on the cross and forgave them, and loved them. your enemy? Yeah, that's a piece of cake. Give up material wealth? Listen, I have issues giving up my iPad and I doubt Sullivan is going to go all Mother Teresa on us. Love God? Maybe. Give up power over others? Yeah, got that. Maybe I'm weak, but I think I could fail each and every item on this list. I can't do it. Sullivan can't do it. No one can. That's why we need grace. This is not to say we shouldn't try. But following Jesus is hard. It. Is. Not. Practical. (When the hell was loving our enemy ever practical?)

There's a lot more I can talk about concerning this and maybe I will say more later.  But that's what's on my mind re: Sullivan.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Sunday Sermon: “What a Fool Believes”

“What a Fool Believes”
Mark 1:1-11, Philipians 2:5-11
April 1, 2011 (Palm Sunday)
First Christian Church
Minneapolis, MN

“As members of the Christian Church,
We confess that Jesus is the Christ,
the Son of the living God,
and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world.
In Christ's name and by his grace
we accept our mission of witness
and service to all people.”

The first car I remember was my Dad’s 1965 Buick Wildcat.  It was a beautiful car.  It had a nice light blue color to it, with those old little windows you can crank out when you didn’t want to roll down the whole window.  The memory that sticks in my brain was having dad driving the streets of Flint and heading to the barbershop in this wonderful car.  You kind of felt a belt special riding around in the Wildcat.

By the time I entered kindergarten, Dad had bought a new car; a 1974 Buick Electra coupe.   It was not as cool as the Wildcat.  Though very few cars of the 1970s were that memorable.  Dad gave the Wildcat to one of my nephews, who didn’t keep the car up.   

It’s interesting what we drive says about us.  Some people are concerned about the environment and so they by a Prius.  Others like a little muscle and go for the Mustang.  Some want a lot of room so they go for an SUV.  For those of us who buy cars, by them not only out of necessity, but because we want to make a statement about who we are.  Driving a BMW says something different than driving a Chevy.  

I initially didn’t want to preach the Palm Sunday text.  It’s something that we hear over and over.  It seems a times that there isn’t anything about this event that we don’t know.  Jesus gets on a donkey or mule or something and rides through Jerusalem with people saying as he passes by, “Hosanna!”  We will get the kids to grab a few palm fronds and parade up and down the isle of the sanctuary shout Hosanna, and we talk about how this was the highpoint of Jesus last week before Good Friday.  After this, it all goes down from here.  Palm Sunday has always felt like a friviolous day to me; a weigh station to the more heady and meaningful for days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter.  

But thing is, Palm Sunday is meaningful to us.  This odd parade tells us something about Jesus, and something about us as well.

Jesus tells two of his disciples to get an animal for him.  Some translations say colt, which makes us think of a big horse, but some refer to a foal, which is the offspring of a donkey.  A donkey is an interesting animal.  It’s in the same family as a horse, but not as majestic.  It’s a pack animal, more used to moving things than people.  The other thing is that it doesn’t seem like a cool animal to ride on.  Whenever I think of someone riding a donkey, it just seems rather foolish than anything else.  This hardly seems like the kind of animal Jesus should ride on if he really is the Messiah, the king.  It’s like expecting the President to drive a humble Yugo.

But Jesus is saying something here.  The leaders of that age, would ride around on top of a horse.  Horses are big, majestic animals and they are used for show and for war.  A horse was for kings and generals.  Being the king of kings, Jesus should have ridden on a mighty horse, but no, Jesus strides into the big city of Jerusalem on top of a lowly donkey.

Phillipians 2 states that Jesus decide to give up his place in the Godhead and became as a slave for our salvation.  The riding on a donkey was an outward sign of who Jesus was; giving up his priviledge to share our common lot with us.  This was a sign that God was with us, not set apart like most kings, but a king that took on simple clothes and sat with us where we are.

There’s another point I want to make here this morning, and that’s the use of the word “Hosanna.”  Now, if you’re like me, you hear that word only once a year- today.  Sometimes we will shout it during service and if you’re like me, you might think it’s a word of praise.  But that’s not all that it means.  The meaning of the word Hosanna in Hebrew means “save.”  So, for all these years, the people who shouting Hosanna! as Jesus passed them by, were not simply giving praise to God, but asking, pleading for salvation.

That’s not a surprise; I mean, the Jews had been living under the cruel boot of Rome for a quite sometime and they were looking for someone to come and set them free.  I wonder what people thought as they shout for help and they see this guy riding on a donkey.  Did they really think he was going to bring salvation and freedom?  Was this some kind of joke?

But it wasn’t.  This had been part of God’s plan to bring salvation to all of creation.  God was constantly find a way to bring good news and freedom to the nations.  God set a rainbow in the clouds after the flood to say that God would be in relationship with creation.  God chose a people, Israel, to show that God was there to bring liberation.  God raised the prophets to call those he loved to get right with God and each other.  Finally, God came in the form of a tiny baby that later grew up and rode a donkey looking like a fool.  This fool would go on to die on the cross like a criminal and would finally rise again to defeat the powers of sin and death.

It’s interesting that Palm Sunday fell on April Fools Day this year.  Fitting, I think.  It’s foolish to believe in a God that would be willing to be humiliated all for love.  It’s foolish to preach about forgiveness and grace.  It all doesn’t make any sense.

Speaking of looking foolish; I am reminded of Don Portwood’s sermon last Sunday at the dedication service.  For those of you who don’t know, Don is the pastor of our partner congregation, Lyndale United Church of Christ and he preached a sermon with lots of action and very few words.  At one point he takes a large bowl filled with water and attempts to pour it into a small glass.  Many of you were there, so you know what happened; water went everywhere; overflowing the glass and leaving a puddle of water on the floor.  

Back to Philiipians, Paul says Jesus emptied himself and Don’s futile attempt of filling a glass reminded me of that verse.  Jesus didn’t stay on a shelf, but he poured himself into humanity, overflowing and becoming quite a mess.  Jesus kept on doing that; on Palm Sunday, on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

I began this sermon with the opening words from the Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) which is sort of an unofficial confession of our tradition.  We gather here every Sunday to confess that this man Jesus, born to an unwed mother in some backwater town, was the Savior and Lord of all the creation.  The one who rode into town looking like a fool on a donkey is the one that is Ruler over all.  The one whose life poured out and brought us salvation is the one in whose name we worship and do works of kindness.  

As we enter Holy Week, let us be mindful not only of how God’s love overflowed for us and let us learn how live a life of overflowing love to those around us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.