Friday, July 03, 2015

Those 40 Questions

Well I had a fun afternoon! A good friend of mine sent me a link to a blog that asks 40 questions of Christians who are supportive of marriage equality. She asked me if I might have a chance to answer them. Since I’m currently on a spiritual renewal leave, I had time to fill and so I tackled the list today.

Now, I know that some of you are kind of done talking about all this. If you are, then by all means stop reading right now. That’s completely cool with me. I get it. Plus, this is really, really long so you may get a bit bored by the end. I had to look up “TLDR” but now that I know what it means I use it all the time.

However, I actually found that these questions were really pretty good ways to kind of sharpen my own beliefs. And at the end of the list, I have added ten questions of my own, that I think ought to be answered as well.

And so, for your reading pleasure, I offer my answers to those 40 questions. Here we go:

1. How long have you believed that gay marriage is something to be celebrated?
Since my Junior year of High School.                 

2. What Bible verses led you to change your mind?
I never really changed my mind. Or to be precise, I never believed gay marriage was not something to be celebrated. I just never thought about it, and then when I did, it was fine.

3. How would you make a positive case from Scripture that sexual activity between two persons of the same sex is a blessing to be celebrated?
I wouldn’t. Every example of sexual activity between two persons of the same gender in Scripture is either rape, child abuse, or idolatry. A loving, respectful, grace-filled relationship between two adults of the same gender is never described in the Bible.

4. What verses would you use to show that a marriage between two persons of the same sex can adequately depict Christ and the church?
I wish I could ask you, before I answer, why you believe this is an important enough question to be #4 on your list. I’ll go ahead and assume that you are referring to Ephesians 5, which many interpret as you do, that a marriage is supposed to “depict” the relationship between Christ and the church. That interpretation is all well and good (though it isn’t the one I make - I have some serious questions about the power dynamic implied), and yet it really has no implication on same-sex marriages, does it? That interpretation is instructive for husbands and wives. It says to them, “Your marriage is supposed to look like Christ and the church.”
Since there was no such thing as marriage between two people of the same gender in Paul’s day, as there is in America today, it hardly makes sense that he would use it as a depiction of Christ and the church, does it?

5. Do you think Jesus would have been okay with homosexual behavior between consenting adults in a committed relationship?
Yes.

6. If so, why did he reassert the Genesis definition of marriage as being one man and one woman?
He quoted Genesis in order to respond to a question about divorce.
In Genesis, the quote is, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” It starts with “therefore” because it is preceded by God taking a rib out of the man in order to create the woman. There are many various interpretations of this passage, including the one you have implied in your question. It won’t surprise you, probably, to learn that I do not interpret this passage as a “Genesis definition of marriage.” I interpret it as a theological statement about the unity of humanity.

7. When Jesus spoke against porneia what sins do you think he was forbidding?
He was forbidding sexual immorality.

8. If some homosexual behavior is acceptable, how do you understand the sinful “exchange” Paul highlights in Romans 1?
Paul is condemning the idolatry of the people, who have forgotten that God ought to be first and foremost in their lives. Instead, they are consumed with passion for each other, worship of the creature rather than the creator, envy, gossip, boastfulness, and so on. Chapter one of Romans sets the stage for the entire book, which is a powerful and vivid letter about sin and salvation. The “degrading,” “unnatural,” and “shameless” acts of passion that are condemned here are not specifically defined (Paul leaves the specifics to our own interpretation), but I for one am glad that Paul condemns them. All people should remember that God is, was, and always will be at the center of our relationships.

9. Do you believe that passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Revelation 21:8 teach that sexual immorality can keep you out of heaven?
So, by “keep you out of heaven,” you mean “inherit the kingdom of God,” right? That’s what 1 Corinthians says. And Revelation 21 is a completely different kind of passage than 1 Corinthians 6, so it is really rather peculiar that you group them together like this. We probably mean different things when we are talking about the kingdom of God or “heaven,” I imagine. You probably mean something like “where you go when you die” and I mean something more like “as intimate a relationship with God as is possible.” And so I can unequivocally say that sexual immorality keeps you out of heaven, if we mean it interferes with your relationship with God.
As to what happens when you die, well none of us truly knows that, do we? If we claim to, we are getting really close to saying that we know the mind of God, which I am definitely not wanting to do!

10. What sexual sins do you think they were referring to?
In my study of the Greek text, I understand the 1 Corinthians 6:9 passage (and 1 Timothy 1:10) as referring to adult men who hire young boys for sex. In other words, child abuse. I also understand that not everyone interprets this verse the same way, but that’s mine. And further, it should be noted that it is very difficult to translate the two words in question, arsenokoites and malakos. Their translations have observably evolved over time. In short, no matter what you think these two verses really refer to, you are making an interpretation.

11. As you think about the long history of the church and the near universal disapproval of same-sex sexual activity, what do you think you understand about the Bible that Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther failed to grasp?
Nothing. Those dudes were smart! Just because I understand and interpret it differently doesn’t mean that anyone “failed to grasp” the meaning. It just means we have different perspectives. In the case of the theologians you mention, our perspectives are different not only by the places where we live(d), but the distance of hundreds of years. So it kind of just makes sense that we would see things differently.

12. What arguments would you use to explain to Christians in Africa, Asia, and South America that their understanding of homosexuality is biblically incorrect and your new understanding of homosexuality is not culturally conditioned?
Again with the “incorrect” language. Why are you so concerned with “correct” and “incorrect” and “failed to grasp.” It seems to be very important to you that you know who is “right” and “wrong” rather than a simple acknowledgement of mystery and uncertainty. And I’m not entirely sure where this entire question is coming from, in the first place. Why would I explain my understanding differently to someone from Africa, Asia, or South America? I would explain it the same way I would to someone from my hometown.

13. Do you think Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were motivated by personal animus and bigotry when they, for almost all of their lives, defined marriage as a covenant relationship between one man and one woman?
No.

14. Do you think children do best with a mother and a father?
Most of the time, yes, although your question is poorly worded. Do you mean “as opposed to a single parent” or “as opposed to a same-sex couple.” Regardless, there cannot be a blanket rule that automatically applies to all families. Some of our foster kids have come from a home with both a mother and father, and it would be very difficult to make the case that the presence of a mom and dad automatically made their life better. And some of the most amazing kids I know were raised by a single parent.

15. If not, what research would you point to in support of that conclusion?
N/A

16. If yes, does the church or the state have any role to play in promoting or privileging the arrangement that puts children with a mom and a dad?
There are simply not enough people who feel called to provide foster/adoptive care to even consider that question. Our counties are desperate for foster homes. The lists of kids awaiting adoption are painfully long. We need stable homes in which kids are cared for, fed, clothed, encouraged, loved. These are the priorities, not the gender composition of the responsible adults in the home.

17. Does the end and purpose of marriage point to something more than an adult’s emotional and sexual fulfillment?
Yes.

18. How would you define marriage?
The loving, grace-filled, mutually respectful covenant relationship between two adults in which they make sacred vows to be life partners for ever, no matter what happens.

19. Do you think close family members should be allowed to get married?
No.

20. Should marriage be limited to only two people?
Yes.

21. On what basis, if any, would you prevent consenting adults of any relation and of any number from getting married?
Asked and answered.

22. Should there be an age requirement in this country for obtaining a marriage license?
Yes.

23. Does equality entail that anyone wanting to be married should be able to have any meaningful relationship defined as marriage?
No.

24. If not, why not?
Asked and answered - close family members, age, more than two.

25. Should your brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with homosexual practice be allowed to exercise their religious beliefs without fear of punishment, retribution, or coercion?
Yes. And yet here I will add that discrimination is not a religious belief. It is discrimination. Unless you are forming a new religion, or distorting an existing one.

26. Will you speak up for your fellow Christians when their jobs, their accreditation, their reputation, and their freedoms are threatened because of this issue?
Yes.

27. Will you speak out against shaming and bullying of all kinds, whether against gays and lesbians or against Evangelicals and Catholics?
Yes. And gay Evangelicals, and lesbian Catholics, and every possible combination thereof.

28. Since the evangelical church has often failed to take unbiblical divorces and other sexual sins seriously, what steps will you take to ensure that gay marriages are healthy and accord with Scriptural principles?
A curious question, with a curious term: “unbiblical divorces.” (Are there “biblical divorces?”) And I’m not sure I agree with the premise that the church doesn’t take divorce seriously.
Still, in response to the substance of the question, I’ll say: the same steps I take to ensure that EVERY marriage is healthy and in accord with Scriptural principles. As a pastor I do pre-marital counseling in which we talk about the issues that so frequently arise in marriages, trying to anticipate issues and equip the couple to deal with them. And when married couples come to me with problems to talk about them, we often discover that the problem isn’t related to the content itself, but rather in the way they are communicating.

29. Should gay couples in open relationships be subject to church discipline?
I’m sorry, but this question needs a lot more information for me to be able to answer it. I don’t want to assume that I know what you are talking about.

30. Is it a sin for LGBT persons to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage?
Yes.

31. What will open and affirming churches do to speak prophetically against divorce, fornication, pornography, and adultery wherever they are found?
Well, that’s a big question. I’m not responsible for every church’s prophetic action, of course. But I’m assuming that they will continue to do what they are already doing? You stumped me on this one, dude!

32. If “love wins,” how would you define love?
To love someone is “to desire and pursue their happiness as sincerely and steadily as your own.” That’s one way that John Wesley defined love, and it is very meaningful to me.

33. What verses would you use to establish that definition?
Oh my goodness there are so many! One of the clear overarching themes of all Scripture is the love of God and the loving response of humanity, created in God’s image, and called to care for one another and all of creation in loving acts. Genesis 1. Psalm 103. Micah 6. Matthew 25. John 15. 1 Corinthians 13. 1 John 4. It goes on and on!

34. How should obedience to God’s commands shape our understanding of love?
Obeying God’s command is liberating. Obedience to God sets us free to love as Christ loves - unconditionally and in abundance. We could never love as Christ loves on our own; God’s grace equips and empowers us to do so.

35. Do you believe it is possible to love someone and disagree with important decisions they make?
Yes.

36. If supporting gay marriage is a change for you, has anything else changed in your understanding of faith?
It isn’t a change for me, however I should say that a lot of things have changed over my 44 years of life with regard to how I understand God. I appreciate what Paul has to say on the matter, when he talks about followers of Jesus maturing in their faith. Or John Wesley’s teaching about sanctification, or growing closer and closer to God, deepening our knowledge and love of Christ as we practice our faith.

37. As an evangelical, how has your support for gay marriage helped you become more passionate about traditional evangelical distinctives like a focus on being born again, the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the total trustworthiness of the Bible, and the urgent need to evangelize the lost?
You are not defining “evangelical” the same way I do. I suppose you would therefore want to say that one of us is “wrong.” But again, I don’t see it that way; we’re just different. I am an evangelical because I believe with all my heart that an individual’s personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit is vitally important. The particular doctrines you mention are a part of what I know as “fundamentalism,” which is a very different thing than being evangelical.

38. What open and affirming churches would you point to where people are being converted to orthodox Christianity, sinners are being warned of judgment and called to repentance, and missionaries are being sent out to plant churches among unreached peoples?
Well, as a pastor I am not really familiar with a bunch of other churches. But I can say that I rarely “warn” people in my sermons; I guess I don’t really see sermons as vehicles of warning, more as proclamations of the good news. We include prayers of repentance and calls to discipleship in every service, and our Conference is planting churches all the time. But I don’t know your qualifications for the designation of “open and affirming,” so I’m not sure if I’m answering your question directly.

39. Do you hope to be more committed to the church, more committed to Christ, and more committed to the Scriptures in the years ahead?
Yes.

40. When Paul at the end of Romans 1 rebukes “those who practice such things” and those who “give approval to those who practice them,” what sins do you think he has in mind?
As I said in my answer to question 8 above, chapter one of Romans really sets up the rest of the book. The “such things” are listed by Paul in the verses that precede, and each illuminate the sin of idolatry, or not acknowledging God as the ultimate authority in life. But you really can’t just read chapter one of the book and then stop, can you? There’s a lot more to the story; there are 15 more chapters to the book!



I would ask a few questions of my own, in particular for Christians who oppose marriage equality:

41. If a gay couple moved in next door to you, what would it change about your own marriage? If they had kids, how would it directly impact your parenting style?

42. If your marriage or your parenting would change in reaction to the proximity of a gay couple, to what do you ascribe the power that one couple has over you?

43. What are the practical implications in your life of the Scriptural claim that “in Christ there is … no male or female, for all are one in Christ Jesus?”

44. You likely know the story in which Jesus says to an angry crowd, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” How do you live out this Christian teaching in your life?

45. Matthew 7:12 is known as the “Golden Rule.” Why do you suppose these words are so universally known?

46. How is using the Bible against LGBT people different than using the Bible to promote slavery? How is it similar?

47. Should divorcees who do not believe divorce is a sin be allowed to remarry? What Scriptures do you use to support your belief?

48. What Scriptures do you cite to support your belief that people of various races are permitted to marry?

49. How do you hope your grandchildren remember you, especially when they think about your religious beliefs?

50. The numbers on the decline of the church in the world are alarming. What might be done to spread God’s love even wider, so that the church truly can be the body of Christ in all its wonder and glory?


There are a couple of other responses to the 40 questions out there, and I encourage you to check them out. These are mine, and if you made it all the way to this paragraph, big time props.

I don’t know if answering these questions does anyone any good. But it did some good for me. I don’t really think anything new has been offered in the conversation around homosexuality for a number of years. To many people it feels like just going around and around in circles.


But injustice and discrimination is wrong, no matter what. And until there is true justice, we have some things we need to do. And in order to get those things done, we have some things we need to discuss. So asking and answering questions is a necessary means to the end of justice for all of God’s people.

Monday, June 22, 2015

"Subdue It" - Sermon Text from June 21, 2015

Subdue It - The Future of the Earth                                          
Year B: 4th Sunday after Pentecost: June 21, 2015
Scriptures: Genesis 1:26-31; Psalm 104:24-30
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It is worth noting that in the Bible, God’s first words to humanity are a blessing. God creates humanity and immediately blesses us.
Immediately following this blessing, God gives us a word of instruction. And God’s first instruction to humanity addresses not our relationship with God, but our relationship with the earth. You have heard that humanity was created to be in relationship with God, and that is certainly a theme of the Scriptures. But the very first instruction God gives to us indicates that we are created to be in relationship with the earth around us.
God says, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it." And we got right on that! We have been fruitful; we have indeed multiplied.In fact, some would argue for “mission accomplished.” Earth filled? Check. Nature subdued? Check.       
Some interesting words appear in the creation passage. Two in particular: “subdue” and “dominion.” The first thing you notice with these words is POWER; subduing and dominating are words of power. The unequal power dynamic implied in these words might lead us to adopt a mindset that says humanity is to wield power over the earth.
Of course, last week the earth reminded us of just how little power we actually have. The sustained rain and flash flooding in the Ozarks area was nature’s way of saying to us, “Hold on a minute, humanity. Y’all aren’t quite so powerful as you think you are.” Anyone try travelling between Springfield and Nixa last week?
            Or has anyone ever slept alone in the woods? That experience will surely convince you that you don’t have as much power as you think you do. Every noise in the woods at night is an imminent threat!

            And so, let me suggest a deeper understanding of these two ideas “subdue” and “have dominion.”
When it comes to the idea of “subduing” the earth, I appreciate what Terence Fretheim, an Old Testament Professor at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis wrote about the term. He says, “... ‘subduing’ involves development in the created order. This process offers to the human being the task of intra-creational development, of bringing the world along to its fullest possible creational potential. Here paradise is not a state of perfection, not a static state of affairs. Humans lie in a highly dynamic situation. The future remains open to a number of possibilities in which creaturely activity will prove crucial for the development of the world.”
            In other words: Our “subduing” of the earth ought to make things better. There is a divinely given potential within creation, and our relationship with creation ought to progress toward that potential.
It’s like my personal definition of the meaning of life. I don’t think the meaning of life is complicated at all. It is simple: Leave the world better than it was when you got here.
            And when we think about that second word, “dominion,” we cannot consider it in isolation. The phrase, “have dominion over” cannot be defined without also considering the meaning of the phrase, “the image of God.” Humanity is to “have dominion over” creation as a reflection of the way God would, as an extension of God’s own dominion.
            In other words, humanity is to relate to the world as God relates to us. God is sovereign; God has dominion over us. And what does God’s dominion look like? We say God is good, gracious, forgiving, just, merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. These qualities comprise God’s dominion. The question becomes: How can we incorporate those relational concepts to our treatment of creation?
So, with all of that said, one way to interpret the Bible when it comes to our care for the future of the earth is this:
            God wants us to live in close relationship with the earth so that creation develops into its fullest potential. We are supposed to be partners with creation promoting the health and vitality of all the earth.

This week I asked some questions of four people whose work involves caring for creation. I asked them, "What motivates you to care for the environment?" And I asked, "How do you feel in general about the future health of the natural world - hopeful? fearful? cautiously optimistic? Something else?"
          One person I emailed was Rob Hunt, the coordinator of the Watershed Center here in Springfield. Rob said, “My motivation for caring for the environment comes from my love of the outdoors. I grew up outside and I think that fostering a love of nature is the key to encouraging stewardship of our natural resources.”
Rob was hopeful about the future of the earth. But it is hope that is grounded in reality. He said, “People can do amazing things. Even the negative things we have done to the planet and to each other are astounding. If our passion and ingenuity and ability could be guided by a more positive influence, like love of nature or one-another, then I don’t doubt people could improve the planet.”
            I also emailed Jay barber, who works at the missouri Department of Conservation as an Education Consultant. Jay's motivation for doing what he does comes from his childhood. His parents made a point to take him camping, fishing, hiking, and hunting.
          Jay's response to my question about the future of the earth is convicting. He said, "Given human's proclivity for selfishness and hard-heartedness, I am surprised that there is not more destruction of nature." Just take a moment and let that sit there. Ouch. Hits kind of close to home, doesn't it?
          But Jay is a person of faith, and his outlook is hopeful. He said, "Ultimately God is in control and while His Creation is groaning awaiting redemption, I enjoy sharing His Creation with others, to see them connect with something so simple as an insect with all its adaptations an colorful display."
            I also asked Kelly Guenther, who works with the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks. Her motivation is more philosophical than the others. She said, "I care for the environment, plants and animals because I see us as all intertwined in each other's lives on this planet. The more you seek, the more you discover how interconnected we all are to each other and to the earth." That's a beautiful image, isn't it? Each of us is connected to the other.
          Kelly was "cautiously optimistic" when it comes to the earth's future. She said, "...I fear it will take a great crisis for humanity to change its course and truly stop over consuming and preserve our precious resources..." Kind of like how everybody knows about that dangerous intersection, but nobody puts a stoplight in until there's a fatal accident there. We seem to need an impetus to shock us into action sometimes.
          The fourth person I emailed this week is a member here at Campbell, so I'm going to have to be careful what I say about him, since he's likely to hear these words! Joe Fearn is a groundskeeper at Drury University, and he really is an amazing person whose ideas about caring for the earth are fascinating. I love Joe, and I love talking with him about this kind of stuff. Let me put it this way: the other three people responded with a few sentences or maybe a paragraph. Joe sent me a treatise!
            Joe does what he does because he witnesses the natural beauty of the world, and believes that humanity must live as a part of nature, “in harmony with it.”
But Joe, among all four people I spoke with, is the least hopeful about the earth’s future. In fact, he said, “I am not hopeful at all, and I cannot see us avoiding collapse …” Well that’s real cheery, Joe!
He went on to say, “I believe that man’s society takes a heavy toll on the environment in order to obtain what our society … believes it needs. This toll has and continues to greatly stress the whole earth ecosystem to a point it is near collapse.” But there was a glimmer of hope, hidden among the pessimism. Joe went on, “I believe every person has a part to play in slowing and possibly reversing this damage.”
            See, even Joe (even JOE!) can manage to find a bit of hope, if we will all realize that we are consuming more that we actually need. Joe believes the resources of the earth are not maxed out, that the earth is capable of supporting the life on it. However the level of consumption so many of us choose is far and above what we actually need.
            And we have to confess that is indeed true. Even right here and right now in this very moment, we are sitting in a low humidity, relatively cool room. We are comfortable in our air conditioning, even grateful for it. But we do not need it. We could gather for worship in shorts and t-shirts, fanning ourselves with our bulletins. We might be a bit sweaty, but we could do it.

            There was a fifth person I spoke with this week. I also consulted the Pope.
Well okay, I didn’t really consult the Pope, but on Thursday the Pope released an encyclical on the environment. However I did respond to it as I was reading it. Yes, out loud! This is what it sounded like:

Pope: "The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish."

Me: Well, Pope Francis. I wish you would tell us how you really feel about things. Quit being so vague.

"We are not God. The Earth was here before us and was given to us."

Me: There, that’s better.

"The idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology ... is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth's goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry at every limit."

Me: Um … so is there any hope?

"Yet all is not lost. (Me: Whew.) Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start."
"We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family."
"We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it."

Me: Wait, Pope Franics - I thought we were talking about the environment here. You know, nature and stuff.

"We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental."
"There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself."

Me: Oh, you mean to say that people are a part of the environment that we are supposed to be taking care of?

"What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? The question not only concerns the environment in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal."

All of a sudden, as we talk about the future of the earth, we aren’t just talking about forests and clean air and water and protecting endangered species. You know, all that hippie, tree hugger stuff.
            If we are to truly understand our divine commission to care for the earth, we must include care for ALL of the earth, and that includes our care for one another, too.
            WE ARE A PART OF THE EARTH THAT WE ARE SUPPOSED TO CARE FOR.

On Wednesday night last week, a church had a Bible Study. Actually a lot of churches had Bible studies. But in the one we all know about, nine of our sisters and brothers were killed by a person who had been welcomed among them as a guest.
The reason they were killed is clear. It is not up for debate. They were killed because they were black. And the one who killed them was a racist.
I have lost patience with people who try to claim that we are done with racism in our nation. I have no patience with the naive suggestion that somehow we’re past it and don’t have to address it any more.
Racism is an insidious evil that permeates every single part of our world.
            Even my own mind and heart. Even yours. I look at people and make immediate judgments about them based on nothing more than the color of their skin, and you do too. It helps nothing to pretend otherwise.
The worst thing we can do in confronting racism is to pretend that we are not racist. We must confess it. "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." 

“We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.”

Cynthia Hurd, Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton,
Daniel Simmons, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders,
Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson

          This is not an abstract concept we're talking about. Yesterday I read Depayne Middleton-Doctor's obituary:
 Whether she was working with college students or Charleston's poorest residents, DePayne Middleton-Doctor wanted to be in a position to help people.
So co-workers weren't surprised when she decided to become a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
"She was a woman of God," said Joel Crawford, who worked with Middleton-Doctor at Southern Wesleyan University's campus in Charleston. "She was strong in her faith."
Middleton-Doctor, a 49-year-old mother of four daughters, just started her job as an enrollment counselor at the university in December, ...
Before that, [she] had been employed for several years by Charleston County, where she helped administer grants aimed at helping the county's poorest residents with problems they couldn't otherwise afford to fix such as repairing roofs or septic tanks, ...
Crawford said Middleton-Doctor often went to midweek prayer meetings at Emanuel AME Church as she worked toward becoming a minister.

          When we are confronted with an event like the shooting at Emanuel AMD Church in Charleston, our tendency is to recoil, to retreat. We think it has nothing to do with us. We think it's "too big for us," and there's nothing we can do about it.
          We offer empty words in our prayers, like "Just let go and let God." And then we just go on living our lives. We say, "I just give that stuff to God in prayer," as if that somehow excuses us from doing something, from changing, from working to make things better in the world.  
          Praying to God about the evil in our world does not preclude us taking action to eliminate it. Nor does it excuse us from doing so.
            It isn’t too big. We CAN in fact change the world. It’s actually our mission. The church is supposed to transform the world for God’s sake. And if we don’t believe that we can, then what are we even doing here?

There was one other question I asked the 4 people who work with the environment. I asked them, "What are a few simple things people could do around their homes to make the earth healthier?" 
          They each supplied a list. You've probably read them before, things like: Install a rain barrel, plant a tree, install high efficiency appliances, let your yard grow higher and mow less often - that kind of stuff. Interestingly, all four of them said to plant native plants and trees. Must be something to that if all four of them mentioned it.
Each one provided great ideas for small, inexpensive things people might do differently that, when accumulated with others, would make a great difference to the future of the earth. Joe Fearn put the idea this way, “If people viewed their yards as part of a larger whole, then stewarded them accordingly, we could have an urban/suburban/natural ecosystem that functions much better for the natural environment. Every yard is critical!”
Now, of course Joe did not know this sermon was going to go the direction it did. He sent his reply to me before Wednesday evening changed everything. But I’m pretty sure his idea applies to the bigger topic, if we make just a few minor adjustments.

            Here’s how we might say it:
“If people viewed their lives as part of a larger whole, then lived them accordingly, we could have a global community that functions much better for the flourishing of all creation. Every person is critical!”
            Every person matters. Every word, every act, every attitude, every thought. You matter. You are a part of a bigger community, and your life is critical to the life of the whole.
When something like the shooting in Charleston happens, we tend to ask “Well, what can we do? It’s too big. Surely there’s nothing I can do to make any difference.”
           
Well first of all, understand that it isn’t too big. We are the church - it is our business to change the world. There ARE things we can do. Real, concrete, tangible things we can do to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”
                       
So I have these four steps - they are all “C” words - I hardly ever do anything like this because I think it’s gimmicky and can be rather shallow. But I did this today so that we can remember them; it just felt like we might want something to hold onto today.
So here are “the Four Cs” - Confess, Confront, Convey, and Conquer.
            First, confess that you are a sinner. Confess your racism, your sexism, your homophobia, your classism, your ageism. Confess that you do not treat God’s creation like you should, you make unfair assumptions about people based on surface-level traits. God already knows; you are not providing God with any new information, here. So confess, and ask God’s forgiveness.
            Secondly, confront it when you hear it. Don’t laugh at that racist joke, challenge it. Do not let slurs, names, and stereotypes stand without confronting them.
            When we were moving our of our duplex in Kirksville, Missouri, I stood in the living room with our landlord. I remember it so vividly. He said to me, “And if there are some friends of yours looking for a place to live, send them our way. Because you know, we wouldn’t want any of the wrong people to move in here.”
And I didn’t say anything! To my shame even to this day, I had nothing to say to that.
Confront it. Stand up to it. Unveil it. Name it out loud.
            The third “c” is for convey. To overcome evil, convey a Christlike attitude toward others. Let everything you say to another person be grace and love and peace. Be Jesus in your interactions with other people. Convey Christ. Convey God in your demeanor and your attitude. Just radiate hope and joy and love. Smile more. Make eye contact. Hold hands. Convey Jesus.
            And finally, conquer. There is only one way to conquer hatred. There is only one tool that is effective against evil and injustice and violence. Quite simply: love. Only love.
            On Friday, the Charleston shooter appeared at his arraignment. He was there on a live video feed. And the families of his victims were in the room, and they spoke to him. Did you hear what they said to him? Did you see it?
            They forgave him.
            One by one they stood up and looked at his face. And they forgave him. Unimaginable grace. Love conquers hatred - every single time.
Confess. Confront. Convey. Conquer.

So, this started out to be a sermon about caring for our earth so that the future of the planet is healthy and sustainable. It ended up in a different place.
But not really, I guess.
I guess it’s still pretty much a sermon about the future of the planet. We are, all of us, a part of the creation that God called good. A creation that God has instructed us to care for.

I came across a prayer that churches were being encouraged to use in worship today. According to the tweet that shared the link, several hundred churches had already said they were planning to use it. Since then, I don’t know how many others might have joined on.
So I will close today with this prayer, in unity with followers of Jesus all over our nation. Let us pray.

We stand before you today, oh Lord
Hearts broken, eyes weeping, heads spinning
Our brothers and sisters have died
They gathered and prayed and then were no more
The prayer soaked walls of the church are spattered with blood
The enemy at the table turned on them in violence
While they were turning to you in prayer

We cry out to you, oh Lord
Our hearts breaking, eyes weeping, heads spinning
The violence in our streets has come into your house
The hatred in our cities has crept into your sanctuary
The brokenness in our lives has broken into your temple
The dividing wall of hostility has crushed our brothers and sisters
We cry out to you, May your Kingdom come, may it be on earth as it is in heaven

We pray to you today, oh Lord
Our hearts breaking, eyes weeping, souls stirring
We pray for our enemies, we pray for those who persecute us
We pray to the God of all Comfort to comfort our brothers and sisters in their mourning
We pray that you would bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes
We pray that you would give them the oil of joy instead of mourning
We pray that you would give them a garment of praise in place of a spirit of despair

We declare together, oh Lord
With hearts breaking, eyes weeping and souls stirring
We will continue to stand and cry and weep with our brothers and sisters
We will continue to make a place of peace for even the enemies at our table
We will continue to open our doors and our hearts to those who enter them
We will continue to seek to forgive as we have been forgiven
We will continue to love in Jesus’ name because you taught us that love conquers all

We declare our love for our Sisters
We declare our love for our Brothers
We declare our love for their families
We declare our love as one body, one Lord, one faith, one baptism

We declare they do not grieve alone today. Amen.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Emanuel AME Church Shooting: Church People

Of course we don’t know, but can you imagine?

Can you imagine a guest at Wednesday night Bible Study? I know church people; I know how we respond to guests, the ones we tend to call “new people.” We welcome them. We smile at them. We say, “So glad you are here tonight.”

We do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.

Can you imagine? Did someone offer to get him a cup of coffee? Did he pick up a cookie from the table in fellowship hall? Did a particularly kind gentleman gesture at the empty chair, extending an unspoken invitation to sit down and share the class together?

Did he introduce himself when someone extended an open hand to shake?

Of course we don’t know. But it is all too easy to imagine.

He was there for an hour. He sat with the people he was about to kill for sixty minutes. That’s enough time for the initial awkwardness to begin to dissipate. You know, that attitude that we always assume when we meet someone for the first time? A little bit distant, a bit more formal, polite yet cautious. After an hour, some people may have even kind of forgotten he was there.

When they prayed, did he bow his head, too?

I know church people. I know how happy they must have been that a twenty-something had come to Wednesday night church. Church people see youth and we get a little excited. Now, it must have raised a few questions in a few minds that he was white, coming into a mostly black church. But nobody said anything, I’m sure of it. I know church people.

Rev. John Paul Brown of the Mt. Zion church in Charleston, very near the location of the shooting, said this morning, “You can’t say ‘I represent Christ; let me frisk you.’” That’s exactly what I would expect a church person to say. Because that’s who we are; that’s our mission. To represent Christ.

No, we don’t know for sure. But I can’t stop myself from imagining.

When he stood up … When he revealed his gun … When he announced his intention … When they began to realize what exactly was happening …

Was there even enough time to be confused? To makes sense of the movement, the noise?

We don’t know. We might never know. But we can imagine. I wish I couldn’t, but the truth is I can imagine it very well.

I’m a church person. I know church people. Nine of my sisters and brothers are dead today because of one man’s act of violence. I do not want to be imagining this any more.

Today we are all members of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Today we are all church people.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Missouri Annual Conference 2015: There Was Grace

The best thing that happened at Annual Conference this year was my reappointment to Campbell United Methodist Church to begin my eighth year as the lead pastor here. I’m so happy to serve as pastor in a congregation that really gets it when it comes to following Jesus. And of course, one that knows how to clap on 2 and 4.

The most important thing I learned at Annual Conference was that knowing someone really well does not in any way mean that you will see something the same way. Some dear friends whom I know really really well see the church camping situation really really differently than I do. Like, befuddlingly differently. And yet they remain dear friends. I think that's probably a function of grace.

The worst thing that happened at Annual Conference was decided by 31 votes (actually 16). We decided, following Robert’s Rules, by a vote of 460 - 429 to NOT sell Wilderness Retreat and Development Center for $1 to an Association  that wants to keep it open and run it as a church camp and retreat center for the foreseeable future. Here’s where we get into the whole “seeing things differently” bit; this is how I see it:

The Missouri Conference owns four camp properties. On Saturday, a majority (by a 667 - 425 vote) decided to go ahead and sell them instead of waiting 2 years. Now, there is a group of committed, faithful United Methodists within the conference who wants to assume responsibility for one of the properties. This subgroup of the Conference asked the body as a whole essentially this question: Okay, so you guys don’t want to own this place any more. Can we have it?

Or as one of our youth members said so graciously from the floor, “I believe we should give the camp sites to the people who want them. And that's all I have to say.”

And that’s where the 31 votes (actually 16) comes in. 429 of us said “YES, let’s compromise here. Neither side thinks this is the best solution, but it would work.” And 460 of us said, “No. We want to sell Wilderness and use the money to fund other ministries.” I keep thinking, if just 16 people of those 460 had wanted to compromise instead of sell, the WRDC Association would be making plans today for opening the camp back up.

(That leads, by the way, to the second most important thing I learned at Annual Conference this year. Following Robert’s Rules of Order is a terrible and graceless way to make decisions in the church.)

I am still hopeful, though. I am hopeful because there’s another Association in our Conference called the Jo-Ota Methodist Association, who are highly organized and skillfully prepared. They asked the Conference if they could buy Jo-Ota for $120,003 (I think - someone correct me if I’m wrong). In seven annual payments, the Jo-Ota Association will pay the Conference $1 year one, $1 year two, $1 year three, and then $30,000 for each of the next 4 years to purchase Camp Jo-Ota. And the Conference said a clear and decisive “YES” to this proposal. We didn’t even have to count votes on that one.

And so now the sale of the Wilderness property will be decided by the Conference Trustees, and I see no reason the Wilderness Foundation could not propose a plan, learning as much as possible from Jo-Ota’s, for the purchase of the Wilderness Retreat and Development Center. It would then be up to the Conference Trustees to decide if they would show grace and offer a compromise, honor the narrowly divided minority voice of the Conference, and perhaps model the “permission-giving” attitude that comprises Chapter Five of the book “Just Say Yes!” by Bishop Robert Schnase.

I truly hope they do. I would love for more and more young people to be able to encounter God’s grace there in that sacred place. You see, I voted to give Wilderness to the Association because I know it’s not about my preference. It’s about the mission of the church to make disciples who are changing the world for God’s sake. The mission happens most effectively when our connection is equipped with the resources necessary to make it possible. And I believe with all my heart that Camping/Retreat facilities in natural settings are some of the most important resources by which our mission happens.

(To my knowledge, there are not similar Associations forming around Camp Galilee or Blue Mountain. That may change, so we’ll just have to see what happens.)

The most exciting thing that happened to me at Annual Conference was my election to serve as a delegate to Jurisdictional Conference and as the first alternate delegate to General Conference. I went to Jurisdictional Conference four years ago and really enjoyed it. This time around, the Jurisdiction will be electing a Bishop who may very well be assigned here in Missouri, so our work will have a bit of added importance.

And I am very eager to be a part of General Conference this year for the first time. As the first alternate, I’ll be a part of the delegation and have a chance to absorb everything that’s happening. Although I won’t sit on the floor, I will be there for the whole event and learn all there is to learn. I’d love to be an actual delegate - maybe sometime in the future. In the meantime, I’ll be there to learn as much as possible about how that gathering works.

The most fun thing that happened to me at Annual Conference was winning the door prize in one of the workshops I attended. I got a Kansas City Royals AL Champion pennant to hang in my office! Woo hoo! Okay, so I didn’t really “win” it; Jen used it for an illustration and she didn’t want to keep it and she knows I love the Royals so she gave it to me. But still.

The most meaningful moment of Annual Conference was helping to lead worship alongside my son Wesley on Sunday morning. As a part of the Memorial Service, he placed a flower on the table as my Grandmother Twila Stowe Bryan was remembered, and I rang the bell in her honor. My wife, my daughter and younger son, my Dad, and my brother were in the congregation right in front of us as we once more celebrated a life that was lived in love and grace.

And finally, my favorite part of Annual Conference, as it is every year, is being together with friends and colleagues in ministry. I am a member of the Conference, not of a congregation. That means the Annual Conference is my church. And it definitely felt that way to me. Hugs, smiles, laughs, handshakes, tears, conversations both deep and trivial, reconnecting with long-time friends and making new ones … I am happy to be in connection with the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church.

There are dozens of other experiences I could lift up from #moac15. It was a very good weekend overall.

Two specific moments kind of encapsulate the weekend for me.

On Saturday, after we had voted to sell our camp properties, I embraced my friend Jon Spalding, and we both wept together. Jon is on the Camping Board, among those who was proposing to sell the properties, and my good friend.

On Sunday, after we had voted not to sell Wilderness to the Association, I embraced my friend Bo Tucker, and we both wept together. Bo was on staff at Wilderness, among those who was fighting to save the property, and my good friend.

Both hugs happened in almost the same spot. As I reflect on the weekend, I keep coming back to those two hugs, those two tearful embraces. I haven’t really figured out exactly what they mean, but I know that each one filled my heart to overflowing.

I don’t know for sure, but it may have been grace.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Missouri United Methodist Camps - Potential Compromise

As Annual Conference approaches here in Missouri, my anxiety has slowly risen. I have been rather worried about how the conversation about the recommendation to sell our four conference-owned church camp properties is going to be. It is a recommendation to which I am opposed, and I was not looking forward to speaking and voting against it, for a number of reasons.

First, the people on the Camp Board are my friends and colleagues, people I respect and trust. It’s hard to disagree with your friends about such a significant issue. Secondly, there has been some … ugliness, shall we say? This conversation has not always been a pretty one, and I do not want my honest opposition to seem to be adding to the ugliness. And thirdly, the whole thing kind of breaks my heart, and it is hard to do anything with a broken heart.

But I have hope. There are two options that will be on the table of which I am aware that would seem to be pretty good compromises. Simply put, there are two resolutions to be considered (posted both here and here) at this year’s conference that would sell two of the properties to associations set up to run them. Jo-Ota would be sold to the Jo-Ota Methodist Association and Wilderness would be sold to the WRDC Association. The sale price would be a symbolic one, and the sites could continue to be used as resources for the mission of the church, to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world.

This is brilliant. The Conference Office has zero inclination to own camping and retreat property. These sales would achieve that goal. What I did not like about the Save Mo UM Camps option was that it forced the Missouri Conference to hold camps on the properties that they had absolutely no interest in maintaining. Even if that DID pass, it would be awful, awkward, and disingenuous.

By selling the properties to the people who ARE, in fact, interested in owning them, the Missouri Conference “wins” in that they do not have to own the properties. And those who value the properties also “win” because they get to hold church camp on the properties they love.

The only difference I can see is that the price for the properties would be considerably lower than it might be otherwise. However, the Camping Board has always said that this recommendation isn’t really about money, anyway. So it seems to me that shouldn’t be too big of a stumbling block to this process.

And so at the moment I am inclined to vote “YES” on the Camp Board recommendation, and then “YES” on the 2 resolutions that would sell Jo-Ota and Wilderness to the Associations who are proposing to run them.

Two questions I still have:
Question - Is there any way I could be assured that the 2 alternative resolutions would pass before voting on the initial recommendation to sell them at all?

Question - Will similar groups (associations) form around the Galilee and Blue Mountain properties?

I’ve been thinking this over, and I honestly cannot foresee any issues that anyone would have with this plan. Those who want to be “out of the property management business” at the Conference Office will achieve that goal. Those who want to have church camps at Wilderness and Jo-Ota will be able to. And those with no real vested interest shouldn’t have any objections.

Somebody tell me why this isn’t a wonderful solution to a potentially contentious issue …



Added at 7:05 - Another issue: neither the Jo-Ota Association nor the WRDC Association would receive apportionment funds from the Missouri Conference. This would necessitate immediate and ongoing fundraising, sponsorships, grants, etc. in order to support ministry at the sites.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

God's Plan and the Decline of the Church

Does God have a plan for us today? And exactly how detailed does that plan get? Did God plan for me to eat cantaloupe this morning for breakfast? Or was it enough that I ate a healthy breakfast? Or that I simply had something to eat at all? Or maybe God’s plan is more of a “big picture” kind of plan that is not so much involved with day-to-day logistics?

Speaking of plans, a recent study released by the Pew Research Center paints a gloomy picture of the future of the church. Numerical decline is happening in every denomination across the board, and dire predictions are being heard from church leaders about the future viability of the church.

So, does God have a plan here? Is the decline of the church opposed to God’s plan and therefore we should strive against it and work to reverse it? Or is the decline of the church actually a part of God’s plan and something new is now happening all around us, something we should not oppose but rather support and encourage?

It reminds me of Ezekiel 37, where God shows the prophet the valley filled with dry bones and asks, “Mortal, can these bones live?” God actually interprets the vision for Ezekiel, telling him that “these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’” In other words, they just got their Pew Research Center Report.

The modern church has kind of felt like a valley of dry bones ever since we started obsessing over our declining numbers. All dried up. Hopeless. Isolated. Irrelevant. Dead.

What’s the plan here, God?

Prophesy to the bones! Tell them to listen up! God is going to open up our graves! Do you believe it? Prophesy to the breath! God is going to breathe life into the deadest and driest of us once again, and we will live! THAT’S the plan here!

Doesn’t make a bit of sense, does it? Well neither does resurrection. And that plan seems to be working out pretty well.

Jeremiah 29:11 is an intriguing Bible verse - “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” So maybe that’s a good starting point. Whatever God’s plan looks like, it is not going to cause harm; God’s plan is for the “welfare” of God’s people.

And wouldn’t you know, the Hebrew word that is translated here as “welfare” is actually shalom, a word that connotes completeness, safety, health, and peace.

Yes, God has a plan for us, and we call that plan “shalom.” God’s plan is life. God’s plan is resurrection. God’s plan opens up graves, rattles dry bones, stretches sinew and skin over newly assembled skeletons, and breathes new life into dead, dry structures.

I am confident in the future that God has in store for the church. It is going to be amazing, unlike anything we’ve ever encountered before. It is going to be joyous and gracious and just. Love will abound and we will be at peace. It will be shalom.

And here’s the thing … there’s no reason we can’t go ahead and start doing all that stuff right now. You know, joy and grace and justice and love. And shalom. Lots and lots of shalom.


The bones are already rattling. I think I even feel a breeze…

Monday, May 18, 2015

Take a Breath, Church

You rarely think about breathing until you are finding it difficult. As when you have just run up three flights of stairs or been swimming underwater for several seconds. And if it gets really bad, then breathing is ALL you can think about. You gasp until your body has enough oxygen to function normally again, and little by little your breathing slows and deepens, at which point you promptly stop thinking about it again.

Yet we are always breathing. While we live, we breathe. We are never doing nothing. We breathe. The oxygen infuses our blood. Our heart carries it through our body. Life is motion. Life is breath.

For the church, the Holy Spirit is breath. There are times that we take the Spirit for granted, as we do with our breathing, rarely thinking about the Spirit ... until we struggle. Until a poor decision gets us in trouble. Until a loved one dies too soon. If it gets really bad, then we gasp for the Spirit with huge hiccups of prayer and grief and unanswerable questions of “why.” And little by little, as time goes by, our spiritual breathing eventually slows and deepens, normalizing into a new version of our inevitable new life.

We are always in the presence of the Holy Spirit. While we are the church, the Holy Spirit is with us. God is never absent from us. We pray. Love infuses our lives. Our service carries it through the body. God is Spirit.

My prayer for the church is that we would be continually mindful of the presence of the Spirit among us. Just as breathing deeply calms the mind and body, may our deep prayers serve to calm the church and focus us on God’s presence, power, and peace.

That will require us to practice intentional awareness, to develop our ability to perceive the Spirit. Of course, there are times it is the mighty wind of Pentecost Sunday, and it blows our hats off. But much of the time it is just the tiniest puff of breeze, which we may very well miss if we’re not careful.

We are always going. Always striving. Always arguing. Always making noise. Always ...

Always out of breath.

And so, stop. Sit still. And take a breath, church.

Just.

Breathe.