Monday, November 28, 2011

A Foreword to George Ricker's new book

(George Ricker's latest book, More to Think About, comes out this week (Nov. 28). The book will be available, along with several books by other University UMC authors, at our UUMC Authors' Festival on Sunday, December 11 after worship. Here's the Foreword that George so graciously asked me to write.)

Over the last decade, there has been a remarkable resurgence of theological work which attempts to rethink and re-enliven Christianity. Writers from both ends of the spectrum, like Marcus Borg and Brian McLaren, have engaged in the quest for a Christianity that connects with a postmodern culture, yet does not lose the focus on faithfulness to the life and teaching of Jesus. Theologians like John Cobb and Philip Clayton have brought their prodigious intellectual gifts to tracing a new way of doing theology that moves beyond academic jargon to connect with the church and with real life.

Many pastors jumped into the dialogue and joined the vast movement of revitalized thought only to find that we were not the first ones aboard. George Ricker had taken a seat long before us, quietly working through sermons, newspaper columns, Sunday school classes and radio spots, seeking a mature faith that is authentic to the historic witness and also credible to the postmodern, even post-Christian world.

George is a marvel. At 89, he serves as Pastor Emeritus at University United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, where I currently serve as Senior Pastor, and he continues to teach and write about the meaning of the Christian faith. I first became acquainted with George through his work at UUMC. Back in the 70s, he offered “Lifestyle Studies,” which featured serious reflection on the work of theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich and Reinhold Neibuhr. Ever the pastor, though, George’s work always moved beyond theoretical issues to engage day-to-day realities. Long before much critical thought had been given to the full admission of gays and lesbians into the life of the church, George was there, speaking about the openness of the church to homosexual persons as an issue of justice. In the 80s, at the height of the arms race, even though the issue of nuclear disarmament was not popular, George lent his voice to the prophetic call for peace and for an end to the nuclear weapons.

Some might be tempted to pigeon-hole George as just another liberal theologian churning out mainline Protestant dogma. They will be surprised at the different ways he seeks to embrace and honor the opposite pole, even giving thanks, at one point, for religious extremism! The only kind of faith that comes in for harsh critique is one that is narrow and restrictive. And so while “progressive Christianity” may be the name that he favors, the faith that George outlines might better be described as a more expansive and inclusive Christianity. In approaching the issue of the interpretation of scripture, for example, he lifts up a view of the Bible that is “richer, fuller, deeper than it has ever been” thanks to the work of historical analysis and literary criticism. Similarly in writing about world religions, we’re pushed not only to imagine the value in the diversity of religions but we’re pressed to be personally shaped and transformed by the very different beliefs of others.

Particularly in light of the crisis North American Christianity now finds itself in with the growing decline in church membership and attendance, and the burgeoning numbers of those who are either uninterested or openly hostile to church, the practice of rethinking the meaning and the practice of faith is of paramount importance. Few will return to a church that simply repeats the well-worn formulas of days gone by. Undoubtedly some of what George Ricker says will not be popular. Good! The value of More to Think About lies in the summons to wrestle with the faith once given, not as a purely theoretical project, but as a movement of the soul toward a life of meaning and purpose that contributes to the transformation and healing of the world.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Invisible Man

My daughter lives out of town and so the times spent running errands together have grown increasingly rare. She had issues with her phone, a few other errands that concluded with smoothies at Jamba Juice on the drag, on her! I’m in!

We parked at University UMC and headed down Guadalupe, the heat of the day still radiating, creating wonderful thirst. As we reached the corner, we slowed, pausing to look down at a man asleep on the sidewalk, propped awkwardly up against the storefront. Something about him just did not look right, but we were on a mission.

We ordered our drinks, including one for the man outside. Her idea. Drinks in hand, we left the store.

He was flat on his back now and we knelt down to speak to him. His eyes kept rolling around in his head. His speech was slurred. His body was covered in sweat, which had formed a pool under his head.

I looked at the man, then at Lauren: “I’m calling 911. This guy needs help.”

The operator was amazing. A crowd had gathered around us, concerned. Lauren kept talking to him, patting his arm, checking his vital signs. I had trouble hearing the operator, and the man on the sidewalk seemed to be slipping in and out of consciousness.

Within minutes, paramedics arrived.

“Thanks,” one of the firemen said. “We’ve got it from here.”

As we walked away, we could hear them. “Jeremy,” they called out. “Jeremy, you need to wake up!”

“Omigosh!” Lauren said. “They know the guy’s name. He’s a frequent flyer.” (A regular.)

And now we all know his name, thanks to a smoothie, and the compassionate desire of one person to give a thirsty stranger a refreshing drink. If I’d been out on my own, would I have walked right on by? How many others had walked by Jeremy that evening?

Barbara Ehrenreich, in her classic memoir, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, writes: “Some odd optical property of our highly polarized and unequal society makes the poor almost invisible to their economic superiors.” (216) Ehrenreich is writing about the aftermath of her year-long journey trying to live on poverty-level wages. “You were where, doing what?” her colleagues asked her. For the professional-managerial class, the ones who make the big decisions and shape opinion, the poor truly are invisible.

In Acts 9, one story of Paul’s conversion describes how scales fell from his eyes and he could see again.

Dear Jesus, we are still blind. We see the rich and the famous, the bold and the beautiful. But you didn’t say you’d meet us there. You’re with Jeremy and a thousand, thousand others who lie on sidewalks and in back alleys and under bridges. Is it too late in the day for us to be healed? Have we asked one too many times to see? Come, Lord Jesus, come. May scales fall like rain from our eyes. Amen.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Evolution of God's Perceived Intentions

A guest blog by the Rev. Dr. George M. Ricker, Pastor Emeritus of University United Methodist Church, Austin, Texas

In a church periodical some time ago, an author criticizing a progressive view of the homosexual issue wrote: “God’s intentions for sexual behavior are expressed throughout the Bible in a unified voice starting with the creation story.” I had to respond to this obvious misreading of the biblical messages. What follows is my attempt to be clear about what is a non-unified voice about sexuality in the Bible.

As a start, let us ignore polygamy, Levirate marriage, concubinage, divorce, and male sexual freedom which hardly represent a unified voice. Instead, let us look at same-sex relationships from the perspective of the biblical writers limited version of what God intended.

God’s intention is imagined by the Hebrew writers, including Paul. We discover by historical analysis and later revelation that the writers were often wrong about God’s intention. Examples are numerous. The purity/dietary laws of Leviticus (chs.18&19) express what the writer thought was God’s intention: no eating of pork, no interbreeding of cattle, no wearing of clothes of different material, no male acting like a woman, etc. God’s intention suffered from the limited perspective of the writer.

Or, consider the Hebrew treatment of so-called enemies. God’s perceived intention was that all should be killed: men, women, children, cattle, etc. (1 Sam 15:3 ff. & many other passages). Again this perspective of God’s intention came from the limited understanding of a people in a war mode. Even the Psalmist said that God’s intention was to take the enemies children and dash their brains out against the stones.(Ps. 137:9) This is from a writer in Babylonian captivity who hated those who removed them from their homeland.

Think, too, of Paul’s view of women who thought that it was God’s intention that they should keep silent in the church (1 Cor. 14:34) as well as other restrictions. Would anyone affirm that all these represent God’s intention? In the course of time we have learned that God’s intention was not always what was once conceived, as noted above; or in same-sex sexual behavior. All this needs to be brought into the understanding of God clarifying God’s intention through a continuing revelation in the Jewish and Christian communities (and elsewhere) as historical situations change. Jesus saw that: “You have heard that it was said of old ... but I say to you ... .” (Matt 5:21-22)

In addition many writers (including the writer quoted above) play loose with the term “sin” as though this were simply a moral concept. My professor, Paul Tillich, has done more than any other theologian to clarify the meaning of sin. He says in The Shaking of the Foundations that sin is a state before it is an act. What is that state? Separation from self, others, and the Ground of Being (God). Apply that to the homosexual issue.

Is the homosexual separated from self by homosexual acts? Not if the homosexual is created that way. The evidence mounts that this is so. Is the homosexual separated from others? Not in same-sex committed, consensual relationships. Is the homosexual separated from the Ground of Being, from the creative process that brought us all into being? Not if that person is not a predator and is in a loving relationship.

Of course, all of us, heterosexuals and homosexuals, are at times separated in one or more of these ways. That separation may lead to immoral or inhumane acts or, as is common to most of us, we find socially acceptable ways of sinning. That is why “There is no one who is righteous, not even one ; ....” (Rom. 3:10, quoting Psalms 14 & 53) To quote homosexual acts simply as sin is a judgment made by those with a very narrow view of sin.

O that we all could be more loving, more accepting of our differences! Tillich’s word in a sermon, from the volume mentioned above, comes from God’s intention expressed in Jesus of Nazareth: “You are accepted!” I hear that word. I hope the homosexual hears that word. And all my readers! Would that I could sin no more, no more be separated from myself, my brothers and sisters, or from God! I and the rest of us are in constant need of forgiveness and acceptance in spite of.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Good Friday Reflections

Guest Blogger: Rev. Peter Michael Aguilar (Pastor, FUMC Laredo, Texas)

When I meet people and they find out that I live in Laredo, Texas, their concerns are either those of the hot temperature, or of the drug related violence on the border. Unfortunately both are very real concerns; the more pressing is related to drug violence.

As of January 2011, the drug related violence had claimed over 34,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon had taken office and over 15,000 lives in 2010 alone. It is not uncommon to meet people in Laredo who have been affected directly or indirectly by this turmoil. However, very little of the violence trickles into Laredo from our neighbors of Nuevo Laredo, due largely in part to the efforts of Homeland Security and local law enforcement. We share the burden of these struggles with Mexico in that drug sales amount to a $27 billion a year industry, profiting largely from sales in the United States. Besides illegal drugs there is also human trafficking and the sex slave industry.

As a pastor I try to be as the Apostle Paul teaches, “I have become all things to all people…,” which in my context includes those who work in government and law enforcement. They experience some of the worst of humanity. It is a challenge for them to encounter violence and return home to be a loving and caring spouse or parent. Helping them to process unreality through the biblical narrative and prayer nurtures healing and empowers them to live their faith with integrity. Allow me to share a story of how I experienced being all things to all people played out in another venue.

Earth Day 2011 also happened to fall on Good Friday. I was invited to participate in a Kayak Race on the Rio Grande with several other pastors from Laredo. Three pastors, including me, volunteered. The organizer of the event was sympathetic to the fact that Earth Day and Good Friday fell on the same day and asked if we were interested in having a prayer for peace on the Rio Grande before the race. We thought about inviting our fellow pastors from Nuevo Laredo to join us on a pontoon to lift up a prayer for peace. Earth Day/Good Friday arrived. Pastors Mike, Paul and I stood on the pontoon and waited for our colleagues who unfortunately never arrived. We later found out that some did not join us for fear of threats from Drug Cartels. We prayed for them, for those who sell the drugs, the drug consumers, and those under the oppression of violence.

Praying on that pontoon for peace was an act of subversion, much like Jesus’ journey to the cross was an act of subversion. Acts of subversion come in many forms. It can be the church militant that marches to raise awareness of injustice; it can be the Word prophetic that challenges our comfortable assumptions of how we live our faith. And, subversion can be the church incarnate where we labor to bring healing, relieve suffering and model peace in the midst of evil.

Abraham Joshua Heschel refers to prayer as the home for the soul. The greatest act of subversion against the principalities and powers of darkness is prayer. Prayer precludes anything we do in the name of Christ Jesus because it helps us discern the desires of God. It anchors our soul in the certain hope of God’s presence and gives us the confidence that nothing can separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord as Romans 8:37-39 teaches.

I invite you to do something subversive for Jesus. Let your act of subversion begin with prayer before all else.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Speaking of Immigration

After the last (Texas) legislative session and the raft of anti-immigrant bills, I’ve been thinking more about immigration lately—in particular, the wave of Hispanic immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border. Since many of the laws have been proposed by legislators who flash their Christian credentials, I’ve wondered whether one could really argue that harsh anti-immigration bills are Christian. (By the way, the sub-title of this blog could be: “How to Talk with your Fundamentalist Brother(Sister)-in-law about Immigration.”)

So I picked up a neat book, Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church and the Bible, by M. Daniel Carroll R., who teaches both at Denver Seminary and El Seminario Teologico Centroamericano in Guatemala, a Christian scholar with feet in both worlds, for some guidance.

Christians at the Border offers an overview of Hispanic immigration in the context of other immigrations to the U.S., especially in terms of its impact on cultural identity, economics and the church. This is followed by a survey of what the Bible has to say about immigration. There is, after all, a surprising wealth of material in both testaments about immigrants and refugees. He concludes with some implications and hopes for the future.

If you’re looking for something that lays out where we need to go legislatively or that recounts in detail the social and economic impact of Hispanic immigration, you’re not going to find it here. Carroll has a much more focused, but no less important purpose.

Christians at the Border,” he says, “above all else strives to motivate believers of the majority culture and Hispanics to begin thinking, talking, and acting as Christians in regard to immigration” (138). Given the heightened rhetoric of the last couple of years, perhaps Carroll might have reconsidered the notion of getting Christians to behave like Christians.

So how does this thesis actually play out? Let’s jump right to the heart of the matter, to the whole question of undocumented immigrants. Many Christians have argued that these folks are here illegally, they’re breaking the law and they should expect to suffer the consequences. As Carroll puts it at one point, “What is it about illegal that you don’t understand?”

However, Carroll rightly points out that the law, in this case an argument from Romans 13, is not the starting point for Christians. We begin with an appreciation of the myriad migration experiences of God’s people and the history in practice and in law of hospitality toward strangers and sojourners in the Old Testament. Then we look to the ministry of Jesus, particularly his ethic of compassion toward the hated Samaritans, as a model for how to behave toward the immigrant. While none of these Biblical examples translates into a particular law, the weight of the Biblical witness certainly tilts the table in a clear direction, toward grace and compassion.

After all of this as context, Carroll hopes that when we finally return to the issue of law, to the "confused contradictory and unfair set of laws" that constitutes our current immigration laws, we might be moved to ask a different question, namely, about whether we need a new set of laws based on theological, pragmatic and humanitarian concerns.

I hope that Carroll’s book gets a wide reading, especially in the conservative evangelical world. It’s always a good thing to remind those of us who call ourselves people of the book what the book actually says.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Dust-up in the Evangelical Blogger World

Sometimes my listening, pastoral side gets the better of me. The side that wants to hear people out, even if it’s something that I completely disagree with. For example, I’ve heard people say for years that the church—in this case the mainline church (that frankly needs a new name, because we’re really not “mainline” anymore)—must move beyond the issues of lesbians and gays. That there are more important issues out there. That calling lesbians and gays, many of whom are white, upper middle class, marginalized is a stretch. And so on.

And then I came across this. Mark Driscoll, hugely popular evangelical pastor of Mars Hill mega-church in Seattle, posted this little “gem” on Facebook: “So, what story do you have about the most effeminate anatomically male worship leader you've ever personally witnessed?”

I kid you not. It’s 2011, and a formidable leader in the mega-church world actually posted this question on his FB page, receiving 87 likes and 610 comments.

Rachel Held Evans, an excellent emergent Christian author, took Driscoll to task on her blog: “Mark Driscoll is a bully. Stand up to him.”

“Mark has developed a pattern of immaturity and unkindness that has remained largely unchecked by his church. In evangelical circles, he’s like the kid from high school who makes crude jokes at every opportunity, uses the words “gay” and “queer” to describe the things he most detests, encourages his friends to subject the unpopular kids to ridicule, and belittles the guys who aren’t “macho” or “manly” enough to be in his club.”

In a non-apology that followed his being called on the carpet by a host of angels in the evangelical blogger world, Driscoll explained the source of the question. His elders asked him to do better, to talk about “real issues with real content.” Which is an odd response in itself. Is the issue of gender identity and sexual orientation not a real issue? Are we not talking, after all, about real people who attend our churches?

After skimming my way through this strange exchange, I came away convinced that “the issues underlying the issues,” as Driscoll dubs them, are issues that most of us, evangelical and mainline, would love to shove under the carpet. We don’t really want to talk about gender and sex in the church, because, you know, they’re not polite topics. And there is so much shame associated with them for so many of us, that we have to move mountains even to engage the conversation. And so instead we join in “creative” theological rationalizations to shove the issue aside, claiming it’s not worthy of serious conversation. (By the way, Driscoll promises more talk about the issues and I have to give him credit for addressing them. However, based on what I’ve seen and heard, I have little hope that his take will move beyond exclusion and bigotry.)

However awkward and out of place this may feel in the church, this is a conversation that’s absolutely necessary. It’s a conversation that’s not going away and one where, frankly, culture is way of ahead of the churches. And it’s no more or less important than the dozens of other issues that the church is unwilling to face. Economic injustice and the growing obscene gap between the wealthiest and the poorest Americans. The untouchable U.S. Defense Budget and the growing prospect that we will have to start eating tanks. Ignoring our homeless brothers and sisters, most of whom are baptized Christians. Just to name a few.

We may need first to back up and create a safe space for conversation. But let’s not avoid the conversation altogether in the interest of preserving some kind of fake peace and unity that masks deeper divisions in the way we look at the world and that obscures the Biblical call to mercy and justice. My guess is that welcoming and affirming (reconciling) churches of every stripe, rather than being an unnecessary duplication of what every church should be or perhaps on some level already is, will be critical in the creation of that safe space for real dialogue about difficult issues.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Going Fast in Reverse

I’m a huge fan of Car Talk, both because I have a weakness for cars and I love to laugh. Some time ago, a “puzzler” was shared in which a guy with a very ordinary car challenged a local hotshot with a souped-up muscle car to a race. Somehow the regular car won. How? The race was run entirely in reverse and the regular car was geared such that it was able to outrun the muscle car.

I’m intrigued by the picture of two guys barreling down a street, necks craned around, running full speed in reverse. Sometimes I think that’s what the church, particularly the mainline church, has been doing for the last 100 years or so. Most of our movement is in one direction, toward the church.

Several weeks ago, we were sharing in a group of pastors about the calling of the church, and one Catholic layman said, “We have two movements in the church. Gathering and sending. We only do the first one fairly well and the second one we do poorly or not at all.”

What is the mission of the church? Surely it’s God’s mission, not ours, first of all. And it’s about the world, not the church. Ross Olivier put it well: “The real question is not whether the church can find its mission, but whether God’s mission can find a church.” We are not the end, but the means to the end, which is God’s good news to the poor, release for the prisoners, sight for the blind, releasing the broken and proclaiming God’s favor, to paraphrase Luke 4.

How are we doing at University UMC on those two movements? Are we just about gathering, or we about gathering and releasing for God’s mission?

The Church Council is engaged in a season of planning and reflection on our goals and objectives as a congregation for 2012. Our mission and justice ministries are meeting to discern where we might engage the movement of God’s justice. You’ll hear more about all of this later this summer. For now, I invite all of us, as followers of Jesus, to consider which way you’re moving.

It’s something I wrestle with each day. How can I get out of the office, away from the computer screen and engage in ministry? Over the past year, I’ve felt led toward our homeless ministries at UUMC, but also toward finding long term solutions for homelessness with Austin Interfaith and other pastors here in Austin. I have to carve that time out each month, protect it from encroachments by all kinds of good things and then show up with my sleeves rolled up ready to work.

What I’ve found is that the gathering-sending loop becomes the realm of blessing but only, and not surprisingly, when I actually enter the loop. Worship is enriched because I have spent time with others who hurt, and ministry with others becomes a holy time because I’ve been in worship.

I invite you into the loop of gathering and sending. And if you’re there, invite someone to join you. And be prepared for the surprising, transforming grace of God.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Does 'All Persons' Really Mean All?

Two weeks ago at the Southwest Texas Annual Conference, a petition to General Conference was presented by our Conference Church and Society Board. Here’s the text from The Book of Discipline with the proposed changes in bold.

¶ 4. Article IV. Inclusiveness of the Church—The United Methodist Church is a part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth. All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, economic condition, sexual orientation, or gender identity and expression shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking the vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection. In The United Methodist Church no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, status, economic condition, sexual orientation, or gender identity and expression.

We debated the motion in standard fashion—Mr. Roberts would have been proud. A lay person gave an excellent rationale for the changes. I also spoke in favor of the motion and the text of what I said is below. A young seminarian and candidate for ministry, Peter Borhauer, gave an emotional plea for inclusion. Here’s what I said, more or less:

"I understand that all of us are not on the same page in our theological understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Southwest Texas Conference is a big tent. However, I think all of us are on the same page with respect to offering radical hospitality. This was the theme of our opening worship service, it’s vital to the culture of growth and it’s the hallmark of our common life together.

"As we strive together with God to create this culture of growth, I hope and pray that we might include with specific language, all of God’s people, especially those in the LGBT community who have felt excluded from the UMC in the past. Young people with gay friends, parents of gays and LGBT people themselves are searching for faith communities that are truly inclusive. They’re watching us to see if we indeed embody the radical welcome of Jesus. May we have the courage to respond today! Thank you."

The speeches “for” were each followed by speeches against the motion. One pastor argued that including “gender identity and sexual orientation” would take away the prerogative of the pastor to decide who could and could not be members. A lay person from University UMC in San Antonio spoke about the difference, in her view, between “race, class, and gender” which are not sins and “homosexuality” which is a sin. She read one of the “clobber passages” in support of her view.

Following the debate, there were two different attempts to remove the motion from consideration, both of which failed. The final vote was 382 to 325 in favor of the petition to General Conference, or about 54% of those present.

Some other conferences who are opposed to this kind of language have observed that anyone can petition the General Conference, so why should we spend time in annual conferences debating these sorts of controversial motions. I would argue that this is exactly what holy conferencing is all about. Why should conference be reduced to the lowest common denominator of what we think everyone will agree on? And surely that the petition is coming from an annual conference in the South Central Jurisdiction is of great significance. I’m hoping that it signals that perhaps the times are a changin’ in the church and that we are ready to open our arms as wide as Jesus.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Letter to the Editor

A month or so ago, I was in a meeting at my local church and we were collectively bemoaning the Texas Legislature and the draconian proposed budget. One person commented that it's interesting that you always hear the preachers on the news announcing how some hurricane is God's judgment against gays or liberals or feminists. But you never hear that it's God's judgment against those who aren't taking care of the poor or the widows or the children. I began to play with the idea and the following letter to the editor was the result. It was published on April 27 in the Austin American-Statesman.

“With all of the wild fires breaking out in Texas, I’m surprised we haven’t heard from our brethren on the right who are quick to see disasters as God’s hand of judgment against personal/sexual sins. So I’ll make a pre-emptive strike with an alternative scenario and with all due respect to those who have lost homes and family.

“God has seen how Texans are scheming to treat the poor, the widows, the immigrants, the elderly and has unleashed fire and flames from the heavens, in fulfillment of the prophecy from Isaiah: 'Woe to you who make unjust policies and draft oppressive legislation, who deprive the powerless of justice and rob poor people—my people—of their rights, who prey upon the widowed and rob orphans. What will you do on that Day of reckoning when disaster comes from far away?' (10:1-3)”

I added my church email address to the letter and so the emails arrived before I was even aware that my letter had been published. The responses divided about equally between those who agreed with the basic point and those who found it sadly wanting.

I received some truly wonderful compliments, including one person who had about given up on the church, but would be at University UMC soon to visit. Another came from an avowed “secular humanist” who said my letter had caused her to rethink her views.

Several came from conservatives who were unhappy that a “reverend” was espousing political views. (Can you get much more political than “the kingdom of God”?) And there were a few who misunderstood the intended satire and thought I really had it in for the good people of West Texas. (I don’t.)

Only one person who disagreed took up the verse from Isaiah, which I thought was telling. That verse typifies prophetic discourse, and it’s a line of thinking sadly ignored by Christians who must believe that free market capitalism, low taxes and no safety net are in the Bible somewhere. (And I suppose if they follow pseudo-historian David Barton, they may feel entirely justified in their fiction.)

Becky Garrison, a Christian writer and a satirist, understands satire as the jester to the king, the one who keeps those in power honest. There’s satire in scripture: Amos marrying Gomer. I wonder, though, in a period of such heightened tension between opposing sides, does satire have a place in Christian discourse?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Is Reconciling Reconciling?

I appreciate the opportunity to speak at this Reconciling Service. I’m grateful that you’ve created space for talking about what it means to be a “reconciling” church. One of the definitions of salvation in the Old Testament is the creation of a wide space and I hope that’s what we’re doing in our churches—creating that space for real engagement of what it means to be reconciling.

The very first thing I want to do is give thanks for the reconciling movement of lay people in Austin who have faced down so much opposition and so many obstacles to create communities of reconciliation in a city that, while progressive on the surface, has many deep pockets of prejudice and much work to do on reconciliation. I know that George Ricker and Chuck Merrill, my predecessors at UUMC took tremendous heat for welcoming gays and lesbians to University church and I’m forever grateful for their brave witness.

I hope you’ll forgive me if my “sermon” this evening is not a formal or even an informal exegesis of the second chapter of Ephesians. The quick and dirty version is that for Jews and Gentiles in Paul’s time, reconciliation meant that they would no longer be enemies, but in right relationship, in a mutually productive and enriching relationship. Ephesians 2 and so many other passages of scripture are the horizon toward which we head in any kind of reconciliation work.

Reconciliation is a gift from God, but it comes with marching orders: namely, to partner with God in creating the kind of community that we see in the life and teachings of Jesus. It’s difficult work, as those groups, for example, gays and straights, who have been separated learn how to be in a community, how to love and trust each other, how to worship and serve together, how to be healers and to receive healing.

Our beloved DS, Bobbi Kaye, says that all United Methodist churches are reconciling churches. Becoming reconciling should not be a scary project for us. The United Methodist church brings together so many different traditions, because reconciliation is in our DNA. Not that we’re done with it by any means. For all of us, even those churches that have been reconciling twenty years or more, reconciliation is still unfinished work; whether it’s our relationship with the GLBTQ community, with racial and ethnic communities, with the disabled and the poor, with all those who have found that they don’t have the right key to get in the front door of our churches, we are none of us done and now dear God please give us some other more meaningful work to do. I don’t think we’re done at University just because we had a vote; I know that I’m not done and I’m guessing that God has much work to do on each one of us.

At University church, reconciliation has taken concrete form in the work of the laity over the last 10 or 12 years. A small, active group of leaders have shared with Sunday school classes, home rooms, UMW circles, basically any group of people in the church who would listen, about the real life experiences of gays and lesbians. They fielded difficult questions, shared personal stories, shed tears together, prayed and over time, almost all of our small groups at University voted to become reconciling. Those reconciling groups were like the starter kit for the fermentation of reconciliation and without them becoming a reconciling congregation would have been a very different and much more difficult project.

This past fall and winter, our reconciling committee stepped up the pace in preparation for a vote on affiliating with RMN in February. They prepared some excellent discussions, held a movie night, visited Sunday school classes, even sponsored a lecture from Dr. L. Michael White on the clobber passages. We had over 250 people stay after church for a called Church Conference with our DS, Bobbi Kaye and almost 95 % of those in attendance voted to affiliate with RMN.

The opposition to the vote, which popped up along the way, was unexpected, at least from my perspective. With a few exceptions, no one who opposed “reconciliation” was opposed to the participation of gays and lesbians in every aspect of church life. I know … you’re wondering, well, if you’re okay with that, then why would you be in opposition to reconciling, right? Did I say that reconciliation is confusing and messy?

What I found was that the opposition fell roughly into two groups. The first group felt that we were already reconciling and saw no benefit from our participating in RMN. Our arguments that this was partnering with others, working against the exclusionary language of the Discipline, all of that fell flat. My pastoral intuition tells me that some of the opposition probably had nothing to do with any of this, but it’s difficult to suggest this to members of your congregation without sounding condescending.

The second group was opposed to making a public statement about who we are. Our arguments that proclamation is the essence of what it means to be the church, that we must say out loud where we stand again fell flat. One variation of this position was the idea that becoming “reconciling” would be a turnoff to young people. I actually found that the opposite was true—we have young people coming to University and wanting to be part of a declared reconciling community. Last week a couple who will join the church later this month told me that if we had voted against “reconciling” they would have continued their search for a church home elsewhere.
The recent book unchristian, by Gabe Lyons and David Kinnamon, used the Barna group research to detail the main reasons why young people in the age group 18 to 35 do not attend church anywhere. The perception that most churches are anti-gay is a huge turnoff to most young adults. Now I’m not sure I’m ready to write the book on reconciling as a church growth strategy, but it’s worth reflecting on all of this in these declining times.

When we became a reconciling church, two UM pastors, both of whom are intelligent and compassionate, made fun of the decision. One wrote to me: “After the decision, UUMC will still be the same white, upper middle class educated university church it was before. Nothing will change.” While on a very superficial level that may be true, it misses the powerful healing dynamic of welcoming others with open arms. That’s what folks experience in a reconciling church and to make that any less than revolutionary in our day is to deeply misunderstand the dynamics of reconciliation. To say that we accept you and welcome you, but … you must become heterosexual or you must live a life of celibacy, which is the stance of the vast majority of congregations … that is not welcoming, it’s barely toleration and it’s certainly not love. There is no other group in the church that we single out for this kind of attention. And for someone who perhaps has only recently begun to understand and accept their own sexuality, this stance cannot be anything other than judgmental and painful.

For reconciliation to happen, there is work for each of us to do. I think it’s time for the “gay issue” if it’s even appropriate to call it “the gay issue,” to come out of the closet in our churches and in our annual conferences. It’s time for us to study the stories of gay men and women who have been persecuted and taunted for their sexual orientation and who come to church for sanctuary and healing and find more hurt. If we’re ever to make any progress on reconciling, these stories need to be heard and the “Believe out Loud” curriculum should be standard curriculum for our adult Sunday school classes.

Over the years, I’ve found so many moving testimonies to the complexity of being gay or lesbian and navigating the church. Rev. Dawson Taylor is just one. Taylor was a UMC pastor, but transferred several years ago to the UCC, which has become an all too familiar scenario. This is part of an address that he made to the Texas Conference at a “Breaking the Silence” luncheon.

“The march for justice is long and tiring. I am certain that there are times when you can begin to wonder if it is making any difference whatsoever. But hear me out: When Michelangelo was asked how he was able to carve his great sculpture of David, he responded: ‘I saw the angel in the marble and chiseled until I set it free.” My friends, we see the Church that God intends in the marble and we must continue to chisel until we set it free. Every time you stand up to a heterosexist joke, you chisel another piece. Every time you tell someone that it is impossible to love the sinner and hate the sin, you chisel another piece. Every time you look into the eyes of a young gay person and say ‘I believe in you,’ you chisel another piece. Every time you make a stand that my Annual Conference, the birthplace of my faith, will not be in the grips of fear or untruth, you chisel another piece.”

I remain hopeful tonight, because each one of sitting here has moved along that toleration continuum, each one of us has, by the grace of God, moved from somewhere around mere tolerance or perhaps even rejection to appreciation and celebration of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons. May God grant each of us the courage to take up our chisels, and guided by God’s spirit of truth and love, begin carving out a new path that truly reflects the all-embracing love of God for all of God’s children.

(A sermon given on Sunday, May 1, at First United Methodist Church, Austin, Texas at a Reconciling Ministries worship service.)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Torture is a Moral Issue (part one)

Last month, I attended a conference at Duke University, “Toward a Moral Consensus against Torture.” The conference was organized by Prof. Amy Laura Hall, who is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School and a member of our own Southwest Texas Annual Conference.

The first keynote speaker was George Hunsinger, Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and an ordained Presbyterian minister. Hunsinger began his keynote address with a quote from Dr. King that has stuck with him over 40 years: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” The clear reference was to the church’s almost complete silence in the face of the Bush administration’s authorization of torture and abuse.

Hunsinger waited and listened for months after the revelations at Abu Ghraib for the church to say something. Hearing little public outcry, he moved to create a national organization, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), rooted in the singular thesis that torture is always immoral, illegal and ineffective. They have an excellent website at

One of the discouraging realities about U.S.-sponsored torture is that it has not ended under the Obama administration. Guantanamo has not been closed and even when it does close, it appears that some prisoners will be kept in other facilities indefinitely. Obama also pledged to close the secret prisons, and while some may close, others will continue. Other than lower level personnel, no one in command has been held accountable to the torture that took place in the military prison at Abu Ghraib.

Hunsinger founded NRCAT as a way to focus on torture as a moral issue. The question for Hunsinger is not whether torture “works” nor how our use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” might affect world opinion of the United States. His point is that torture is morally wrong. Torture and inhuman treatment of prisoners not only harms the victim, it also harms the one who inflicts torture. Our common religious heritage values the treatment of all persons with decency and respect.

For me, the most alarming reality about torture is that the vast majority of Christians condone the torture of suspected terrorists. In a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of Americans gave thumbs up to torture. 79 percent of white evangelicals okayed torture under certain circumstances; 63 percent of mainline Christians approved torture. One of the oddest relationships the study illuminated was that the more one went to church, the more likely they were to approve torture.

How did we get to this place, where the ones who follow the Prince of Peace approve of the cruel and degrading treatment of other human beings? Why has the church been unable to shape the moral values of its members?

My prayer is that the church, both members and leaders, will find its spine and reflect its fundamental conviction in the intrinsic worth of all human beings, in whom we see the hand of the creator, the face of Christ and the breath of the Spirit.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Letter to UMC Colleagues in the SWTX Conference of the UMC

Last week, I sent this letter out to over 350 churches in our Annual Conference. The project was a collaboration with Texas Impact, and it was signed by leaders of University UMC in Austin, Texas. Texas Impact is an advocacy group that many UMC churches support and they have been working tirelessly in this legisltaive session for a budget that does not mortgage our future with senseless budget cuts. Feel free to use any or all.

Dear Colleagues in Ministry,

Along with University UMC leaders, I write to you today to urge you to speak out as United Methodists against the grave injustice the Texas Legislature is preparing to inflict on millions of Texans through a series of desperate budget cuts.

As a United Methodist church in Austin, with deep connections to state government, we feel a calling to observe the activities of the
Legislature and report them to our sisters and brothers who share our concerns for the welfare of Texas. As I’ve listened to stories from parishioners on the impact of these cuts, I was moved to write this letter and underwrite its cost.

Texas is facing an historic budget shortfall, precipitated not only by the global economic downturn but also by tax cuts and other funding decisions the Texas Legislature made in recent years that are now proving unsustainable. In the face of this shortfall,
lawmakers propose to cut vital services and programs. Just a few examples of the cuts being proposed include:

 A nearly $10 billion cut to local school districts that would eliminate funding for teacher incentive pay, high school completion
programs, technology, and pre-kindergarten grants, and could cost more than 100,000 public school teacher jobs and another 140,000 private-sector jobs.
 Ten percent payment cuts for nursing homes, doctors and hospitals in the state’s Medicaid program, resulting in loss of health
care for millions of children, the elderly, and people with disabilities.
 Ten percent cuts to community college and state universities, complete de-funding of four community colleges, and a dramatic
reduction in student financial aid.
 Eleven percent cut in the adult prison system (Texas Department of Criminal Justice)—coupled with a 21 percent cut in
community supervision funding that would eliminate much of the recent progress made in funding treatment initiatives and other
alternatives to incarceration.
 Child abuse prevention would be cut by 84 percent, and paid prison chaplains would be completely eliminated.

Many lawmakers and legislative leaders would have us believe that these draconian cuts are made necessary by a scarcity of resources—but in fact the cuts simply perpetuate longstanding inequities in our state. Texas ranks 46th out of the 50 states in per capita tax revenue, and 47th in per capita tax expenditures. We don’t spend much on meeting even basic human needs, because those of us who are blessed with abundant resources have not been asked to share that abundance for the common good.

University United Methodist Church stands ready to provide additional information to any churches inside or outside of our
annual conference who wish it. Feel free to copy and distribute the enclosed fact sheet from Texas Impact. We also can offer resources to help your church be an effective advocate, such as providing volunteers to help escort your members to the Capitol for legislative visits.

Above all, I strongly urge you to call on members of your congregation and visit your state senator and representative. They need to hear your voice, the voices of their constituents, calling for a courageous budget strategy that includes, among other things, using the “Rainy Day Fund,” and raising additional revenue. And they need to hear our support that we will cheer them on in the face of critics whose only vision for our state is more cuts.

As United Methodists, you and I live out of a tradition of abundance. God’s inexhaustible gifts, God’s boundless love, God’s enduring vision for humanity far exceed our imagination. May you and I become part of a new wave that calls us away from scarcity thinking, and back to the inexhaustible gifts of God, the rich blessings of God that we know first-hand as citizens of this great state and the sacred
obligation of caring for our most vulnerable, for the ones who will be most hurt by these projected cuts.

With Peace and Hope,

John Elford, Clyde Bennett, Linda Nichols, Patty Arnold, Melody Chatelle, David Woodruff, and Diane Ireson

Monday, February 7, 2011

Uganda and LGBTQI

Over the last few months (through a mutual friend), I've become internet friends with Kathy Baldock, an evangelical Christian and a straight ally for LGBTQI Christians caught up in the tensions of wanting to stay connected with their evangelical roots.

Kathy has been keeping up with the fate of LGBTQI persons in Uganda and exploring the connection with anti-gay activists from the United States, like Scott Lively, who have stirred the pot. Her most recent post quotes at length a piece from the Ugandan Newspaper, Rolling Stone. The author, Muhame Giles, is writing what is clearly a propaganda piece about the death of David Kato (the Advocacy Officer for Sexual Minorities) in some of the most homophobic language imaginable.

My genteel side wondered if publishing Giles' article was really necessary. On reflection, I think it is absolutely necessary for us to see what kind of environment the LGBTQI community faces every day in Uganda.

I deeply appreciate Kathy's work and I hope that, as part of our reconciling ministry, we at UUMC can give whatever support and help our brothers and sisters on the conservative evangelical wing of the church need as they seek justice for all God's children.

If you read Kathy's blog, be forewarned that there is some very rough language in the article by Giles. With that said, here's the link:

Why Bother Becoming "Reconciling"? (part two)

Here’s my take on some of the questions that I’ve heard as I’ve attended Sunday school classes and meetings sponsored by our reconciling committee at University UMC. I welcome your feedback!

Won’t we lose people at UUMC, particularly young people, if we become affiliated with RMN (Reconciling Ministries Network)?

Any time the church takes a stand on a hot button issue, there will be fallout. For years, University UMC has been openly and actively welcoming toward the GLBT community in worship, classes and leadership. I’m sure this has turned some folks away. It’s worth pointing out, though, that Jesus did not call us to a popularity contest. We’re called to live out the gospel, and we’re warned by Jesus himself that when we do that, there may be folks who walk away.

Last year, a kind of futures committee (change committee) at UUMC identified attracting and involving young people and young families in the life of the congregation as a key goal. As I’ve interviewed young adults and families in our congregation and those who’ve arrived recently as visitors, I’m finding a constant. Young people (20s and 30s) who come our way are here because we are a progressive, inclusive congregation. Several young people have said that we are far more likely to lose young people if we are not perceived as open and welcoming toward gays and lesbians. Last week, in fact, we had seven people join the church, and most of them were inspired to join because of our stance for social justice and our move toward affiliation with the reconciling network of churches.

What are the implications for our congregation if we affiliate with Reconciling Ministries Network?

By joining RMN, we would become part of a network of churches that are working for full equality in membership, marriage and ordination for all of God’s people. (Actually, there are several other guiding principles for RMN—their website,, is worth checking out.) This does not mean that UUMC would conduct same sex unions, nor does it mean that UUMC’s pastors would be participating in the ordination of gay clergy. Those are entirely separate issues that are not related to or implied by joining RMN. We hope and pray for that day to come and we commit ourselves to work for change and transformation within our church structures. By joining RMN, we’re publically committing ourselves to working for justice with and for the LGBT community. That may not seem like much, but it’s a key difference. What was once simply assumed would now, upon affiliating with RMN, become an open and intentional commitment from this day forward for our entire congregation and its mission and ministry.

Further, we hope that our joining RMN would be a great encouragement to other classes, groups and congregations within the greater church who may be pondering taking a public stand on their commitment to the LGBT community. It would be natural for our church to take leadership in the conference and the denomination on this issue.

Finally, one of the cool things about the reconciling movement is that it is ecumenical. We’re not just about United Methodists reconciling, but we join with a whole host of Christian denominations who have taken a public stance of openness and affirmation toward gays and lesbians.

Finally …

Check out Joshunda Sanders’ blog, . Joshunda is the religion editor at the Austin American-Statesman and she’s written a piece on our conversation toward a vote about affiliation with RMN. You may have noticed Joshunda in attendance this past weekend at UUMC, working on the issue of reconciling and a story about John Arndt, whose band Gungor was recently nominated for a Grammy!

So, where do you stand on joining the reconciling network? (I promise, I’m not making a commission!)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why bother becoming "reconciling"?

Over the last few months, University UMC members have been engaging in more focused discussions about whether to become a reconciling congregation. In February, we will probably vote on the matter, pending the decision of our Church Council. As your new pastor, I had hoped to stay in the background. After all, this is a movement of lay people at UUMC that long preceded my arrival. A reconciling committee has been active at the church for the last ten years and has led to a number of classes and groups in the church becoming reconciling. However, I soon realized that my silence might be interpreted as lack of support for the initiative, so I’ve decided to write a few blogs for you to respond to over the next month in the hope that we might be able to reach greater clarity together on issues and questions that I’ve heard in the hallways and Sunday School classes.

Perhaps the most common question is, why are we bothering to do this at all? Aren’t we already reconciling in everything but name? What do we have to gain (or lose) by becoming a reconciling congregation?

There are several answers to this question, but the strongest to me is that in a time when gay bashing, violence, suicides and discrimination are still part of our daily news, the church must speak with a strong voice. The UMC, through The Book of Discipline, has spoken with a divided voice. It affirms the sacred humanity of homosexual people, but also declares homosexual practice incompatible with Christian teaching. Consequently, the strongest way for UUMC to proclaim univocally what we believe and affirm a different way of relating to the LGBT community is to affiliate with Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) and add the word “reconciling” to our description of our church.

What does it mean to be “reconciling” and to affiliate with RMN? For our church, it means we’re we are a safe place for gays, lesbians, transgendered and bisexuals to worship, to grow in their faith, and to lead and serve Christ. Further, it means we are connected with other like-minded churches in a strong, supportive network and that we have affirmed a ministry that we intend to last when we’re long gone.

Reconciling is surely where UUMC has been for the last twenty years, but it’s been largely an unspoken commitment. Perhaps it’s comparable to a couple who came recently to me to be married. They were already living together, so my question was, why get married? Their answer underscored a basic desire to make a public commitment and to take their own commitment to each other to the next step.

For UUMC, already a church open to ministry to and with the LGBT community, affiliating with RMN seems like the logical next step. RMN is a Wesleyan movement that seeks the full inclusion of all God’s children. They’re committed to working for changes in the exclusionary language of our church’s polity. And they’re more broadly committed to ending racism, sexism and economic injustice, oppressive forces that UUMC has historically stood against.

As your pastor, what I hear underneath the surface of some conversations about reconciling ministries is also a fear of change. What will this new ministry mean for attracting new members or our relations with other churches in our conference or for members in the pews? I know that you don’t need to be reminded that any commitment that steps out into the unknown is a bit frightening. Nevertheless, I take courage in the truth that UUMC has been down the justice road before, that God saw the church through and that when we take a stand for the gospel truth, God’s word to us is clear: Do not fear. I will be with you even to the end of the earth.