How to Fight for Change Without Being Mean

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately, as I do more and more writing on this page, as I try to do more and more advocacy, AND as we prepare to launch a progressive community site for the city. There are some truths that I operate from, that seem to be at odds with each other:

  • Silence is not an option.
  • Bad ideas, policies, and actions must be challenged.
  • Change only happens when either the leaders decree it (top-down) or when enough people want it (bottom-up).
  • Evil must be challenged. (And yes, there are “evil” acts and other things in the world.*)
  • People themselves are not evil.
  • Satire and snark are sometimes the best way to call out bad ideas, bad policies, and bad actions.
  • We are all part of the human race, and brothers and sisters because of that.
  • You don’t mistreat your brothers and sisters.
  • Hate is not an option.

So, on the one hand, we have to be active in the fight against the bad, willing to call out others and take unpopular stands, hoping to win enough people over to our side to effect change from the bottom-up. On the other hand, we must do it in such a way that we do not hate, we must not turn those we oppose into the Other, and we must remember that ultimately we are one family.

This is hard. To do this well and consistently is really, really hard.

But we must find a way.

So, here are some guidelines I’m adopting for myself, and possibly for this new site I’m helping launch:

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Matt Bevin Asks the State To “Accommodate” Discrimination

I really don’t get what is so hard to understand: the First Amendment gives you the right to practice your own religion, but not to harm or discriminate against others. As I pointed out in this earlier post, using a “religious freedom” argument in this way is both incorrect and ultimately harmful to religion itself.

And yet, Matt Bevin doesn’t get it. He somehow believes that being a Christian gives you the right to pick and choose which legal requests you will accept. Years ago it was inter-racial marriage; now it’s gay marriage. In both cases, though, the real word is simple: discrimination.

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This Use of Religious Freedom Is Wrong … and Dangerous

We’re all aware of the recent attempts by many across the country to use “religious freedom” as an argument for various actions. Whether it is denying service to certain people at retail establishments, or refusing to fill prescriptions for contraceptives at a pharmacy, or turning away couples wishing to get marriage licenses, the argument has been the same:

My religious beliefs do not support these actions by others, and by being forced to do so, my religious freedom is violated.

At first inspection, this argument seems to have merit. It sounds like government-imposed coercion, which has been at the heart of many religious freedom fights through the centuries. And as someone whose predecessors in the faith were punished and killed in the name of religious coercion, I can tell you that religious freedom is one of the Constitutional rights that I hold most dear.

But, even as I hold that right close, I feel that I must be completely clear when I say —

This use of the “religious freedom” argument is a flim-flam straw man that is deliberately disingenous and deceitful. It is a selfish power play, used to deny others their own rights. But it is also a DANGEROUS argument, that will ultimately come back to haunt those who use it.

More below the fold.

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The point of religious freedom is the right to practice your religion without interference from the government, or to choose to practice no religion at all with no coercion from the government. The wording of the amendment is a marvel of balance and succinctness:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Over the years, like much of the Constitution, we have had to work out the parameters of that statement within the context of the times. School prayer, city-sponsored creches, the wearing or not wearing of certain clothing — all have had to be weighed and discussed to find that balance of neither endorsing nor preventing.

In this case, though, the argument is not about one person’s practice of their faith. It is about that person’s understanding of right and wrong causing harm to another person.

An extreme example: suppose my church believed in the sacrifice of virgins? Would freedom of religion mean that my church could choose someone for the sacrifice, then proceed to kill them? Even more, would freedom of religion mean that my church could choose some random person outside the church and kill them?

Is this a silly example? Yes … and no. The example is outré; the principle is not. “MY religion allows me to prevent YOU from living a normal life or carrying out a normal activity that you are legally allowed to do.”

It’s all about Teh Gay — but as Rachel Maddow and others have repeatedly pointed out, this use of religious freedom can be used for a multitude of situations. The obvious example is inter-racial marriage, which was blocked on religious grounds for many decades. How about inter-religion marriage? How about serving food to Muslims? How about refusing to fill a prescription for depression medication, because my religion says that there is no such thing? You may say that these are silly examples, but a year ago I would have told you that there was no way anyone would allow county clerks to refuse service to ANYONE on the basis of the clerk’s religion … but North Carolina just passed such a law.

And now we come to why this is not only wrong, but dangerous. This use of the “religious freedom” argument is so blatantly illogical and prejudiced that it makes reasonable people just throw up their hands. As it spreads and is not called out by the so-called religious leaders across the country (and indeed is cheered on by some of them), it causes non-religious people to assume that religious people are not only incapable of serious thought, but are actually dangerous to society.

At some point, there will be a REAL threat to religious freedom … and no one will pay any attention, because we will have become the fools who cried “wolf” in order to perpetuate our own prejudices. And a key civil right, one of the key contributions of our country to democratic ideals, will be lost.

I am not a “religious leader.” I am just a person of faith, a writer, who sees this for the sham that it is, and who is willing to stand up and say so. May those with greater pulpits and readerships than I, also sound the alarm, and let everyone know that “freedom of religion” does not mean “freedom to hate.”

Tying the Hands of God

If you grew up going to some sort of church Bible class, you probably remember getting old enough to ask those questions that drive the teacher crazy: Could God make something so big he couldn’t pick it up? If God can do anything, could he destroy himself? Nothing blows up a class faster than a good paradox, and we certainly enjoyed our paradoxes (paradi?).

This week, though, we come to one of the more puzzling, and ultimately one of the saddest, questions like this in the New Testament: If God is the All-Powerful, can a group of humans tie God’s hands? And the answer, surprisingly, is Yes.

We’re in Mark 6. Jesus has been traveling the land, teaching, healing, and doing various acts of power. He decides its time to return home to Nazareth, and on the Sabbath he goes to the local synagogue to teach.

We all know the story — the locals are astounded, they ask where he learned all this … why, isn’t this just the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother to that whole brood? Who does he think he is, anyway? We get the great proverb about a prophet being honored everywhere but in their hometown and in their own family.

But here’s the verse-and-a-half that just stopped me when I read them today:

He could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Wow. Just … wow. The same person who had been causing a sensation across the land, who right before this had not only cast an army of demons out of the Gerasene man, but had raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead — that same Jesus could not act in his hometown, apparently because of their unbelief.

I don’t know about you, but this is both disturbing and troubling. Disturbing, because it creeps toward that most hateful of judgments heard in churches: “You didn’t get what you prayed for because your faith wasn’t strong enough.” I despise that comment, as it puts the burden for God to act on us and our faith rather than on God and God’s goodness and judgment. I don’t think that’s the lesson to be gained here.

No, I think there’s a different lesson, and a troubling one. The reason Jesus seemingly had his hands tied in this setting was not faith that was too small; it was unwillingness to believe that God might come in a package we’re not expecting. It was the inability of the people to see God in the familiar, the known, the common, or the unexpected. They looked at Jesus, and none of them expected God to show up.

You know why that’s troubling? Because we all do it. We go to church expecting the same old same old, instead of being open to the possibility that God might be present to us in a new way. We listen to our friends, or the proclaimer, or our partner, or the teacher, and God is present, but we miss it because we’re too focused on their clothes, or their mannerisms, or the fact that they make less money than we do.

Here was a person through whom God (or something) was doing amazing, powerful stuff — and all anyone there could talk about was Jesus’s relatives. It is one of the saddest moments in life, and it happens over and over: God was there, and no one noticed.

So, can you tie the hands of God? I think the answer is this: God doesn’t force God-self on anyone. If we don’t believe God is, or God can, or God cares, then the effect may be that we get exactly what we expected: nada. And, God may not show up in exactly the form we’re expecting, so openness to God includes openness to God in the familiar or the unexpected.

Let’s not be like those friends of Jesus and his family. Let’s not tie the hands of God.

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This is one of a series called “Reflections on the Lections,” which posts each Wednesday and discusses one of the passages for that Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary readings. When I have enough of them, I’ll post an index. This one is for Year B, Pentecost + 6, Ordinary 14B.

Lection Reflection: Is God a Communist?

Who said this?

Nothing left over to the one with the most,
Nothing lacking to the one with the least.

Are you sitting there, saying to yourself “wow, that sure sounds like Marx. Didn’t I read that in college?”
Well, sort of, but not exactly. Here is the Karl Marx quote:

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

So, if Marx didn’t say our opening quote, who did? Well, guess what — it’s our friend Paul, writing to the Christians at Corinth, in one of this week’s lections, II Corinthians 2: 7-15. The above version is from “The Message,” and has this graf in front of it:

So here’s what I think: The best thing you can do right now is to finish what you started last year and not let those good intentions grow stale. Your heart’s been in the right place all along. You’ve got what it takes to finish it up, so go to it. Once the commitment is clear, you do what you can, not what you can’t. The heart regulates the hands. This isn’t so others can take it easy while you sweat it out. No, you’re shoulder to shoulder with them all the way, your surplus matching their deficit, their surplus matching your deficit. In the end you come out even. As it is written,
   Nothing left over to the one with the most,
   Nothing lacking to the one with the least.

Paul is pointing out to them that the Macedonians, as poor as they were, had still wanted to give SOMETHING to help other poor Christians. Titus then asked the Corinthians to join in, and they had promised to do so. Now Paul wants them to finish what they started.

We’ve all heard, I’m sure, countless sermons about giving that reference this chapter. And indeed, there is much rich ground here: Christ’s giving his all for us, the example of the Macedonians, the fact that the giving of the heart came before the giving of the money.

And yet, I’d like to focus for just a moment on this last idea — the idea of the rich-right-now sharing with the poor-right-now, followed by the reverse. It seems obvious that Paul is saying that them’s-that-got should be helping out them’s-that-ain’t. Why? In order to stand “shoulder to shoulder with them all the way.”

But then he says “their surplus matching your deficit.” What surplus? Didn’t we just say that they had a deficit? How can they share back with me, now?

Well, I’ll wager that even the very poor have something to bring to the table. It might be skills and talents, it might be willingness to work, it might be wisdom and insights that are not at first visible.

The point is, we’re all in this together. We share what we can, they share what they can. At some point, the situations may be reversed: we may be monetarily poor, and someone else will have to help us. It doesn’t matter which way the giving flows today, because “in the end you come out even.”

We in America believe so much in our independence, that the idea of actually standing with one another across a power or money divide is difficult for us. I would posit that for many of us, it would be much easier to give $100 to someone on our same social strata than to give that same $100 to someone much poorer than us.

And one more thing — in this passage, there are two graces involved, the grace to give and the grace to receive. Both are to be done in humility and gratitude, because you know what? We’re all in this together, and in the end, you come out even.

Is God a communist, or even a socialist? If you’re asking if God, or Paul, would necessarily support the entire system that eventually took over Russia and China, I’d suspect the answer is No.
But if you walked up to Paul and said “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” Paul might nod approvingly. We need to own the fact that no matter who we are, we have a surplus in something. With that surplus comes responsibility. It’s up to each of us to see what that means in our own lives.

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Tall People and God

I’m a big fan of the early Saturday Night Live sketches (perhaps because I’m old enough to have watched them the first time they aired!). One of the great catch-phrases of those first seasons was the opening of the Weekend Update with Chevy Chase dead-panning, “I’m Chevy Chase … and you’re not.”

In this week’s lections, we come across a scripture that seems as if God is saying to some of us, “I’m God … and you’re not.” And according to the Psalmist, one of the main targets of God’s catch-phrase is … tall people.

“Wait, what? God’s got it in for tall people? He doesn’t like basketball? What is this, payback for Short People?”

Hold on — before you leap to conclusions, let me explain. It’s a play on words — just like the Psalmist does in Psalm 138:6:

For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.

Most anyone reading this verse would catch the first contrast, between the “highness” of God and the “lowliness” of the lowly. What you may not know, however, is that the word translated “haughty” is actually the Hebrew word for “high” or “tall.” The same word can mean tall in stature, high or lofty in position, or “tall” in one’s own mind — that is, proud.

It’s like saying someone is a Big Man on Campus; you’re using “big” not to refer to their physical attribute, but to their social status. Unless, that is, you use air quotes; then you’re saying they’re a legend in their own mind.

So, a better translation of Psalm 138:6 might be

For though the LORD is at the top of the org chart, he pays attention to and cares about the persons on the bottom rungs of the ladder. But the ones think and act like THEY are at the top? From those people, he keeps his distance.

We don’t talk much about the Seven Deadly Sins these days — but it seems pretty clear that pride, self-importance, haughtiness, whatever you want to call it, puts distance between us and God. If we are “tall” in our own eyes, we are probably going to have to be “made low” before we will truly enjoy communion with the Lord.

And one other note: if God pays attention to the lowly, what does it mean if we ignore them? Even worse, if we take advantage of them, or abuse them? I suspect that if we want to be truly Godly, then we’d better pay attention to the things God pays attention to.

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This is one of a series called “Reflections on the Lections,” which posts each Wednesday and discusses one of the passages for that Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary readings. When I have enough of them, I’ll post an index. This one is for Year B, Pentecost + 2, Proper 5, Ordinary 10 (depending on which system you use).

“Brother, Are You Saved?”

If you were to ask most church members the most well-known verse in the Bible, they would immediately respond “John 3:16.” A high percentage of them could surely quote it, as well:

For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but should have eternal life.

If you were to then ask them what this verse is about, many would use the word “saved” in their answer: “It’s about getting saved!” Saved from what? “Why, from hell, of course!”

Here’s a thought: what happens if you use a different helping verb? Could this verse be about “becoming saved” instead? And what does “saved” really mean, anyway? In this week’s Reflection on the Lections, let’s take a look at the use of the word “saved” in the New Testament, and see if it can inform our study of John 3.

The word usually translated “saved” is sozo in the Greek, from a root word soz meaning “safe.” If you look up the meaning of sozo in most reference works, you’ll see an entry such as this:

  • To save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction
  • To save a suffering one (from perishing), i.e. one suffering from disease, to make well, heal, restore to health
  • To preserve one who is in danger of destruction, to save or rescue

The problem is that most of us, when we hear the word “rescue” or “save,” think of plucking someone out of the way of danger. In other words, we think of a moment-in-time event. And in some cases, that is exactly the right way to think about it.

But are there not other ways to think about this? Even rescues sometimes take a long time. And what of that second meaning above: “to make well, heal, restore to health.” Is every healing instantaneous? Or can it involve a process?

It is time we expand our idea of “saved” and “salvation” to include more than a one-time purchase of fire insurance. If the life God intends for us only begins when we die, then is this life just a cruel waiting room in some eternal bus station?

For some time, whenever I hear the word “saved” used in a Biblical context, I substitute “made whole” in my mind and see what that does to the verse. Let’s try it here:

For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be made whole.

I don’t know about you, but that puts a whole new spin on the work of Christ in the world. The salvation of God isn’t just about some eternal destination; it is about changing our very lives right now. “Being saved” can be a point in time, certainly — but it had better also be a continual move into wholeness and health.

Here’s a neat tool — the Blue Letter Bible. It’s an online Strong’s, where you can see all the places a word is used throughout the Bible. Here is the first page for sozo, which is used 118 times in the New Testament. Scan all those verses and you’ll see the breadth of the word, and how often it is used to mean “healed” or “made whole.”

When Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, Jesus’s first words were about the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom isn’t some future event or state, because Jesus said the Kingdom is here now. Doesn’t that mean, then, that the eternal life of John 3:16 is also here, now? Let’s expand our understanding of “salvation” to include “being made whole,” and let’s expand the timeline to begin right here, right now.

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This is one of a series called “Reflections on the Lections,” which posts each Wednesday and discusses one of the passages for that Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary readings. When I have enough of them, I’ll post an index. This one is for Year B, Pentecost + 1, Trinity Sunday.

Historic Day at a Baptist Church

Memorial Day Sunday 2012 was a historic day at our church, Highland Baptist of Louisville.

Why? We ordained someone to the ministry.

“So what?” you say. “Churches do that all the time.”

True, they do. This was a little different, though. A local advocacy group (not the church) issued a press release; perhaps the headline will capture why it was historic:

“Highland Baptist Church Ordains Openly Gay Minister”

Yes we did, and gladly. Make the jump to learn more, and to celebrate with us.

I’ll never forget the Sunday that Maurice “Bojangles” Blanchard first came to Highland. We have been a church open to gays for many years, and have a large number of LGBT persons in the church. We long ago stopped seeing homosexuality as anything unusual.

Still, when Bojangles entered the sanctuary that Sunday, he did cause something of a sensation. After all, not everyone comes to church in a purple suit — with matching shoes. And a hat.

I remember some of the gay people were put off by the whole thing. It was almost like he wanted to challenge us, to see if we were really all that accepting.

We came to find out, though, that that wasn’t what Bojangles was about at all. In fact, over the past two years we have learned that Maurice Blanchard is a sincere, caring, gracious, love-filled follower of Christ. He suffered in his early life because of who he is, and wants to bring love and acceptance to other LGBT persons in our community.

When he first approached the church about being ordained, though, there was a pause. Was he ready for that? Were WE ready for that? Yes, we have gays in the church, and we’ve had gays on staff, and we’ve welcomed same-sex partners into the church, and we’ve dedicated their children just like anyone else — but ordination is another level, isn’t it?

Or IS it? Bojanges’ request forced us to think about that. We finally decided to do three things:

  • Support him as he started a new ministry called True Colors that would reach out to LGBT persons in the name of the church.
  • Have him work with the associate pastor (my wife) for mentoring in ministry as he grew the True Colors ministry and as he continued his education at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary.
  • Bring the question before the church for study and discussion.

That was over a year ago. In that time both Bojangles and True Colors have grown and matured. He and my wife have had many discussions and “moments of mentoring,” as it were. And the church worked through the idea of ordaining an openly gay minister.

We discussed it. And studied it. And discussed it some more. (It’s what we do.)

Earlier this year, Bojangles reapplied for ordincation. We followed the standard process — we appointed an ordination council that met with Bojangles to hear his life story and rationale for being ordained. The council took their recommendations to the deacons, who heard and endorsed it. Then in our most recent quarterly business meeting, the motion was made to ordain Maurice “Bojangles” Blanchard to the ministry.

It passed unanimously.

Followed by a standing ovation.

So, this past Sunday, a process that began over two years ago culminated in a service of ordination in our sanctuary, attended by church members, professors from Louisville Pres, and friends of Bojangles and of True Colors. There were hymns, and prayers, and the charge to the candidate. There was a gift of an Atlanta Braves baseball. (Bojangles is a huge baseball fan.)

And one more moment I have to mention.

Families can be funny things, no matter gay or straight. As far as I know, Bojangles’ parents have been supportive all along. Still, I wondered, before the service, who from his family would attend.

Imagine the moment, then, when his father — also ordained, and serving a local church as a counselor — came to the pulpit to lead a responsive blessing for Bojangles. For a moment, he just stood there, looking down at his son. Then he smiled and said, “What you won’t do to get a baseball.”

After the laughter died down, his father led us in the blessing, and I’m not sure there were too many dry eyes in the house by the time he finished.

It was a special day. A tender day. And yes, historic.

But for us, it wasn’t about making history. It was, simply, a time to celebrate one of our own, as he begins the lifelong journey into ministering to, and caring for, all of God’s children.

We don’t think of Bojangles as a “gay minister” — no, for us he’s just “minister.”

Congrats, Bojangles.

Reflection on the Lections: Amos 8:4-7

One of this Sunday’s lections — Amos 8:4-7:

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

Amos sure lays it on the line, doesn’t he? Pretty blunt — when it comes to entities that trample on the needy, he says that the Lord will never forget their deeds.

So who are these people or insititutions that trample on the needy? Here’s the bullet list:

  • People who value work over sabbath.
  • People who sell something for more than it is worth.
  • People who cheat others, especially in business.
  • People who take advantage of the poor and needy.

Many individuals and many institutions can find themselves somewhere in this list. I’ve been guilty of valuing work over sabbath, that’s for sure. I’ve tried to “drive a hard bargain” as a seller at times. I would bet you, the reader, might have similar confessions to make.

Let’s not forget, though, that this can apply to institutions as well as to individuals. Companies and organizations can do all these things. Many companies value their employees only as commodities, not as human beings. “Making a profit” can sometimes meaning “cheating any sucker we can find.” Certain Wall Street firms come to mind, as well as certain national chains that promote low prices on the backs of their workers.

It seems to me, though, that this passage goes beyond calling out greed and cheating and focuses on the abuse of the poor specifically. Why? Because the poor are powerless. I think Amos is pointing out cheating the poor as a double sin — first the cheating, and then the taking advantage of someone with no recourse.

We should be doubly watchful for the way our collective “we” (individuals and institutions) treat the powerless. Any time we choose the way of power rather than the way of love, we are in danger of treading into this passage. Any time we take advantage of the poor and needy, or the powerless in any form, we are moving in the same dimension as these ancient business people.

If I’m going to be remembered by the Lord, I’d prefer it not be for something like this passage.
 

Fight Fire with Love: Baptist Church READS Koran

Glad to share THIS news:

A Kentucky Baptist church will be host for an interfaith service Sept. 11 billed as a “peaceful, positive alternative” to a Quran-burning ceremony scheduled the same day in Florida.

The “Honoring Sacred Texts” service is scheduled at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville. The service is offered by Interfaith Paths to Peace, a Louisville-based non-profit organization that promotes inter-religious understanding, in partnership with Highland Baptist Church and the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship.

Other sponsors include various local Christian and non-Christian faith groups. The service will include a display of sacred texts from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Baha’i faith and other religions. The gathering will also include non-sectarian music and readings from the sacred texts by representatives of the world’s major religions on topics related to peace, cooperation and mutual understanding.

More below the fold …

From one of the organizers, Terry Taylor:

“We want to show the world that in Louisville we don’t burn sacred books; we honor them. We may not all agree about every word written in our sacred texts, but we do honor those books and our brothers and sisters in other religions who revere them.”

Those who know me know that HBC is the church I attend. It’s a wonderful combination of fellowship and challenge, of devotion and introspection, of fun and of the hard work of caring. The church tagline is truly accurate: “a thinking, feeling, healing community of faith.”

I’ll be at the service, as will many others. It will be a powerful symbol: on the anniversary of 9/11, we choose the paths of love and of freedom of religion. What better way to honor God and country than that?