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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Some Possible Responses to an Impossible Situation

You may have heard that the denomination Prairie Table Ministries is part of (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America-ELCA) recently discerned that gay and lesbians who are sexually active can, in certain circumstances, be rostered leaders (usually pastors) in congregations. As with this issue nationally, irrespective of religious concerns, this is not unanimously accepted. There are many people who believe sexually active gays and lesbians are behaving contrary to the way God wants them to behave, and so gays and lesbians have been denied, up until now, to be leaders AND sexually active.

There are a couple of things that have to be said, sort of to clear the deck, before I can go much farther on why or how my denomination came to this decision...
* Throughout most of its history, and even now, the Christian Church has not dealt with homosexuality in any positive ways. The most common response the Church does is sort of a "Don't ask, don't tell" type policy. The worst, at least for homosexuals, is ex-communication and death.
*The ELCA currently allows gays and lesbians to serve in congregations. They just cannot be sexually active. This is true for single, heterosexuals as well. They can serve congregations but they cannot be sexually active. (The biggest difference, of course, is that in 44 states of the Union a heterosexual can get married if they wish to be sexually active. Such an option is not available to homosexuals in most states.)

That is the current situation in which these decisions were made. So the decisions allowed us to expand out current policy to include as rostered leaders gays and lesbians in a committed relationship. ("Committed relationship" is language we use because in most states gays and lesbians cannot be "married," and for some reason we didn't want to use the phrase "sexually active." Although, that IS what we are talking about. In my experience people who do not like homosexuals do not like them because they are loving, trusting, caring, generous, or creative...they do not like how gays and lesbians have sex. It's the sex that's wrong.)

Because for some it is the "sex" that is wrong, anybody who practices that kind of "sex" is wrong, regardless of how loving, caring, creative, tender, judicial, or perfect a Christian leader they are. God in this case is against sex that is not a man and a woman...and there is no way to get around that.

Yet, that is precisely what it seems that my ELCA denomination did...I will not pretend to analyze all 550 people as to how and why they voted to break with long-standing tradition in Christianity in order to allow gays and lesbians to be leaders AND sexually active...but I can tell you why I don't have a problem with this...

First,I don't think "gay sex" goes against God's will for humanity or creation. I know that sex is powerful, almost drug-like, and that like anything if it gets obsessive it takes you away from the wholeness God intends for you...but if it's the only sex you have once, twice, three times a week (or for those in a committed relationship once, twice, three times a year)...you're probably OK. Scripture has never convinced me that gay sex runs contrary to God's will...mostly, because Jesus never seemed to address the issue...but then again, did anyone ever ask him? (I can just imagine, say, Philip going to Jesus and saying, "What do you think about what those women in the hovel over by the well are doing for sex?" "Shsss," Jesus says, "Don't talk about that. And John, don't write that down!")

Secondly, communities have a need for authentic leaders. People need leaders they can relate to...leaders who can make them see the larger picture, and in this case, who and what God calls them to do and be...Here's the thing: can you be authentic if you spend most of your time hiding or ignoring your sexuality? We have a congregation out here on the prairie who a few years ago had to have their pastor leave because he was sexually active with his partner, and he didn't want to lie to his congregation. The congregation loved their pastor, even when they found out he was gay, and they petitioned our ELCA to let him stay...but he could not. So, rather than leave his partner (we do not have gay marriage out here in North Dakota), he left the congregation, he left the ELCA, and he is now a pastor in the UCC, who have allowed sexually active gays and lesbians in committed relationships to be pastors for the last decade or so...So I say let's drag sexuality out of the closet and into the world...Oh, wait...Hugh Hefner did that sixty years ago??? Well, better late than never, I guess...

I imagine one of the most effective congregations the ELCA could have would be one where the congregation is pro-gay and the leader is not, or vice versa. Imagine how closely they'd have to work together in order to keep each other accountable? They wouldn't be able to assume anything, they would be in open communication (not hostility I hope), and they would be required to admit on a daily basis that agreement between congregation and leaders on sexuality is NOT a requirement for ministry and mission in the kingdom of God. What a great congregation that could be.

Enough for now...there's lots of talk already, and I want to listen to questions and concerns people have. Perhaps, I will offer some more thoughts later from what I've heard. I know there are many who may read this who do not agree with me on gay sex...but I trust that our agreement in the Christ of God, Jesus of Nazareth, as our savior far outweighs any differences we may have. Blessings.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Debt,Tithing, and Generosity

Recently, (August 14, 2009) I read an article in the on-line magazine Slate which debated whether it is better to pay off debt faster by no longer tithing to a church. Now, the article was not a theological article, it was about money management, but I found the author's response to "Debbie" interesting. Basically, while admitting that "Debbie" and her husband would no doubt pay off their debt faster by using the money from their tithe, the author advised Debbie to consider what benefits she received from the tithe. Cost-Benefit analysis is the standard fare of money managers and their on-line articles, but a theological point should be made as well. This is where I might offer a suggestion or two.

First, what is the problem with "debt?" Most of us consider debt a problem because it limits our options in the present or future; that is, money we spend on debt cannot be used for food today or food tomorrow. So regardless of obligation, there are quality of life questions that enter into our understanding of debt. Many of us avoid debt simply because it limits our ability to live well in the future...the present is how most of us got into debt in the first place. (One of my favorite people says that if she could ban one thing in the world it would be giving college students credit cards!)

Although tithing may have "intangible, spiritual benefits" most people tithe out of a committment or, in reality, a relationship. As someone who garners most of his income from those who tithe (or at least give charitably), I have found that the relationship I have with someone is a better indicator of those "ISB"s than anything else. And here's something to know: any generosity I show is often matched by others. It's like paying for dinner with your best friends...each passes and each pays with the event, sometime you pay sometimes she pays, and accounting is not kept. (I suspect that relationships in which we keep accounts are probably not our most fun or favorite relationships.) So in reality what religion cultivates is not money management, nor, obedience to a tithe...no...we cultivate relationships...

We're not Don Corleone here, holding favors as a substitute for relationships, but rather trusting that if we take care of some now, they will take care of us later...in this case...with debt, it's now our turn to take care of that credit card company that took care of us when we "needed" a new TV, a new transmission, food for the week, or that get-away to the Berkshires...Sounds weird to think of it that way, but a relationship is a relationship, even with a bank or card service company...(don't get me started on the interest...perhaps we should learn to pick better friends??)

But regardless of whether you use your money to pay down debt or to tithe or some combination of both, the question pressing on us at Prairie Table is whether this is going to affect our generosity or not? Can you be generous and pay off debt? Or, can you only be generous when you give away your money as in a tithe? How does your generosity affect other parts of your life, like how you spend your time, or how you treat others? It seems to me that Christ came into this world to celebrate generous and courageous people. People who would take risks...people not afraid to let debt affect their relationships with others...people who understood that money, in the end, is not God's way. So if you tithe (10% traditionally for Christians) or give charitably, do not forget to be generous as well. And if you are generous to the point of bankruptcy, well...maybe that day of Jubilee will come when debts are to be forgiven...after all, Christ died a beggar...to my mind the most generous one the world has ever seen.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Trundling On...

It has been a hard week up here on the prairie...we've had a lot of death recently, and sometimes she just catches up to you...and time has come...and gone...in a heartbeat.
I had a funeral for a woman whose cancer ravaged her body in a few short months...requiescat in pace. A young man committed suicide, and left three small children...there are no words for that pain...a man younger than me had a cancer that took his life in eight days... 8!....Who comprehends at such speeds?...Another young man, twenty years younger than me, loses his life in a car accident...is there no justice?
So we have struggled a bit to find solid footing amidst all this death...but somehow, as our thoughts turn to the Fall harvest, the ending of a productive time, we sing and dance a tune of hope...how? Why?
At some level it may be a coping mechanism to believe there is more to life than meets the living...maybe it's an illusion so grand as to be a facade (pick all the rock album titles in that line!)...but maybe...and this is a big maybe...it is true...on some level at least...that God who yearns for life, yearns for beauty, yearns for us...and that longing does not die just because we do...because the yearning comes from a God who lives...a God who aches for us to live too...and who aches when our hearts ache...when we trundle on...in a world where friends die...

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Taking What the world hates

In a world created by God, (a key point to understanding Christianity by the way. I am one of those who believes God redeems the world so that God can create the world), you have to take the good and the bad...and most of us struggle with this at some level...no one wants the unwanted, the folks left by society at the side of the road...they are clearly wrong, right? That's why we left them behind? But for us Christians the world is not so simple...

Christianity gets itself into a lot of trouble by taking on unpopular people...(and we should always be about people, not "issues," but we often forget that point)...We befriend those who have taken advantage of us, our friends, our neighbors...not even because we want to or even because we have to...mostly I think it is because we know that but for some lucky bounces our way (a good parent, a trusting friend, a faithful partner, a loving child) we too would be on the outside looking in...We want to attribute any success we have to hard work, dedication, intelligence, pluck, whatnot...but the reality is such that we are all always just a heartbeat away...it was true when we were three, when we were thirty, and will always be so...(I've yet to do a funeral for someone alive!)

Our God blushes with the splendor of a good Chianti, urges us to heights of trust and discovery, calms us with whispers of promise and tomorrow...is it enough in a world of brutal hunger, devastating cruelty, pervasive cynicism, and distrust? Perhaps not...but it is all we have...the open hands of a loving God.