Faith, Doubt and Playing Possum

My brain feels like a whirling dervish this week with all the scandal, intrigue and assorted craziness in the news. I feel like I’m living in a bad soap opera with FBI raids on the President’s lawyer, Speakers of both the US House and the Ohio House stepping down unexpectedly and military strikes on Syria that put us closer to a nuclear showdown with Russia than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment but I can’t seem to stop watching and reading the news like the proverbial train wreck. I have managed to get engrossed in a couple of good novels as a respite from the 24-hour bad news cycle. One is a book on tape I listen to while driving, James Patterson’s “Woman of God,” and the other on my Nook, Dan Brown’s “Origin.” But of course both of those are full of conflict and profound theological questions about human suffering and human nature itself. And in my spare time I’m wading through a weighty and rather depressing tome entitled “What Are We Doing Here?” by Marilynne Robinson for a book club I’m in.

Mingled in with all that drama has been a personal struggle with guilt. On Wednesday of this week I had the painful task of dispatching a possum whose only offense was making his domicile under our deck. I’ve been trying to trap him or her for a few weeks and until this week had only managed to feed chipmunks who are too small to trip the trap and catch a stray cat. Every morning that the trap was by our deck I was relieved to find it empty, but Wednesday it was fully occupied by a sleeping possum who seemed quite content. It had finished off the apple that I used as bait and unlike the cat seemed quite content and even trusting when I carried him/her to a watery grave in our pond. It would have been much easier on me if she/he had hissed and growled at me, but that is not the way of the possum.

The possum’s capital offense was invading turf that belongs to us – we have a deed–but then I guess possums can’t read; so posting a no trespassing sign would probably not have done any good. Fearing he/she would attract or produce more furry friends that could do damage to the foundation of our house my wife and I felt justified in this dirty deed. I used to take such critters a few miles away and release them, but that is actually against the law of the land and increasingly impossible as urban sprawl takes over more and more habitat for our four-footed friends.

On this second week of Eastertide I couldn’t help theologizing a bit about this experience, and it occurred to me that there is a parallel here between my possum and what we did to Jesus a couple millennia ago. Their offenses were much the same– invading someone else’s space and making them/us uncomfortable. Just as the possum created conflict for me about his/her right and mine to occupy this space on Brock Road, so Jesus created such a degree of discomfort and cognitive dissonance by proclaiming a higher ethical standard of God’s reign that threatened the Jewish and Roman homeowners in Jerusalem that they set a trap for him and executed him on trumped up charges of blasphemy.

The big difference of course where these two tales of death diverge is in their outcome. And no I’m not suggesting Jesus was just playing possum in that tomb for 3 days. He was just as dead as my possum – ask his mother who watched him be nailed to that cross. Ask the centurion who ran a spear into his side to make sure he was dead. Jesus was dead!

But Eastertide is the season of resurrection – even in chilly Ohio where spring has been delayed. I saw a meme on Facebook that said “Mother Nature was late delivering spring because Father Time was driving and refused to stop and ask for directions.” But better late than never we had at least a teaser of spring this week. The daffodils, hyacinths and forsythia are blooming, the crocuses are croaking, and the robins are digging up earthworms in my yard.

I had an hour between two appointments on Thursday, our first warm day; so I went for a walk in one of Columbus’ lovely metro parks. I took exception to a sign that told me the trail I took was 1.1 miles. I know it had to be longer than that because it took me much longer to hike it that it used to. I was also struck for the first half mile or so by how dead everything looked. Dead trees and limbs were all over the woods, everything was the barren brown of winter. And then I looked a little closer and saw that there amongst the detritus of winter’s death there were tiny green leaves quietly emerging from some of the branches. When I walked by the lake there was a young couple facing each other on a picnic bench and staring into each other’s eyes as only new lovers can do.

Signs of new life are there even if they aren’t obvious to a casual observer. Even my poor departed possum will provide nutrients to the soil and food for some birds of prey. Even in the news there are signs of hope, but we may have to work to find them. Today’s headlines were all about the bombing of Syria and the most recent scandals in Washington. But back in the metro section was an editorial that gave me hope. One of my heroes in days gone by is a local preacher here in Columbus, Ohio who is often called the father of the Social Gospel.

Rev. Washington Gladden died 100 years ago this year after a long and illustrious career of championing social justice causes as the pastor of First Congregation Church on East Broad St. just a few blocks from the state capitol. Today’s editorial was about a memorial garden that the church is building on property next to the church to honor Gladden. The park, to open in August, will include “exhibitions on social justice issues, an artist-in-residence program to teach children about social justice, along with art, lectures and forums, community dialogues and performances.” Current Sr. Pastor Tim Aherns says plans call for “a refuge of waterfalls, public art, green space, trees and a pathway of quotes about the pursuit of justice.”

Gladden himself was an early advocate for ecumenism and church engagement in political reform. He was friends with Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington, and every prominent public figure in Columbus. “At the time of Gladden’s death,” the editorial concludes, “The Ohio State Journal—which regularly had published his social justice sermons on Page One—called him the ‘First Citizen’ of Columbus.” The full editorial is at http://www.dispatch.com/opinion/20180414/editorial-new-park-to-honor-columbus-social-justice-champion

My take away from all of this disjointed rambling is that there is always a spark of new life hidden in the darkest days. That’s what resurrection is all about. God is not playing possum. Spring may not arrive when the calendar says so, but it will arrive. Justice will roll down like waters, maybe not today but someday. Easter didn’t end two weeks ago, it just began, and that liturgical season lasts until Pentecost when God saw that even showing the disciples Jesus’ hands and side wasn’t proof enough and sent the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit to light a fire in those believers that no one, no thing, no how has or ever will extinguish. We believe Lord, help our unbelief.

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A Church Divided

A good friend of mine is having a hard time understanding the struggles within the United Methodist Church about LGBT rights. In particular he asked me great questions about how the church can change its position on homosexuality when there are specific references in the Bible and in the writings of Methodist founder John Wesley that condemn any non-hetero sexual orientations. I know there are many other people of faith who are wrestling with the same questions so what follows is my best attempt to explain my position on this important issue.

The sexuality debate has been going on in the United Methodist Church for at least 40 years. I don’t remember what precipitated the debate originally but I assume it was in response to the national increase in awareness about LGBT issues that arose after the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969. I assume the gay rights movement was also a natural outgrowth of the other movements for a more inclusive society — civil rights, women’s rights, etc.

The United Methodist position on homosexuality has never been clear cut. The compromise wording in the UMC Book of Discipline and our Social Principles has said for years that gays are persons “of sacred worth” but that the expression of their sexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The reason for that seemingly contradictory language is that the General Conference has not had a clear cut majority opinion on this issue for 40 years. The language adopted and maintained all these years is always approved by the slimmest of margins. The last General Conference was so divided by this issue that voting on it was postponed and a special commission was appointed to develop a proposal on “a Way Forward.” That commission is due to report to a special General Conference in 2019. Reports out of that commission and the response of the conservative/evangelical part of the church seem to indicate we could be heading toward a split in the denomination. That is not unprecedented. The Methodist church split into a north and south church over the issue of slavery in the 1840’s. That split continued for nearly 100 years until the two reunited in 1939.

Another source of the theological divisions within the UMC stems from the merger in 1968 with the Evangelical United Brethren Church, a more conservative group than the former Methodist church. A leading pastor in the evangelical branch of the UMC recently blamed our divisions on liberal seminaries that expose students to new ideas that change their beliefs from when they entered seminary. My question is why bother going to seminary or any educational institution if we are going to come out unchanged from the way we went in? Faith needs to be tested and challenged to have any depth. That same pastor praised churches that defied the Discipline’s former requirement that UM churches use only UM curriculum in Sunday school and instead used the very conservative David C. Cook material. My question to him is why is that kind of “disobedience” OK, but challenging other rules of the church is not?

Part of this strong difference of opinions is because we are not a doctrinal church but a democratic one. The Discipline and Social Principles of the UMC are revised every four years by a world-wide General Conference, the only body that can speak for the denomination. We have no pope or super bishop who can speak for the church, and that’s a good thing. The down side is we get into emotional debates that stem from some basic differences in the understanding and interpretation of Scripture. The more conservative folks want to interpret Scripture literally and point to a few verses in Leviticus and Paul that condemn homosexuality. The more progressive or liberal interpreters of Scripture choose to emphasize instead a responsibility of pastors and laity to interpret Scripture in light of its historical context.

Wesley himself in his quadrilateral taught that we need to use our God-given abilities to reason and apply our experience to the interpretation of Scripture. The bottom line for me in the sexuality debate is that neither Wesley nor Paul nor the author of Leviticus had the scientific understanding we have today of why some people have a homosexual identity. For Wesley and the biblical authors homosexuality was seen as a choice people made and could therefore be changed, but we today know that is not the case. Some people are simply born with that sexual orientation and to condemn them or exclude them would be like judging people who are born left-handed or blue-eyed or dark-skinned. Progressive/liberal theologians assume we all have the responsibility to interpret the great commandment to love our neighbors and to not let ancient authors with their limited and misinformed opinions dictate who is acceptable to God and who isn’t.

I know it’s hard to have life-long beliefs challenged, but I’m convinced on this issue the people who taught us to fear and judge gays were simply wrong. They were not bad people, just doing the best they could with the values and ideas they had learned from their elders. It’s like the issue of race. I grew up in an all-white community where we claimed we weren’t “prejudiced.” I was naïve enough to believe blacks simply chose not to live in our town. My life experience was so limited that it wasn’t until I went to Ohio State University that I ever had any personal contact with any non-white person. I have since learned that my hometown missed out on a chance to be home to a huge Honda Plant because the mayor at the time was a WWII vet who hated Japanese. And just this fall I learned there once was a KKK chapter in my “unprejudiced” hometown, and one of my great uncles was one of the leaders of that racist group.

The church has been wrong on many social justice issues throughout the centuries. Slavery was justified by the Bible, oppression of women too, and those wrongs were only gradually corrected after years of struggle and resistance from those who benefited from the status quo. Inclusion of LGBT persons as full members of the church is just the latest chapter in the long march toward the loving kingdom God has ordained.

On a very personal note I have worked with and known excellent gay UM pastors literally my entire ministry. For most of those 48 years those pastors had to hide a very critical part of who they are from the church and even from family and friends. One clergy friend didn’t dare confide even in me about his sexual orientation for 15 years because of the stigma and fear. I know of pastors who committed suicide because of the judgment they felt from the church they loved and wanted to serve. Some of the leaders of the movement for LGBT equality are doing so because their own lives and well-being are at stake. Others of us simply believe our God of love wants justice and inclusion for all people.

Faithful people challenging injustice goes back in history as far as Moses responding to God’s call to liberate the Hebrews from slavery. The Hebrew prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul all challenged injustice and oppression at great risks to themselves. John Wesley himself defied the Church of England to take the Gospel to those who were excluded by the church. Wesley stressed the need for a complete Gospel that includes both personal salvation and Social Holiness. Social Holiness does not mean enforcing values on others that don’t stand up to the test of human reason and knowledge but is working for justice for anyone oppressed because of gender, race, social class or sexual orientation.

I am fearful of what this struggle is going to mean for our church, but faithfulness to what I believe is God’s will is more important than institutional preservation. The debate over homosexuality has consumed vast sums of time and energy and distracted the church from doing much needed mission and evangelism for far too long. If we can’t agree on a position on this issue it may very well be time to separate so we can be about the work of other important issues like sharing a truly grace-filled Gospel and being faithful stewards of God’s creation by saving the planet from climate change or nuclear holocaust.

Let Justice and Righteousness Flow

Many advocates of church growth argue that politics and controversial social justice issues should be kept out of church pulpits and classrooms because they will produce conflict and drive prospective church members away. The resulting prosperity gospel/cheap grace messages may indeed increase attendance in the short run. Praise services that resemble rock concerts more than worship services entertain attendees and may produce a feeling of spiritual euphoria, but do they also challenge participants to examine their lives, confess their sins, individual and corporate, and deepen their faith in ways that address human need in relevant and effective ways? That seems to me a question the Jesus I know would want us to ask ourselves regularly.

Those who argue that political and social issues don’t belong in church simply have not taken seriously the Hebrew prophets, the liberation history of God’s people from slavery and political oppression, nor Jesus’ own confrontation of the powers and principalities of Rome and the established religious authorities of his day.
A clergy colleague of mine told me recently about his experience at a 50th high school reunion in a wealthy suburban neighborhood. Asked to offer a prayer before the reunion dinner, he took the opportunity to reflect briefly on how much the world had changed since he and his classmates had graduated. Among other things he pointed out that the total population of the world has doubled in the last half century. So far so good, but then as they say he stopped preaching and went to meddling. He said, “That means there are a lot more poor people in the world that we who have been blessed with a good life and good education need to be concerned about.” While some of his classmates appreciated that observation, many others were upset and expressed anger that he had spoiled their celebration by asking them to think about unpleasant things.

I don’t know what my friend said in reply, but here’s what the Hebrew prophet Amos says God would say to them: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24).

The Hebrew word for justice is “mishpat,” a much more inclusive term than what we often mean by our English use of the word “justice.” We have departments of justice, and we talk about justice being served or people getting their just desserts, all of which are about retributive justice or retribution, i.e. getting even for a wrong that has been committed against a person or society. The Judeo-Christian concept of justice, however, is also about distributive justice, meaning a fair and equitable distribution of life’s necessities to all of God’s children. Those necessities include not just material items required for survival, but basic human rights. It is both kinds of justice that human nature at its best strives for in memorable words to live by like “liberty and justice for all” in our U.S. pledge of allegiance and in Jesus’ Golden Rule encouraging us to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” (Matthew 7:12).

Like all important matters, concern for justice requires balance. Many years ago I heard Bishop Peter Storey from South Africa preach a sermon on the need for a balanced approach to theology and how we do church. His advice is even more relevant 30 years later. The image he used that has stuck with me all these years was of a bird with one wing. He said that a church that emphasizes either evangelism or the social gospel to the exclusion of the other is like a bird with one wing that simply goes around in circles.

As main line churches decline in membership at a frightening rate there is understandable concern for the survival of the church. But concern must not be allowed to grow into panic that clouds judgment. Desperate people do desperate things, and far too many desperate churches and church leaders water down the gospel to the point of irrelevance in an ill-advised attempt to survive and “grow.” My mother used to say that the church is only one generation from extinction, and while there is some wisdom to that observation, Amos reminds us that God is more concerned about the quality of our faithfulness to God’s will than the quantity of church members or the size of our church buildings or budgets.

Church growth advocates will argue correctly that the Gospel needs to be proclaimed to the vast numbers of people in our nation and world who have not heard or have not responded to it, but it is the whole Gospel that is needed, not the one-winged bird of either extreme in the theological debate between liberal and conservatives within the church. All of us, regardless of our theological or political convictions need a personal relationship with God that casts out our fears in whatever form they take. That’s the assurance of personal salvation for all eternity offered in Christ’s death and resurrection. It is also the first meaning of the cross and the foundation of Christian faith upon which the rest of the household of faith must be built. But the foundation of a house is not a whole house, just a necessary first step in a much larger process.

Assurance of eternal life is such a powerful promise that the temptation to embrace that gift and stop there on our faith journey is very strong. The desire for heavenly peace alone is the false hope and danger that Amos points out for those who are eagerly awaiting “the day of the Lord.” In a classic “be careful what you wish for” warning, Amos offers these ominous words: “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.” (5:18-19).

Why such harsh condemnation? Read the earlier chapters of Amos to understand why Amos believes God has lost all patience with Israel and other nations for their disobedience to God’s will and especially their unjust treatment of the poor. Is Amos exaggerating to get Israel’s attention? Is he like an exasperated parent who loves a wayward child so much and fears for his/her well-being so deeply that emotions overflow?

Context is always critical in Scriptural interpretation. The Hebrew understanding of the nature of God in the 8th century BCE was far more legalistic and judgmental than the God of grace Jesus proclaims 800 years later. But let us not be lulled into a cheap grace sense of complacency by an overreliance on God’s mercy. I am as grateful as anyone that the God revealed in the New Testament grades on a curve, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Gospel makes very serious demands on anyone who wants to follow Jesus.

Amos warning that a just and righteous life is expected of us is not discounted by Jesus in the least. Jesus invites any disciple to “take up a cross and follow me” (Luke 14:27). The cross of the resurrection is also the cross of sacrifice and service on behalf of God’s kingdom and God’s children here and now. (The examples of what this looks like in Jesus’ teachings are too numerous to mention here, but would certainly include the difficult standards of loving one’s enemies (Mt. 5:43, Lk. 6:27), turning the other cheek (Mt. 5:39), forgiving 70 x7 (Mt. 18:22), “what you do to the least of these you do unto me. (Mt. 25:45), and if someone demands your coat, give him your cloak as well (Mt. 5:40).

Righteousness is the other quality demanded by God in Amos 5:24. Righteousness means being in a right relationship with God and all creation. That’s raising the bar very high. In fact none of us gets there. Even Jesus says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God” (Mk. 10:18 & Romans 3:10). So if Jesus can’t even meet that standard, what hope is there for the likes of you and me? Are we asked to do the impossible? That would be an unjust request, and we do not serve an unjust God. It’s also why we all stand in the need of grace. But what it absolutely does not mean is that we throw up our hands and give up. Our own human limitations are not an excuse for ignoring the hard parts of the Gospel but a reminder that we can and must do better than we are doing when justice and righteousness are but a trickle instead of an everflowing stream.

We Americans live in the richest nation in the history of the world and in one where 10% of the people control 75% of wealth. No one but the 10% could possibly consider that just. President Kennedy once said, “When we make peaceful revolution impossible we make violent revolution inevitable.” We are seeing rumblings of such revolution today in the streets of Hong Kong. Students of history know about labor riots inspired by injustice in our own country in the 1890s (Google the Haymarket riot or the Pullman strike, or Coxey’s Army). Our economic history is like a roller coaster of bust and boom cycles because we fail repeatedly to learn the lessons Amos was warning us about 3000 years ago.

Someone smarter than I will have to figure out the economic and political details, but what I do know is that as long as the driving values of our lives are comfort and prosperity and not justice and righteousness, we’d better not be longing for the day of the Lord/judgment day/the second coming.