Saturday, August 29, 2009

I'm very human, I swear

Sometimes I hate being the professional holy person in my faith community. I’m probably the least holy person I know. I wonder how the people in my church would feel about me if they ever really got to know me as the person I am. So much is projected onto me that isn’t me at all.

Pastors scare me when they start to believe they really are the people their parishioners think they are. The healthy pastors are the ones who know better. I notice that they’ll often do little things to rebel against their role, to remind themselves that they’re human. For example, I have one male pastoral colleague who wears these very un-pastorly, funky snake-skin boots with ridiculously long, pointy toes. I have another female friend who is not only a priest, but a flamenco dancer as well. How cool is that?

My rebellion usually comes by saying things to shock people. Like swearing. I don’t know if I particularly enjoy swearing, but sometimes I’ll swear just to prove that I can. Yes, damn it, I swear. So take that, Pastor Nancy! Does swearing prove I’m human? Hell no. But my overwhelming desire to do it certainly does.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Letter to a brother with a differing "bound conscience"

Dear Travis –

I love God. I am a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. And I believe that God speaks his word of truth to us through the Holy Scriptures. I know that you could say the same. But we disagree over some of the recent decisions of our church. I want you to understand why I have landed where I have on all of this, and I invite you to do the same for me if you’d like. I am interested in hearing what you have to say.

I do have to tell you that there was a time in my life when I also felt that marriage was intended to be between a man and a woman and I thought that homosexual acts were a sin. Although you may have arrived at that conclusion for different reasons than I once did, we’re all a work in process and I’m in a much different place on all of this than I was 30 years ago. I didn’t wake up one day and decide that it’s okay to be gay, but the Spirit has led me through the years to that conclusion. I certainly have wrestled with the scriptures over all of this. Let me share with you some of the things I hold to be true:

1. We always interpret the Bible from the center out. That’s a very Lutheran way of reading scripture. We don’t read the Bible in a linear way, considering each verse, one at a time and determining how that verse guides our lives. That would be impossible because there are so many times that the message of the scripture contradicts itself from one place to the next. But we read scripture through a lens and that lens is Jesus. He is the Word made flesh and through his life and teachings we learn the truth about God.
The Bible for me is primarily about the relationship that God has had with his people and the way people have understood that relationship. Quite naturally, it includes very human perspectives and prejudices and reflects the context in which people were living. (Of course, the cultural biases of those who wrote the scriptures shine through. For example, they reflect a patriarchal society, so we have to take that into account when we read some of the misogynistic passages.) But even those confusing passages that don’t seem to have much relevance to my life today are of value because I also am a person in relationship with God and they can reveal truths to me. Nonetheless, I need a way to interpret scripture, to determine what applies to my life and what might not. A way besides just throwing out all the passages I don’t like. And that way is Jesus. (He’s the way the truth and the life, yes.) Before I can even begin to read scripture and make sense of it, I have to spend a lot of time getting to know Jesus as he’s revealed to us in the gospels. This, of course, is very Luther-an.

2. What I’ve learned from Jesus.
· Of all of God’s laws for his people, the most important one is that we love God with everything we’ve got. Of course, Jesus had to link this to loving others as we love ourselves. He couldn’t separate the two, not because between them they seem to cover everything, but because the WAY to love God with everything we’ve got is by loving others.
Many times, Jesus was accused of having no regard for the law, such as the time he healed on the Sabbath. In our culture, because we have little respect for the Sabbath, the severity of his offense to the good law-abiding citizens is lost on us. But this was a big deal in his day. After all, the law about honoring the Sabbath was one of the top ten. (Still is, by the way.) For Jesus, the law of compassion always trumped all other laws. That is central to understanding who Jesus is and what he asks of us. In the book of Luke when he goes into a tirade against the good religious leaders of his day, saying “Woe to you…”, what infuriated him was the way they spent so much time laying all the nit-picky laws on the people and they completely missed the weightier matters of the law, “justice and the love of God.” It’s interesting that the things that really ticked Jesus off weren’t the kinds of moral stuff that we get so worked up over today. It was the lack of compassion that he saw coming from the good religious folk. (Please don’t read this to be me saying that you don’t understand the value of compassion; I’m just laying out why I have landed where I have on all of this.)
· Jesus had a passion for those who had been marginalized by society. He was all about including those others excluded. That’s where the church is called to bring the good news today, to people on the margins. No one is ever excluded from God’s reign of love and mercy.
· Jesus was accused of ignoring the law in his day. But what he did was redefine it. Okay, this may not be particularly Lutheran here, but it’s what I’ve concluded… In our church we talk so much about understanding law and gospel in scripture. But the more I study scripture and the more I get to know Jesus, the more I have to conclude that there is a false distinction between law and gospel, because Jesus taught us that the law IS the gospel and the gospel is the law. The commandment that he wanted to leave us with is the commandment to love one another as he loved us.
Now, I’m not saying that “all we need is love” and nothing else matters. Nor am I saying that anything goes or that we’re all off the hook so far as the law goes. The Jesus way is not the easy way out. To truly love one another as Jesus loved us is anything but easy. Anyone who thinks it is hasn’t really tried it.
· The whole idea of “binding and loosing” has been meaningful for me. Jesus did a lot of that in his ministry. Some of the laws that had been so binding on people for centuries, he loosened. Other laws that had been a little loose among God’s people he bound more tightly. That’s to say that Jesus didn’t buy into the idea that God’s law was caste in bronze. He passed on the power to bind and loose to us, to his church. And we’ve done that since the very beginning. That brings me to my next Biblical realization.

3. What I’ve learned from the New Testament church.
From the very beginning, Christians have been open to the Spirit calling them to new interpretations of the law. For thousands of years there were laws about the way God’s people entered into a holy relationship with him. And then, out of compassion for the Gentiles who were becoming Christian, the law of circumcision was lifted. This was HUGE. No one would ever have imagined that this law would ever be changed, and yet the Spirit led the early Christians to do just that. And the law was changed for the right reason. For Jesus reasons -- For the sake of compassion and including those who were once excluded.

4. What I’ve learned from Church history.
Christians throughout history have been confronted with challenges that seem to mirror the issues the first Jerusalem Council faced. We have wrestled with the scriptures and been led by the Spirit, which seems to always be pulling us in the direction of including people in God’s reign. And this has not been without considerable pain. For me, personally, the decision of our church to ordain women has been a biggie, for obvious reasons. And yet, there are so many parallels to the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of our church. I know how it feels to have all the gifts for ministry and to feel called by God to serve as a pastor and to know that God has said “yes” to me only to hear others say “no.” I’m thankful that I don’t belong to a church that takes the Bible literally, that interprets the scriptures from the center, and is still open to the Spirit moving in the church in new ways for the sake of the gospel.

I know that a lot of the arguments Christians are engaged in over the issue of homosexuality come down to specific passages of scripture and how they are to be interpreted. I don’t find that very meaningful, mainly because of the way I interpret scripture in general. Specific texts are always read in light of the gospel of Christ. But I do agree with those who make a point of considering how homosexual acts were viewed in the Biblical context. Just as there was no consideration that the world was round, or that women could become pastors and bishops in the church, there was no awareness of same-gender, committed relationships. It’s really not fair to hold such relationships to the standards of a social context in which they were never considered.

Finally, I have to say something about my relationships with people who are gay and lesbian. Through the years, as a pastor, I have counseled with many of them, and I don’t think I’ve ever talked with a gay or lesbian person who hasn’t at some time prayed to God that they would be straight. No one chooses to be gay. Just as no one chooses to be straight. Given the realities of the homophobic world in which we live, however, I think it’s safe to say that if we could choose, for the sake of an easy life, we would all choose to be straight.

I have concluded that God has created a diversity of people. We’re different colors and sizes. We think and act differently, etc. So this is one more way in which we’re not all the same. In that respect, I can in no way say that homosexuality is a sin, anymore than I can say that heterosexuality is a sin. Of course, there are those who get squeamish even talking about any kind of sexuality, and I wish we could get past that. This doesn’t come so much from the Bible as it comes from the Victorian era that many of us still haven’t gotten over. Biblically speaking, sexuality is a gift. Accepting differing sexual orientations does not mean that the church is saying anything goes. What we have said, in our social statement on sexuality, is that all people are responsible for their stewardship of this God-given gift.

It seems to me that the most important way we can honor God in our lives is to live them authentically, as the people God created us to be. So, as a pastor, I encourage the people in my flock to do that. God created some of us straight and others gay. He created us to be in loving relationships with one another that are life-giving. And the God I have come to know through the scriptures would never ask us to deny ourselves that gift he’s given us.

You may disagree with me, Travis, but I wanted you to understand how I’ve arrived at the place where I am. I know that I probably haven't said anything here that you haven't heard before and I probably haven't changed your mind, but I wanted you to hear where I'm coming from. When we say that we agree to disagree, I think that we often mean we agree not to talk to one another and I didn't want to do that with you. As Bishop Hanson reminded us all at Churchwide Assembly, despite our disagreements, we all meet at the foot of the cross.

Peace in Christ,

Thursday, August 27, 2009

And They'll Know We are Lutherans by Our...

What an opportunity we have in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America right now. For a week or two we may have the world's attention. "What will be our witness?" That was the question Bishop Hanson asked us in his sermon at the opening worship of our Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis. What will be our witness? Will we witness to the amazing grace of our God who includes all people in his loving embrace? Or will they know we are Lutherans by our bickering?

Many people may not realize that when we passed the recommendation allowing people in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships" to serve as pastors and other rostered leaders in our church, there were other resolutions that led up to this historic step. In fact, voting members considered one of those four steps so crucial, that they they voted to change the order from the original recommendation. Number three became number one: "that in the implementation of any resolutions on ministry policies, the ELCA commit itself to bear one another's burdens, love the neighbor, and respect the bound consciences of all." Our Churchwide Assembly knew that a change in our ministry policies had the potential to become a divisive issue for the church. And an overwhelming majority of those present were committed to hang in there with one another no matter what the decision of the assembly might be. Of all the resolutions that were passed related to ministry policies, that was the most significant for our life together. And yet, it seems to be the one that we're losing sight of.

The media loves stories of conflict and, so far, our church has given them plenty of juicy material. I'm praying that will not be our witness to the world. God help us not to miss this opportunity to proclaim the gospel, not only in the decision to include those who once were excluded in our church, but also in the way we strive to live together in the midst of our disagreements. Jesus said that the world will know we're his disciples by the way we show our love for one another. The world is watching now. This is our chance to show who we are.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Community of Fear

Living by faith is hard. That’s true even for those of us who don’t live in a part of the world where Christians are persecuted for their faith. This is because the difficulty that we Christians struggle with the most isn’t imposed upon us from the outside world. The source of our difficulty, as we struggle to live by faith, comes from within. It’s fear.

The scriptures recognize this very real human predicament when God’s says, “Don’t be afraid” again and again. We hear those words as God makes an outlandish promise to Isaac, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you and will bless you and make your offspring numerous for my servant Abraham’s sake” (Genesis 26:24b). After an angel visits Mary in the middle of night and scares the bajeebers out of her, the angel announces, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). As Jesus visits a leader of the synagogue named Jairus, who pleads with Jesus to heal his daughter, Jesus tells him, “Do not fear. Only believe and she will be saved” (Luke 8:50). These are just a few of the verses we could cite. People of faith have always struggled with fear and God has always addressed their fear.

Although fear may challenge our faith, faith is not the absence of fear. Faith is courageously facing our fears. Thankfully, God has given us the gift of community so that we don’t have to face our fears alone. Despite the fact that we often use the phrase “community of faith” in reference to the church, it is also a “community of fear.” In fact, it may be our very real human experience of fear that unites us more than our faith.

I’m convinced that none of us choose to live as part of the church because we are such faith-full people. Instead, we choose to live as part of the church because we want to be faith-full people. We long to release the fears we carry within us and replace those fears with faith. So we hang out with others who also want to be faith-full people and we travel the journey of faith together. At any given time, within the church, some of us are fearful and some of us are faithful. No one is fearful all the time and no one is faithful all the time. But there are always enough of the faithful among us to carry the rest of us along.

To live by faith is not to have a direct pipeline to God. It is not to live with certainty. It is not to blindly accept everything as it is without questioning. And it is most assuredly not to live without fear. Living by faith is trusting that God’s grace never fails, even when we fail to trust in God. Living by faith is finding peace amongst the ambiguities of life. It is daring to face the truth about ourselves, because God who already knows the truth about us loves us completely. Living by faith is courageously facing our fears, knowing that God has given us all that we need to do so.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Assembly - Day 5

Tears * Tears * Tears

It's been one of those times when my emotions are so close to the surface that it doesn't take much to get the tears flowing. I remember feeling the same way during our last presidential election. They are tears of joy, to be sure. And yet, they are more than that. When you hope for something that you believe you may never see in your lifetime, and it comes to pass, it's overwhelming.

And what an opportunity this is for our Church. We are poised to make a powerful witness to the world. A witness to the gospel of inclusion, a witness to God's amazing grace, and, I hope, a witness to the diversity within Christ's church, where we can have such different ways of understanding our faith and yet live together in unity for the sake of the gospel.

I'm writing this blog on Saturday morning. Yesterday, I was exhausted and at a loss for words. I'm not sure I've gotten beyond that today. The mood at the assembly today is anxious. Voting members are concerned for our church. This concerns me too. I feel the pain of our brothers and sisters who strongly disagree with the direction our church has taken. On a deep level, many of them feel that they have lost the church they love. I think we need to give this some time to see what might happen after the dust settles and we've given careful and prayerful consideration to how we will continue to live together. I hope those who are unhappy with the decisions of our church will have the grace to stay with us. Certainly, those who have supported full inclusion in the church have felt alienated for decades, and we stayed. It hasn't been easy, but for the sake of the Body, it's the faithful response.

It is one of those ongoing paradoxes of our life together that, when we decide to include everyone, we are, in effect, excluding those who cannot live with that kind of open inclusiveness. There's no way around it. It was true for Jesus, too. When he included those whom others had excluded, they couldn't tolerate it. Should members of our ELCA choose to leave the church, it will not be because the church has excluded them. It will be because they can't tolerate the church's decision to include all.

What will be our witness to the world? For the sake of the gospel, it has to be that we have welcomed ALL as Christ welcomed all. Because we are a declining denomination, we have focused too much on our numbers and not enough on the gospel. The fear is that this recent decision of our church will result in the loss of even more members. I think we all know that we will, in fact, lose some folks along the way. But it will not be because we have asked them to leave; it will be their choice. I also believe we will gain people along the way as those who have felt estranged from the church in the past will know now that there is room for them at the Table of God's grace. Even more significant than any impact this decision may have on our numbers is the witness it makes to others. As we proclaim the unconditional grace of God, the witness of our actions at this assembly tells the world that not only do we talk the grace talk, but we are doing the hard work of walking the grace walk.

We don't know what walking that grace walk is going to mean for us as a Church, but we have done the right thing and by God's grace, we'll figure it out as we move forward. I'm counting on that. The Spirit who brought us this far by faith will see us through it. Pray that our church doesn't miss this opportunity to offer a powerful witness of God's love to the world. It's time for us to be known for our Christlikeness, not for our bickering. Can we do that? Well, I didn't think we could do what we have already done. God is full of surprises!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Assembly - Day 4

i thank You God for most this amazing day

That's the title of an e.e. cummings poem that's always been a favorite of mine. The words were set to music by a man named Eric Whitacre; this was one of the songs that I heard sung by the National Lutheran Choir in an amazing hymn festival at Central Lutheran Church this evening. I can't begin to tell you how glorious this concert was. Heaven couldn't possibly be any better. My favorite part of such an event is always the congregational singing. I suppose it's a distinctively Lutheran thing because when you fill a church with Lutherans from all over the country who love to sing in four parts... well, I'm at a loss for the words to describe it. Throughout the event I kept wishing that all the dear people from Holy Trinity in Charlotte could have been with me to experience it. This sort of thing just doesn't happen on such a grand scale in North Carolina. It was a wonderful ending to the day.

Everyone is waiting to see what will happen tomorrow. I expect that the vote on the ministry proposals will be taken. The tone of the assembly is positive. I sense that the voting members just want to get on with it.

If there has been a theme of this assembly, it's been unity. In our daily communion services and in lots of other ways we're being reminded again and again of our call to work together as Christ's body and to hang together even when we disagree. That's true for the entire assembly, and particularly for the folks at Goodsoil. They know how it feels to be on the losing side of this battle for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church and, should they be on the winning side this time, there is a lot of concern for showing compassion for those who might be feeling like this is the end of the world.

Tomorrow, when the vote is announced, those of us in the plenary hall can't react in any way. That's one of the rules of the assembly -- a good rule that respects the feelings of those who are on the losing side of an issue. So, we'll have to calmly hear the vote announced and then wait for a break so we can rush up to the Goodsoil office and, hopefully, do a happy dance together. I'm wondering if I have it in me to do this. I don't know how I'll be able to control myself. I may have to watch on the T.V. monitor in the Goodsoil room. From what I hear, they have given out 1,000 visitor passes and they expect to run out of space for all to be seated in the plenary room tomorrow. I hope to be there, but we'll see.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Assembly - Day 3

The Rush of a Mighty Wind and a Squeaker

I met a friend for lunch today, and as I was making my way through the maze of the Minneapolis Skyway system back toward the Convention center, I noticed that a hard rain was pounding outside. Arriving at the convention center, I learned that there had been a tornado and the warning was still in effect. Everyone in the building had been evacuated to the large plenary meeting hall. As it turns out, friends who witnessed the whole thing told me that they actually could see the tornado touch down, right across the street from the Convention Center, at Central Lutheran Church. The funnel cloud landed on the church for about 30 seconds and then it went back up again. The outdoor cafe that Central set up for assembly visitors was gone. Tables blew up onto the roof of the convention center and they still haven't found the chairs. Trees were uprooted, debris everywhere, and worst of all, the cross on the spire was bent completely over. This was to be the site for the Goodsoil worship service that night. Fortunately, no one was hurt and the church was in good enough shape for our worship to go on as planned.

What an absolutley glorious experience our worship was. I wish that all of my Holy Trinity family could have been with us. When the congregation sang "Give Me Jesus" I was so moved by the voices that I completely lost my own. Barbara Lundblad preached and was magnificent. Ironically, the text chosen for the night was the story of the storm at sea. As she read the gospel and got to the words describing the wind that arose, she paused and the congregation roared, then she looked up and said, "Really. That's what it says here." A perfect text for the occasion, on many levels. It was also the perfect way to end an amazing day.

The discussion of the Human Sexuality Statement seemed to drag on and on today, with one proposed amendment after another, and it seemed like we would never get through it. I was wondering if they would still be nitpicking this up until Sunday. Then something seemed to change among the voting members. It was like they said, we've had enough of this, and they made a motion to limit the time spent debating each proposed amendment. Then, someone moved that all the amendments be rejected and they proceeded to move on to consider the statement itself. Suddenly, they were voting on the proposed social statement.

I was sitting in Goodsoil Central with a large group of volunteers who were watching it all on a monitor. (This is a much more enjoyable way of watching the proceedings as you are free to make comments!) When we realized that the proposal was actually coming to a vote TODAY, we were in shock. You could have heard a pin drop in the room. All eyes were glued to the screen and we were holding our collective breath. They posted the vote total on the screen and at first we couldn't figure out if it had passed or not. (The voting is electronic and it's always reported with a bar graph showing the percentages.) This particular vote required a 2/3 majority and the tally was 66 point some fraction of a percent in favor. We're all looking at each other asking, "Is that 2/3? Is that 2/3?" (Where are all the math majors when you need them?) Then Bishop Hanson announced that it passed. The whole room filled with Goodsoil volunteers erupted. We cried, we jumped up and down, we hugged one another. You would have thought that our team just won the superbowl. It was unbelievable. Just three short years ago, the assembly was in such a completely different place. Is this the same ELCA?

So maybe it was just a tornado that happened to strike the Lutheran church across the street, the church that was hosting our Goodsoil worship that night. Or maybe it was like the rush of a mighty wind on the Day of Pentecost, because after we were all sequestered in the meeting room because of the tornado, the direction of the conversation that seemed so stuck seemed to come together. Not too long after that, when we did our little happy dance, celebrating the passage of a statement of our church that includes and affirms the experience of people in same gender relationships for the first time in our history, we looked outside... and the sun was shining.

It was a good day to be Lutheran!

Assembly - Day 2

Highlights of Tuesday -
  • Singing for voting members as they entered the convention center bright and early this morning. We sounded pretty damn good for people who were singing in their sleep.
  • The continuing wise leadership of Bishop Mark Hanson and his delightful wit; he actually makes doing the business of the church fun.
  • Listening to voting members discuss the Human Sexuality Statement being proposed., lined up at the microphones for and against. How can something that seems so innocuous to me inspire such ire among so many? I don't get it.
  • When it came time to discuss the proposal for a new initiative to fight Malaria in Africa, I almost checked out. So glad I stuck around. It was our church at its absolute finest. Among those gathered, I was amazed to learn how many of them had personal stories about the devastation of malaria from the time they have spent serving/living in other parts of the world. That's the blessing of diversity within our church. Such a broad range of experiences strengthening the Body of Christ. What powerful stories. I hope we really back this initiative.
  • Singing "Just a Closer Walk" with a whole lotta soul at worship today.
  • At an educational event this evening ELCA pastors in same gender relationships and their families had the opportunity to share their stories with us. I can't imagine the excitement they must be feeling right now and am praying that soon our church will embrace their gifts for ministry without reservation.
  • Enjoying the city of Minneapolis. Able to walk everywhere. Beautiful weather, dining outside. I only got lost three times today, which is an improvement.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Assembly - Day 1

We’re off and running at our ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis. I had the opportunity to meet friends at Goodsoil Central this afternoon. During our training session on “Graceful Engagement”, I learned that this CWA is different from any in prior years because this time the churchwide office is actually asking Goodsoil to help them accomplish the work of the church. In the past, Goodsoil has been in the role of advocating change in our church by standing against the policies of our ELCA. This time, what’s being proposed by our ELCA Church Council to the Churchwide Assembly is a life-giving step for our church that Goodsoil supports. It puts us in a different position than we have known in the past. Nonetheless, it’s not a slam-dunk. We are doing all we can to support the recommendations of the Church Council regarding Ministry Policies that have excluded gay and lesbian leaders in committed relationships from serving in our church. There are over 150 volunteers working with Goodsoil, who have come from all over the country to serve at this historic assembly. The spirit of the volunteers is positive and prayerful.
During the first plenary session of the Assembly, the rules of procedure were established for the assembly. I know that doesn’t sound all that exciting, but actually there was a movement to require a 2/3 vote on all recommendations for ministry policies. This is contrary to the existing rules and an obvious attempt to block any change. The reasoning for this is that such a radical change in our policy would be so damaging to the church that a supermajority would be less divisive. Of course, for people on the other side (including moi), this would mean that instead of a simple majority deciding how the church will act, our future could be determined by 1/3 of the voting members plus 1. If this 2/3 requirement passed it would mean that the ministry recommendations don’t stand much a chance of passing. The assembly did not approve the change, so we have overcome this first hurdle, but it was not without considerable debate that went on and on and on. Tension is high on the assembly floor and it's only night one.
The highlight of the day was the sermon Bishop Hanson preached at the opening worship for the Assembly this afternoon. Preaching on the story of Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the disciples in the upper room, he talked about the fear that drove them inward, something we could all identify with. Bishop Hanson reminded us that for the first disciples, even in the midst of their fears, Jesus showed up, and he promises us that he will continue to show up for us today. As we gathered around Word and Sacrament this afternoon, Jesus was present. We have the assurance that he’ll be with us this week.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Here We Go Again

I’ve been thinking a lot about the very first churchwide assembly. It happened almost 2,000 years ago. I wonder, as those early Christians prepared for that meeting in Jerusalem, if they had any awareness of the significance of what they were about to do. Or were they so caught up in the moment that they couldn’t see how their decision would change the direction of history? Were they busy preparing their arguments and aligning their allies to do battle with the opposition? From what I’ve read, it’s hard for me to believe that they would have approached the issue that divided them with an openness to listen and be changed by the debate. They held their positions with too much passion for me to believe that. And yet, when they got together, something amazing happened.

The status quo was challenged. The Spirit moved. And they could see that God was doing a new thing in the Church. It was no small, incidental belief and practice that was changed, mind you. It was something big, a core understanding about their relationship with God that they had tightly held onto for thousands of years. No amount of talking could have convinced them to change their minds about something so huge. Only God could bring about a transformation like that.

But was it that simple? Is there more to the story than what we read about it in the book of Acts? Were there some who threatened to leave if Gentiles were accepted in the Church without first doing everything that the law had always demanded of God’s people? When things didn’t go their way, did some of them take their Torahs and go home?

That first Jerusalem Council seemed to set the stage for the unfolding drama of Church history. The Church has always been divided over something, and we’re always meeting to work out our differences. We try hard to rise above the pettiness of our arguments, but usually our passion gets the best of us, and we are overcome with a desire to have our own way. And yet, somehow in the midst of all the very human desires we bring to these assemblies, the Holy Spirit is at work, and eventually, God has it God’s way.

As I prepare to make the pilgrimage to Minneapolis for our ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly, I am hoping to keep the events of the week in perspective. This is not an isolated moment in history, unlike anything the world has ever seen. We are engaged in the latest opportunity for God’s people to gather together to consider an issue that deeply divides us. I am confident that somehow, if our closed minds can allow for the slightest opening, the Spirit will slip in.

Thinking about that first churchwide assembly in Jerusalem, something else has occurred to me. At that time, the Spirit pushed God’s people to change so that the Church could become more inclusive. And isn’t that the direction the Spirit always moves us? I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when God has ever led us to become more exclusive. I can’t imagine that would ever be the case. That’s not to say that every decision that has ever been made at an assembly of the Church is the right decision, one that is in accordance with God’s will. There certainly have been times in history when the Church has gotten it wrong. But history also reveals that eventually God has his way with us and we get it right. My prayer, as our ELCA meets together this week, is that this will be one of those times.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Knots in My Knots

My stomach is in knots over our upcoming ELCA Churchwide Assembly. This morning a friend forwarded me a copy of letters exchanged between the first bishop of our ELCA and one of our most respected theologians. They reminded me of two enemies engaged in trench warfare lobbing grenades at one another, and I had knots in my knots. As the knots tighten, I find myself praying more. It’s not mindful prayer, or heartfelt prayer. It’s prayer from the gut. In fact, it’s gut-wrenching.

Why do I care so much about this? Well, there are many reasons. For starters, there is the injustice of singling a group of people out and telling them that in order to become acceptable they need to pretend they are people other than the ones God created them to be. This is not only unjust, but it is an insult to our Creator. Then there are ecclesiastical reasons, like the fact that Christ’s Church has always been in the process of being transformed by the Spirit to meet the changing needs of the world around us. The Scriptures are filled with this kind of movement among God’s people, and we need to be open to the Spirit leading us to new understandings of old truths today. All of that gets me stirred up inside, but it’s not really what wrenches my gut. What gets me in the gut is that fact that, for me, the level of inclusion that our ELCA offers to the LGBT population is personal. I dearly love a heck of a lot of people who happen to be gay.

I have deep friendships with formerly-rostered persons who have been rejected by their Church. These are gifted people whom God called to serve just as surely as he called me. Their only offense is the people they love. Right now, among the people I pastor, there are those being called to serve in the Church and they are holding their breath, waiting to see what our ELCA does. There is no question about their calling or their gifts. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether the larger church will stand in their way or not. I pray that God will forgive us for the damage we have done to so many lives in the past, and that we will repent of that damage for the sake of those who stand waiting to serve.

Although I’ve never gone through our membership to count, mainly because I don’t care to make that kind of distinction within our faith community, I suspect that, in the congregation where I’m serving as pastor, at least half of our members are gay or lesbian. They have been deeply hurt by the actions of our North Carolina Synod and our ELCA over the years, and yet, they remain faithful. Frankly, I don’t know if I would have done the same if I were in their shoes. God’s grace working in their lives amazes me.

The people at Holy Trinity in Charlotte are so hopeful about our upcoming Churchwide Assembly that they wanted to be there. Since the commute from Charlotte to Minneapolis makes that impossible, they decided to send me to represent them all. Without my knowledge, they took up a collection and gathered enough money to pay my way. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Most of the people at Churchwide Assembly will be there because they were elected to go by their respective synods. I’ll be there because I was elected to go by my congregation. Of course, that doesn’t give Holy Trinity a voice or a vote on the assembly floor. But we will be there. With knots in our stomachs. Praying.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Tootin' & Scootin'

“He’s going to toot; we’re going to skoot.” That’s the message on a church sign, as reported by a friend of mine. She’s always on the look-out for humorous sayings on church signs and shares them with the rest of us by posting them on Facebook. When I read this one I was mystified. What the heck is that supposed to mean? I wondered. Who is the he? Is that God? And what would it mean for him to toot? I know tooting is a euphemism for passing gas, as in the little jingle we used to say about beans when I was a kid: “Beans, beans, the musical fruit, the more you eat, the more you toot.” So is this saying that when God passes gas we’d best be getting out of the way? Somehow I didn’t think that was the sort of message a church would put on their sign. Finally, the friend who posted the message enlightened me. It was referring to the trumpet sounding on judgment day and all the true Christians being taken up into heaven. Well, duh, Nancy!

Now, when I found out what the message meant, although maybe I should have felt stupid because I didn’t understand it, I didn’t. Nor did I feel like I’m in trouble because when God comes tooting his horn (actually I believe it would be the angel Gabriel) on judgment day and all the true believers are caught up in the air, I’ll be standing with my feet firmly planted on the Earth, asking, “Did you just hear something? Was that the sound of someone very large passing gas?” No. What I felt was sadness. How can there be such a huge divide within the Christian Church that we have such divergent ways of thinking? Clearly, we’re not all on the same wavelength. Sometimes I wonder if we’re even speaking the same language. I hate the labels we slap on one another, but if I had to live with a label for my own expression of Christianity, I would call it progressive or liberal. I tend to gravitate toward like-minded people, the kind who don’t think a whole lot about tootin’ and scootin’. Those are the authors I read, the friends I meet for lunch, the believers I share the weekly Eucharist with. I avoid people who don’t see the world the way I see it, for a lot of reasons. Mostly because, to be honest, they exhaust me. It’s a lot of work to carry on a conversation with someone who thinks so differently than I do. It’s easier to live in my insulated little world, within the walls I have constructed to keep like-minded people in and other people out. I know I’m not alone in that. And it makes me sad.

To be in Christ is to live in a wall-free zone that models the Kingdom of God. A metaphor used in Ephesians to describe this reality is the Body of Christ. All Christians are a part of that Body, with Christ as our head. The image is one of unity, without walls dividing one part of the Body from another. Of course, this is not the same thing as uniformity. Certainly there is diversity in the Body, and that’s by design, so that with our diverse gifts we can build up the Body to do Christ’s work in the world. But within that diversity, there is unity. How do we live together in the unity of Christ’s love while still honoring and celebrating the gift of our diversity?

The disunity we experience as Christians isn’t just between denominations; it happens within denominations, too. I’m very aware of that struggle in my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Like most mainline denominations these days, we are trying to figure out how to resolve the disagreements we have about how supportive we are willing to be toward people who are in same-gender relationships. At our Churchwide Assembly in a couple of weeks, we will be voting on some far-reaching resolutions that could bring us to a new place as God’s people. What’s being proposed is not a win/lose agenda where our church will insist that we all agree, but it’s a plan that allows us to live together in the midst of our disagreements. I think it’s a faithful solution, one that reflects what it means to be the Body of Christ in the world today. But denominational policies don’t really change what’s in our hearts. No matter what our voting members to the assembly decide, we will continue to struggle.

I suspect that what most of us would like to see is a change of heart on the part of those who disagree with us. We’d like it if they could to come around to our way of seeing things. I know I’d sure like that. But I don’t think that’s what it means to be part of the Body of Christ. When we’re part of the Body, we work together for whatever strengthens the Body. It’s not about converting other parts of the Body to our way of thinking. It’s about working together for the unity of the Body. For me, that means that I need to stop worrying about what’s in the hearts of other Christians and spend a little more time thinking about what’s in my own.

I’m sure whoever put “He’s going to toot; we’re going to skoot” on that church sign had no idea how it would mess with me. But it has. I guess that just goes to show that I really do need tootin’ and scootin’ Christians in my life!