Monday, May 27, 2013

Homophobia/racism/sexism… where it hurts us the most

I was enjoying the wedding reception for a couple I had just married who happened to both be the same gender. It was just like any other wedding I do, with one exception. I didn’t sign a marriage license. I don’t particularly enjoy performing that duty for the State of North Carolina, so I can’t say that I miss it all that much. Except when it’s not allowed. And then it’s like throwing my heart in a meat grinder.

Anyway, I was at the reception for this wedding and I found myself in a setting that has become so familiar to me these days that I hardly gave it a second thought. I was sitting at a large table with members of my church. Nearly every adult at this table was gay, and in a long-term committed relationship. Some were pushing 30 years together. And I learned something new about my gay friends. They got into a conversation about how they struggle internally with their own personal homophobia. It shows up when they are in a public setting with their partner and they refrain from any interaction that might be perceived even the slightest bit sexual. They don’t dare hold hands. They don’t put their arms around each other, even for a moment. They certainly don’t kiss. They don’t even stand close to each other. Why? Well, basically it’s because they don’t want to upset anyone. They have been taught that while they may love one another, it’s still a very private thing and they don’t want to put it out there in public because other people may be offended by it. At least, that’s how I understand it. (Perhaps some of it is a sense of self-preservation, too, as they know of people who have been beaten and killed in the past for such things.)

I had never been aware of this before. I didn’t realize that even on their wedding day, a gay couple would have to fight their own personal homophobia in order to kiss their spouse in the presence of their friends and family. It breaks my heart to think of it. And yet, I also understand that this is a problem for people who are, what a younger member of the group referred to as, “old gay.” Young gay people don’t worry about such things. The world is different for them. For the most part, they don’t have to pretend to be someone other than who they are just to please the rest of the world. It seems like half of the “old gay” people I know were at one time in straight marriages. I hope that in the next generation such a scenario will rarely occur.

 When you’ve been taught all your life that who you are is wrong, or less than, or a disappointment, you learn to cope the only way you can. You hide who you are and pretend to be who you’re not, just to please other people. Certainly, this is something that transgender people deal with. Society has taught them that they cannot be the person everything within them tells them they are. Many will hide who they are until they can’t stand it anymore. And then comes the turmoil of transitioning from living as a man or woman to the gender they have identified with for so long. All the while, they have to deal with those internal messages that keep telling them the person they are is wrong, wrong, wrong.

I also think about the way it has been, and in many ways continues to be, for African Americans in our country. Here in the South, every once in a while I can still hear a black person deferring to a white person with language that resembles slave-speech. It may sound like they’re just being polite, but it’s overly polite. I don’t hear white people talking to black people like that. It’s something that has been so ingrained in them that they probably don’t know they’re doing it. To get past it, they have to work through the racism within, which may be even harder than dealing with the racism of others.

 I’ve noticed this same thing going on with myself. Despite my best efforts to overcome it, there remains a sexism within me that is always there. I grew up in a world where being female meant being less than male, and a lady knew her place. Obviously, as a pastor, I’ve gotten over a lot of that. But I still find myself in situations where I’m deferring to a man, or holding back because I don’t want to appear too pushy. It’s hard for me to assert my authority. For the first 10 years of ordained ministry, I had such difficulty asking my secretary to do anything for me that I would do everything myself. I didn’t want to appear “bossy.” Fortunately, I learned to get over it because I was working myself ragged!

 Female preachers tend to use a lot of qualifiers in their sermons. Words like: I guess, maybe, I think. Instead of saying, “We need to be like Jesus”, they will say something like, “I think maybe Jesus wants us to be like him.” Men don’t do this. It’s a woman thing. When I first learned of our tendency to diminish our authority by using qualifiers, I went back over some of my old sermons and I was shocked to see how often I did it. Now, when I edit my sermons, that’s one of the things I look for. I have to be intentional about asserting my authority. I have to fight against my own personal sexism. There is something within me that is always pulling me down, telling me that I have to be gentler in my approach, softer with my words, or people won’t like me.

Is there anything more tragic than denying the person God created you to be in order to please other people? Lives are wasted in the process. And the Creator is insulted.

In our Lutheran confession we say that “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.” I suspect this is the sort of thing those words are talking about. (Notice the qualifiers in the previous sentence. Oy! Rewrite.) This is the sort thing those words are talking about. Homophobia, racism, sexism – some of the many faces of sin. All are harmful, particularly when they become a part of who we are, even to the point of turning us against ourselves. The sinful world does a number on us and it’s pert near impossible to shake ourselves free from it. May God deliver us!



Sunday, May 19, 2013

Death, and resurrection, and... FIRE!

“Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (Acts 2:3). There was a lot of fire in that place. Fire!

Perhaps the greatest human discovery of all time was the discovery of fire. It is used by humans for warmth, for cooking, for light, for purification, for energy. Without fire, we would sit in the dark every night and freeze to death in the winter. Diseases would run rampant.  We wouldn’t have cars, or computers, or coffee, or chocolate chip cookies.

And then there’s the kind of fire we read about in Acts. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them. What kind of fire can this be?

The disciples of Jesus had already lived through death. The world as they knew it had ended. All the hopes they had for Jesus and themselves as his followers had been put to death on a cross. And then, something happened that they hadn’t expected. They saw Jesus again, and he was alive. Not like he had been before. He was different now. And so were they. They had known not only death, but resurrection, as well. And now, it was time for the fire.

I wonder if fire is something that always follows death and resurrection. At this graduation time of the year, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own graduations from high school and college. I remember that as much as I worked to get to graduation, when the time finally came, I had a lot of grieving to do. I was leaving my former life behind. I would never be sharing my days with my friends the way I had. It was a death. There was some pain involved. But that was the only way to get to the new life that was waiting for me. Eventually, I was ready to move on and embrace that new life. And I could look back on the person I once was and, recognizing the person that I had become, I realized that I had experienced resurrection in my life.

And then came fire. It didn’t come from anything I had learned in school. It wasn’t a thing of the head. And it wasn’t something that I had strong feelings about. It wasn’t a thing of the heart. It was a calling that I couldn’t ignore, a passion, and it burned within me. It was a fire in my belly.

I know this isn’t just something that happens to pastors. It can happen to anyone. In fact, I suspect that it does happen to everyone. Some of us may throw water on that fire before it has a chance to burn within us, but if you’re open to it, if you’re not afraid of it, if you pay attention to the fire burning in your belly, your life will be transformed.

We read about such a moment in the Pentecost story. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them. And they went from quivering, sniveling cowards hiding out behind closed doors, fearing for their lives, to people who boldly risked everything to share the story of Jesus with the world. Their story was about death, and resurrection…and fire. It was a story of transformation.

The book we call the Bible is a collection of stories within a larger story about death and resurrection… and fire. And that story doesn’t end once we get to the last word of the book of Revelation. It’s still unfolding, and we are a part of it. It’s a story of transformation as the people of God are always growing into the people God created them to be. We haven’t always gotten it right. In fact, quite often we’ve been dead wrong. Sometimes the fire nearly went out completely, but there was always a glowing ember somewhere, or a spark, or a smoldering rock beneath the surface of the earth.

When the Word, God, took on flesh and blood, the John tells us, this Word made flesh was a light that no darkness could overcome, the brightest of all the stars in the sky, Fire.  His human name was Jesus. In his life he showed us what the life God intends for all of us looks like. It’s a life of radical compassion. And it is such a departure from the ways of the world around us that the way to that life isn’t easy. It’s more than pouring water over your head. It’s more than going to church on Sunday morning. It’s more than reading your Bible faithfully and following the 10 Commandments. It’s death and resurrection. It’s dying to the ways of the world around us and being resurrected to a Jesus Way of life. It’s saying no to exclusive social clubs, and yes to open communities of faith. It’s saying no to injustice and exploitation of the poor, and yes to justice and service to all in need. It’s saying no to violence in all its forms, and yes to compassion and understanding. It’s saying no to our need to be the best and have the most, and yes to cooperation and denying ourselves for the sake of others. It’s saying no to “What’s in it for me?”, and yes to “What does it mean for the community? What does it mean for the world?” It’s saying no to judgmentalism, and yes to love.

I heard a story last week about a pastor at an affluent church in Texas. In his congregation, parents have been giving an unusual gift to their daughters for high school graduation. Do you know what it is? Breast implants. And they’re so proud of it that they bring pictures of their daughters to church to show everyone. This is not what the transformed life that Jesus calls us to be part of looks like!

It leads me to think of another high school graduation story. This one involves four girls who have been best friends all through school. Two of them are black and two of them are white. They live in a little town in Georgia that has had integrated schools for as long as the law of the land insisted that they be integrated. It’s been forty years. And during those forty years in that little town, they have continued to have segregated proms. They call one “White Prom” and the other “Black Prom.” It’s the way it was for their parents and their parents’ parents; it’s just the way it has always been. But now it’s 2013. And these four girls decided it was time for a change. They wanted a prom that included everyone. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know that they met a lot of resistance! The governor of Georgia accused them of having a liberal, democratic agenda. But they said, that wasn’t it at all. This wasn’t about politics. They just wanted to dance with their friends. And this is what the transformed life, the life that Jesus calls us to be a part of, looks like.

The Jesus Way has always been subversive in this world. When it ceases to be subversive, when it becomes part of the status quo, it ceases to be the Jesus Way. If you’re here today because you want to follow the Jesus Way, really follow the Jesus Way, this very gathering is a subversive activity. If this community is not here to reinforce the values of the status quo but to push us toward living the Jesus way, we are a subversive community. It may not be for everyone. But if you’re being called to a Jesus Way of life, open yourself to God’s Spirit of transformation. Encounter death and resurrection in your life. And get ready for the fire.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

News flash! You're not the center of the Universe

Ah, the wisdom mothers feel compelled to share with their children. (Not that those children asked.) There are things we say to our kids so often that they almost become our mantra. Things like, “Eat your supper; there are children starving in India” or “I don’t care what everybody else is doing. If everybody else jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you?” When my son Ben was growing up, my favorite wisdom saying went like this: “I’ve got a news flash for you, Ben. You are not the center of the Universe.” Even to this day, when I’m with my now 32-year-old son, I will sometimes say to him, “I’ve got a news flash for you, Ben.” And he’ll roll his eyes and finish saying it for me, “I know. I’m not the center of the Universe.” I still don’t know if he believes it, but at least the concept has been drummed into his head.

You are not the center of the Universe. I suppose we all know this in our heads, but it’s hard to feel it in our hearts. Because, from our perspective, we ARE the center of the universe. We see everything with our own eyes and we process it with our own brains. Our primary concern is self-preservation. Every one of us is self-absorbed. Some, moreso than others, of course. And it can be hard to get beyond that, particularly in our American culture where we’re all about proving our self-worth by comparing and competing and dominating everyone and everything around us. But, you know, there are also parts of the world where community is valued above individualism. For example, in Africa a core value is what they call ubuntu, which means, I am who I am because of who we are together.

Well, it shouldn’t come as a great surprise to us that the teachings of Jesus reflect more of an African mindset than an American one. And in John 17 we see a good example of that. Here’s the context. Jesus gathers with his disciples in an upper room. He washes their feet and shares a Passover meal with them. He knows the end is almost here, so he gives them some final instructions, including the new commandment that they love one another in the same way he has loved them. And then he has a private conversation with God. This is right before he is arrested. John doesn’t give us anything about Jesus praying while his disciples dose off. We don’t read about his pleas before God to spare him of the ordeal that is before him. Instead, we read about Jesus praying while his disciples eavesdrop. And
he is not praying for himself. He’s praying for THEM. And not just them. He’s also praying for US.

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…”

Father Richard Rohr writes that there is a perennial philosophy that recognizes again and again in different religions and in different ways and with different words “that 1) there is a Divine Reality substantial to the world of things, 2) there is an inner compatibility and coherence between humans and God, and 3) the goal of human existence is quite simply union with that (Divine) Reality.”

So, unity with God is a big thing for all religions. And that’s what Jesus is praying for here. But he puts a different twist on the finding-unity-with-God theme. He describes the oneness that he has with the Father, and prays for that same oneness with his followers and himself. And with his followers and the Father. And with his followers and one another. It’s not all about me and God.

It reminds me of something that I always talk about when I explain the meaning of Holy Communion. When we participate in this holy meal, there is a vertical dimension and a horizontal dimension to what we’re doing. The vertical - we are experiencing oneness with God. The horizontal – we are experiencing oneness with one another. When you put the two together, the vertical and the horizontal, you get a cross. That’s a wonderful visual image of what’s happening at Holy Communion, and for the sake of simple clarity, it works. But it’s also very two-dimensional, and the oneness we experience through Holy Communion is a lot more complicated than that. As is the oneness we experience with God in our lives. There is a mystical depth to it that I can’t begin to get my head around.

But here’s what I can grab onto. And that’s that in many places in the gospels, and in many ways, Jesus saw an organic connection between the unity we have with God and the unity we have with one another. Love of God,love of self, and love of others are interwoven so closely that it’s sometimes hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Of course, that’s challenging thinking for self-absorbed people.

What? You mean, Jesus is not my personal Savior? I can’t tuck Jesus into my pocket and take him to work with me?  You mean God hasn’t been created in my image and God doesn’t hate all the same people I hate? You mean, God isn’t just sitting around waiting to hear me tell him what I want him to do for me, like a genie in a bottle? You mean, the universe doesn’t revolve around me?

Part of what it means to be created in the image of God is to be created for relationship. To be created for oneness with something outside ourselves. Faith is about relationship. Relationship with God, yes. And Jesus teaches us that our relationship with God includes our relationship with all who are in relationship with God. And relationship with all that was created by God. Because God is in all and through all. And God is a God of relationship. Just as there is a oneness between the persons of the Trinity, there is a oneness with us.

Sometimes, we can see evidence of the unity Christ prayed that the world would have. This past week, on the radio I heard a woman in Richmond, Virginia named Martha Mullen. When she learned that not one cemetery in Massachusetts or its surrounding states would allow the body of the Boston bomber to be buried there, she took a bold step. In an act of great compassion, she went to work and found a place for the body to be laid to rest. Of course, the entire nation seems to be furious with her, especially the people who live in the little community in Virginia where the small cemetery is located. Whatever was she thinking? When she was interviewed on the phone, she explained that she wasn’t the only person who helped with the arrangements. “It was an interfaith effort,” she said. “Basically because Jesus says love your enemies.”

That’s where the unity that Jesus prays for will get you! You’ll start to do all kinds of crazy, compassionate things in the world. And the world will hate you for it. That may be one of the reasons why we have a natural inclination to resist it so much.  

Because, let’s be honest, Christians have had problems with unity from the very beginning. The testimony we have from those who wrote the New Testament repeatedly tells us about disruptions, arguments and factions within the Church. And we know that’s still true for the Church today.  

Once a church council was divided about if they should stand in honor of the Gospel or sit in humility. So the pastor went to the nursing home in town to ask the oldest member. He asked "Is it traditional for us to stand for the Gospel?" and the old man said , "No." The pastor said "Then sitting must be our tradition" and the old man said, "Nope." The frustrated pastor asked "Then what is it? We have been fighting about this for so long." And the old man replied, "Ah yes, now there is our tradition."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about this reality in his book, Life Together. He says that Christian community is a “wish dream.” The harmony we long for is impossible. And we shouldn’t become disillusioned when the reality of the faith community doesn’t match our expectations. But instead, it’s the reality of our resentments and our bickering and our failures that helps us to see more clearly what Christ has done for us. Christ died for us, with all our wants, our struggles, our hurts, even when we hurt one another. In our differences, the glory of God that Jesus prays about in John 17 truly shines, because God’s glory shows itself most completely through forgiveness. His glory is best experienced among those who can face their own faults and recognize their need for the God of unconditional love and mercy. It follows that they will extend that same forgiveness to others. And is there anything that strengthens our bonds with one another like giving and receiving forgiveness? When you look at it that way, you may even wonder if God didn’t make the Christian Church cantankerous by design.

Maybe when Jesus prays for the unity of his people in every time and place, he’s not praying that we all put our arms around each other in a big circle and sing “Kum Ba Ya.” And maybe he’s not praying that we work really hard at getting along so that some day we might achieve the unity he’s praying about. For these words of Jesus are not a part of his final instructions to his disciples. That speech is over. Here he’s not telling us to make it happen; he’s asking God to make it happen. And I have to believe that God honored his prayer. That the unity Jesus prayed for is already here. It’s God’s gift to us, a gift we celebrate every time we gather around the altar for the meal of Christ’s body and blood. Our unity with God and one another and all creation may not look the way we expected it to. We may not even recognize it when it is in, with, and under everything we experience. But we’re a part of it. Unity was Christ’s prayer for us, and unity is God’s gift to us. We can devote a lot of time and energy toward undermining it or we can live into the gift that is ours. Perhaps the first step is the hardest. That’s acknowledging that the Universe does not revolve around you.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Strangers with a history

I sat face-to-face with a man who had been a part of my past. Twenty years ago we met together in his office as he ministered to me during the absolute lowest point of my life.  It was the end of my life as I knew it. As I struggled to put one foot in front of the other, I was dangerously close to stumbling into a sink hole and disappearing forever. There wasn’t much he could do for me, really. But he sat with me, and he cared, and that was enough. I know he felt terribly inadequate and suspected that he may have been dying, too.

That was another time and in another place. As the years passed, we had no contact with one another. And then, after 20 years, here we were again, meeting this time in my office, for a completely different reason. It would have been easy to pretend that we had never met before. Essentially, we were strangers. But strangers with a history. We had encountered one another in a previous life.  The people we were then had long since died. We had no reason to dig up our graves and pick at the bones.  Now we were different people with new lives. Praise God!

I may not always be able to grasp the truth of the resurrection. But when I’m confronted with a person who hasn’t seen me since the final days of my former life, it smacks me in the face. I’m thankful for the opportunity to experience death and resurrection without having the whole wondrous miracle slip right by me, unnoticed. I’m thankful that even though the time of my death was so painful that I considered putting an end to it, I stuck around to see it through. And I’m thankful that the theme of death and resurrection continues to run through my life like a stream gushing up from an everlasting spring. Yes, resurrection is real.  I know it’s real because I have lived it.