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If you follow this blog, you know that I hoped Secretary Clinton would be elected President. More than that, I really didn’t want Mr. Trump to be elected President. That hope and wish were not fulfilled. Instead, a man who I have seen as misogynist, racist, and dangerous (his denial of climate change, his openness to using nuclear weapons) has won enough states that, assuming the electoral college votes as they are pledged, he will be the next President of the United States.

I’ve been told that in 1960, after John F. Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon, staunch Hollywood conservative John Wayne declared, “I didn’t vote for him, but he’s my president and I hope he does a good job.”

I’m having a hard time following John Wayne’s lead. Yes, I hope Mr. Trump does a good job, but based on his campaign and the signals coming from his transition team, I don’t think he will. I’ve read his plan for this first 100 days in office. If he follows through on his plan, he will wreak havoc on the economy, the environment, the Supreme Court’s protection of freedom, our public schools, the incomplete health insurance net that’s being stitched together through Obama Care, families that include at least one undocumented worker, and the national debt.

While the plan does not say anything overt about removing right of religious, ethnic, or sexual minorities, the rhetoric surrounding the Trump campaign and the people he has named to his transition team is frightening. Since election day, many people – especially women, minorities, immigrants, and members of the lgbt community – have felt vulnerable. Not surprising, since the Southern Poverty Law Center has noted as significant spike in acts of “hateful harassment and intimidation” since the election. And now, with the naming of white nationalist Steve Bannon to be “Chief Strategist to the President,” the pit in my stomach that had been slowly dissolving has re-solidified. White male privilege is, I fear, solidifying in our culture, right along side the pit in my stomach.

Bishop Dwayne Royster’s words in this blog post posted late on election day resonate with me – particularly when he rights about his anger that people who say they follow Christ voted for a person whose words during this campaign paint him as sexist, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, and not someone to be trusted with nuclear weapons. And I like that he calls us to be “Prophets that will speak truth to power unequivocally and will speak truth to the people as well.”

Senator Bernie Sanders (the presidential candidate I supported in the primaries) issued this statement the day after the election. In four sentences he says where I want to be politically.

Donald Trump tapped into the anger of a declining middle class that is sick and tired of establishment economics, establishment politics and the establishment media.  People are tired of working longer hours for lower wages, of seeing decent paying jobs go to China and other low-wage countries, of billionaires not paying any federal income taxes and of not being able to afford a college education for their kids – all while the very rich become much richer.

To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.

And while I want to be ready to work with Mr. Trump where I can (and vigorously against him where his proposals and policies are harmful), I am worried about how we respond to people who are vulnerable now, as attacks continue. I turn to my Twitter feed as I write this, knowing that there are other people who have posted things that have inspired me or at least given me hope, but what I’m reading about are instances of people of color being threatened by whites, of people of Muslim faith afraid to express it. Trump has turned a populist anger into hatred for “the other” by turning economic resentment into racial, religious, and gender resentment.

As a pastor, I wonder what my congregation can do. My greatest personal fear about the Trump presidency is that the little progress we’ve made as a nation to combat climate change will be reversed and the struggle to address this (the most important moral issue of our day) may be too late. Others have different primary fears as they try to imagine the coming Trump presidency – and with good reason; check out “Day 1 in Trump’s America.” The Rev. Michael Denton, Conference Minister of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Church of Christ, identified how the Trump presidency will make the lives of so many less safe and more traumatic – and some ideas for churches on his Facebook page:

For millions of people in our country and beyond, this world is suddenly and significantly less safe. Hate crimes had already increased in recent months and will even more, now. Many hard fought for laws that had protected the rights and lives of the queer community are in danger of being rolled back. Survivors of sexual assault will have to look into the eyes of someone who bragged about assaulting others every time they turn on the news. Those with disabilities will have to look into the eyes of someone who has mocked them. Migrants and refugees who found a home here are wondering if they’ll have to be migrants and refugees, again. People of color who already knew the life threatening daily reality of systemic racism are faced with one more blatant systemic expression of it. Those whose religious expression does not fall into a relatively narrow expression of Christianity can expect to be treated as suspect. Someone who has talked about his intention to use military force preemptively and often now has the ability to do so.

The idea of providing sanctuary is not a new one. It is the idea of opening up our churches and making them a safe space for people who are feeling threatened by the world. Over the coming hours, days, weeks, months and years more and more people are going to be asking for us to provide some sort of sanctuary; everything from providing a space for prayer and a listening ear to a place where they can find physical safety from a world that endangers them. We need to start that conversation of how to do that within and between our churches, now.

When it was becoming clear that Mr. Trump was going to win the electoral college, I honestly wondered if it was time to consider emigrating. I have a friend in New Zealand who said she will take me in while I look for a job if it’s ever needed. But then I read a tweet (I don’t remember who posted it) that called those of us who have privilege and care about justice not to abandon those who do not have privilege. Privilege comes in many forms in the USA. I have gender (I’m a cisgender male), race (I’m European-America of British descent), and economic (within the USA I’m probably upper-middle class) privilege, privileged enough to be able to seriously consider emigration. But I will stay and look for ways to justly use my privilege to protect those who are vulnerable and to dismantle the system that makes this privilege possible.

Those of us with privilege must not abandon those who do not have privilege. Those of us who follow Christ must serve, lift up, empower, and follow the vulnerable who are all the more vulnerable now.

Today, members of my congregation and several other United Church of Christ congregations in Fremont, California, gathered in Fremont’s Central Park to pick up trash.  This is part of the UCC’s “Mission 4/1 Earth” project.  Being the pastor of one of the participating churches, I couldn’t get away right after worship, get changed, and get to the marshalling point – so I arrived late and missed the orientation.  But I figured that picking up trash wouldn’t be too hard to figure out on my own.

Because I was not with the group, I ended up doing most of my hour of picking up trash by myself.  I had a plastic bag from a loaf of bread as my trash bag, which caused a bit of a commotion with I got to an area by Lake Elizabeth that was inhabited by a bunch of some fowl I can’t identify (maybe you can?).  Amazingly, they saw the bag and assumed that it was filled with stale bread, because I turned around to see a bunch of them following me.  It was not the greeting I expected.

photo d

I noticed two other things.  One was that about two-thirds to three-quarters of the items I picked up were cigarette butts.  It amazes me that people still think it’s okay to just toss their cigarette butts onto the grass.  The other thing I noticed was that after just an hour of bending over to pick up trash, my back and hips were aching.  It made me very appreciative of the people who do stoop labor to harvest food for me to eat.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, forming from the merger of
Niles Congregational Church, UCC, and First Christian Church, DOC,
in Fremont, on Sunday, September 9, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Deuteronomy 34:1-6 and Mark 7:24-30
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            I can’t help but wonder how Moses felt there on Mount Nebo, looking over the Promised Land.  I wonder how he felt knowing that he had led his people through a desert, through the wilderness, right to the door of the land that they believed was supposed to be theirs, knowing that they were about to enter it, but he would not be.

I imagine him, there on the mountaintop, looking over the Promised Land, chatting with God, learning that he was going to die.  Had discussions with God become old hat for Moses?  I suppose I’d be filled with awe to have God saying to me, “Look over there and over there.  Look all the way to the sea.  Yep, that’s the land I’ve set aside for you.  Pretty cool, huh?  Oh, by the way, you know that part about you not being able to enter that land?  I meant it.”  Well, I’d be filled with awe right up to that last part, then I’d probably be pretty ticked with God.

Moses had one heck of a roller coaster of a life:  Born into slavery at a time when Pharaoh had decreed that all Hebrew male infants were to be killed when they were born; hidden in the bull rushes, only to be “found” by Pharaoh’s daughter and brought into Pharaoh’s house to be raised as her son; committed homicide when he killed an Egyptian overseer and fled the country to escape prosecution; got married and while tending sheep, had an encounter with a burning bush; called into a special mission and returned to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrew slaves; led the people through the wilderness for 40 years, transforming the people from a collection of freed slaves into a community of faith, a people of covenant; led the people right up to the border of what was going to become their new land.  And then God tells him, “Sorry, but you’re not going in.  You’re going to die instead.”

Jewish Midrash is filled with stories about Moses and God having a discussion about all this.  One goes like this.[1]
God:  “Did I tell you to slay the Egyptian?”
Moses:  “But you killed all the first born in Egypt!”
God:  “Do you resemble me?  I cause people to die and I also revive them.”
I love the image of Moses arguing with God.

But I can’t read this passage without thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr.  One of his speeches, perhaps the second most famous of his speeches has been called his “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech.  King delivered it on April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple (the Church of God in Christ headquarter) in Memphis, Tennessee.

Most of his speech was about the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike.  King talked about the workers and their strike.  He talked about racial justice and civil right.  He talked about the power of boycotts and nonviolent protest.  And he finished his speech by talking about himself.

“And then I got to Memphis.  And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out.  What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?  Well, I don’t know what will happen now.  We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it doesn’t really matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  I don’t mind.

“Like anybody, I would like to live  a long life; longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over.  And I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you.  But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.  So I’m happy, tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing any man.  ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’”[2]

The next day, King was assassinated.

Here we are, on the edge of something new.  This is not as momentous as the Hebrews entering the Promised Land.  This is not as earth-shaking as the assassination of one of American’s prophets.  But we are here, just on this side of finalizing a merger we’ve been exploring and considering for seven years.

There have been times when these seven years have seemed like a long time to me.  I’ve felt, at times, like we’ve been going in circles, not making progress.  There have even been times when I’ve wondered if it was worth the effort.  But most often, I’ve watched relationships grow and trust build and vision take hold and hope blossom.

Pardon me for being redundant, but there is something very special about the work we’ve done and this promised land we are about to enter.  All the literature I’ve been able to find about congregational mergers has been about mergers undertaken as a matter of congregational survival.  Neither Niles Congregational Church nor First Christian Church needed to merge into a new church.  But each congregation discerned that we could do more for the realm of God together then we could do separately, so we decided to merge and form Niles Discovery Church.

We decided to create a church that would be known for its extravagant welcome.  We decided to create a church that is united in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exceptions.  And so we’re creating a church[3] where we follow the path and teachings of Jesus to draw us closer to God, even as we acknowledge that other paths work for other people; where inclusivity means welcoming conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, believers and agnostics, people of all gender identities and sexual orientations, and those of all classes and abilities; where we know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe, and where we find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes; where we strive for peace and justice among all people; where we strive to protect and restore the integrity of our earth; and where we commit to each other and to God that we will continue on a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.

I believe that this vision we have for our church is a biblical image.  One of the things that’s striking about our Gospel lesson today is the exchange between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.  We squirm a bit when Jesus, our loving and tender Savior, tells a desperate mother that she and her little girl are like “dogs.”  “Our discomfort – with Jesus’ humanity and his perspective as a faithful Jew – trips us up on this exchange, even though things turn out well in the end.”[4]  But Kate Huey suggests that this story might be an expression of one of the challenges the early church faced:  do we allow pagans (non-Jews) to be part of the church?

She points out, “Just before Jesus leaves on this little break from the crowds, he has shocked the religious authorities by declaring all foods clean and by focusing instead on what lives in our hearts.  Now, whether he wants to or not, he encounters a tenacious, determined mother in search of healing for her little girl, a woman who will not be turned away from the table of God’s grace, even if all she gets is the crumbs that fell to the floor.  She uses her wits in a culture that values riddles for figuring things out, and she wins both the argument and the healing she has requested of this teacher from another religion and another land.  Borders are crossed, hearts are opened, and so is the Christian mission, as Gentiles (and women) embrace the good news of the gospel.  Just as Jesus declared all foods clean, then, he declares all people ‘clean,’ acceptable, included at the table.”[5]

Take in this moment.  Be aware of this day.  Right now, we are on this side of the border, and in a few moments we will take the votes that are necessary to cross the “T”s and dot the “I”s so we will become a fully merged church, a new church for a new day, Niles Discovery Church, united in God’s love for everyone’s journey … no exception.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), p. 1585.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” American Rhetoric, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm (8 September 2012).

[3] Based on the 8 Affirmations of ProgressiveChristianity.org, http://progressivechristianity.org/resources/8-points-flyer-2011-version/ (8 September 2012).

[4] Kate Huey, “Weekly Seeds” email from the United Church of Christ, commenting on this Gospel lesson, emailed 31 August 2012.

[5] Ibid.

Here are my three favorite posts from my Facebook wall during the preceding week (I try to get this done each Friday).

1.  Once again, Global Warming and Climate Change topped the content of my posts on Facebook last week. 

I began the week wishing I could be in DC to participate in the Keystone XL Pipeline protest that surrounded the White House, with a link to photos of the event.  Then on Thursday, I started celebrating the Obama Administration’s decision to delay the decision on the pipeline by at least a year.  I encouraged people to write to the Whitehouse to say “thank you” and to sign this petition calling on the administration to simply say “no” or to really start over in examining the pros and cons of the pipeline.  The petition reads:

Delaying or rerouting the Keystone XL does not solve the problem. Reject this project now. If you will not, then direct the State Department to start over clean with an evaluation conducted by a truly independent contractor, that takes into account the global warming impacts of this pipeline, and that is free from the influence of lobbyists.

I also posted a link to this article on the impact, degree by degree, of global warming on our climates and living situation.  It’s pretty scary!
And there was the link to this article on how we know that human beings are causing global warming.

2.  There were bunches of posts about “Mission: 1,” a nation-wide effort by the United Church of Christ to address hunger and hunger justice.

3.  And then there’s my favorite picture of the week:

This Sunday, my church (Niles Discovery Church) will be presenting our fourth graders with new Bibles.  It’s a long tradition of giving kids a Bible of their own, one that they can read and, as we say in the bookplate we put in it, “when you wear it out, return it for a new one.”

As a pastor and a progressive Christian, I want to give the kids a Bible that is both a translation that the kids can read (that’s written at a level they can comprehend) and that is accurate.  This poses a particular challenge when it comes to two letters in the Bible that have been used to condemn lgbt people (especially gay men).

I know it’s a problem because when I was an adolescent, trying to come to terms with my own sexuality, I went to my Bible to see what it said about being gay, and I found 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.  Right there, in the Bible my church had given me, I read, “Surely you know that the wicked will not possess God’s Kingdom. Do not fool yourselves; people who are immoral or who worship idols or are adulterers or homosexual perverts or who steal or are greedy or are drunkards or who slander others or are thieves – none of these will possess God’s Kingdom.” (Good News Translation)

Sure, there are other passages that are used to clobber lgbt people.  There’s the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, in Genesis 19:1-11, but the issue here isn’t so much one of translation as it is of interpretation.  The rape the men of Sodom wanted to commit has been confused with the consensual sex between adult men.  I’m glad God condemned rape.

Leviticus 18:22 & Leviticus 20:13 (those “abomination” passages from the Holiness Code) are pretty clear, but there’s so much else in the Holiness Code that we reject that even my teenaged mind was able to reject these passages, too.  Though, this does raise interesting questions about how we should treat the holiness code (do we ignore it, pick and choose from it, accept all of it, try to find an ethic underneath it rather than the specifics of it?).

There’s Romans 1:26-27, where “unnatural” sex – defined as same-gender relations – is condemned.  But I knew that behaving heterosexually is unnatural for me, so even this passage didn’t clobber me like the others.

No, it was 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 that clobbered me.

So as we’ve prepared to present Bibles to our fourth graders, I’ve been looking at various translations to see how they deal with 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (and a similar passage, 1 Timothy 1:9-10).

With the understanding that the New Revised Standard Version is one of the more accurate English translations available, I started there, looking at how it dealt with the Greek.  The NRSV translates 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, “… fornicators (pornos), idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes (malakos), sodomites (arsenokoites), thieves, …”

Malakos literally means soft or fancy (see Matthew 11:8).  For Paul, probably meant “effeminate,” which would have been a problem because it would be breaking gender roles that were such a part of the social hierarchy; or “vanity,” obsessed with his looks, which has nothing to do with sexual orientation or behavior.

Arsenokoites is a Greek word play: male + bed + [make it a verb] = malebedder.  What’s the best way to understand this word?  A common translation understanding is the adult male in a man/adolescent relationship that could happen in Greek and Roman cultures.  Others think “men who use sex as a means of violence; men who commit rape” is a better understanding of this term.

The NRSV translation is pretty accurate, but it leaves open the question of how to interpret the English word “sodomite.”  Besides, the English used is at least high school level, so it’s not a good translation to give to fourth graders.

The English Standard Version doesn’t do a good job:  “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”  Their footnote says, “The two Greek terms translated by this phrase [men who practice homosexuality] refer to the passive and active partners in consensual homosexual acts.”  The NIV, which translates the Greek word in question as “men who have sex with men,” has a similarly bad footnote.

Turning to translations that are supposed to be accessible for elementary schoolers, the Contemporary English Version is a bad translation:  “No one who … behaves like a homosexual.”  The new Common English Bible is even worse:  “both participants in same-sex intercourse” as the translation and “submissive and dominant male sexual partners” as a footnote, which is just a stereotyped understanding of gay sexuality.

Of the English translations that are supposed to be accessible to kids, only The Message translates these verses in a way that I find acceptable (though is does border on being a paraphrase):  “Don’t you realize that this is not the way to live? Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining in his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom.”

I mentioned earlier that 1 Timothy 1:9-10 is similar to 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.  The Timothy passage also has the word arsenokoites in it – with similar translation problems.  For instance, the NRSV translates these verses, “This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching …”  However, the Message translates them, “It’s obvious, isn’t it, that the law code isn’t primarily for people who live responsibly, but for the irresponsible, who defy all authority, riding roughshod over God, life, sex, truth, whatever!”

So, tomorrow, we give our fourth graders Bibles.  We’re giving them Contemporary English Version Bibles because it’s the version we have copies of in a closet at the church.  I hope we spring for The Message next year!

By the way, I’ll be teaching a Confirmation Class this year – junior and senior high youth.  They’ll be getting the NRSV New Interpreters Study Bible.  And we’ll spend some time going over these difficult passages as a way to learn about the challenges of biblical interpretation and to address head-on these clobber passages from a progressive Christian point of view.

Three posts on the web were all brought to my attention yesterday, all relating to attitudes toward sexual minority people.

First, the Southern Poverty Law Center, probably the most important organization monitoring hate and hate groups in the United States, released their winter Intelligence Report in late 2010.  In the article, “Gays Remain Minority Most Targeted by Hate Crimes,” reminds us that the Christian Right actually blamed the victims of anti-gay bullying and the organizations that seek to protect them for the bullying gay kids receive and for the suicides that much to frequently follow:

Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association said gay rights activists “pressure these students to declare a disordered sexual preference when they’re too young to know better, [so] they share some culpability.” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, a key critic of anti-bullying programs, said gay activists were “exploiting these tragedies to push their agenda.” He said that gay kids may know “intuitively” that their desires are “abnormal” and that the claim, pushed by gay activists, that they can’t change “may create a sense of despair that can lead to suicide.” Matt Barber of Liberty Counsel said those activists want “to use the tragedies to increase pressure on the real victims: Christians.”

However, the Report concludes that, in fact, lgbt people and people perceived to be lgbt “are by far the group most targeted in American for violent hate crimes.”

The bottom line: Gay people are more than twice as likely to be attacked in a violent hate crime as Jews or blacks; more than four times as likely as Muslims; and 14 times as likely as Latinos.

The second posting is an essay by Mark D. Jordan on Religion Dispatches (posted on March 22), “Who Wins When Bible is Blamed for Gay Bashing?”  The thrust of Jordan’s essay is not what concerns me today (you can read it if you’re curious).  Instead, I was shocked to learn about the news story that sparked his writing.  Quoting from the essay:

[A] young man is accused of killing an older man for making sexual advances. The weapon was a sock filled with stones; the young man told police that he had been instructed in prayer to apply the Old Testament punishment of stoning.

Combined with the article from the Southern Poverty Law Center, this news is depressing – both for lgbt people and for progressive Christians.

And then, I came upon a third posting on The Christian Science Monitor website.  The opinion piece by Jonathan Merritt posted on March 24, “Evangelical shift on gays: Why ‘clobber scriptures’ are losing ground” brings some good news.

Merritt notes, “The truth is that the vast majority of evangelicals – approximately 7 in 10 – still say they believe homosexual behavior is ‘morally wrong.’”  Nonetheless, he (and I) see a shift coming.  The shift is coming from the younger generation.  Jay Bakker (son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, yes that Jim and Tammy Faye) is calling for a re-evaluation of the Christian right’s stand on lgbt people.  Merritt writes:

Brian McLaren, bestselling author and founder of the emerging church movement, moved toward affirmation of gays and lesbians in his 2010 book “A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.” He condemns Christians’ obsession with sexuality and urges them to construct “a more honest and robust Christian anthropology.” Christian music icons Jennifer Knapp and Ray Boltz came out of the closet this past year and asked their fans to reconsider their views.

Apparently the sociological data support this conclusion:

Robert Jones, president of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), says the data he’s collected bears this shift out. For example, PRRI’s research found that a majority of young evangelicals (ages 18 to 34) now support recognition for some sort of same-sex union. While PRRI’s president Robert Jones is hesitant to predict the future, he notes that the trends among evangelicals on same-sex issues all point in one direction and the group can expect “sea change within a generation.”

The news for lgbt people (and for progressive Christians) isn’t always good.  Lgbt folk are still the primary targets of hate crimes.  People still use the Bible to justify murder.  But things are changing.  Even conservative Christianity may be catching up with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

Just before I left on a three-week trip to Europe, by one of my goddaughter’s high school friends killed himself.  I don’t know the details about what happened.  I don’t know that anyone knows why this handsome, athletic, friendly boy decided that killing himself was his only option.  What I do know is that he tried, was found, was rushed to the hospital and put on life support, and that only days later his parents had to make the hard decision to end life support and let their son die.  And I know that there are many grieving people, including my goddaughter.

I returned from my trip yesterday and started going through the emails and Facebook messages that accumulated while I was gone (it’s good to be disconnected from the cyber world and the news for a while, but that’s the content for another blog posting).  I was shocked to find out that while I was away, some people had started to notice that in the days leading up to my trip, there had been a rash of suicides and that many of them have been the result of anti-gay bullying.  In particular, people noticed that there had been at least four suicides within a three-week period in September:

  • Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old from Greensburg, Ind., hung himself Sept. 9 from a barn rafter on his grandmother’s farm.
  • Seth Walsh, 13, of Tehachapi, Calif., was removed from life support 10 days after hanging himself from a tree. He died Sept. 27.
  • Asher Brown, a 13-year-old from Cypress, Texas, used his stepfather’s gun to shoot himself to death Sept. 17.
  • Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge spanning the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey on Sept. 22.

I am not suggesting that my goddaughter’s friend’s suicide had anything to do with anti-gay bullying or internal conflicts about his sexuality.  As I said, I know nothing about the details.  What I am suggesting is that we need to do something to prevent teen suicides.

One concrete step we can take is to address anti-gay bullying in our schools and through out society.  This is how the officers in the national settings of my denomination, the United Church of Christ, expressed this sentiment on October 5:

The culture of anti-gay bullying that persists in academic and other institutions is an aspect of the broader issues of violence and harassment LGBT people face in the United States and around the world. It is experienced in a variety of ways from the invasion of privacy and taunts in school hallways to being beaten and tied to a fence; from the enactment of laws that criminalize sexual orientation and extra-judicial killing of people believed to be gay to the failure of elected officials to pass legislation that ensures the full equality of every citizen.

The reality of anti-gay harassment and bullying creates environments of fear and intimidation that not only have tragic consequences for those who are targeted, but also for the communities in which they occur. Even when anti-bullying policies are in place, without effective implementation peers, teachers and other adults can still be intimidated into silence and inaction. Studies continue to tell us that this is more often than not the reality in the vast majority of our schools. Nine out of 10 LGBT youth report being verbally harassed at school; 44 percent say they have been physically harassed; 22 percent report having been assaulted; and 60 percent say that when they report abuse, no one does anything to help or protect them.

All people of faith must recognize the God-given worth and dignity of every person that human judgment cannot set aside. Together we must work in solidarity to stop the bullying and violence against LGBT people and ensure the safety and protection of all our children. This is a baseline call to action grounded in the commonly held values of the Golden Rule, which every household of faith should be able to embrace.

Beyond this, we need to create the safe spaces – in our families, our schools, our faith communities (churches, etc.), and beyond – so children who are harassed can talk about it and have the harassment addressed.  We need to create safe spaces – in our families, our schools, our faith communities, and beyond – so children who are considering suicide can talk about it and find the support they need so this permanent solution to temporary problems (that’s what suicide is) will not be chosen.

We need to get messages like this to all youth.

We need to offer, as Ellen DeGeneres puts it, a wake-up call to everyone that teenage bullying and teasing is an epidemic in our country and the death rate is climbing.

Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender in and of itself is not a risk factor for suicide.  Rather, the negative treatment that many GLBT teens endure can lead to suicidal feelings.  We have a responsibility to take action.

As bizarre as it may seem, this will not be a simple task.  Getting school systems to take the problem of bullying, and especially anti-gay bullying, seriously, is difficult.  In fact, some “Christian” groups (i.e., the Family Research Council) are claiming that the gay community is the bully because the anti-bullying cause is really a front for the “gay agenda” (click here to see a news story).

Let us not allow lies like these deter us from the sacred duty.  Let us lift up and celebrate “the God-given worth and dignity of every person that human judgment cannot set aside.”

When I was in college, President Jimmy Carter reinstituted draft registration as a response to the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan.  Many of us were concerned that it wouldn’t be long before a draft was started and we would be sent to war.  The English department of my college offered a January session writing class for those of us who considered ourselves to be conscientious objectors.  We would have discussions and writing assignments to get us to explore our beliefs more deeply and to help us craft a paper that we could use to explain our conscientious objections to draft boards.

The first assignment was to write a paper about whether or not we thought it was moral to start the draft back up.  I argued that it was not.  The second assignment was to write a paper answering the question, “If a draft is reinstated, should it include women as well as men.”  My paper was very short.  My paper was very short:

In my previous paper, I explained why we should not have a draft.  We should not have a draft of men.  We should not have a draft of women.  We should not have a draft of men and women.

These days, the debate is about gay and lesbian people in the military.

The Rev. John F. Gundlach, a United Church of Christ minister who retired after 23 years as an active-duty naval chaplain, recently wrote in Stars and Stripes about ending the military’s “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy that bars gays and lesbians from openly serving.  His focus was more on the role of chaplains should DADT end then on the policy decision itself, though he supports ending DADT.

His concluding paragraph says:

This current struggle will, indeed, test the mettle of the services and their Chaplain Corps. The real question here is whether justice will be done, and whether chaplains will be part of the solution or continue to be part of the problem.

Facebook friends have posted the link to this article and one even emailed me the link.  They are universally proud that a military chaplain (even retired) is standing up against DADT and against the chaplains who are falsely claiming that ending DADT will violate the religious freedom of chaplains who are homophobic.

The truth is, almost all of my friends – LGBT and heterosexual – oppose DADT.  They think LGBT people should be allowed to serve openly and honorably in the military services of our country.  I respect them and I appreciate their standing up for LGBT equality.  And I disagree with them.

Imagine with me that DADT was expanded, instead of abolished.  Imagine what would happen if DADT included heterosexuals.  What if no one was allowed to serve in the military … imagine what would happen then.

No military at all.

Back in college, I was right.  It is wrong to draft men, women, or men & women.  It is wrong because war is not an answer to our fears and vulnerabilities and the purpose of the military is to fight wars.  The only thing that can protect us from our fears is the perfect love of God.

So, I question the existence of our military as it is presently constituted.  There may be a need for an international police force that can intervene when necessary as police (rather than as an invading army), for instance when genocides are taking place (like in Darfur), but we cannot simultaneously prepare for war and create peace.

Yesterday (August 22), I worshipped with the Olympia Friends Meeting, a group of Quakers in Washington.  Every gathering of Quakers is called a “Meeting” (or so it seems).  Quakers have regional Quarterly Meetings, and monthly Meetings for Business, and each week a Meeting for Worship.  In fact, this congregation isn’t even called a “Congregation;” it’s called a “Meeting.”

The Meeting for Worship was very different from worship services I have experienced in my tradition, the United Church of Christ.  In the UCC, we have a very active worship services that are filled with words and singing.  Quaker Meeting for Worship is filled with silence (at least this Meeting for Worship was filled with silence – I learned that there are also Meetings with worship that is “programmed” and Meetings with worship that is filled with music).

We gathered around 10:00 – some came earlier; some were “late,” but that didn’t seem to matter.  The worship space consisted of about 70 chairs in rows around the center of the room, facing each other.  There were probably 30 people there when I arrived just a couple minutes before 10:00, all sitting quietly.  Some had their eyes closed; some were looking around.  I took a seat in the third row, which was also the back row, and quieted myself.

Interior of Olympia Friends Meeting house

No one said, “Okay, everybody, we’re worshiping now.”  People just entered the space to worship and held the quietness.  It wasn’t long before my eyes were shut in prayer.  I wasn’t praying anything in particular; I was just practicing being in the presence of God.  About 20 minutes later (I’m guessing; I didn’t have a watch with me), I heard a wrestling and opened my eyes.  The six youth who were in the worship space got up quietly with the Sunday School teachers for their class.  I shut my eyes and re-centered myself.

Some time later (I have no idea when) a man stood up and shared very briefly about an encounter he had had with a neighbor and how it moved him to, again, deeply appreciate being a Friend (Quakers are formally known as the Religious Society of Friends).  A moment later, another man shared, though I could not hear him.  And the community settled back into the quiet.

Eventually the youth returned from their class and it wasn’t long until a man sitting a few seats down from me announced that he was calling the worship to a close.  He then invited everyone to introduce herself/himself, to make any announcements, or to share anything that was “left over” (I think those were his words) from worship.

As we went around the room, people shared the typical church announcements and some made comments about what was going on for them.  I was fascinated by how what the man shared resonated for many people (it was nice to hear why he was so grateful to be a Friend, but otherwise it wasn’t very interesting to me).  One person made a comment, something like, “I had this thought, but it didn’t rise to the level of a message.”  An interesting distinction, I said to myself, between a ‘thought’ and a ‘message.’ A thought, it seems, is for yourself; a message is for the community and is to be shared aloud.

After everyone had introduced himself/herself, we were invited back into some silence, and then we all briefly held hands.

You will notice in this description that there was no pastor present.  This Meeting doesn’t have a pastor (it’s my understanding that most Meetings, at least most non-programmed meetings, do not have pastors).  Instead, everyone in the congregation is a minister, and people minister to each other.

Quakers are known for their strong peace stand, often being activists for non-violence and almost universally being conscientious objectors during a draft.  I am struck by the contrast between these people sitting together in silence on Sunday and these same people standing vocally for peace and justice on the capital steps during the week.  I can’t help but wonder if that weekly practice of silence and listening gives them the strength to be vocal in ways that challenge societies status quo in favor of what Jesus called the Empire of God.*

Quakers are also known for their consensus decision-making style.  This is a difficult process, consensus decision-making.  It requires everyone to listen carefully to each other and I’m sure the practice of listening for the Spirit of God with each other each week is extremely helpful in making this possible.  In fact, I was a little inaccurate at the beginning of this essay.  The Olympia Friends Meeting does not have a monthly Meeting for Business.  They have a monthly Meeting for Worship for Business.  They do their business in the context of worship.

I think the UCC could learn something here.  What if we were to see our business meetings as acts of worship?  What if the central focus of our business was the praise and glorification of God?  Would that change how we decide things?  Would that change how we listen to each other in the deciding?

My congregation is in the process of deciding if they will merge with a neighboring Disciples of Christ congregation.  It is my fervent hope that they will make this major business decision worshipfully.

________________________
*Jesus actually called it something else because he didn’t speak English.  The traditional translation is the Kingdom of God, but I prefer the Empire of God because he was contrasting it with the Empire of Rome.

On July 28, Anne Rice, the famous author, announced on her Facebook fan page that she “quit being a Christian.”

Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.

Still committed to Christ, but no longer a Christian.  I have a little problem with that language.  To me, a Christian is someone who is committed to Christ.  As I read Ms. Rice’s comments, I understand her to be saying that she’s a Christian who doesn’t want to be part of an institutional church.  No doubt she’d disagree with me; for her, being a Christian is about being part of a (the) church.

As I said … I quit being a Christian. I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.

It seems to me that it’s the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church that Ms. Rice is objecting to.  I belong to the United Church of Christ, and if Ms. Rice has said this to me directly, I would have said to her, “Hey Anne, I’m part of a Christian denomination that is for gender and sexual orientation equality, that remains pro-choice as a matter of personal conscience, that is pro-humanity, and that is the very basis of the American form of democracy (okay, the Presbyterians helped out, too).”

I wasn’t surprised when, two days after her announcement, staff in the national settings of the UCC started a Facebook page, “You’d like the UCC, Anne Rice.”  Apparently some 3.400 people “Liked” this page within 48 hours.

All of this noise got me thinking, so I posted on my Facebook page this comment:

“Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car,” the saying goes. But I gotta tell you, I don’t know how to be a Christian [read: being committed to Christ] without being part of a Christian community!

What I was getting at was how being part of a faith community is an important part of my growing in faith and being accountable for my faith journey.   But then faith is much more about a journey than a destination for me.  It seems to me that a commitment to Christ is relational and relationships aren’t static.

My thought generated some comments of its own.  Here are some of them:

  • Very true, Jeff. I appreciate Anne Rice’s wit, wordsmithing, and desire to follow Christ, but I am flummoxed about how one does that without the community of believers. We have to live together, eat together, argue things together, but the point is that we who claim the name have to be together.
  • Yes, to both Jeff & Michael. I am reminded that, in the Catholic monastic tradition, only a nun / monk with the most mature faith, spirituality, discipline, and groundedness in the life of her / his monastic community is given permission to become a hermit and live alone. As fallible people, we need the community in which to grow, learn, be tested, in which to worship, share the Bread & Wine of Eucharist, work, support one another, in which to do the works of mercy, justice, and peace.
  • Ditto. I grieve her decision, and wonder about the public “news conference” approach to it. But there’s no question that the flaws (flagrant and otherwise) of church people do a number on the credibility of the body created by the Spirit.
  • Thanks, Jeff, for making a critical point about this brouhaha that no one else seems to be making!
  • Does this UCC campaign seem a bit exploitative to anyone besides me – if we really wanted to invite her to the UCC wouldn’t it have been nicer over a cup of tea? I’m not talking about the theological dialogue, but using her photo and name …
  • I agree, just a phone call from a local UCC pastor would seem more appropriate … does Ms Rice live anywhere near Northern California?
  • She commits the “Hitchkins” fallacy (named after Hitchens and Dawkins) of confusing the whole of Christianity with a particularly public version of Christianity…. if you haven’t yet, check out Terry Eagleton’s wonderful Reason, Faith and Revolution for how he eviscerates this wrongheaded confusion. But hey, she IS the thinking person’s Stephanie Meyer after all, and worth attending to … ? As far as the church thing, I remain ambivalent. For it on Sundays, mixed feelings by Mondays…

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