Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Christian Response to Arizona State Bill 1062

I have hesitated to write this post for some time.

As you are likely aware, Arizona governor Jan Brewer vetoed SB 1062, a bill which would have allowed businesses in Arizona to deny service to persons based on sexual orientation.  Read a synopsis by here. The authors of the bill claimed that religious liberty was at stake and the right to deny service to gay and lesbian Children of God was a fundamental, deeply held religious belief. 

When a pastor speaks of issues of sex and politics, tempers can flare and divides can spread through the lives of the Children of God.  But this post, and Arizona State Bill 1062, aren't about sex and politics, states rights or the constitutionality of gay marriage.  This about discrimination and the use of scripture to justify it.

I am bound by my baptismal covenant to, "Proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace."  Thus, I am compelled to speak on this issue.  Further, I have had countless conversations over the past week about this issue as people asked me to provide a pastoral response to it.  To be clear--my goal is not to change anyone's beliefs on same sex marriage or on the ELCA stance on the ordination of persons who are living in committed, lifelong, monogamous relationships.  I fully support and respect the ELCA statement on Bound Conscience, calling us to live together as the Body of Christ in the midst of strongly held differences on issues of sexuality rooted in one's interpretation of scripture. (You can read more about Bound Conscience here.)

The misuse of scripture and the claim of religious freedom to excuse discrimination has a long, dark history in American culture.  In the Jim Crow era of our nation's history, businesses placed signs in their entryways, stating "Whites Only," using II Corinthians 6:14, "Do not be unequally yoked...," as biblical support.   Ephesians 6:5, "Slaves, obey your masters with fear and trembling," was perverted by slave owners who claimed it was not only their God given right to own other Children of God but also as an excuse to beat them into a state of fear and trembling.  During the early days of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, pastors went on national television, stating AIDS was a curse sent by God to destroy homosexuals while others publicly called for the internment of all homosexuals.

Discrimination in the name of Jesus is deeply offensive to me on a personal level as well, as I recognize only 40 years ago, my transracial family would have been denied service, harassed, and possibly harmed in the name of religious liberty and freedom--this, assuming we could have overcome the insurmountable legal obstacles put in place to prevent us from becoming a family at all.  Denying businesses the ability to place a sign in a doorway which reads "No gays allowed" is not an attack on religious freedom.  Our ability to worship freely is not threatened because gay and lesbian persons, and heterosexuals who are labeled as gay based on stereotype, cannot be thrown out of a Grand Canyon fast food restaurant.

The story of Christianity is one of radical, culture-defying love.  One of the most powerful and holy aspects of the Christian story is the unity in God which comes forth through Christ.  A person was no longer denied the name "Child of God" based on their bloodlines--all nations, all peoples, are welcome and can receive the Spirit.  We read in Acts 2, the Pentecost story, "upon servants, men and women...I will pour out my Spirit."  The baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 teaches us that a foreign castrated man, who was to be considered "unclean" and forever cast out of the family of God, is welcome and named "Child of God." 

Faithful Christians read and interpret scripture through various lenses and, bound by their faith and conscience, do not believe this should be interpreted to sanction gay marriage or the ordination of those living in lifelong, monogamous, same sex relationships.  Our religious liberty is rightfully protected under the First Amendment, giving churches the full freedom to preach and interpret scripture.  I do not take issue with those who interpret scripture passages found in Paul's letters and Leviticus related to sexuality in ways that are different from my interpretation.  I welcome honest, prayerful dialogue with all Children of God--the blessing of faith is not to surround ourselves with those who believe exactly as we do but to understand how the Spirit is at work in the Child of God before me.  I do, however, take deep issue when our holy and sacred texts are used as weapons and religious liberty becomes cover for discrimination.

I recognize some believe that as a pastor I should remain carefully neutral on politically charged issues.  There is immense truth in this--I will never, for example, endorse a political candidate using my title.  But, after careful consideration and prayer, I do use my personal blog to speak out against discrimination and offer a viewpoint which is grounded in scripture.

May the unifying, loving message of Jesus guide us always...

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

In the Beginning, God Created the Heavens and the Earth: Faith and Science

Nebula--"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth..."

On the evening of February 4, 2014, CNN, among other sources, livestreamed a debate between Bill Nye (also known as "Bill Nye the Science Guy") and Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum, located about two hours from my home, in Northern Kentucky. For those unfamiliar with it, the Creation Museum is a 70,000 square foot for-profit organization claiming to promote a Biblical view of science. Using what adherents call "young earth creationism," Ham and those involved with the organization reject modern scientific theories, claiming that the Bible proves the earth is a mere 6,000 years old, and that, among other things, Adam and Eve would have lived in the Garden of Eden with dinosaurs.

The age old debate, pegging religion against science, has existed for decades in the United States, dating back to the 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial." From Ken Ham and the "Creation Museum" to William Jennings Bryan, the prosecutor in the Scopes Trial, a picture has been painted that Christians choose not to critically explore scientific inquiry and that the faithful discredit science in place of Scripture. This is far from reality, as plenty of faithful Christians merge their reverence for Scripture and their awe of science. There is no need to see science and religion in conflict. Further, the promotion of organizations such as the Creation Museum and legislation that promotes the education of such ideas in science classrooms are detrimental to both the scientific future of our nation and to religious organizations.

As a ELCA Lutheran Pastor and Christian, I hold our Scripture in the highest place of reverence. It is the story of God's relationship with God's people, dating back to early human civilization. Scripture demonstrates how God's people, and all of creation, are broken, falling short of God's call to and for us. Yet, in the midst of our brokenness, we have a God who fully immerses Godself into creation, becoming fully human through Jesus Christ. Scripture tells the incredible and holy story of Christ's death and resurrection, reconciling God's people with God. Scripture guides and orders our lives as Christians, telling the story of human brokenness, death, and redemption through Christ, given to us freely as a gift.

Scripture was never written with the intent to be used as a science manual. It is misuse of God's Word to use it as a step by step approach to the exact ways in which God created the universe. Genesis was first shared through oral tradition, and then written, using the language and images familiar to God's people of that time and place to tell all people, among other things, that "God created all that exists." These early people had no understanding of atoms, light years or the laws of physics. The lack of inclusion of these concepts in Scripture does not mean that they don't exist or that the faithful can't use new discoveries to deepen their understanding of creation. They weren't concerned with the question of "HOW was the universe created?" but instead focused on "WHO created all that exists?"

Science uses experimentation to test and replicate results, giving us a deeper understand of creation. This is holy, Godly work. We have been given the gift of intellect, the spark of curiosity. Discoveries in the scientific community lead to modern day miracles, such as vaccines, new cancer treatments, and the general betterment of life for people. Some religious groups promote legislation that insists on the teaching of young earth creationism and other nonscientific ideas in the classroom. Not only does this hurt the credibility of US science education worldwide while damaging advancement in scientific inquiry, the Church suffers as well. We are to use our minds, given to us as a gift from God, not use the Bible as a weapon to discredit new God-given discoveries. We are to build up the kingdom of God while honoring the holy work of God's people, including scientists. Fighting to include nonscientific ideas such as those promoted at the Creation Museum in no way grows our faith and understanding of God's presence and power in creation, nor does it deepen our faith and relationship with Christ. We are not called as Christians to strive to discredit everything which is not mentioned in Scripture. Instead, we strive to live lives that honor our creator God, making disciples, and receiving the Grace given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Science in no way threatens these God-given gifts.

Having completed an earth science minor in college, I have had the holy opportunity to take multiple astronomy classes at my Lutheran liberal arts college. I have gazed at the rings of Saturn, plotted star clusters, and calculated astronomical distances between galaxies. When I began to understand the vastness of the universe, I felt a deeper connection to my creator God who ordered all that exists. I did not feel the slightest disconnect between the discoveries I was making and the words I read in Genesis. I knew the words of Genesis 1&2, telling us how the universe was created in "days," was translated from the Hebrew word which means "epoch" or "time period"--thus, "there was morning, and evening...the first epoch." I recognized that those who first spoke of creation had no concept of a 24 hour day. I was simply in awe of the incredible, vast gift of the universe, thankful for my faith, which told me WHO ordered all that existed, as well as the God-given gift of science, which helped me understand HOW creation was ordered. As I walked back to my dorm after plotting the distance between star clusters, I simply thought "How Great Thou Art..."

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Challenger Reflections

Below is a creative writing piece I crafted as I reflected on my experience of watching the Challenger explosion. 28 years ago today, I was 6 and my parents were going to teacher conferences. And my dog was old. I wrote in the voice of the 6 year old who experienced this day. We often try to hide death from children, believing they can't understand it. However, children have questions and wonder just like adults. Rather than hiding death and pain, we need to do as my family did, and help me walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death...

January 28, 1986.

It's cold and windy. I'm not going to be able to play outside today. Mom and dad are going to meet my teacher today and there's a spaceship going up in the sky. They said if I'm good I can watch it on TV, but first they need to meet my teacher. They have parents come to the school and see our drawings and where we sit and Mrs. A is going to show them all the books I can read. I wonder where they're going to sit? We have kid chairs and they're grown ups. I hope they see the rainbow painting I made, the one over by the drinking fountain.

J is going to watch me. She'll make me lunch and I'll play in the basement. She tells me not to worry, that I'll be home before the spaceship goes up, and that my mom and dad can watch it with me. It's always so cold in J's basement. G and D are working in the barn, and it's to cold for me to go help. They have big, big tractors and G let me ride on one when he harvested wheat last fall. But it's to windy today, so he can't give me a ride. There are to many boy toys here. I don't really like J's house.

Mom and dad came back and they brought the rainbow painting! Mrs. A gave it to them! And she told them how I can read! Mom's furry jacket is itchy, but she wants to hold me and show me the "report card" with lots of letters and words I can't read on it. It smells funny and the paper is slippery and the ink rubs off on my fingers.

We go home--the wind hurts my face, I don't like walking outside in winter. Where's Shalom, our dog? I can't find her. Maybe she's cold and went in her house. She has shiny gold fur and white under her face. Mom says she's old and I can't ride on her back anymore. When we have running contests, I win now. Shalom used to win. But I win now. Even when I'm wearing snow boots.

Someone's on the phone. Only grown ups use the phone. My mom sits down in her chair and lights a cigarette. She always lights a cigarette when the phone rings. I'm going to color a picture of a spaceship. It's black and white, and red, white and blue. Because it has a flag on it. It's our spaceship. So it has our flag.

Mom gets dad and says he needs to go downstairs. They never talk on the stairs. They whisper. I'm not supposed to listen. They put on their coats, and I can't come outside. They say I need to stay inside. By myself. Dad asks me where I put my plastic red sled. I tell him it's by the tree, but the yellow handle broke. Are they going sledding? Why can't I go?

If I stand on the chair, I can look out the window and see them. Why are they taking the sled up the road? Why is Shalom in the sled? Shalom doesn't like riding in sleds or wagons or roller skates. Why is she going to the garage? Dad looks sad. Shalom is old. And when dogs get old, they die. Shalom died, and she won't breathe anymore and we can't play and we have to say goodbye. Her eyes won't blink and she's cold and won't move. I have to say goodbye. It's ok to pet her, but I won't see her ever again. My stomach hurts and I'm dizzy. I want to lay down.

Mom says I'll feel better but I can cry. I can watch the spaceship, maybe it will help me think about something else. The spaceship is so big, and all the astronauts wave at the people. One lady is a teacher. She has pretty brown hair and it's long. They all have flags on their spacesuits. They're in Florida.

Everybody counts backwards. I can count backwards now too! 3, 2, 1...Boom! It's going up in space! It's so big! All the people look up up up....

where did it go?

People are yelling. A lady is crying. My mom says "oh no...oh no..."

The spaceship is gone. The people aren't there. They died too. They were on TV and waving and now they're gone. Dad says they're not up in the air. No, there aren't parachutes to help them get down. They are gone. They died like Shalom.

My head hurts. I need my blue pillow and green blanket. I want to lay down on the couch. Peter Jennings talks and talks and talks. He has pictures of all the people on the spaceship. He looks sad too,n like me. Does his stomach hurt?. Did he know Shalom died?

I don't want to color or read. I just want to lay on my blue pillow and watch tv. Mom and dad do too. Mom smokes another cigarette. She's in the living room. She never smokes in the living room. Dad's holding his head, maybe it hurts like mine. I tell dad it hurts and he gives me 7up. He says I'm not sick. He says when people are sad they don't feel good.

I want to go see Shalom again. Dad says I can. He makes me put on snowpants and boots. The sky is black and it's snowing and it's cloudy. There is smoke in the air, is that the smoke from the spaceship? Dad says it's far away and nothing will fall on us. The smoke is from the beet plant, and nothing falls from the sky over our house. Shalom is really cold, her fur is icy. I put a blanket on her and say she can have my sled. Her eyes don't move. Do people's eyes stop moving too? She doesn't look the same, she isn't here anymore...she's here, but she's not here. What happens when people can't say goodbye and touch someone because they died in a spaceship? How do they say goodbye if they can't touch them and put a blanket on them? Where did they go? If Shalom is in a sled, are they just floating in the air? Did God get them a sled and take them to heaven?

I'm cold and my head hurts. I want to go inside.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Transformation begins with faith, and continues with Education

I had the privilege of attending a faith and education breakfast forum led by Dr. Condoleezza Rice.  In addition to serving as Secretary of State, Dr. Rice teaches at Stanford University and served as Provost prior to her government service.  While reflecting on her family and upbringing, Dr. Rice called education "an article of faith" as she shared the ways in which faith and society's need for quality education were deeply intertwined.

She stated "each and every individual has intrinsic value."  We understand these words in the Christian faith as acknowledging that every person is a beloved Child of God, beautifully and wonderfully made.  As we gather in worship, we remind our community that each individual is to use their God given gifts to transform the world and make Christ known.  The connection between education and faith, Dr. Rice explained, is this transformation--for "transformation begins with faith, and continues with education."

As people of faith, we are to care deeply about the quality and access to education of all of God's children.  The call to "do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God" includes using our gifts to ensure that each child of God can fully use their gifts. 

Understanding the transformational power of the Gospel, and the ways in which education continues to transform our communities, coupled with our call to care for all within our midst, every Christian, and every congregation must ask the question "how do we use the transformational power of God to impact education?"  For some congregations, the answer is activism at the state and national level.  Some communities are called to open charter schools, or provide after school tutoring programs.  As you ask this question in your congregation, I offer you some of the ways in which Holy Trinity Muncie has answered this call and continues to challenge ourselves to grow in this area.

Our congregation council discussed this topic at our last council meeting, and we discerned we respond through prayer, information, and outreach.   

Prayer:  In our city, the Muncie Community Schools is facing significant financial challenges and the possibility of a reconfiguration of the current two high school model.  We have committed to pray for all who are impacted--students, parents, and teachers, as well as those who are making difficult decisions--administrators and school board members.  We continue to provide direct support and care to those in our congregation who work in the area of education.  In the coming months, we will share cards of thanks to teachers and leaders at a local elementary school.

Information:  Part of transformation is awareness.  We are committed to holding forums and providing discussion opportunities so our congregation is informed of the education issues impacting our community.  Our leaders stay informed on issues that relate to education and other issues that impact our community.  We are to call upon the Holy Spirit to provide guidance to those who make decisions as part of their vocation.

Outreach:  Transformation occurs within and beyond our walls.  We reach out to approximately 80 children each summer, providing meals and an introduction to God's love through our Vacation Bible School program.  We help to ensure teachers and children have necessary supplies each fall with our back to school backpack drive.  A local child care center for at risk children has a library, thanks to the generous donation of 500 books given by the Holy Trinity community.  Foster parents receive monthly education and support in our fellowship hall while Head Start Children have a brighter Christmas season through our partnership.  Many members use their time to volunteer in schools, helping students foster a love of learning.  In the coming months, we will expand our conversations with education leaders and find ways we can more fully support their transformational work.

Dr. Rice stated "high quality education is the civil rights issue of our day" and that "the greatest threat to our national security is not a foreign terrorist, but the fact that one can look at your zip code and determine your educational success."  We, as the Body of Christ, have the power to transform, to lift up all God's children, and to use our gifts to the Lord's glory.  Let us continue to demonstrate our faith through our passion for education.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A September 11 Birthday

Today is September 11.
Today is my daughter’s birthday.

When we received the phone call from our Social Worker, telling us we had a referral for a six week old Ethiopian girl, and that her birthday was September 11, I thought “What a day for a birthday.”  The social worker, perhaps sensing the pause in my breath, said “and what a day for a birthday!   September 11 is the Ethiopian New Year.  It’s one of the biggest celebrations of the year.”  With these words, and the blessing of a little girl, September 11 was transformed for our family.

Each and every day is somebody’s personal  September 11.  The day when your world collapsed, and all you believed and knew and understood to be truth fell into a pile of rubble while a crisp blue sky stood in the background.  The day that ripped your very breath from your lungs and left your knees to buckle from beneath you.   

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

The day that seemed to last a month and you didn’t have the strength to consider if tomorrow would come or how you would be a part of it. 

“I thirst.” 

The day that, when over, left you sleepless in your bed.  Waking the next morning, only to think, even before you took your first breath, “Oh God.  It’s real.”

“Into your hands, I commend my Spirit.”

And each and every day is a little girl’s birthday.  A day of pink icing cakes, and new Barbie dolls and friends and streamers.

“Mommy, can I put the sprinkles on the cake before school?”

The day that was only made more perfect as she passed out fun size Kit-Kats to 24 classmates at the end of the day.

“Do you think my teacher will want a candy bar too?”

The day that ends with pizza and candles and family and JOY.

“I’m so glad we found each other and I’m in this forever family.  We’re all pretty lucky.”

What a day for a birthday.  These days dwell together, they share the same crisp, blue September sky because Emmanuel had a birthday.  And Emmanuel had a Good Friday. And because of this, we all have Easter.  We have the strength to live in a world of tensions, where birthdays are on September 11 and every other day of the year.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Los Desaparecidos

"Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back" (Deut. 30.4)

Their eyes gazed upon ours from wilted, yellowing sheets of copy paper.  Black marker ink sketched out a name, age, and the last location they were seen.  “Los Desaparecidos.” The disappeared ones.  In 1970s Argentina and Chile, the government was responsible for the disappearance of tens of thousands of civilians who were viewed  to be in opposition to the authorities.  Today the use of this phrase is no longer limited to South Americans who disappeared at the hands of the government but instead is a general term coined for those who simply vanished. 

We talked, prayed and sat with transient migrant men.  Their daily, earthly feast--of bologna and onion stew and bites of re-fried beans scooped up with stale bits of bread--was shared with us but for three days.  Their eyes and lips told the story of men seeking bread…of the nations seeking sustenance.  Coming from Honduras, Guatemala, San Diego, Oregon, seated around metal tables, served a basic meal on industrial plates.  They were in this place, in Tijuana, for a season.

And then...

And then…our paths would only cross again on the other side of eternity.  After seven sunsets in this place, they would walk beyond the gate and disappear.

They would go to…

The answer was as absent as the bread in their bellies.  Some would attempt to cross into the United States again through the sweltering high desert west of Tecate--from Jerusalem to Jericho, but with no Good Samaritan to be found--only bandits, drug smugglers and searing thirst to plunder them along the way.  Others would find work but no pay at the hands of human traffickers, locking them in metal sheds at dusk after 15 hours of bone crushing field labor.  A few would achieve their dream, find work, bread, sustenance.  And some were the bandits along the road.  They would travel to jail or slip through the fingers of the law.

And then…and then  Los Desaparecidos.  The story written but the ending unknown.  After a time of silence, a family member or friend would tape an old frayed photograph to a piece of paper, and, with tears in their eyes, and fear in their souls, write the disappeared's name, and age, and last known location.  They would photocopy the page, taking it to the mission. “Have you seen him?  Do you know anything about him?  Could you post his photo?” 

And he would join the wall of los desaparecidos, their names, ages and stories blending together in an overwhelming sea of papers, blown gently by the sea salt air of Tijuana.  No one would know their story... but everyone knew.

Children of God.  Named.  Sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever….Los Desaparecidos. 

….Come, Lord Jesus….

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Body of Christ in Orwell's Friendship Park

Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."  (Romans 8:38-39)

The sandy beach and dancing Pacific coastline bordering Tijuana and San Diego is home to an area known
as “Friendship Park.”  During the '70s and '80s, Mexican and American families would frequent the park, sharing picnics with their international neighbors, the sound of children laughing and playing on chain link swings  harmonizing  local Chicano musicians.

In a twist of Orwellian irony, Friendship Park is now  flanked with two 15 foot tall steel column fences.  Strobe lights dance through the night sky creating a constant and disorienting light over the city while three cameras, one infrared, one panning, and one motion sensor activated, stand tall above the former lighthouse.  Drones circle high overhead, searching for activity and testing the latest in US military technology.  Border patrol agents guard this and the additional 2,100 miles of borderlands between the US and Mexico.  The fence extends hundreds of yards into the Pacific and then continues below the sea reinforced by cemented iron rail road ties pulled from old California railways laid half a century ago--by Mexican American laborers.  The Mexican side of the fence is peppered with graffiti reminiscent of West Berlin circa 1986: “This fence won’t save your economy;” “I was a stranger and you welcomed me;" and names of hundreds of migrants who died trying to cross into the US.  

The area between the fences in Friendship Park is locked except for 5 hours each day on Saturday and Sunday when one gate is opened, allowing US and Mexican residents to stand within inches of one another, speaking through the steel mesh.  Mamas with their niñas sit on the concrete ground for hours, speaking to papas on the other side.  Abuelitas, speaking in a rapid clip and wide gestures catch up with neitos, while the sea breeze blows through their chestnut hair and brazenly ignores the border as it slips through 1/8 inch openings in the fence.

While nothing is permitted to pass through the border, the Word of God seeps through by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Each week, priests gather on either side of the fence in Friendship Park.  Though it would take over two hours, an international border, and a visa to stand on the other side of the fence, these men of God live Romans 8 “neither life nor death…nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come can separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ.”

With bread and cup in hand, they speak the WORD that transcends all that separates the faithful.  “On the night in which he was betrayed…Nuestro Senor Jesus el pan y dio gracias, broke it, and gave to all to eat, saying, es mi cuerpo que por vosotros, do this in remembrance of me.”  Take and eat.  Take and drink.  And they do. 

Across the border, Bread becomes Body, Wine becomes Blood, the WORD becomes flesh and dwells among all.  And for a moment, God’s children are ONE.