Why I Changed My Mind about Homosexuality and the Church

As a delegate to the United Methodist General Conferences in 1984 and 1988, I voted to reaffirm and expand the restrictive language regarding homosexuality. I did so out of sincere conviction as the right thing to do, even though the issue was an abstraction to me. I knew no one who was admittedly gay, and the notion of same-sex attraction was foreign to my experience.

I now deeply regret those votes! Over the intervening thirty years, I have changed my mind and now support the removal of all restrictive language in the United Methodist Book of Discipline here. The following are the factors that contribute to my change of mind.

First, I got to know people who fall into the category of “homosexual.” I came to realize that many of them had long been in my circle of relationships but were afraid to share this important component of their identity. Some are beloved members of my own family!

Many are faithful, devoted, life-long church members who can’t be open within the body of Christ for fear of rejection and condemnation. Some are parents of LGBTQ children who shared stories of bullying and abuse of their kids.

A few were colleagues on the staff of congregations I served, and their ministries reflected the qualifications identified by John Wesley—grace, gifts, and fruits. Many were exceptionally gifted, devoted seminary students whose call to ordained ministry seemed evident to me.

Some are people in same-sex marriages who are committed Christians and faithful to the church, faithful to one another, and faithful to Christ, and who possess “the gifts of the Spirit.”

Hearing the painful stories of these beloved children of God cut me to the quick. The issue of sexual orientation was no longer a theological or ethical abstraction. It became embodied in people I loved, from whom I learned, in whom I experienced God’s grace-filled presence!

Secondly, the evidence is overwhelming that sexual orientation is not a choice. I have yet to meet a heterosexual who can tell me when he/she decided to be attracted to the opposite sex; nor have I met a gay person who decided to be attracted to persons of the same sex.

Sexual identity and desire are complex realities with biological, social, environmental, and psychological components. While the Discipline labels “the practice” of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” the implication is that a person’s being is contrary to the Christian gospel. That is incompatible with our doctrine of creation.

Thirdly, by the 1992 General Conference I had not only begun to change my mind about the language of incompatibility and exclusion, I had become convinced that legislation is the wrong way to deal with the issue.

The pivotal decision was made in 1972 when the language of incompatibility was added to  Social Principles Study Commission Report, by an amendment from the floor with limited debate.

The consequence of that political parliamentary action has disproportionately dominated subsequent General Conference agendas and expanded legislative restrictions. It now threatens to split the denomination.

We have legislated ourselves into a box, maybe into a regrettable schism. Whatever our position on this issue, legislative action will not resolve it!

Fourthly, I came to realize more fully the meaning of Martin Luther King’s words in his letter from the Birmingham jail:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

During my first eight years as a member of the Council of Bishops, I was deeply immersed in the Initiative on Children and Poverty. I felt that the persistent discussion of homosexuality within the Council and other denominational circles was distracting us from fully addressing economic injustice.

I shared my concern with a friend, a theological consultant to the Initiative. His response lodged my conscience: “But, Ken, you can’t portion God’s justice for one group and ignore it for another.”

I realize that some injustices are beyond our ability to remedy immediately, but to ignore those that are within our immediate sphere of influence cannot be excused. By removing the discriminatory language, we can take an immediate step toward correcting an injustice inflicted on our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

Fifthly, I’m convinced that the discrimination against LGBTQ people is being justified by inadequate biblical interpretation. I’ve read arguments from the Bible used by southern preachers to justify slavery, and I see a similar hermeneutic operating in support exclusion of gay persons.

Using the Bible to support misguided causes is a long-standing scandal in the church. Scripture has been used to justify such evils as the Crusades, genocide, slavery, the subordination of women, persecution of scientists, and burning of “heretics.”

I firmly, unapologetically believe in the primacy and authority of Scripture! What we mean by “the authority of Scripture” determines how we use it.

Here is my understanding: The authority of Scripture lies in its authentic witness to God’s mighty acts of salvation supremely in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in its power through the Holy Spirit within community to transform individuals, communities, nations, and the entire cosmos into the likeness of Christ.

The test of commitment to the authority of Scripture is this: Is it shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ and enabling us to love as Christ loves and to witness to his present and coming reign of compassion, justice, generosity, hospitality, and joy?

The influence of the Gospel over the centuries has enabled us to see Scripture through the lens of the Word-Made-Flesh, Jesus Christ. Such a lens enables us to avoid misusing  some troubling passages in the Bible.

Three glaring examples: massacring of religious opponents as did Elijah with the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18:40); slavery which was taken for granted in many Old and New Testament narratives; women keeping silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34).

Finally, my understanding and experience of what it means to love as Christ loves has deepened and widened over the years. People whom society relegates to the margins have taught me about the nature, depth, and expanse of God’s love. I have experienced profound faith among the incarcerated, the homeless, the frail elderly, orphans, immigrants, the poor, and LGBTQ persons.

I have met the Crucified and Risen Christ in my relationships with those whom society treats as “outcasts.” I know from experiences with them that Christ has broken down ALL dividing walls between us. Paul makes it clear:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

ALL includes gays and straights, LGBTQ and heterosexuals, “progressives” and “traditionalists.” Christ died for ALL, includes ALL, and invites ALL to “love one another as I have loved you.”

It is the quality of our love and its imitation of Christ’s love that is definitive, not gender or sexual orientation. As committed couples, our LGBTQ brothers and sisters should be able to love each other in ways mutually fulfilling to them, as surely as we who are heterosexual.

I’m still growing in my understanding and my ability to love as Christ loves. God grant me the humility to keep learning and growing toward the fullness of God’s perfect love!

Splitting the Church is Just “Tacky”

© Ivan Grlic, Dreamstime

 

Thoughts of splitting The United Methodist Church trouble me for a host of reasons Some theological and missional.

This polarized and violent world desperately needs the witness of a community that grapples with disputes and differences with humility, mutual respect, and compassion. While divisions have been part of our heritage since the beginning, they never bode well for our commitment to oneness in Christ Jesus.

We need one another, whatever our labels. God has already reconciled us! We have been made one, whether we like it or not. So, I don’t quite understand why we can’t live the reconciliation already accomplished in Christ. If Christ has made us one, should we not live that oneness?

But I’m also troubled for personal reasons.

I’ll always remember that fateful Sunday morning almost 65 years ago when this son of Appalachian tenant farmers and textile workers walked shyly into a Sunday school class at McKinley Methodist Church.

Mrs. Mahoney greeted me at the doorway with a warm hug. I remember the Bible story she told that day. It changed my image of God and set me on a life-long quest to love, trust, and serve God. It was the story of the Good Shepherd. I can still hear her say, “God is like that shepherd.”

That was radically different from the messages I had been hearing in the church of my early childhood. I had the notion that God was like that cruel landlord who once dangled me over a rain barrel to “teach me to respect” him. God was the strict judge who expected, above all else, our respect and obedience. Eternal damnation awaited those who lacked such deference and compliance.

Mrs. Mahoney introduced me to a God who delights in rescuing little lost lambs, a God who invites us to share in the search and saving of the least, the lost, and the wayward. She invited me into friendship with Jesus, a friendship rooted in love not fear.

McKinley Methodist Church became my spiritual home as an adolescent. There I was baptized and received into membership. It was there that I:

• Received a new identity (beloved child of God)
• Learned I didn’t have to take the Bible literally to take it seriously
• Was elected to my first church office (president of the MYF)
• First spoke publicly before a group
• Had my first for-pay job (janitor)
• Taught my first class (Vacation Bible School)
• Was called into ordained ministry
• Introduced to the church as connectional (we were on a circuit)
•Selected to attend the National Youth Conference where I heard an African    American preacher for the first time (James Thomas)
• Approved for candidacy and granted a local preacher’s license

At a conference youth assembly, I met my beloved wife, Linda. We were married in the Methodist Church. She was educated in a Methodist college. We attended a Methodist seminary and spent 42 years living in homes provided by the church. Our daughters and grandchildren have been baptized in United Methodist Churches.

I’ve been privileged to serve eight wonderful congregations and two strong episcopal areas. Additionally, I have taught in a United Methodist seminary, sat on the governing boards of numerous United Methodist related institutions and agencies, experienced the world-wide mission of the church while visiting in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

All of this is to say, it’s impossible for me to sever my life from that of the denomination in which I have been and continue to be formed.

To me the reasons being advanced for splitting the denomination seem extraneous to the core Christian gospel and the church’s mission in this polarized and violent world filling up with lost lambs.

When I entered McKinley Methodist Church as a child of poverty, I wasn’t looking for dogmatic pronouncements. I was longing for a community in which I was accepted, valued, and loved. I wanted a place to grow in my understanding of and friendship with God. And, I needed a purpose worth my life.

The church I joined gave me room to grow, and I’m still growing. It moved me beyond provincialism, challenged my racial prejudices and patriarchal practices, gave me a theological lens through which to view every aspect of life, anchored me in sound doctrine while encouraging continuing theological exploration, extended the horizons of God’s salvation to include the healing and transformation of human hearts, communities, nations, and the entire cosmos.

I’m not worried about the survival of the Church. The Body of Christ has been raised from the dead and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. And, I know the institutional form which the body of Christ takes is always changing.

But dividing The United Methodist Church into “Progressives” and “Traditionalists” is just plain wrong. As the late Will Campbell said about the death penalty, “I just think it’s tacky!”

A Word to the President

Words-Matter-People-Development-NetworkPresident Trump denouncing all forms of racism and violence is like an arsonist denouncing the fire he poured gasoline on. Please, Mr. President, stop the cruel, hate-filled, demeaning rhetoric. You’re fanning the flames of hatred, racism, and violence that are spreading like wildfire across our land. Words matter!

Prophetic Civility

I’m in awe of Amos, that farmer-turned-prophet from Tekoa publicly denouncing the sins of Israel from the steps of the temple at Bethel. I can hear his thundering words of judgment:

Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals–they trample the head to the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed”(Amos 2:6-8).

Every generation needs women and men who courageously, publicly, and unequivocally expose injustice, oppression, idolatry, hypocrisy, and corruption.

Prophets offer an alternative to present realities by articulating God’s dream for the world and announcing God’s judgment on the principalities and powers that threaten the divine vision.

Amos provides a model of such prophetic confrontation!

But an additional model is desperately needed today. In this harshly polarized and rigidly partisan world, civility and dialogue represent a prophetic way forward.

Prophetic civility requires courage, humility, vulnerability, persistence, and patience. Ongoing relationships and risky conversations provide the context for such prophetic work.

Rather than in public pronouncements and tweets, prophetic civil dialogue is likely to occur around the dinner table or living room, in Sunday school classes or small group gatherings, and in neighborhood conversations.

Prophetic civility preferences probing questions over dogmatic answers. Listening prevails over speaking. Shared personal experiences are encouraged over correcting others. Self-awareness of one’s own complicity and vulnerability temper all responses.

Empathy borne of entering the hurts, struggles, and convictions of others softens judgments and eschews condemnation. Understanding the other’s perspective precedes advocating one’s own.

Prophetic civility requires incarnation, entering the world of others with attentiveness, humility, and love. Incarnational presence is risky, painful, and hard work.

Jeremiah models prophetic ministry characterized by incarnational presence with its vulnerability, self-awareness, courage, and persistence. His pronouncements are basically the same as those spoken by Amos. Yet, he lived among the people, wept for and with them, and suffered abuse and even exile with and on their behalf.

Several years ago, L. Harold DeWolf, prominent theologian and mentor/friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., spent the weekend in the local church I served. At the time,  Dr. DeWolf was actively involved in criminal justice reform. I shared that the local sheriff had barred me from visiting in the jail because of my public denunciation of the inhumane conditions in the local jail.

Dr. DeWolf cautioned that I may have to decide in particular contexts between public policy advocacy and personal pastoral ministry within the facility.

“Both are needed and legitimate,” he said. “The tragedy is people often pit one against the other as to which is more faithful. Both are faithful when done with integrity and courage; and they need to be mutually supportive.”

Amos and Jeremiah were not enemies! They both were faithful to their prophetic calling. They spoke on behalf of the same God and we are the beneficiaries of both expressions of faithfulness.

The current situation in American needs both Amos and Jeremiah. But I suspect that the model most needed today is Jeremiah, the who was pastorally prophetic and prophetically pastoral.

We need prophetic civility formed in humility and solidarity with the wounds and hurts of others coupled with a clear vision of God’s present and coming reign of compassion, justice, hospitality, and peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“You’re Only as Good as Your Word”

My grandfather, Dave Walker, was one of my heroes. He died in 1961 at the age of 67. He was a simple man who could neither read nor write; yet, he was perhaps the wisest, kindest, and most honorable person I have known. Granddaddy Walker

The memory of a childhood incident resurfaced recently. I was about nine years old.

Granddaddy asked me to walk to the store with him. It was a mile walk up the country road in eastern Tennessee.

He bought me a candy bar along with his purchase of a bag of flour. We left for our trek back home. As the house came into site, Granddad reached into the pocket of his bibbed overalls to count his money.

“We have to walk back to the store,” he said. “He gave me an extra nickel and I’ve got to return it.”

“But it’s just five cents,” I protested. “He’ll never even know he gave you too much.”

“But I’ll know,” he responded in his typical gentle voice. He added, “Always be honest. You’re only as good as your word.”

Granddaddy could have used that extra nickel, probably more than the owner of the grocery store. He was “dirt poor,” working at odd jobs, plowing gardens, growing his own food on a rocky little farm.

When he died unexpectedly of a stroke, that rural community mourned his loss. People gathered in masses for his funeral at the McKinley Methodist Church. These were among the most frequently heard compliments:

  • “He was honest as the day is long!”
  • “His word was his bond!”
  • “If he promised something, you could count on it.”
  • “He never lied; he always told the truth!”
  • “You could trust him with your life.”

I’ve thought a lot about my grandfather during the current climate of runaway dishonesty: Charges of “fake news” by those swimming in untruths and distortions. Social media’s dissemination of false narratives for partisan political or selfish personal gain.

Dishonesty in high and low places has reached epidemic proportion and is increasingly accepted as the norm in political and social discourse. Lying has become a sanctioned political strategy. Character has been disjoined from policy as though winning surpasses personal and corporate integrity.

Granddaddy Walker considered honesty the core of character. Dishonesty he viewed as symptomatic of diseased character. He learned that from Jesus. “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10).

Fred Craddock shared an experience in the buffet line at an airport food outlet. He watched a man in front of him hide a pad of butter under his plate.

The butter only cost five cents!  A harmless or inconsequential dishonest act! But Dr. Craddock commented that he kept his eyes on his luggage when that man showed up at the same boarding gate. All trust was gone!

Dishonesty infects the soul and poisons every aspect of life. It destroys trust, taints kindness, fractures relationships, undermines community, and subverts the common good. Lies are like termites eating away the foundation, or malignant cancer cells destroying vital organs.

Would you trust the man who hid the butter under his plate with your children? Would you vote for him for sheriff, or city council, or president? Would you feel secure with him having access to the nuclear code? Would you trust him with your life!

Character matters mightily! Granddaddy Walker was right, “Always be honest! You’re only as good as your word!”

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.”

Easter Living in a Good Friday World

It’s a Good Friday world! Hatred, bigotry, division, anger, violence, suffering, and death dominate!

Injustice, poverty, disease, exploitation, oppression, political expediency and corruption, religious power plays, and war abound.

Cries, “Crucify him, crucify him,” ring out across the lands.

  • “Deport them!”
  • “Execute him!”
  • “Lock him/her up!”
  • “Bomb them!”

Most of the cries for crucifixion are less explicit. They are in the form of attitudes and policies that create disrespect, suffering. and death.

  • Vilifying survivors of school shootings for their advocating an end to gun violence
  • Making unlimited access to guns more important than human life
  • Tax policies that favor the already rich at the expense of the desperate poor
  • Healthcare systems that deny the most vulnerable access to treatment
  • Churches fostering division, exclusion, hatred, and rejection in name of doctrinal purity
  • Tearing families apart under the guise of “protecting our borders”
  • Claiming superiority because of our race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion
  • Trusting armaments for security while ignoring God’s justice and mercy as paths to peace

The Crucifixion dramatizes the intrinsic consequences of individual, institutional, and systemic evil. All the forces wreaking havoc in our world were present on that first Good Friday. And it appeared evil had won!

But we know the rest of the story! There is more at work in the world than the evil, suffering, and death that surrounds us!

In Jesus the Christ, God took on all the powers of sin and death. . . .and God won! Easter celebrates God’s everlasting  “NO!” to hate, bigotry, exploitation, oppression, deceptive religious and political maneuvering injustice, and violence.

The Resurrection is God’s eternal “YES!” to compassion, mercy, truthfulness, hospitality, generosity, reconciliation, forgiveness, integrity, humility,  justice, non-violence, and boundless love!

Easter is a way of life more than a one-day of celebration. It is living God’s “Yes” in this Good Friday world!

  • Countering hate with compassion and love
  • Welcoming the stranger with hospitality
  • Treating ALL persons as beloved sons and daughters of God with inherent worth and dignity
  • Seeking reconciliation and unity while shunning division, vengeance, and violence
  • Working for policies and practices that enable the least and most vulnerable to flourish
  • Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned
  • Protecting and nurturing “the least of these” from violence, deprivation, and premature death
  • Practicing integrity, honesty, justice, and compassion in private and public life

We can courageously and hopefully live Easter in a Good Friday world! God has already won the decisive victory!

God’s reign of compassion, justice, hospitality, joy, and peace is on its way! It’s already here for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear and courage to act!

 

 

Emperor Augustus, Governor Quirinius, and a Baby in a Barn

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:1).

Thus begins Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus!

The context is crucial for understanding what follows. Rushing too quickly to see the babe in the stable  subverts the story’s radical message.

Bound up in those first two sentences of Luke’s nativity is the key to knowing what God is up to in the coming of Jesus.

Make no mistake about it!  God is challenging the prevailing values and practices of Caesar and his surrogates! God confronts the mighty Roman Empire, and all subsequent empires, with a vulnerable baby, born of a peasant teenager in a cattle barn in tiny village tucked away in darkness.

Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius are very much alive and active in today’s world. They represent prevailing political and economic power. They have the authority, the might to force populations to do as they say. They are in charge and they intend to maintain their control, their privilege.

So, they issue executive orders that all citizens be “registered,” have proper ID, be legal! Sound familiar?

The registration is part of a new tax policy, designed to protect the economic privilege and advantage of those in power. That sounds strangely and frighteningly familiar in light of the new tax plan enacted into law, clearly enhancing the privileges of the privileged at the expense of the working class and poor.

Both the registration and the tax policy of Augustus and Quirinius strengthen control by the Roman Empire. The day laborers, such as Joseph, and the peasant girls such as Mary, have no power but to acquiesce to the powers that be.

It sounds contemporary in light of political gerrymandering and the wedding of political influence and money which renders common voters powerless.

Mary and Joseph are made homeless, so they take shelter in a barn. There, Mary gives birth without medical attention or a sterile environment. Women often suffer the brunt of abuses of power by the Caesars of every generation.

In Matthew’s telling of the story, mighty Herod is so insecure that he orders all male babies under two slaughtered in order to preserve his power. Baby Jesus becomes an immigrant, fleeing a tyrant’s violence. Children continue to be the major victims of despots’ efforts to secure power!

But the Christmas Story is about redefining power. The world still defines power as the clout of Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius. Power is the ability to issue decrees, executive orders, pass legislation, dictate taxation and economic policies. Make no mistake about it! That is a form of power, and the exercise of it is fraught with abuse and accompanying suffering.

There is, however, another form of power. It is more lasting and transformative than political clout and economic privilege.

Authentic power is embodied in that babe in Bethlehem’s manger. It is the power of self-giving Love! Such love comes silently, without fanfare, hidden in simple gestures of compassion and gentleness amid cruelty and callousness.

We can align with the power in Bethlehem’s stable by entering into solidarity with today’s

-homeless seeking shelter from the winter cold,

-vulnerable women and men without medical care,

-immigrants hiding in the shadows while fleeing cruelty of tyrants,

-working poor who care for our children and frail elderly for meager pay.

Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius may steal the headlines. The future, however, belongs to that babe in Bethlehem’s barn! There is real Power. There is God!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Open Letter to My Congressmen

To: Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott
Representative Joe Wilson

I received your canned responses to my previous communications of opposition to the tax bills passed by the Senate and House of Representatives. You have made no substantive response to my concerns but, rather, provided an unsupported and deceptive rationale for your support of the bill. I am disappointed in your failure to respond adequately to the concerns, questions, and opposition to the bill by many of your constituents.

The fallacious claims of providing a tax cut for the middle class is intentionally or unintentionally dishonest and misleading. For many of us, both versions before Congress will be a major tax increase as the result of removing important deductions.

One example is the House’s provision for removing the deduction for long-term medical care. My wife of fifty-seven years is in the severe stage of Frontotemperal Dementia and requires full time nursing care. The cost is rapidly diminishing our savings and pension accounts. Removal of the deduction will hasten the depletion or our resources. Additionally, the anticipated cuts to Medicare will add to the financial crisis in our family and millions of others.

Perhaps an analogy is appropriate. The claim that I, and millions who are in similar circumstances, are getting a tax cut is comparable to saying, “We are giving you a steroid injection for your weak arm; but to do so, we are amputating your legs.But don’t you feel good about the steroid injection?” You are crippling me while claiming to strengthen me. Such action is deceptive at best and outright cruel at worst.

There is insufficient data to support your contention that the tax cut for corporations will result in increased wages and job growth; and there are no provisions in the current bills to hold corporations and businesses accountable to use the tax windfall to increase wages and expand employment. Data exist to indicate that the proceeds from the cuts will more likely go to share holders (the already more affluent) and corporate executives. This is redistribution of wealth, taking from the under-privileged and transferring it to the already privileged, a reverse “Robin Hood” approach.

I can give additional reasons for opposing both versions of the bill; but it is obvious that your positions are shaped by the failed ideology of “trickle down” economics and narrow partisan politics.  You seem to be more interested in a quick partisan “political win” than listening to the concerns of your constituents.

I assume you are honorable men and I appreciate your willingness to serve in Congress. However, when it comes to tax policy and approach to economic policy, I feel that your positions fall short of the vision of justice of our Jewish-Christian heritage. The proposed tax legislation demonstrably favors the most economically and politically powerful at the expense of the most vulnerable in our society.

Justice as defined in the traditions of the major religions disproportionately favors the weakest and most vulnerable and enables them to have access to that which is necessary to thrive as children of God. The current tax bills clearly fail the test of our sacred scriptures. Additionally, they fail the test of long-term sound economic policy.

I am readily available to discuss any of this issues with you and/or your staff.

Sincerely,

Bishop (Retired) Kenneth L. Carder
Williams Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Duke University Divinity School and
Senior Visiting Professor of Methodist Studies
Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary
Columbia, SC

In All Things Give Thanks! Really?

“In all things give thanks!” That sounds like superficial pious nonsense, a sugary platitude spoken by an armchair philosopher or prosperity gospel preacher surrounded by gilded opulence.  Who would dare offer such advice to a world filled with suffering, conflict, evil, violence, poverty, and death?

Before we dismiss the counsel, we best listen to the author’s description of his life’s experiences:

“Five times I have received. . . the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods.  Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, . . ., danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked” (2 Corinthians 11:25-27).

While he was languishing in prison, waiting execution, he wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians  4: 4).

So, we can’t dismiss the Apostle Paul’s advice as some Pollyanna denial of reality or escape into a fantasy world of contrived positive thinking or feigned faith. He knew something we desperately need to know!

We all know hardships and struggles. Sometimes life’s suffering and anguish overwhelms us. For many, loss and grief are constant companions and tears frequently flow uncontrollably.

We live in troubled times: lost public decency and civility, hateful political warfare, desdaain for people who are different, mistrust of institutions, widespread shameless deception and crudeness, violence and threats of violence, needless poverty and injustice.

It is hard to hear someone admonish us to “in all things give thanks”.  Perhaps, though, we need to learn some of the Apostle’s secret.

Paul doesn’t say that we are to be thankful for all things! He wasn’t giving thanks for shipwrecks, persecution, violence, suffering, hunger and poverty, dangers, and his own imprisonment and future execution.

He said in all things give thanks! The preposition makes a significant difference. Paul was convinced that within all circumstances there is potential good for which gratitude is an appropriate response.

The Apostle’s advice is grounded in his faith. The core of that faith is expressed in these words: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 NIV).

There is more at work in our circumstances than meets the eye. God, whose very being is Love, is working with us to bring some good from whatever befalls us and the world. He was adamant that nothing in all creation, in life or in death, could separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:18-19).

I can’t comprehend the mess the world’s in today. Things are happening that I thought impossible only a few years ago, especially in the realm of politics, public policies, popular discourse, personal behavior.

What possible good can emerge?  What is good is God working to bring? Maybe the failure of our politics and policies, the collapse of civility, and the exposure of personal immorality will point us toward God’s vision of a new creation. It is a world of compassion, justice, integrity, generosity, hospitality, and peace.

Neither can I explain the personal suffering, grief, and tragedies which encompass so many lives.  I do know that from my own experience that love outlasts everything, that what the brain forgets, the heart remembers.

I know that when all seems to be lost there comes an unexpected and fleeting smile, or a moment of recognition, or a squeeze of the hand, or a passing glimmer in the eyes. And, just when I feel all alone, a note arrives or the phone rings or a knock is heard at the door.

Yes, I am learning that it is possible to “in all things give thanks”!

A Decisive Moment

I feel like I’m back in the 1950’s and 1960’s! Hateful crowds shouting racist, anti-Semitic insults! Angry whites accusing blacks of being “trouble makers!” Armed police officers trying to keep order! Torches lighting the dark night! Politicians scrambling to justify their silence or outright support of racism and white supremacy! Pastors struggling to know what to say and do! The upper echelons of the churches speaking out against injustice, while most local churches remain oblivious!

But there is a frightening difference this time: the KKK members don’t wear hoods and white supremacists happily show up in the media espousing their hatred and violence. Hatred, white superiority, and moral bankruptcy have gone mainstream.

The politics of hatred and economics of disparity have formed an unholy alliance. White privilege dominates public policy, including medical care, taxation, voting regulations, criminal justice, education, even drug addiction concerns.

In the name of “personal choice” or “individual freedom,” those with economic and political clout further limit the choices of the politically and economically powerless.

There is no overarching vision being articulated by our political, religious, and civic leaders. Moral leadership has gone by a.w.o.l! Rather than contributing to a common vision, peace, and clear moral direction, the President publicly channels and exacerbates the racism, bullying, and disrespect that are poisoning our society.

Mere condemnation, however, is no solution, although naming the evils is an important component of healing. Deeper self-examination and genuine repentance are called for, especially by those of us who are among the privileged, privilege built on the backs and from the blood of the poor, the enslaved, the exploited, and the vulnerable.

Self-examination and repentance are hard work and costly! Confronting our own complicity in systemic evil and facing our personal demons takes courage and vulnerability.

We white folks have a long history of benefiting from oppression, exploitation, and violence. Our forebears came to this land, claiming to “discover” it and with violence and deception took the land from native peoples. We forced them on “a trail of tears” and onto reservations.

Our predecessors from Europe went to Africa, captured men, women and children, ripped them from their families and cultures, brought them on slave ships to this country, and treated them as mere property subject to abuse and discarding. A whole economy was built on the bent backs and steaming sweat of black and brown people.

Repentance involves facing the harsh truth that we continue to benefit from being white in a country that has “white-washed” its history.

An immediate question before us is this: Will we use our privilege to work for justice, equality, and peace?  Or, will we continue to protect our privileges by remaining silent and complicit in the face of current bigotry, violence, and injustice?

Will we move out of our economic, racial, political, and religious bubbles and enter into solidarity with the marginalized, the powerless, the pushed aside? Or, will be remain in our exclusive enclaves and demonize those who call for inclusion and belonging?

Will we concede to political partisanship and moral bankruptcy of our current elected officials? Or, will we demand truthfulness, justice, and moral character of our leaders?

Will our churches persist in their racial and class segregation and pursuit of what one historian calls “expansion by evasion”? Or, will congregations intentionally reflect the diversity of the human family and become centers of respectful dialogue and advocacy on the issues that threaten our common humanity under God?

Signs of hope seem remote this week. However, Christians affirm that the decisive victory has already been won in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. May we as individuals and congregations be visible signs of God’s ultimate triumph of compassion, justice, hospitality, generosity, and peace!

 

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