For a long time, I believed the great divide in our nation was between political conservatives and political progressives. Over the last four years, as we have watched the division grow wider, it has actually become clear that those are not the lines that divide us at all. If it were about conservative vs. progressive approaches to problems then we should be able to reasonably negotiate compromises for the good of our nation and her people. But we seem to have lost the ability to compromise. No, a battle between conservative and progressive is not what is ailing our nation.
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It is hard these days not to think about the political situation in our nation and world. Every day conversations seem to drift toward our nation’s difficulties even when we’d really rather not go there. Perhaps worse, it often feels to me as if the ability to have rational, grown-up discussions about our feelings, beliefs, and values is disappearing. Every day, the American culture becomes more and more close-minded and polarized. We stake out our positions, often attributing them to our religion and declaring God is on our side. We regularly create an us vs. them atmosphere instead of acting on the truth that we are all in this together – that we really, truly need each other.
Now, many folks think religion should stay out of politics. This view, however, assumes religion is only about getting into heaven after we die. In fact, religion and politics, at their core, are both about how we get along and live with each other as communities in the here and now. Personally, I believe religious institutions should never wield political power but are better suited to the role of prophet, a critic of morals and ethics. Our spiritual views do and must inform our political opinions. We will, of course, still disagree on many things but for Christians who truly try to follow Christ and his teachings, it provides us an ethical basis of love.
In the eleventh chapter of Acts, the apostle Peter tells of his vision about the splits in the early Christian community. In essence, Peter is told in his vision to get out of God’s way, to stop making rules that keep people from a relationship with the Divine. He’s told to stop trying to put God in a nice neat box that conforms to his personal opinions and to stop imposing those views on others and demonizing them. Peter comes to understand that following Christ is to know that God is forever still speaking, that following Christ is to be open-minded. It means opening our hearts with love and compassion to those who are different than us. It’s about building relationships and not walls. The “us” vs “them” attitude goes against the very nature of who God calls us to be as Christians.
Jesus teaches that we will be known as one of his disciples by our love. If love is not the first thing the world thinks of when the word “Christian” is mentioned, then it’s time to ask ourselves if we have strayed from the path. Too often, people hear “Christian” and think “hypocrite.” For all that we preach about love, we so often fail to actually love each other. Instead, we get caught up in whether everyone is behaving as we think they should. We create ways to test and judge each other.
Christian hypocrisy often shows up in our political views. Lately, abortion has been in the news. It is an emotional subject for everyone but, whatever our position, as Christians we need to ask if it is based in love and compassion. I believe it is completely reasonable and rational to be both “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” However, the real point I want to make is that if we proclaim as Christians we are pro-life (and I think caring about the preciousness of each and every life is a very Jesus-like thing to do), then in addition to the potential life of that unborn child are we also concerned with the life of the mother, an already realized, actual life?
Are we concerned about the abuse of guns and our culture of violence?
Are we concerned about making sure healthcare is available to everyone?
Are we concerned about refugee children forcibly separated from their families?
Are we concerned about paying workers livable wages?
Are we concerned about educating our young folks?
Are we concerned about climate change and the abuse of our planet?
Because these are all pro-life issues too!
When we put conditions on our love, when we only love those who think and act like we do, we are putting God in a box of our making and God will not be put in a box. God is a God of the unexpected, putting the last first. God is a God of love without conditions – what we do to the least of these, we do to God. Everyone is worthy of being loved. If we are to be followers of Jesus then we too are asked to get out of God’s way and let God lead. If we are to be followers of Jesus we are to be known by our love. We are to love the whole world whether it be a friend, someone in need, or an enemy. We are called to love as Jesus loved: to embrace the poor and oppressed, to heal those in distress, and to forgive those who have wronged us. It all starts with us: are we tuned into what God is doing in the world, are we following God? Or are we trying to put God in a box, trying to get God to follow us? Each of us is loved by God! Without condition! So let us get out of God’s way, that that Divine love may flow through us and into the world.
This reflection first appeared in my church’s newsletter on May 31, 2019. the church website can be found at: http://www.phoenixchurch.org.
On June 2, 2019 I had the honor of sharing a few words at an Interfaith Pride Service in Kalamazoo, MI. Here is what I shared:
I have known many people who have struggled with reconciling their religious faith with their sexuality and gender identity. Too often religious institutions have tried to tell us who identify as queer in some way, who find ourselves in the rainbow of LGBTQA, that we should be who we are not. Because of this, many have been driven away from their religion or even abandoned their faith journey altogether.
My story, however, is a little bit different. I grew up going to a sort-of conservative Christian protestant church in northern Michigan. But when I went to college, my religion fell by the wayside. Much of the teaching and doctrine just didn’t ring true anymore and it no longer held a lot of meaning for me. And it really had nothing to do with my sexual orientation.
It was actually finally dealing with my own inability to accept myself as gay, coming out at the age of 30, that I found myself back on a spiritual path. I heard of this group called Phoenix Community Church that had a lot of gay people and some allies and I thought hey, that sounds like a safe way to meet people.
The church was started in 1988 by a group of 18 or so folks after one of the founding pastors was fired from his previous church a year earlier because of his sexual orientation. And those brave folks decided that they needed a safe and welcoming place to explore their spirituality, where they could be true to themselves, and they gave birth to Phoenix Community Church.
These many years later I find myself the pastor of that church but that is a whole ‘nother story. When I encountered the church for the first time back in 1996, I found what I was looking for. I’ve met many absolutely wonderful people there through the years. But I also found what I was not looking for. I found God again.
I found a place that accepted me and supported me.
I found a place that taught the truth that God loves me unconditionally, that I didn’t need to change.
A place that encouraged questions and didn’t claim to have all the answers.
A place that even acknowledged, celebrated, and learned from spiritual paths other than Christianity while still maintaining a Christian foundation.
And in the journey that brought me to this church, that brought me back into relationship with the Divine, I found a couple of things that really stand out for me in this intersection where our spirituality and our sexual and gender identities meet.
First, being queer and Christian forces us to question the status quo. To think for ourselves. We can’t just accept whatever traditional doctrine that we’re told to believe.
This questioning and challenging is a gift that queer people give to the church and all religious institutions. It’s how we can learn and grow in our spirituality and in all aspects of life. From a Christian perspective it’s also very Jesus-like. Jesus was always challenging the status quo and trying to make people think.
Second, I learned I have a right to my spiritual identity as much as I have a right to my sexual identity. Queer people are the loved children of the Divine and our inherent, God-given worthiness is not up for debate. If we cannot find a spiritual community where we feel welcome than we do what queer people have been doing for a long time – we create our own. Luckily for us here in Kalamazoo, we already have options.
But, no matter what, no matter what others say, no matter which religious framework we put around our spiritual journey, no matter our sexual orientation or gender identity, let us celebrate the fabulous people we were created to be by this Divine, loving energy we sometimes call God. Thank you for hearing my story.
Everyone loves a show! The bigger and more outrageous the spectacle, the more we stop what we’re doing and pay attention. In the 12th chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus warns us against people who go out of their way to put on a show just to impress others, to puff up their importance by wearing fancy clothes, who insist others defer to them and serve them, and who always have to be in a place of honor. These are the ones, we’re told, who are hiding something, the ones who behind the facade are taking advantage of the poor, the widow, and the immigrant.
Jesus goes on to notice a widow who gives her last pennies to the Temple treasury. This widow is one of the very people who are being oppressed by those who try to look so important but Jesus takes his time to notice her and the situation she is in. Noticing what is happening around us is an important first step in correcting the injustices of the world. Too often we don’t notice those in need. We legislate the homeless to corners of our cities where we won’t see them or we hear about a caravan of people fleeing the violence of their homes and we demonize them, creating the fear that helping them would somehow ruin our own lives. We fail to notice their humanity, the fact that they are parents and brothers and sisters, that they love and are loved just as we are. We fail to notice that that poor person is a human being in need who likes ice cream and romance novels and not someone to be objectified.
We fail to notice because it absolves us of the responsibility to respond. We might think we can’t respond because we don’t have enough ourselves – so how can we help anyone else? But scripture is full of stories of people who thought they weren’t good enough or didn’t have enough and yet God used them to change the world. What if we truly made an effort to notice what happens around us? Who or what do we ignore and overlook as we go about our daily business? What would happen if we started to notice – and then, putting our trust in God, started to respond? What a difference we could make!
May God bless you and the work you do to notice and respond to the injustices around you.
This reflection first appeared in my church’s newsletter on November 16, 2018 and is inspired by the sermon, “Look, Then Leap,” from November 11, 2018. The audio of the sermon can be found at https://phoenixchurch.org/home/phx-sermons/.
In the early morning of Saturday, June 28, 1969, the New York City police raided a bar called the Stonewall Inn. This was a bar that catered to marginalized people: drag queens, transgender people, effeminate young men, butch lesbians, male prostitutes, and homeless youth. But the raid didn’t go as planned. Those marginalized people fought back against persecution that night. Riots developed and the modern liberation movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons was born. One year later, on June 28, 1970, Christopher Street Liberation Day marked the anniversary of the Stonewall riots with the first ever Gay Pride march. The New York Times reported that the parade of marchers stretched for 15 blocks.
48 years after that first march, we still celebrate Pride. Although the world is much different than it was for LGBTQ people in the 1950’s and 60’s, it is still important to celebrate who we are and to stand up and declare that LGBTQ lives matter. I feel blessed to live in a city that is relatively liberal and accepting but we don’t have to stray very far into the world to know it’s not that way everywhere. Even here in Kalamazoo, there is still much work to be done. Because of that Pride shouldn’t be a once a year party. We need to live with pride in who we are every day, affirming our self-worth to ourselves and to the world.
Our culture would rather that those who are oppressed and marginalized be invisible. Humans fear what we don’t understand. The world would rather we deny our authentic selves rather than challenge their notion of how the world is supposed to work. But, to deny who we are is, in religious language, a sin. To deny who God created us to be – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, cis, gender-bending, queer, straight, etc. – is a sin. Denying who we are separates us from the Divine Presence within us and around us. It creates a barrier between us and the sacred and that barrier is what we mean by sin. In Jesus’ words found in Mark 3:20-35, it’s a serious sin, an unforgivable sin, a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
When the religious scholars accuse Jesus of working for the Devil, they are accusing him of being something he is not. Jesus responds by telling them that they know better than that. They know his power comes from God but they deny it. They know the truth and yet they deny it. And he goes on to declare that denial a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. In other words, to hear and understand the voice of the Divine within and still deny it is an unforgivable sin. To use the word unforgivable is a bit misleading, however. It’s clear from all of Jesus’ other teachings that there is nothing that cannot be forgiven. Or in the apostle Paul’s words, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Perhaps Jesus here is engaging in hyperbole, exaggerating to make a point. Perhaps he’s trying to stress the seriousness of denying what we know to be true. For if we deny who we are, how does one recover from that? For those who are LGBTQ, we all have experience with what we call being in the closet. We know firsthand how damaging it is to our mental and spiritual well-being to deny who we are. The only way to recover from that denial is to embrace who we are. That’s not always easy.
We may need to work on discovering ourselves. We may need to overcome internalized homophobia. We may need to deal with hostility from friends or family. We may need professional help. We certainly need the support of good, healthy relationships. These things are not always going to be easy, especially if we lack the support of family. In scripture, Jesus’ family wasn’t so sure about him, either. We’re told they thought he might be losing his mind. Religious leaders were accusing him of working for Satan. He was constantly being mobbed by crowds of marginalized people, those needing healing, those thought possessed by demons. It was all beyond his family’s understanding. So his mothers and brothers went to try and rescue him, but Jesus wasn’t having it.
Jesus redefines family as what I’d call the Family of God – family defined by love, not blood. Anyone who lives with and by God’s love is our sister, brother, mother, and father. Jesus is teaching about community. To live an authentic life we need loving community, the support of family, of people who love us for who we are, as we are. That may include our birth family but it certainly includes the Family of God, those who love us for our authentic selves, who will support us in our times of need, who will forgive us when we mess up. It is this Family of God that we are called to be. It is this Family of God that can change the world.
One of my seminary professors interviewed people about what changed their minds regarding their acceptance of LGBTQ people. What he found was that it actually had little to do with their understanding of scripture. Discussions about how to interpret scripture and apply it to their lives didn’t matter nearly as much as getting to know someone who identified as gay. Relationship and love – these are the things that change people. Welcoming people into this Family of God is where the hope lies for this world we live in. That doesn’t mean converting people to Christianity. It simply means loving people unconditionally, for who they are, as they are. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Note: The above reflection is an edited version of my sermon from June 10, “Family of God.” Go to www.phoenixchurch.org/sermons.php to listen to the entire message.
Doubling down is a betting term that involves taking a risk for increased reward. It can also mean to become more tenacious or resolute. In the Parable of the Talents found in Matthew 25:14-30, we can find examples of both. In the parable, a rich landowner entrusts funds to three servants and then goes away on a trip. When the landowner returns, he finds two of the servants have invested the money and doubled it. The third servant buried the money, neither gaining or losing. In accounting for his actions, the third servant basically calls the landowner a tyrant and says he buried the money out of fear. The landowner gives the third servant’s money to the first two and then has the third servant banished, declaring that the rich will get richer and those that have little will lose it.
The first two servants in the parable took a risk, invested their funds, doubled the money, and were rewarded by the landowner. In a way, they doubled down and it paid off. These first two servants are often portrayed as the good guys in this story because we almost automatically interpret the landowner as analogous to God. In this view the first two servants took risks with the gifts they were entrusted with and multiplied them. To be willing to take risks on behalf of the Divine is not a bad lesson.
However, what if the third servant is right? The landowner concludes the parable with the declaration that the rich will get richer but this isn’t what Jesus teaches us elsewhere. Jesus consistently teaches that God will humble the powerful and lift up the poor, that wealth is more problem than virtue. So, what if the landowner really is a tyrant, not meant to represent God at all in the story but instead meant to be just what he is named as – an unfair and dishonest business person? Then, the third servant becomes not the lazy servant but the hero of the story because he refuses to use the money he was given to participate in the systemic evils of the economic system. And, when called to account, he doubles down. He becomes more tenacious and resolute even though it costs him all that he has. What if acting in the manner of this third servant is really what it means to live in the kin-dom of God?
We always come across those forks in the road where we have to decide which path to take and we have to struggle with the indecision and fear, much like I imagine that third servant did. We have to struggle a little to hear God’s call for us. Perhaps this parable is telling us that to follow God’s way of love, to live in the kin-dom, is to face our fears and walk through them, even knowing that things may or may not work out as we want. Because it’s the right thing to do and because, well, what if we spoke truth to the world and it did work out? What if we created new life where before there was death? What if we created a flourishing, abundant world of love, peace, and justice?
God’s kin-dom is a way of life, a way of living into the future. There may be delays and distractions. There may be failures along the journey. But there is also the promise of new life, the promise of something always waiting to be born again. Jesus’ own story doesn’t end with death but with resurrection. Let us be kin-dom people, putting our trust in God and walking God’s path boldly, walking tenaciously and resolutely through our fears into the promise of new, abundant life. Let us be the seeds from which God’s kin-dom of love and justice grows.
(I originally wrote this short reflection for my church’s newsletter. It was inspired by my sermon from Sunday, November 19, 2017. The church’s website is http://www.phoenixchurch.org)
Jesus calls his followers to be servant leaders: to lead others by serving them, by doing for them, by acting out of concern for their well-being. This leadership model reminds me of Martin Luther King, Jr’s statement that no one is free until we are all free. By calling us as servant leaders, Jesus asks us to work on our own freedom by freeing others from whatever injustice holds them down: racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, violence, poverty, and on and on. Until we can free our neighbors from these evils, we cannot ourselves be free of them.
This is the vision of a world free of injustice, filled with love, peace, and hope. It’s what we mean when we talk of the kin-dom of God. But is such a world really possible? I trust in God that it is. If we can envision it we can build it. When we begin to live by the principles of the kin-dom (love, justice, and peace) then the kin-dom begins to exist within each of us. Born within our hearts, the kin-dom begins to grow in the world.
We answer this call to be servant leaders by humbling ourselves in the service of others and not worrying about what we get out of it but serving out of compassion and concern. This type of leadership by example is sorely needed in our “me-first” culture. Jesus’ call to servant leadership stresses the equality of all, that we’re all equally important in God’s sight. It also acknowledges that our true leader as Christians is Christ, God’s word of love to the world. Above all else, we are led by Love.
There are also temptations and dangers when we start to think of ourselves as leaders. We can fall prey to hypocrisy, not practicing what we preach. We can get attached to the power and the praise, becoming all show and no substance. We can also give in to greed, serving only those who can give us something back. A strong relationship with the Holy Spirit can give us the strength and courage we need to help us avoid these kinds of temptations as we answer Christ’s call to work for a justice filled kin-dom.
As followers of Christ we are called to be servant leaders, to serve where, as Frederick Beuchner says, “the place of our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” By beginning to build the kin-dom within ourselves by opening our hearts to the strength of the Spirit and by offering ourselves as God’s servants in the world, we can make God’s kin-dom a reality. We are called to serve. How will we respond?
(I originally wrote this short reflection for my church’s newsletter. It was inspired by my sermon from Sunday, November 5, 2017. The church’s website is http://www.phoenixchurch.org)
I did an interview about my book, “Out of the Ashes,” with the local NPR station that is airing today, Nov. 6, 2017. See http://wmuk.org/post/wsw-out-ashes-church-where-questions-can-be-asked.
Here’s a reading I did for my book “Out of the Ashes.” Enjoy!
Note that toward the end of the reading I read a poem which contains some adult language.
Every building needs a strong foundation. The bigger the building, the deeper and stronger the foundation needs to be. Strong foundations aren’t just important for buildings, either. We would probably agree that one needs a good education as a strong foundation for a fruitful career and that love and communication are needed to form a strong foundation for a lasting relationship. Well, when Jesus says in Matthew 16:13-20 that Simon will be known as Peter, which means “rock” in Greek, and then talks about building the church on “this rock,” it makes me also think about the foundation of the church.
We’ve all heard about the so-called decline of the Christian church over the last 10-20 years. It makes it tempting to ask if the foundations of the institution of the church is showing cracks, perhaps rotting away? Is the church really in danger of collapse as some fear? Maybe it’s past time to inspect the foundations of our churches. What are the foundations upon which the church has been built? Or, perhaps we need to first ask what are the foundations which Christ intended for the church?
Some people understand Jesus to say that he will build his church upon Peter the person. But what if instead Jesus, in the scripture above, means that he will build the church upon the revelation that Peter had just shared, the revelation that Jesus is the son of the Living God? What if that revelation, which we are further told that Peter learned directly from God, is the bedrock of the church? Perhaps what Jesus is saying is that he will build the church on our firsthand, direct experience of Jesus as the loved and loving child of the living, relevant, still-speaking God. Perhaps the bedrock of the Christian community is to be built on the personal revelation of God’s love through Jesus.
The church is, of course, not a building but a way of life, a community of people. It is meant to be the beginning of God’s kin-dom on this earth, an example of what the world can be and of what it means to walk God’s path. It’s where we come together to practice being the world that God intends us to be, a place of love and justice, a place of hope and peace. We fail at this a lot, which necessarily leads us to inspect our foundations. But, coming to know the revelation of God’s love in Christ, we can build the church upon that love. Community based on God’s love is built on a firm foundation that will last. If we build the church, our lives in Christ together, on the foundation of God’s love, if we truly love God and our neighbor and make that the foundation of who we are, we have nothing to worry about.
(I originally wrote this short reflection for my church’s newsletter. It was inspired by my sermon from Sunday, August 27, 2017. The church’s website is http://www.phoenixchurch.org)