Tuesday, February 24, 2009

An Oscar Reflection: Has the Church failed Dustin Lance Black & Sean Penn?

"...to all of the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight who have been told that they are less than by their churches, by the government or by their families...you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally, across this great nation of ours."
- from Dustin Lance Black's speech after winning the Academy Award
for Best Original Screenplay for Milk

"Thank you. You commie, homo-loving sons-of-guns...I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren's eyes if they continue that way of support. We've got to have equal rights for everyone."
- from Sean Penn's speech after winning the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Milk

I have no doubt that radical voices at the fringes of the Church have expressed outright hatred for anyone who struggles with or practices homosexual behavior; the Fred Phelps cult - which cannot really be termed a part of the Christian Church - has done some horrid, despicable, demonic things.

But the Church has done its best and continues to do its best to express God's love for all people. It is certainly true that:
"The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."

This famous quote from paragraph 161G of the Social Principles in our Book of Discipline should not be read or interpreted in a vacuum, or taken out of context:
"Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God's grace is available to all, and we will seek to live together in Christian community. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons."
If a local congregation has told writer Dustin Lance Black that he is "less than" because of his sex decisions, then shame on that local congregation. Every person - straight or gay - is sacred in God's eyes, and Jesus died for each. God loves Dustin Lance Black just as he loves Keith McIlwain or Billy Graham or Pope Benedict XVI or Ellen Degeneres or even Fred Phelps. God may be disappointed by some of the decisions we make (I'm sure that I am a constant disappointment), but that divine love does not cease.

Mr. Black and actor Sean Penn seem to believe something about the Church that is not true, and perhaps the Church is in part to blame. Mr. Black is correct: gays and lesbians are "...beautiful, wonderful creatures of value and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you." That is a statement with which every thinking, compassionate Christian can agree. What churches have taught him something else? I wish he'd "named names"!

Have we failed to share with Mr. Black the amazing cosmic truth that God loves him, that Jesus died and rose for him, that the Creator of the universe desires to be in a salvific, transformative relationship with him? Shame on us for not reaching this gifted young man with the heart of the gospel, that he now believes something about the Church that is inherently false.

Then again, my understanding is that Mr. Black was raised in a Mormon environment, and, while I haven't seen anything hateful about mainstream contemporary Mormonism, I'm no expert on their theology or practice, other than to say that I don't believe it to be Biblically or doctrinally Christian. So it's possible that Mr. Black is reflecting on some Mormon practice of which I am ignorant.

But both Mr. Black and Mr. Penn mischaracterized the "gay marriage" debate at the Oscars on Monday night. I know a lot of Christians, and I don't know of one who does not favor equal rights. The fact that Christians have opposed California's "Prop 8" and similar measures in other states isn't because Christians want to deny everyone "equal rights", nor is it out of hate.

Christians oppose "gay marriage" because they love gay persons. If indeed homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching", then the Christians are compelled to help those individuals engaged in sinful behaviors to be liberated from those behaviors. This is equally true for those engaged in sinful heterosexual practices, or sinful practices which have nothing to do with sex. Sanctioning behavior believed to be sin would be extremely hateful, and, thankfully, the Church has thus far refused to do so.

To mischaracterize those opposed to sanctioning homosexual practice as hateful is not only a lie, it is mean. And possibly hateful. Or at the very least ignorant.

My prayer is twofold: that we can raise the discourse of the debate so as not to characterize our opponents as hateful, when no one involved in the debate is actually driven by hatred, and that the Church can find ways to be more effective in sharing the life-changing gospel - which is "good news", after all - so that all persons can know and praise God's wonderful work in Jesus Christ, submit to his Lordship (and his alone), and be emancipated from the great bondage of sin - sexual and otherwise.

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (BCP)

(Note in the interest of full disclosure: I have not yet seen the film Milk, but have no doubt that the always brilliant Sean Penn delivered an excellent performance.)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Brian Wren

Brian Wren, writer of fourteen items in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), has suffered a stroke and is hospitalized in a Boston hospital. Among his contributions which I use often are #111 "How Can We Name a Love", #260 "Christ, upon the Mountain Peak", #307 "Christ Is Risen", #318 "Christ Is Alive", and #383 "This is a Day of New Beginnings".

Wren's wife Susan is a United Methodist pastor serving the Martha’s Vineyard Cooperative Parish in Massachusetts. The latest news is that he had surgery yesterday.

The General Board of Discipleship has initiated a blog for folks to track Wren's progress; you can check that out here.

Heavenly Father, giver of life and health: Comfort and relieve your ailing servant Brian Wren, and give your power of healing to those who minister to his needs, that he may be strengthened in his weakness and have confidence in your loving care; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (BCP, adapt.)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Rerun: I See Dead People

"Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

"Then Peter said to Jesus, 'Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.' He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

"Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, 'This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!' Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

"As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead."
- Mark 9:2-9 (NRSV)

Why is it that preachers often preach this story from the perspective of the wonders of a "mountaintop high"? Too often, we fall into the mindset that the Transfiguration story is one that points to the idea that while these "highs" can be wonderful, we need to return to the valleys, where the people live and where there is ministry to be done.

We tend to obscure this simple fact: this story is scary! Jesus glows and then is joined by two dead prophets! What we have here is a ghost story!

In this light, we are reminded that Transfiguration Sunday happens each year just before Lent, and that the real theme of this story is not the wonderful high of a mountaintop experience, but the cold, frightening anticipation of death. After this event, Jesus began to turn his face toward Jerusalem and "the fate that awaited him" there.

We have here an excellent "pre-Lent" narrative, a fine opportunity to begin the preparations for the dark pain of Good Friday as well as the unspeakable joy of Easter. Let's not just "get through" Transfiguration Sunday without giving this remarkably opportunity its due, and without giving this creepy text the macabre attention it deserves.
Originally posted 2/13/2007

Presidents Day list: Best U.S. Presidents

(According to me!)

1 - Abraham Lincoln

2 - George Washington

3 - Theodore Roosevelt

4 - Ronald Reagan

5 - Franklin Roosevelt

6 - James Polk

7 - Andrew Jackson

8 - Thomas Jefferson

9 - John Adams

10 - Grover Cleveland

Friday, February 06, 2009

Good Reminder for the Day

"Only a renewed pastor can revive a sleeping congregation."
- Andrew Purves

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Postmodern Love?

Postmodernism has been a key part of conversation in the Church in the past few years. For many of us, it has taken shape in the "emerging church" movement (or "conversation"). While much of the "emerging conversation" appeals to me, I have concerns as well. I detailed some aspects of "emerging Christianity" in this post from March 2007.

Some aspects of emerging postmodern Christianity with which I agree are:

* the embrace of current technology as a means to live and communicate;

* the reduction of dogmatics to an essential core;

* an awareness of popular culture and the rejection of what has become a very bizarre evangelical Christian subculture, with its own books, music, and discourse;

* an emphasis on covenant community and, thus, on the sacramental life.

I have concerns about postmodern Christianity as well, such as:

* a rejection of symbol and meaningful tradition;

* a rejection of metanarrative;

* a tendency to ignore some essential doctrines which may or may not be viewed as "current";

* a desire to be current.

In Western PA Conference, we have several congregations which are attenpting to develop postmodern communities which may or may not actually be postmodern, which is fine. The only community of faith I know of in our area which is certainly postmodern in Hot Metal Bridge. But even this community of faith is on the "right wing" of the emergeing movement, as the pastors are theologically solidly evangelical (though again, they've rejected, in many ways, the evangelical subculture). My own opinion is that an established congregation, steeped in modernity, cannot birth a postmodern community, definitionally; it would be like a tiger giving birth to a shark.

Should we seek to begin more distinctly postmodern communities of faith?

I have two primary concerns about postmodern Christianity.

First, our desire to "hip", "relevant", "current", "sexy" and "now" can hurt more than help. I look at the recent trials of Radiant Life, a community of faith birthed in a mall. It seems to me that we as a Conference saw something "cool" and jumped at it, without proper theological reflection or planning appropriately. As a result, the congregation failed and the family which was appointed to work the launch has been hurt; not the Church at its best.

I write these words as a self-avowed geek who is keenly aware that I am the least hip person on the planet (a fact to which my teenage children can speak to ad nauseum). The gospel is already perfect and relevant. We don't need to hip it up. While looking for different ways to spread the gospel is good, we need better exegesis far more than we need better locations. Biblical reflection will acccomplish much more than strategic planning. Doctrinal obedience and faithful living are far greater tools than the latest fads; confession of sins and the Eucharist are far more effective than the latest technology.

I don't need to make the gospel more relevant; Jesus already made it completely relevant on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. I need to be more faithful in my living out of his gospel and in my sharing of this transformational news. Method can never trump message.

Our desire to be hip and current should not override other valid issues, and far too often, I fear that it does.

"The church is looking for better methods;
God is looking for better men."
- E. M. Bounds

Second, those of us who call ourselves evangelical need to remember the failures of modernism.

Evangelicalism is, for me, "the old, old story", shared by the apostles and the Church fathers, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Asbury, and many others. It is not synonomous with fundamentalism or Methodism or Presbyterianism or Pentecostalism or Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, but it can include the best parts of each of these "subgroups". It is, for me, the faithful transmission of Jesus' gospel.

Modernism is something else. For me, it is synonomous with the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher and his theological descendents. It dominated the Church in the late 19th century and most of the 20th century, and still holds sway over denominational leadership. It was driven by a desire to be hip, current, and relevant, and is now tired and old. Much of the most vital current Christianity is a reaction against modernism.

Modernism has not produced any great denominations, nor has it resulted in astounding missional success. Those who have embraced modernism have presided over the decline of the western Church, but were blind to their failings because of their
desire to be relevant.

We should be very careful about tying our boats to the uncertain ship that is postmodernism. It suffers from many of the same weaknesses of its parent, and has an uncertain future.

Let's go back to our roots instead...the Bible, the Church fathers and, for United Methodists, the Articles of Religion, the sermons and explanatory notes of John Wesley, even the hymns of Charles Wesley. Surely, these are far better guides than the latest philosophical fad.

And if we are able to stop caring about our own relevance and hipness, maybe we'll realize just how current and relevant Jesus already is...and has always been.