Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Thinking Theologically About Hurrican Sandy

How do we think theologically about hurricane Sandy?

            I haven’t seen one yet, but I know they are out there—declarations by self-appointed prophets of God declaring that hurricane Sandy was God’s judgment upon the people devastated by the storm.  Every time a natural disaster occurs, Pat Robertson or some other preacher declares God sent the storm to punish homosexuals, feminists, Democrats or anybody else he disagrees with.  Rather than ceding the floor to such idiotic thoughts, I’m wondering is there a way to think theologically about a disaster like this with more care?  It seems to me that there are at least a few ways to think about God’s role or lack of role in a natural disaster.
            Determinism—Everything is God’s will and God is the cause of everything, so a natural disaster must have been caused by God.  Setting aside the enormous issue of free will, this view has some other real problems—biggest of all is the character of God.  What kind of God sends such destruction on all kinds of innocent people?  Listening to the survivors on TV causes compassion to stir from me and every other human being who is at least mildly empathetic, so I choose to believe a compassionate God would also care for these people.  A God who indiscriminately kills people and destroys the lives of thousands is not a loving God.
            Deism—Another way to approach such disasters is to say that God created the natural order and within that order there are disasters.  Although this view removes the problem of a non-loving God wreaking havoc on helpless humanity, it raises other problems.  It moves God outside the realm of the natural.  God is not present in the acts of nature; not even in the noble acts of human rescuers and aid workers.  Also, do we really have enough information to say unequivocally that there were no acts of providence in the midst of the chaos?  A view that separates God completely from the natural order resolves things a little too neatly; there is no room left for mystery or wonder.
            Mystery—If we choose not to understand God’s relationship to natural disasters in terms of either one extreme or the other, what middle ground is available to us?  One way people of faith have understood God to be present in the face of disaster is in the heroic acts of rescuers or in the way strangers come together to offer aid to one another.  When the best of humanity appears is there not something divine also present?  Theologians and religious thinkers have also understood God’s activity in the midst of disaster in terms of glimpses of grace amid the chaos.  According to this view, God works in certain circumstances within the natural order only when certain conditions or variables are right.  The factors which “allow” God to act are known to God but unknown to us.  A problem with this point of view is how to determine whether an event is an act of God’s care or just the result of random chance.  This view allows for the freedom of God and for mystery, but it is subjective and uncertain--neither quality is particularly comforting in the face of suffering.
            When it comes to God, if I am going to be wrong, I would rather err on the side of mystery.  I would rather allow for the possibility of God’s actions in the midst of what I cannot explain and trust that God is somehow present in the relief of suffering than believe God is the cause of everything or nothing.  This mushy middle ground is often unsatisfying and sometimes offers little comfort, but I would rather live with the ambiguity than live believing in a God who caused mass destruction or left us to our own devices in the midst of it. 
            So, in the aftermath of disasters like hurricane Sandy, I pray, I give and if possible I lend a hand.  I pray for wise decisions by leaders, for the courage of first responders, for the safety of friends and the generosity of strangers.  I give out of my blessings to church disaster responses through our denomination and Church World Service and to agencies like the Red Cross.  If possible, I volunteer to offer whatever assistance I can offer.  I trust that God is at work in my efforts and the efforts of thousands of others.  I hope and believe that God is also at work in the lives of each person touched by such a disaster in ways that are spiritual and may not be visible to our limited perceptions.  Most of all, I am silent when I need to be, and I guard my tongue so that I don’t make the suffering of others worse by spouting bad theology.
            Grace and Peace,

P.S.--A minister friend of mind, Jeremy Rutledge at Circular Congregational Church,  United Church of Christ in Charleston, SC, who is more thoughtful and well-read than I am, has an excellent theological response to natural disaster on his blog.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Dangers of Mixing Religion and Politics 2012

There's a great guest editorial today in the KC Star by Aimee Patton today about the perils of mixing religion and politics.  She manages in one piece to take on the political polarization of Facebook, anti-LGBT politician in Kansas, and the Duggar family's endorsement of Todd Akin.  Well worth the read.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Zombies and Theology

Here's a great article that connects our culture's obsession with zombies with theology.  I clicked on this because I love both zombies and God (not equally) and was prepared for it to be dumb. HOWEVER, I found the piece thoughtful and provocative in all the best ways. Now when I'm watching the Walking Dead I will be looking for sermon material. :)
Also, here's another take on zombies and theology from Derek Hamby, with whom I went to seminary.   I appreciate Derek's connection between our fascination with the destruction of society and apocalyptic literature in biblical texts.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Can Public Christianity Be Humble?

Christianity in America is not known for its humility, which is ironic considering Christians claim to follow Jesus who preached and practiced humility.  It's election season, so the claims of religious people in the political arena seem particularly arrogant and judgmental.  The KC Star has run several recent stories about local Kansas politicians who have reacted in hateful ways towards LGBT people.  At least two Christian Senate hopefuls have made shocking claims about rape in their arguments against abortion rights.  And, of course, there's the usual hateful stuff about Muslims, feminism, sexuality, contraception, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.  Jesus could be harsh in his attacks on opponents, but he saved his harshness for religious people who were self-righteous and condemning towards others.  It's hard for me to connect the grace of Jesus Christ with the mean-spiritedness of many American Christians who are in the public sphere.
     Considering that the name of Jesus is used often in the context of vitriolic political arguments, is it any wonder that so many people are turning away from organized religion in general and Christianity in particular?  Although I would love to lay the blame entirely at the feet of those who practice a form of Christianity that is contrary to my own, I have to admit that I bear part of the responsibility for this current religious climate.  Christians who have a more grace-centered, less legalistic and less partisan view of their faith have in many ways ceded the public face of Christianity to the negative extremes.  If we truly believe in a God who welcomes rather than excludes, loves rather than condemns and values believers being humble in their truth claims rather than judgmental, then we must step forward and represent that type of God not only in our churches but in our communities.

            Going public with your faith is not easy in our present context.  The only model most of us know of Christians who make their faith a public rather than private matter is one of proselytizing and partisanship.  I'm a Christian minister and even I bristle when I meet a stranger who wants to talk with me about Jesus.  I wonder what he or she will want to talk about.  Is this person expecting me to go along with a viewpoint I find xenophobic or legalistic?  I have to believe there is another way to go when it comes to public Christianity. 

            The only way I can see for Christians to be gracious when they make their faith a public rather than private matter is for Christians to make sure they speak with humility.  In my own faith journey, I have learned (at least on my better days) to remember that I have come to what I believe largely based upon my own experience and there is a world of other people who have different experiences.  I don't claim to possess the only truth there is, but rather I simply confess what my own experiences of God and life have been.  When I can operate from a place of humility, it becomes much easier for me to consider an alternative point of view without dismissing that person out of hand or judging him or her.  On days when I cannot practice humility, I tend to be reactionary and closed to others.

            This past Sunday at our new member orientation we talked about the United Church of Christ's approach to the authority of the Bible and the creeds and confessions of the church.  The UCC "embraces a theological heritage that affirms the Bible as the authoritative witness to the Word of God, the creeds of the ecumenical councils and the confessions of the Reformation."  This means that the Bible, creeds and confessions of Christian history are considered "testimonies, but not tests of faith."  We believe "God is still speaking" today.  There is a big difference between understanding a particular interpretation of scripture, a creed or a confession as indisputable truth and understanding such a document as a testimony of faith from a particular person or community at a particular time.  Many Christians would argue that such a position amounts to relativism; I think it's an honest understanding of how limited the perspective is of every human and community of humans is when it comes to God.  In other words, it's humble.

            Humility when it comes to faith doesn't mean we are to be shrinking violets-certainly Jesus was confrontational when he needed to be-but it does mean that we operate from a place where we admit we do not have all the answers.  When we can admit what we do not know, it becomes easier for us to create opportunities for different people to seek answers together.  Wouldn't it be nice if the public face of Christianity was one of people welcoming diversity of belief rather than viewing it as a threat? 

Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The best sports story ever!

This is maybe the best sports story I have ever read--maybe one of the best stories I've read, period!  TCU football coach Gary Patterson has my respect!  Go Horned Frogs! 

It's so good to read about a big-time college coach who puts his players' well-being ahead of winning.  I think somebody said, "The first shall be last and the last shall be first."

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Letter to Virginia Baptists

This past week--on National Coming Out Day no less--the Baptist General Association of Virginia made headlines for expelling from its ranks one of its historic churches for ordaining a gay man.  Ginter Park Baptist Church was located just up the street from the seminary I attended and counts among its members friends and faculty from my seminary days.  It's affiliated with the Alliance of Bapti8sts, one of the few Baptist denominational bodies that fully accepts LGBT People.  (In fact, the AOB was hugely influential  in my own process of overcoming homophobia and also introduced me to the United Church of Christ, the denomination in which I now serve.) 

Ginter Park Baptist church has good people in it, so good that they followed the leadership of the Holy Spirit in ordaining a man they felt was qualified to be a minister even though they would face trouble from the state group of Baptists to which they belonged until this week.  The really sad thing is that Virginia Baptists were a part of Baptist life that was considered open-minded--or as the fundamentalists charged them--liberal.  I wouldn't ever call them liberal but rather moderate.  They generally supported women in ministry and didn't use the Bible to beat up people.  It's too bad that when it comes to LGBT people they draw a line.

I left Baptist life behind eleven years ago and am now proud to serve in the United Church of Christ which has taken bold stands for justice, including justice for LGBT people.  I was a little surprised at how the news affected me of Ginter Park's ouster.  I was angry enough to immediately sit down and write a letter to the Virginia Baptist newspaper, The Religious Herald.  (Once upon a time I wrote some articles for the Herald.)  
I was shaped by Baptists and taught about the freedom of the local congregation by them, so it hurts when I see hypocritical actions like this one.  I don't want to be Baptist anymore.  I've moved on and devote my energy to better things than fighting Baptist battles, but I will always bear the hurt of having to leave the tradition that shaped my faith and taught me about God's love in the first place.

Here's a link to the letter as published on the Religious Herald site.

Here's the text of the letter, if you don't feel like following the link:

Dear Virginia Baptists,

It’s been a long time, but I think it is the right time for you to hear from one of your sons who has left the fold. Eleven years ago I stopped being a Baptist because I could no longer remain in a denomination that used bad biblical interpretation to justify discrimination. Despite growing up as a PK in Baptist churches, being a Royal Ambassador and later a faithful youth group member, attending numerous youth Evangelism conferences, graduating from a Baptist college and a Baptist seminary and serving on staff at Virginia Baptist churches, I made the painful decision to leave and become a part of another denomination. I’m not the only one; plenty of my fellow Virginia Baptists whom I went to school with left, too. I left 11 years ago; more sons and daughters are leaving now.

I decided to write to you when I read about the decision of the BGAV leadership to expel Ginter Park Baptist Church for ordaining a gay man. I am saddened but not surprised by this action.  If the BGAV leaders were at the Jerusalem Conference in Acts 15 I feel sure the early church would never have accepted gentiles.

I came of age when Virginia Baptists were learning that the Holy Spirit could make use of divorced people and women as ministers. You taught me that a narrow interpretation of the Bible about divorce or gender was a poor way to read scripture, but for some reason when it comes to gays and lesbians similar narrow readings are okay.

The decision of the BGAV leaders wouldn’t hurt me so much, if I had not learned from Virginia Baptists to read the Bible with compassion rather than a closed heart. That paradox is painful for me; so painful that I needed to leave the tradition that taught me about a loving God in the first place.

Although I still have friends in ministry who serve Baptist churches; I have plenty more who left Baptist life behind. They and I sought out churches that welcome all who come, because we grew up singing Just as I Am and actually believed those words not only applied to us but to all people. Is it any wonder that younger generations are leaving the church in greater numbers than ever? They know what their parents and grandparents refuse to see — a church that rejects its own children is not worth remaining in. I learned about grace from Virginia Baptists; I just wish Virginia Baptists actually practiced it.

Today my wife and I, along with our sons, worship in a church with heterosexual and homosexual members and we experience the blessing of a Christian community that celebrates its diversity. Rarely does a Sunday go by, however, without me wishing I could have found similar joy in the tradition I grew up in.

Long time no post

It's been a while since I last posted anything here.  Things have been a little busy thanks to the fact that I accepted the call to become minister at Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.  After a great experience at First Christian Church, disciples of Christ in St. Joseph, MO, I head down I-29 to Kansas City to begin a new ministry.