A wide spot in my imagination.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Who Speaks for God? Some Thoughts on Donald Trump, North Korea, and Preachers

On Wednesday, Donald Trump threatened North Korea saying, 
"North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."
Before that day was over, a megachurch preacher had chimed in to say that, 
"God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.”
The preacher is Robert Jeffress. He's the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, which has 12,000 members. Jeffress has a trail of controversial statements. He referred to gay persons as "filthy." He said that Mormonism is a cult. And he compared Donald Trump's plan for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to the prophet Nehemiah's city wall around Jerusalem.

I have friends who go to the First Baptist Church of Dallas. They like it. I have a colleague who has done TV appearances with Jeffress. I've heard he's amiable. He once appeared on "Let's Make a Deal" dressed as a banana. So there's that.

In explaining Trump's divine okay to take out Kim Jong Un, Jeffress referred to a chapter in the Book of Romans. (For those of you who don't know much about the Bible, Romans is a letter written in the first century CE by the Christian missionary Paul to an early group of Christian in Rome.) 

In Chapter 13 of that letter, Paul wrote a paragraph saying that Christians should "be subject to the governing authorities." He indicated that governments are "instituted by God." He also said that rulers can "execute wrath on the wrongdoer." From those words, Jeffress infers that Trump can take out North Korea's leader.  Jeffress also said "the government" can use "assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers."

Jeffress also pointed out that while Chapter 12 of Romans--which encourages pacifism by saying, "Do not repay evil for evil"--was only for Christians, Chapter 13 was for governments. (Though the text itself never says that.)

There are so many problems and questions with this mean-spirited, war-mongering language.

First, if governments or authorities are instituted by God, isn't North Korea's government just as God-approved as the U.S. government? After all, Paul was talking about the Roman Empire which was brutal, so God doesn't come across as very picky. 

Second, how much credence do we give to Paul's writing? In other words attributed to Paul he says women shouldn't braid their hair or wear gold jewelry. Paul urges people not get married. In some places Paul seems to support slavery and in other places he seems opposed to it. Do we follow all of Paul's teachings without question? Does Jeffress? And should 21st century international policy be based on the writings of a 1st century tent-maker?

What about the Bible's contradictions? Okay, maybe Romans 13 can be interpreted the way that Jeffress says. But Romans 12 offers a different view. Jeffress wiggles out of that by saying that Chapter 12 is for the Christians and Chapter 13 is for the governments. But he's making that up. The text itself doesn't say that. That's just his view. And what about the Prophet Isaiah's words about not hurting or killing people? What about beating swords (an presumably nukes) into plowshares? What about the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers?"

Jeffress has found a way to excuse those by saying they only apply to limited groups while the bits he likes apply to the United States president. But again, those are his views. And only his views. Sure, he has a congregation of 12,000. And he has the ear of a newspaper reporter. But that doesn't make him right.

It's tempting for me, as a Christian and as a pastor, to say, "Robert Jeffress is a dunder-headed dolt who likes power and violence and doesn't understand the ways of Jesus." And maybe that's correct. But if I say that, then I fall into his trap. While its tempting to speak with certainty for God, I don't know that that's helpful. Or possible.

Here's what I think: Understanding the Bible is very hard work. Being a Christian is very hard work. Being a human is hard work.

The Bible is collection of dozens of books written by dozens of people over centuries. It not a uniform theological or political how-to manual. 

There are something like 2 Billion Christians in the world. With differing views on liturgy, the purpose of baptism, the meaning of communion, the nature of Jesus, and more. Not to mention differing views on Paul's writing. 

There are 7 Billion humans on the planet. We vary on food preferences, eye color, clothing styles, and languages. And politics.

We've got a lot of work to do to figure out how to sort out these differences and how to get along.

So how about this in the meantime? Let's not kill each other. Lets not threaten anybody with fire and fury. Let's not claim that God allows us to "take out" anyone. Let's struggles with all of these differences of religion and politics. And as we struggle, let's live in peace. How about that?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

An Open Letter to My Methodist Friends

On Friday, April 28, a United Methodist church court announced that a married lesbian bishop is not a suitable church leader. That same court also ruled that two
Methodist regions had to ask questions to screen out potential LGBT clergy persons.

On Sunday, April 30, at the church I serve, our closing hymn was, “In the Midst of New Dimensions.” That hymn was written in 1985 by a United Methodist minister who was then doing AIDS work, at a time when AIDS was a pandemic, especially among the gay community.  The hymn was written for a diversity conference. It is poetic and rousing.

Our Music Director picked the hymn several days earlier, not knowing what a Methodist court might say. And I doubt many people in our non-Methodist church paid much attention to the Methodist ruling. But as we sang that hymn, and as I thought about the hymn's history, I also looked out over our congregation as they sang. I saw lesbians, gay men, bisexual people, and at least one transgender person. I was (and am) grateful for the gifts they bring to our church and to the world.

Many of my Methodist friends are worried: Will their denomination splinter? Will people leave the church? Is there room to stay and work for justice? Maybe open-minded Episcopalians will welcome like-minded Methodists into their fold?

I don't know what the United Methodist Church will do. As a non-Methodist it's probably not my place to offer opinions. I can say that the United Church of Christ has been striving for full justice and inclusion for LGBTQ persons since the early 1970s. Our denominational tapestry is vibrant and inclusive. I am grateful for that. My life and my work as a pastor is enriched by being part of our open and affirming church family. I believe that full inclusion of all God’s children is vital work for our church, our nation, and the world.

Here's what I can say to my Methodist friends…

“In the Midst of New Dimensions" is your hymn. Sing it! Sing loudly! Sing off-key if needed. Sing it with hope for justice. Sing it in protest. Sing it while holding hands with as many people as you can. If someone wants to tell you how LGBT are unfit for anything, stick you finger in your ears and start to sing. Sing all five verses. Repeat them if needed.

Here are the words: 

In the midst of new dimensions, in the face of changing ways. Who will lead the pilgrim peoples wandering in their separate ways?
[Refrain] God of rainbow, fiery pillar, leading where the eagles soar, We your people, ours the journey now and ever, now and ever, now and ever more.
Through the flood of starving people, warring factions and despair, Who will lift the olive branches? Who will light the flame of care?
As we stand a world divided by our own self seeking schemes, Grant that we, your global village might envision wider dreams.
We are man and we are woman, all persuasions, old and young, Each a gift in your creation, each a love song to be sung.
Should the threats of dire predictions cause us to withdraw in pain, May your blazing phoenix spirit, resurrect the church again.