Prayer: Public? Private? Or What?

Lots of people make assumptions about what I – as a Christian pastor – think about a variety of issues.  Take, for instance, the Supreme Court’s decision on June 27, 2022, allowing a public high school football coach to pray after games at the 50-yard line.  Some would assume that I as a Christian pastor am totally supportive of the decision.

I am not.

“Why?” You ask.

For two reasons: one reason being secular, and one being sacred.  Let’s start with the secular reason.

While some will debate the merits of the separation of church and state in the Constitution (i.e. strict Constructionists will insist the principle doesn’t appear in the Constitution), I don’t.  I believe that separation benefits both sides of the equation – the state AND the church.  That’s because when you break down the wall and give one religious group privilege over others, it can’t help but create ill will and divisiveness.

Even more so, many of the Evangelicals who are rejoicing at the decision haven’t thought about the implications of the decision.  If any religious group steps forward now and wants to offer prayer at a public event, the planners would need to accommodate it.  It will be interesting to see what would happen, for instance, if a spiritual leader of the Church of Satan asks to offer a prayer at a city council meeting.  From a secular standpoint, the principle of the separation of church and state is the one thing that makes it easier for us to live together in a religiously pluralistic nation.

Now for my sacred reasons for opposing the decision.

In Matthew 6:5-6 (CEB), Jesus makes it crystal clear how we are to conduct ourselves in public when it comes to prayer:

When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.

Jesus’ sentiments still ring so true today.  Those elected officials that are so often quick to wear their religion on their sleeves during a political campaign or press conference are often the least likely to live lives that reflect the basic values of Jesus.  Many of them are exactly the kind of hypocrites of which Jesus spoke.

As a person of faith, I believe it is my responsibility to live out my faith.  I should not demand the government create space for me to do that.

With all of this said, as a Christian pastor I join with many, many, many Christians, people of other faiths, and people of no faith in decrying the decision to impose religion on others in public settings.  Let’s hope future Court decisions do a much better job charting a course for fairness, justice, and inclusion that will weave together our wonderfully diverse country.

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Reflecting God’s Freedom and Grace …

I’ve spent a good chunk of today trying to pull my thoughts together as to how I feel about the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Roe vs. Wade.

So what am I struggling with the most?

I guess the thing that I struggle with most is how some are compelled to live out their faith in the world.  Let me tell you what I mean by that.

As a long-time Congregationalist, I live in a world that celebrates the freedom and grace that God extends to ALL of God’s children.  I live in a faith community where we know that not everyone embraces the same set of values and perspectives.  And that’s okay! That’s why it’s in our spiritual DNA to extend to others the same grace and freedom (or free will) that God has extended to us.

This celebration of freedom (or free will) doesn’t come from a set of civic, or secular, beliefs for me.  No, my celebration of this freedom comes from one of the first metaphorical stories contained in Scripture: the story of Eve and Adam in the book of Genesis.

That story taught me that while God COULD have created a world in which human beings had no choice (by creating a metaphorical garden that did NOT contain the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil), God didn’t.  By including such a tree, the story teaches me that a sacred aspect of creation is the space to make choices for ourselves.

The very existence of that wonderfully expansive Tree puts us on a path where we have sacred opportunities to grow, to learn, and to become through our choices.  The story suggests that if God is comfortable enough to extend to humanity such freedom, then so – too – should I.

There are some, however, who are not comfortable honoring God’s approach.  They want to uproot the tree – or opportunities – and force everyone to travel the path they have chosen.  In doing so, they are not reflecting God’s approach: they are imposing their own.

Having served as a pastor for roughly 20 years now, I have stood in the space with individuals and their families many times as they wrestled with how to respond to an unexpected pregnancy.  And every time, I have been humbled at how powerful the process is when individuals can choose and affirm a path for themselves with the help of the Beloved.

As a pastor, I stand in solidarity with those individuals who affirm they would not choose to terminate a pregnancy for themselves.  As a pastor, I stand in solidarity with those individuals who affirm that their circumstances dictate they cannot see a pregnancy through.  That is why I am pro-choice to the bottom of my soul.

I pray for the day we human beings can overcome our desire to play God by dictating choices that are beyond our limited perspective.  I also pray that for those who feel compelled to play God, that they might do a better, more faithful job of “playing God” by extending to their siblings the same grace and freedom with which they have been blessed.

Until then, I’ll continue to stand in this holy space, and do my VERY best to protects the rights, responsibilities, and freedoms of ALL of my beloved siblings.

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#212 and #30

Today, on the 144th day of the year, we as a country are facing the 212th mass shooting and the 30th shooting in a K-12 school in 2022.  There is no way to adequately describe the pain and despair that so many of us feel today.

I’ve thought for a while about what to say in response to the tragedy.  One thing I can say is that the phrase that has been trotted out so much in public after the barrage of tragedies – “My thoughts are prayers are with you …” – is clearly not enough.  We need to pick up on the spirit of the utterance and tweak it a little.  Something along the lines of, “I’m focusing my thoughts and prayers on figuring out what God is calling me to DO in response to the tragedy.”

I tweaked the phrase because I want to make two things clear.  First, we can no longer settle for simply THINKING about the series of tragedies.  Now is the time for each of us to respond with some form of action.  Which leads me to my second point: the actions that come from the shooting will be different for many of us.  Some of us, for instance, will be motivated to join and/or support an organization like Moms Demand Action; others will be motivated to join and/or support organizations that support those dealing with emotional and mental health challenges like NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).  Some of us will start registering people to vote so they can support candidates who will take action to deal with the gun violence; others will pick up the Primary ballot they set to the side and re-commit to completing and sending in their ballot to support those willing to address the issues involved. Some will respond by reaching out to a social service agency to report a loved one exhibiting violent tendencies so their loved one can finally get the help they need; others will respond by making a concerted effort to get to know more neighbors in the community as a way of building relationships.  Some will bring the recent events to their prayer group as a way of building spiritual strength and support so they – and their prayer partners – don’t have to face the tragedy alone; others will initiate a conversation about what happened with a loved one where they can share their concerns and actions they are committing themselves to in light of the violence.

The list of possible responses is long, indeed.  There is just one response which is no longer an option: doing nothing.

I know that in the wake of yet ANOTHER senseless (and entirely preventable) tragedy, it will be very tempting to go on the attack and channel your pain into lashing out at others.  That is what so many Americans do these days.

Instead of keeping the seemingly endless cycle of violence alive, my prayer is that each of us will find some way we can respond in action – so that our thoughts and prayers generate the actions needed to address this issue.  In the darkness of this day, may God help us find our way to healing and hope – both individually and collectively.

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Making the Deeper Connections

For the last couple of months, I have had a REALLY hard time finding the brand of dog food I feed my dog Max.  He has special dietary needs so I can’t just grab anything off the shelf.  And the stores where I used to be able to purchase the product now have empty shelves where the boxes of the food used to be.

As I was talking to a customer service representative about why it’s been so hard to track down the dog food, she said, “One of the reasons it’s hard to find is because of the effects of COVID.”

“Because of COVID?” I interrupted.

“Yes,” she said.  “You see lots of workers for the companies who provide our ingredients are out sick with omicron.  Their absence suppresses their company’s ability to provide the ingredients we need.  Lots of those who transport our products are out sick as well.  All of this means it is harder than ever to make the product and get it to the stores.  Until the COVID infection rates go down, it will be a challenge to get our dog food on the shelves.”

The conversation a few days ago reminded me of why it is so difficult to solve problems.   Many human beings like to think the problems facing us have simple, straight forward solutions.  For instance, we like to think that the only threat COVID poses to us lies in its ability to kill us.  Once the vaccines and masks were distributed, we started to think our problems were in the rear-view mirror.  We got even more excited when we heard that the omicron variant wasn’t as life-threatening as earlier variants.  We relaxed and let our guard down.

And just as we did, we saw new infections skyrocket; the number of sick days for workers soar; which depleted the amount of goods we had available to sell; which drove up the price; which contributed to the rise of inflation.  Sadly, few people see the link between the rise of infections, the lost work days, and inflation.  And because of that, they simply get mad at their elected official – never once stopping to consider how their reckless behavior might be contributing to the economic challenges we are facing.

Of course, it just isn’t in the arena of politics and economic matters where people tend to oversimplify – and ignore the complexity of the problems.  Those of us in the church do it as well.  Let me give you an example.

Those of us in the Progressive Church talk a lot about our goal to diversify our communities of faith.  We are heading into a series of months with important designations, and we are gearing up to observe them.  February, for instance, is Black History Month; March is Women’s History Month; May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month; June is Gay Pride Month; and September 15-October 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month.

During these months, many of our worshipping communities will do things like sing more Spirituals in February; use more sermon illustrations involving women in March; use different prayer practices in May; read children’s stories involving different family structures in June; and sing songs in Spanish from September 15-October 15.  At the end of each month, we will pat ourselves on the back – telling ourselves we have done our part to celebrate diversity.

What we fail to do is ask ourselves deeper, harder questions.  We fail to ask ourselves, for instance, why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said (on the April 7, 1960 broadcast of Meet the Press), “I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation – one of the shameful tragedies – that 11 o’clock on Sunday mornings is one of the most segregated hours – if not THE most segregated hours in Christian America.”

His observation was true in 1960.  And in most local churches, sadly it’s true in 2022 as well.

If we ever want to truly change things, we will have to dig deep to understand why it is still so hard to achieve real diversity in many of our worshipping communities.  Instead of throwing in a few new songs or sermon illustrations, for instance, we will have to examine the ways our church constitutions and bylaws have created and perpetuated communities that are based primarily on Western European and corporate models.  We’ll have to consider ways that we might re-organize ourselves – and our decision-making processes – year-round so they invite members of historically marginalized groups into our midst and show that we truly value their participation.  We’ll have to examine the liturgies we have used in worship for decades (centuries, really) and ask ourselves, “Do these words, songs, and prayers truly reflect the experience of ALL people – or just some?”  And instead of trying to capture pictures of a few diverse people for pictures on our church brochures or websites, we’ll have to push ourselves and ask, “How might we need to change our existing programming in order to speak to those from different social locations?”

Asking ourselves those questions will, of course, be hard.  It will force us to admit that our existing structures and practices make it nearly impossible to diversify.  Even harder will be the presence of those in our communities who will offer over-simplified solutions that will tempt us to overlook the real obstacles to transformation and simply “shift the chairs on the deck of the Titanic” rather than name and confront the iceberg of systemic bias that threatens to sink the ship.

I share these thoughts today to invite all of us to look at the world with new eyes.  It would be good to ask ourselves, “Is there a problem facing my family/neighborhood/community/planet that I have oversimplified?  Is there some piece of life where it is time to take a deep breath and begin looking at with the bigger picture in mind?”

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What Is Old Seems New Again …

Since the earliest days of COVID, I have been struck by the parallels between the onset of the HIV/AIDS crisis as the onset of COVID.  I say that as a 54-year-old gay man who was just 12 when HIV/AIDS first appeared.  Let me share a few of those parallels.

In the early days of HIV/AIDS, we talked about condoms being a major tool of prevention.  In the early days of COVID, we talked about masks being a major tool of prevention.  In both cases, people resisted using those tools of prevention – often lashing out and saying their preventative abilities were overstated.

In the early days of HIV/AIDS, we talked a lot about safer sex as a way of reducing transmission.  In the early days of COVID, we talked a lot about social distancing as a way of reducing the risk of transmission.  In both cases, many were reluctant to adopt the practices since they were “clunky”, inconvenient, and uncomfortable.

In the early days of HIV/AIDS, we talked a lot about the belief that all we needed was a vaccine.  Once we had one, then things could return to “normal”.  After nearly 35 years, PrEP was developed to help insulate many from the virus. While it’s not the same as a vaccine (PrEP is a pill that must be taken daily instead of a shot that’s given once every 6 months), it does provide a degree of protection that was only dreamed of in the 1980’s.  In the early days of COVID, we talked a lot about the belief that a vaccine would defeat the virus and let us return to normal.  In just a few months, not just one but 3 vaccines were developed to insulate many from the virus.  In both cases, however, the promised “return to normal” did not immediately follow the development of vaccines.

In the early days of HIV/AIDS, those who contracted the virus felt a great deal of shame and judgment.  They were often explicitly told they deserved what they got since they hadn’t taken precautions.  In the early days of COVID, those who contracted the virus felt a great deal of shame and judgment as many told them they too got what they deserved.

In the early days of HIV/AIDS, many in the gay community felt it was inevitable that they would get the virus.  Consequently, they decided not to use protections.  In the early days of COVID, there was much talk about “herd immunity” – and some thought it would be a natural part of the process of defeating COVID.  As a result, many of these folks decided not to use protections.

In the early days of HIV/AIDS, religious extremists were HUGE obstacles to overcome in the efforts to stop (or at least slow) HIV/AIDS.  They refused attempts to fund prevention efforts (be they educational efforts that talked about anything other than abstinence or prevention methods like condoms).  In the early days of COVID, religious extremists again were HUGE obstacles to overcome in the efforts to stop (or at least slow) COVID.  They screamed about their First Amendment Right to gather (even when such gatherings were killing members of their congregations) and they often flaunted their beliefs that vaccines and masks don’t work (despite scientific evidence to the contrary).

I could go on an on about the parallels between the early days of HIV/AIDS and the early days of COVID – but I think you get the point.

So why am I talking about this?

Well, when the latest surge of COVID began to unfold this December here in LA, I hit a sort of wall in my efforts to be the sort of loving, empathetic person I normally am when dealing with those in need.  I began to be extremely angry and frustrated with folks for not GETTING the seriousness of the virus with which we are dealing.

So many I dealt with held the belief that because they had gotten vaccinated and used masks that things were supposed to return to normal.  In fact, there was a sense that because they had done all the right things, they were entitled for things to go back to the way they were.  They could travel just as much as they had before COVID, and they could attend social gatherings at the holidays (especially at the holidays) just as they had done before.  Many would say things like, “After nearly two years of this COVID stuff, I’m tired.  I just want things to be the way they used to be!”

On one level, I can understand their feelings.  That’s because for those of us who are gay or bisexual men over 50, we thought the same thing – back in 1982.  When HIV/AIDS sprung on the scene publicly in 1980, we thought it too would be a short-lived experience.  When the treatment of AZT was developed, some of us felt entitled to return to life as we had known it.

And yet – 42 years later, here we are.  Our worlds have been changed: forever.  We have had to rethink our approach about nearly everything – from sex, to relationships, to what a healthy lifestyle looks like … you name it, and 42 years later we are still negotiating the effects of the virus.  HIV changed our worlds forever.

I say that because every day I wake up and deal with folks who are angry and frustrated that the world has changed, I tell myself, “Craig, remember that the vast majority of these folks are not a part of the LGBTQIA+ community.  Even those who are allies don’t know what it’s like to have their world turned upside down overnight.  They haven’t had to live with the consequences of a virus for 42 years.  This is brand new to them.”

When I remember that, I’m much more likely to be patient.  But I think with this latest surge, I’ve come to the realization that being my better self doesn’t just involve keeping my mouth shut and letting them rage.  Being my better self includes saying things like, “You know other communities have dealt with similar challenges before.  If you want help in processing these things, it might be helpful to seek out someone who has been there before.  Someone who can share insights into how to manage some of the things that seem unmanageable for you today.”

I am grateful for this opportunity to share what has been building inside me for the past 21 months.  And on my good days, I’ll be happy to share my experience so that we can overcome expressions of entitlement – and begin adapting permanently to this new (post-virus) world in which we now live.

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