Making the Connection Between Faith & Issues

The other day I was scrolling through a social media site when I saw a posting from a friend with whom I grew up. My friend wasn’t particularly religious during my friend’s childhood. In the last 25 years or so, my friend has become increasingly religious.

What caught my eye was the nature of my friend’s post. The post expressed concern about the redistribution of wealth: taking money away from good, hard-working folks; and giving it to those less deserving. (Cue the ominous music and cut the lights).

Here’s what struck me about the post.

So many folks who go to great lengths to talk about their faith VERY publicly as Christians, spend almost all of their time and energy talking about two issues – and two issues alone: abortion and homosexuality. More specifically, they tend to talk publicly about a specific position on each of those two issues (i.e. a “good” Christian vehemently opposes a women’s right to choose and the extension of human rights protections for LGBTQI people). That’s about all they talk about.

It would seem, however, that our Christian faith calls us to engage a host of other issues. I wondered, for instance, if my friend who was so morally outraged by the notion of redistributing wealth from the “haves” to the “have nots” had read Acts 2:45 that, in describing one of the earliest Christian communities, said, “They sold property and possession to give to anyone who had need” (NIV). I could only imagine how my friend would react if my friend’s pastor preached THAT text!

All of this got me to thinking about the many, many, many other issues that those who are so quick to pronounce their faith publicly are utterly silent about: things like immigration policy, environmental policy, public health policy relating to gun-violence, policies regarding affordable housing and health care …. The list of issues is nearly endless.

This leads me to ask you – my readers – two questions.

Why do you think some are so incredibly selective about the issues to which they apply their faith? And more importantly, what could we do to encourage people of faith to talk about other issues and how their faith informs their positions on those matters?

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Finding Our Way to the Good

In my downtime this Spring, I’ve started watching a new series called NOS4RA2. The series – broadcast on AMC – is based upon a story told by Joe Hill. Joe Hill is the pen name used by the son of author Stephen King. The name of the series is based upon a 1922 film by the name of Nosferatu: a silent movie that told one of the earliest vampire stories on film.

As I’ve watched the series unfold, there is a theological element of the story that fascinates me. One of the series’ primary characters – Charlie Manx – is a creature that draws life energy by preying upon children.

“What’s theological about that?” you ask.

What fascinates me most is how Charlie Manx justifies his actions to others. In recruiting a helper in the series’ second episode, for instance, he convinces his recruit that he is merely reaching out to children who had nightmarish home lives due to neglect or abuse. In other words, he convinces the recruit that he is really doing good, when he is in fact doing something heinous.

That element of the story is a sobering reminder of how dangerous it can be to put our ultimate trust – or faith – in a person. For it is so easy to get caught up in the righteousness of our cause, that we begin to lose sight of the bigger picture.

One of the most fascinating things I learned in seminary was the story of Karl Barth. Barth is considered one of the most famous theologians of the 20th Century. He is the father of a movement known as neo-conservatism.

The most interesting piece of Barth’s story for me is that he actually started out as a liberal in Germany in the days before the rise of the Third Reich. As the movement began to gain ground in the tumultuous years following the First World War, some liberals in Germany tacitly supported the movement. Other liberals simply failed to oppose it. In the process, they helped open themselves – and their country – to the rise of the Nazis. That’s why Karl Barth made a shift in his thinking and grew to place his ultimate faith in God, not humanity.

I’ve thought a lot about Barth’s story over the years.

Every 4 years, when we ramp up to elect a President, I find it intriguing to see the language that is used to put forth candidates. If you weren’t paying attention, one might conclude we are in the process of electing a Savior, or a Messiah – not a President: a figure who can fix everything for us.

I suppose that’s why some get so furious when their preferred candidate takes a position on an issue with which they disagree. It’s a painful reminder the individual isn’t “perfect”. And rather than revisit their unrealistic expectations, it’s easier to violently lash out at the candidate.

I’ve long ago abandoned the belief that our greatest hope lies in trusting the absolute goodness of a single person, or of humanity itself. While we human beings certainly ARE capable of tremendous acts of goodness, if we are rigorously honest with ourselves, we must admit we human beings are also capable of tremendous acts of harm. That includes even the very best of us.  Yours truly would be at the front of that line.

So as we move forward and deal with the challenging issues of our day, my fervent hope and prayer is that we will keep a sense of the Big Picture that prevents us from falling for those who would make grandiose promises about solving all our problems. For if we lose our sense of perspective, we might fall for “solutions” that are nearly as bad as the problems they seek to fix.

Only if we keep our eyes – and our spirits – focused on the Source of good, can we move in directions that truly represent the best part of ourselves as human beings.

So how about you? What guides you in ways that keep the Bigger Picture in mind – and prevents you from falling for troublesome solutions that feel good in the moment?

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One Faith-Based Perspective on Choice

I’ve been quiet for a while due to the demands of my vocational and personal lives. I thought I would take a moment and re-emerge.
So what have I been thinking about?
Many things: one of which is the recent surge in the attempt to ban all forms of safe and legal abortions. I have been a life-time supporter of women’s right to affordable and accessible comprehensive health care. That includes access to abortion services.
Some might be surprised to hear a pastor say that. If you listen to many in the media, you would think all Christians are opposed to abortion rights. Let me say this: they are not.
So how does a faithful Christian get to such a position?
Let me share a few thoughts and then invite you into the conversation.
First, the language we use in discussing the issue is incredibly important. I do not know of anyone in my inner circle who is pro-abortion. I know many, however, who are pro-choice.
What’s the difference between the two?
In my mind, a pro-abortion individual is someone who encourages women to get abortions since abortion represents the preferred option. Pro-choice means something very different. While a pro-choice individual might believe very strongly in the sanctity of life – and that she could never make such a decision herself, the pro-choice individual respects a woman and her loved ones’ right to choose the option that best fits their circumstance.
Second, I believe we begin the whole conversation about reproductive rights much later than we should. We wouldn’t have to talk as much about abortion, for instance, if we were willing to provide our youth with comprehensive information about sex and sexuality and give them age-appropriate access to various forms of contraception.
One of the greatest ironies in this matter is that those who are most opposed to abortion are often the same ones who are most opposed to comprehensive sex/sexuality education and access to contraception. As a result, they find themselves desperately trying to stop a problem they helped create!
Third, folks don’t often step back and think about the complexities of what Scripture has to say about the matter. I’ve heard many biblical literalists use passages from places like Jeremiah 1:5 (“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”) or Psalm 139:13 (“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb”) to make their case. They act as if that’s all Scripture says on the matter.
Such people forget another important aspect of Scripture: the part that talks about the punishment for adultery. It was common for folks in what many today call Old Testament times to stone those who committed adultery.
Now let’s stop and think for a moment. If life begins at conception (as pro-lifers frequently argue), and a child was conceived in the act of adultery – then the stoning sanctioned in Scripture was in effect terminating a pregnancy.
I say this simply to remind folks that the matter of “what the Bible says” in regard to terminating a pregnancy is far more complicated than some would have us believe.
Fourth, I believe efforts to outlaw abortions under all circumstance are attempts to ignore the undeniable complexities of life. While there are some who would have us believe there are only two crayons by which our lives are colored (black and white), the reality is that my Christian faith tells me there are many more colors involved.
Jesus knew that. That’s why his earthly ministry was FULL of examples when he reached inside his box of crayons and pulled out a wide range of colors. Let me give you just a few examples.
The people of Jesus’ day told him that it was wrong to heal on the sabbath. What did Jesus do? He healed on the sabbath. The people of Jesus’ day told him it was always wrong to extend effort to secure a meal on the sabbath. What did Jesus do? When the Pharisees attacked Jesus’ disciples for grabbing wheat on the sabbath to nourish their bodies, Jesus took the side of his disciples. The people of Jesus’ day told him it was wrong to talk to interact randomly with women and people of other ethnic traditions. What did Jesus do? He engaged the Samaritan woman at the well and the Syrophoenician woman and treated them as people worthy of his time and attention. Time after time, Jesus used the context of situations to push beyond accepted norms of his day.
The new stream of bills attempting to eradicate access to safe and legal abortions are no longer considering context at all. They are outlawing abortions in all circumstance: even those that are the result of rape and incest. And the saddest part is that many of the proponents of those bills are using Jesus’ name to justify their acts.
I hope that in these difficult times people of faith will summon the courage to speak their truth. For only when we provide a faith-based witness will people realize that Christians are NOT of one voice on this matter. And as we move forward, I hope we will do so with love and respect for all persons – especially those women and their loved ones who wrestle with some of the most challenging decisions of their lives.
So how about you? What do these matters raise for you?

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The Path of Love …

As my regular readers know, I have a HUUUUUUUUUUUGE passion for fostering relationships and communication between those with whom we disagree.  One of my readers sent me a link to an article that a family member shared with her.  The article is titled “Why I Do Not Hate Donald Trump”.  It was written by someone who – according to this world’s standards – would have ample reason to do that.  Here’s a link to the article: “Why I Do Not Hate Donald Trump”.  I hope you’ll take time to read it.

Here’s a few things that moved me about the article.

First, the message was put forward by someone you would NOT expect to write this article (i.e. someone easily identifiable on the Left or someone who works in a field you would expect such an article to come from).  By it’s very nature, the article challenges many of the assumptions about who would advance such a position – and whether or not such a position is viable “in the real world”.

Second, the article contains elements that show powerful honesty and profound vulnerability.  When the author talked about his long-time resistance to reading Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” – and his eventual willingness to read it – it reminded me how often I tend to read/absorb only material I expect to agree with.  Opening oneself to read/listen to the positions of those we perceive of as our opponents takes a lot of strength and moral courage.  For many of us, it’s a life-long process to develop the ability to do that.  Jim Baker modeled that willingness to grow – even in one’s later years!

And third, I think Jim Baker BEAUTIFULLY captures why the path of love is so much better than the path of hatred.  Here’s a portion of what Baker wrote.  “Loving someone with whom you disagree or whom you do not admire holds the potential for transforming that person for the better. But even if it appears to have no effect on the other person, loving transforms and frees the person who loves. It allows one to set down the exhausting weight of hatred, anger and disappointment. It is a proactive act. It means taking control of the situation. The reaction of President Trump and his supporters to love is inconsequential. By loving them—whether they accept, or reject, or mock the sentiment—the president’s opponents can move toward an agenda that they set, hopefully one that seeks to unite and serve all Americans. The Dalai Lama says that “[w]orld peace can only be based on inner peace. If we ask what destroys our inner peace, it’s not weapons and external threats, but our own inner flaws like anger. This is one of the reasons why love and compassion are important, because they strengthen us. This is a source of hope.”

So what does Jim Baker’s article raise for you?  In asking that question, I want my readers to know that my tendency NOT to respond to comments does not indicate I don’t appreciate or value your perspectives.  Rather, my goal is to simply start the conversation and then let others carry it forward.  My hope is that in this increasingly hostile and polarized world we can find our way back into relationship with one another.  Even with those whom we disagree!

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Room to Grow?

In the last 24 hours, I’ve had two seemingly unrelated experiences that raised a similar issue for me.  I’ll start by briefly talking about each of the experiences.  Then, I’ll touch on the issue they raised for me.

The first experience involved my viewing of the 2018 film Boy Erased.  For those unfamiliar with the movie, it tells the story of a young gay man named Jared Eamons whose parents sent him to a conversion therapy program.  Jerad’s father was a Baptist minister, and his mother played the role of the dutiful pastor’s wife.

A close friend of mine who has been an LGBTQ activist for over 50 years was critical of the film for being too sympathetic in its portrayal of the boy’s parents.  He made that observation weeks ago.  So as I watched the film, I was particularly attuned to its portrayal of Jerad’s parents.

The second experience occurred today when I read about how one of my favorite baseball players (George Springer) on my favorite baseball team (the Houston Astros) had directed a homophobic slur at an umpire just after the umpire called him out on strikes.  The incident occurred on April 23.  While initial reports indicated George Springer did face consequences for his tirade, no mention was given as to what the consequences were.

So what issue was raised for me in these two seemingly unrelated events?

For me, both situations forced me to think about whether or not we give people room to evolve.  In this digital age that has come to be dominated by social media, it seems many of us feel compelled to make snap judgments about who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are.  Once we make our determination, individuals typically get left in the camp to which we’ve assigned them.

“Is that a healthy approach?” I’ve wondered …

At the start of the film, we see some of the pieces of Jerad’s journey that led up to his placement in the conversion therapy program.  As those pieces unfold, Jerad’s parents aren’t portrayed as monsters.  Rather, they are portrayed as parents who are concerned about the well-being of their son (whom they love deeply) and are willing to take whatever steps are necessary in order to get their son back on track.

Ironically none of those in the film end up where they started.  Jerad’s mother moves much faster in her evolution.  Jerad’s father, much slower.  Even Jerad lands in a different place than he was at the beginning of the story.  The evolution of the characters happened only because they stayed in relationship with one another.

Jerad’s decision to stay in relationship with his folks didn’t mean he affirmed their positions.  Far from it.  He carefully set – and then maintained – his boundaries so he didn’t lose himself.  Each of the characters DID love one another enough to stay in conversation – and it was only through those painful conversations that things began to change.

I wondered if a similar dynamic might take place in coming days between George Springer, the Houston Astros, and their LGBTQ fans.

It would be easy for some to hear what George said in the heat of the moment and completely write him off as a mean-spirited, bigoted person.  (Here is a link to the inital report I read: Springer story.)

To do so would be a mistake, however.  For as his fans know, George’s journey hasn’t been easy.  George developed a stutter when he was very young and spent a good chunk of his life being targeted because of his stutter.  George has used his fame to call attention to these issues and has helped many children who are living through the challenges he faced.

This suggests – at least for me – that George has a good heart.  He just needs to enter into the experiences of those who have been marginalized for different reasons and grow to understand how hurtful words like the ones he used can be: even if the words are uttered in the heat of the moment.  In an effort to practice what I often preach, I wrote both the Houston Astros’ organization and the Houston Chronicle beat writer that covers the Astros expressing hope that the incident might lead to much needed conversations.

These divergent experiences have led me to wonder, “Is there room anymore for people to evolve in their understandings or the world; or in this digital age dominated by social media, have we forfeited that room?  Are we left to live in a world where people are labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based upon our perceptions of them at one moment in time?”

What do these things raise for you?

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Spirituality and Morality and Politics – Oh My!

A reader sent in a link to an opinion piece written by Thomas L. Friedman from the New York Times.  The article dealt with immigration.  Here’s a link to that article: immigration opinion piece.

In reflecting on matters the article raise, the reader asked the following questions: “What’s the separation and distinction among political, moral, and spiritual questions? Which are the questions that are appropriate for church involvement?”

I will share a couple of thoughts to get the conversation started, and then invite others to share their perspectives as well.

In regard to the first question – “What’s the separation and distinction among political, moral, and spiritual questions?” – the lines are more blurred than some would like to think.  I often chuckle when some say that pastors should stay completely out of politics.  I wonder if such people have ever read the words of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) who regularly talk about things like taking care of the widow, the orphan, and the alien and rail against “the haves” who mistreat “the have nots”.

I don’t have a neat line that clearly delineates the difference between “political”, “moral”, and “spiritual”.  For me, it’s more a matter of creating a flow/relationship between the concepts.  For instance, I begin with an active spiritual life that informs my understanding of God and my sense of how God calls me to live in healthy relationship with other elements of God’s created order (both human and non-human).  Those ways I’m called to live in healthy relationship form my sense of morality.  And when I move from the personal into the public arena – and try to forge ways of living together with others who might have a different sense of morality than I – the policies for which I advocate to guide our interactions drive my political understandings.

With that said, I do believe it is possible for folks to have a sense of morals and politics without a spiritual foundation.  There, of course, will be areas of overlap in morals and politics between those who have a spiritual foundation and those who do not.  There will be areas of difference as well: even between those who share the same faith tradition.  If you have any doubts about that, just ask an Evangelical and Progressive Christian what they think about abortion – or for whom they voted in the last Presidential election!

Let me give you an example of how this spirituality – morals – politics flow works for me.  As a Christian, my spirituality tells me that ALL of God’s children are equally loved and sacred.  This spiritual conviction then forms my sense of morality that calls me to extend humane care to everyone who crosses my path: legal residents of this country as well as illegal immigrants.  That sense of morality then causes me to support political policies that are humane and recognize the sacred worth of immigrants.  It causes me to question political policies that first separate and then detain family members – and policies that ignore some of the systemic issues (i.e. economic and political exploitation of other countries by the United States) that create the very hardships that drive their citizens out of their homes and into the United States.  I use the topic to show how my sense of morality and politics flow from my spiritual life.

This leads me to the second question: “Which are the questions that are appropriate for church involvement?”

My sense is that some local churches and denominations get themselves in trouble (I’ll say more about this in a minute) because they reverse the order I listed above.  They start with politics, then moralize their political positions.  Spirituality is often treated as an afterthought – or as a means to justify positions that were arrived at using other primary factors.

A moment ago, I talked about churches getting themselves in trouble.  Here’s what I meant by that.  There are government rules that restrict a local church’s involvement in partisan politics.  There are IRS rules, in particular, that limit what 501(c)(3) (charitable organizations) can do.  A 501(c)(3) is legally defined as a group “which does not participate in,  or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”  This means local churches cannot endorse – or directly work to elect – a candidate for partisan office (meaning an office where the candidates are declared to be members of the Republican, Democratic, Green or Libertarian parties – to name just a few political parties).

While this law precludes work on behalf of specific partisan candidates, it does not mean churches can’t speak to issues.  They can.  So the issue then becomes, HOW they speak to issues.  A church can, for instance, talk about their spiritual understanding of an issue like abortion or homosexuality and establish a position consistent with their beliefs.  If the church’s leaders follow that conversation up by saying, “And because Republican/Democratic candidate Jane Doe shares our opinion, we heartily endorse Jane and urge you to vote for her and get her elected!”

Some churches from both the Right and Left start by speaking to moral issues: and attack those who have the nerve to disagree with them: even suggesting that those who disagree with them “aren’t really Christians”.  I don’t think this is the right place to start.  I prefer to start addressing issues at the spiritual level.  Once we establish not only our theological views – and our core values, or morals, that grow out of these beliefs – we can then pay attention to HOW we go about sharing those values with the world.  For instance, do we share those beliefs from a place of anger or judgment; or do we do so from a place of love and openness to transformation (not only of the others but even for ourselves).  If we come from a healthy place spirituality, then I believe the way we bring forth our sense of morality and politics will reflect that.

So that’s how I approach the great questions raised by my reader.  There IS an intimate relationship between spirituality, morals, and politics (please note my preferred flow of those things) and that people of faith and their worshipping communities can play a role in addressing issues of morality and politics – in ways that transcend the partisan divides.

My greatest sadness these days in regard to the current political climate of this country is that many of those from my own faith tradition (Christianity) have made things much WORSE in terms of the hatred and division that is dominating our country these days by promulgating a narrow sense of morality and a freakishly partisan agenda.  Regardless of where we land on political issues, we should always show Christ’s vision and values through the way we treat others.  For, as we increasingly struggle to live and love those who are different than ourselves, I often think of Point 4 of the Center for Progressive Christianity’s 8 Points of Progressive Christianity: “… the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe.

What are your thoughts on these matters?

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Global Climate Change – and Our Response

On this Earth Day, I know many wonder how some can still deny human activity plays a role in global climate change.

There’s a part of me that understands why some deny it.  It is a seductive notion that you can do ANYTHING you want without ANY consequences.  On this day after Easter when I’m staring at the ungodly amount of chocolate I’ve acquired over the past few days, it’s tempting to believe that I can eat whatever I want without gaining an ounce.  And as I think about taking my dog out for his third walk today in a few minutes, it’s tempting to believe that I could skip some of our four walks a day without any health consequences to either my dog or myself.

Of course, I – like most people – realize that there are in fact consequences for our behaviors.  If I eat an ungodly amount of chocolate, I WILL gain weight.  If I start skipping my daily walks with my dog, both his health and mine WILL suffer.

The same thing goes for the condition of the planet.  If we human beings continue to selfishly believe there are no consequences for our actions and continue with the status quo, the planet WILL suffer.

Of course, for us people of faith – the matter of engaging in eco-friendly behaviors isn’t simply a matter of survival.  It’s about appreciating the gift of creation with which we have been blessed – and showing our appreciation for God’s gift by being the very best stewards possible of those natural resources.

On this 2019 Earth Day, I hope and pray that each of us will take the steps necessary in our individual lives to show our gratitude for the natural world.  I hope we will also continue to advocate to our elected officials for responsible ecological policies at the local, state, and federal levels.

Together, we can not only preserve the planet: we can be the kind of stewards God has called us to be.

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