Tuesday, August 25, 2009

First Day of School Boost

I found today's readings from the Liturgy of the Hours to be very appropriate given that today is the first day of school in Carroll County. Let's begin with a reading from Tobit:

Blessed be God who lives for ever,
whose kingdom is eternal:
for he both punishes and takes pity,
he leads down to the underworld,
and rescues from perdition;
no one can escape him.
Give thanks to him before all nations, children of Israel:
he scattered you among them,
and there he has made known his greatness.
Give glory to him before all who live:
he is our Lord, our father,
and our God for ever.
He will punish you for your transgressions;
but he will take pity on all your sufferings,
and gather you together from all the nations
among whom he scattered you.
If you turn back to him
with all your heart and soul
– if you keep faithful to him –
he will turn back to you
and hide his face no longer.
So now look at what he has done with you,
and praise him with all your might.
Bless the Lord of justice,
and glorify the eternal King.
In the land of my captivity I trust in him;
I show his power and majesty to the sinful people.
Turn back, sinners,
and be upright in his presence
– perhaps he will forgive you and show you his favour.
I will rejoice in the Lord with all my soul,
my soul will rejoice as long as it lives.
Bless the Lord, all his chosen ones:
all people, praise his greatness.
Fill your days with joy
and proclaim his glory.

Antiphon: Exalt the King of Eternity in everything you do.

The lesson here (at least for me): Wherever we go, we are in exile, in a sense, even when we go to school. Yet this reading reminds us that even though the Church is scattered in the world and in our communities, God "has shown us his greatness even there." So "in the land of our captivity," wherever that may be, let us rejoice in the Lord and proclaim him - at work, in the classroom, at home, everywhere.

And finally, the reading for today:

You must wake up now: the night is almost over, it will be daylight soon. Let us give up all the things we prefer to do under cover of the dark; let us arm ourselves and appear in the light. Let us live decently as people do in the daytime. - Romans 13

Blessings to every student, teacher, and parent as we begin another year of school.

The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. Amen.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Both Sides of Your Mouth

Well, the ELCA did it, voting in a fairly close vote to recognize the ordained ministry of non-celibate homosexuals. This was not terribly surprising - mainline Protestantism marches on. What has been surprising has been the reaction and discourse following the vote. Of course there were those who were very excited, and those who were very hurt, and time will tell what the fallout will be (something I've written about prior). But the only thing I've seen written from any Lutheran has been "unity." Bishop Mark Hanson, the presiding bishop of the ELCA, had this to say, "We meet one another finally, not in our agreements or our disagreements, but at the foot of the cross - where God is faithful, where Christ is present with us, and where, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are one in Christ." Furthermore, if you read Facebook posts and blogs and all that, everyone is frantically and earnestly praying for unity.

I find this a strange reaction to this course-altering decision. If unity is really the primary concern here, why should a vote have been taken at all? The prior policy was fully open to homosexuals, allowing them to serve in ordained capacity if celibate. It recognized the value of homosexuals and their gifts. This new policy is really no more "open" than the previous one, a policy that was generally accepted and practiced for many years in the ELCA. In other words, it maintained a loving stance towards gays while embracing unity inside and outside the denomination. And the ELCA was no more unified on this issue than yesterday morning, prior to the vote. While there certainly was underlying disagreement as to whether this was the fullest policy or not, the ELCA was able to peacefully exist. This vote forces the disagreement to the surface, and the results insure that disunity will happen. So if the concern really was for unity, the more appropriate step would been to have held off on this altogether.

Obviously, I'm a bit skeptical that unity is really what they're after.

The seeds for all this were sown in the Human Sexuality statement. In that statement, Lutherans codified disunity. It acknowledged that there are differing theological positions, that those positions are "conscience-bound," and that they are to be respected. It affirmed that all have positions that are honest and well-meaning. Interestingly enough, the Human Sexuality statement is a document of disunity that produced a certain unity, reflected in a super-majority vote.

The problem, you see, is that this most recent vote reversed course and blessed a particular "coscience-bound" position. The ELCA may have affirmed all believers, but this policy affirms one position more than another. Those who are "conscience-bound" that homosexuality is a sin have been affirmed in their views via the Human Sexuality statement, only to be told in this vote that regardless of how passionately they believe, the Church is moving away from them. This vote is a vote of unity that produced disunity, reflected in a close, simple majority vote.

The question then becomes, "Which unity are is the denomination after?" Is it after the Human Sexuality unity, which agreed to disagree? It couldn't be that, because the ELCA's actions in the homosexual vote said otherwise. That only leaves one option - the call for unity is the call to unify behind this homosexual affirmation. In other words, I fear it is really a passive evangelization. It sure seems like the strategy at this point is that with the soothing words of "unity, "respect," even "Christ" (and who would be against these things?), eventually the emotions will wear off and most everyone will slowly come to accept the ELCA's new theology by attrition. If this is the case, it is the worst kind of pandering. Its dishonest. And it's a slap in the face to those who are genuinely seeking God's will and who vehemently disagree with the actions of the ELCA, the ones they patted on the back two days ago.

Of course, it won't work. With such a seismic shift in understanding, it is impossible to gather "at the foot of the cross" and sing "Kum Ba Yah." Its not just that the church adopted a different way of doing things; the very substance of the church has changed. Both sides have fundamentally different views of the nature of God, the person and work of Christ, and the mission of the Church. This is about the Gospel - and both sides cannot proclaim a meaningful Gospel together given their views. Those conscience-bound individuals now must ask themselves, "Can we stay here? Can we remain in a denomination that moved away from us, and has perpetuated the insult by telling us two different things, one that is trying to sway our beliefs not with reason and discourse, but with passivity?" And the answer, as I've predicted, will be "no" for many individuals and congregations.

I hope I'm wrong. I hope that the ELCA really does hope to find unity in the midst of this trying time. And of course, I only assume the best motives for the ELCA and her leadership. But it seems highly unlikely given her actions over the last couple of days. I fear that her well-meaning words are little more than self-deception. With the actions of this week, real unity is impossible. One only hopes that the ELCA takes seriously the pain and hurt of those affected by this week's decisions, and lives up to the standards she is so fervently trying to attain.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Big Changes for Lutherans

If my ELCA colleagues are to be believed, today (or this weekend) is the day that the ELCA will decide on whether to allow homosexual individuals in non-celibate relationships to serve as rostered clergy in the denomination. Regardless of where you are on the issue, today's decision will set a course for the denomination that will not quickly, if ever, be reversed. We in the United Church of Christ has a little experience in this area, having elected to recognize same-sex marriages in the 2005 marriage equality resolution.
I do not wish to engage one side or the other, only what this is going to do to the denomination as a whole. To this end, I read an article in the June 2009 issue of The Lutheran by Paul Schreck, who has served in the ecumenical and interreligions office of the ELCA. With this background, he is sensitive to the ecumenical ramifications of this decision. He correctly identifies that "Some steps in recent decades have restored a high degree of trust and affection between Christians of various traditions." As a UCC minister, I am jealous of the meaningful ecumenical relationships that the ELCA has been able to forge. They continue to be a moderate ecumenical voice, one that needs to be heard with greater clarity.
But these relationships come with a price. When these relationships have the strength that they do, significant, course-altering decisions affect those relationships. Schreck writes, "Astonishingly absent from the discussion [concerning same-sex marriage] is the point that the ELCA doesn't make this decision in a vacuum. We live in interdependent relationships with Lutherans and Christians around the world. Assembly decisions affect those."
Far too often denominations think in a vacuum. The UCC's roots are in this kind of robust ecumenism; who among us would deny Christ's words and our motto, "That they may all be one"? The UCC, more than any other denomination, has been a model of visible Church unity, bringing many Christian bodies under one roof. For a young denomination, their influence was significant and promising for the future.
But it all went awry with the same-sex marriage debates. Rather than think about their relationships with other Christians, a select few made a denomination-altering decision in a vacuum. What has this done to ecumenical dialog? To be honest, few people really take the UCC seriously now, and our robust ecumenical dialog (not just communion agreements) are really only with the far-left Episcopal Church (who is in the process of destroying their own communion). The perception of the UCC, right or wrong, is simply "the church that accepts gays." While you may or may not think that's a good thing, its a tragedy that that's the only thing.
Schreck continues, "There may be appropriate times to break communion with other Christians. But we must be fully aware we are doing it. Dividing the church comes at a price. We must never pretend its not painful." The pain will be significant, and it will last for many decades. Not only will healthy dialog with Catholics, Orthodox, etc. be irreparably damaged, but they can expect a significant exodus from their own denomination. Since the 2005 decision, the UCC has lost over 250 churches, with the number still growing. Is the ELCA prepared for that? On a pragmatic level, can the ELCA survive that kind of exodus in these economic times? And are they prepared to lose the significant ground they've gained in their ecumenical witness? Perhaps they are. Perhaps they've counted the cost. And if they feel that this is indeed following Christ, then it is worth it. But has the Church really advanced if it must make one stand at the cost of another?

At the end of the day it is possible that, from God's perspective, something good will be gained from an affirmation of these sexual issues. But it is certain that something will be lost. From where I'm sitting, that's simply not a risk I'm willing to take. I pray for the ELCA, and ask that the Lord's will be done. Hopefully it is a decision they can live with.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Chastity? Yes. Marriage? No.

I promise to try to be better about posting on this thing.

I've had marriage on the mind lately, as I'm preparing to wed four couples (and possibly a fifth) next year. With that in mind, I stumbled across an article in Christianity Today about modern trends in the church concerning chastity and marriage. The author, Mark Regnerus, a professor at UT-Austin, says that the American evangelical church has done a very good job of holding to a biblical sexual ethic. However, it has succumbed to a wordly understanding of marriage - one that fulfills self, rather than points to God - and as such, we are watching our ideas of chastity and marriage battle one another rather than complement each other. This constitutes a crisis for the average American Christian family, and is a challenge to the Church to consider what she teaches about marriage, and how she practices it in her communities. Regnerus writes:

"Most young Americans no longer think of marriage as a formative institution, but rather as the institution they enter once they think they are fully formed. Increasing numbers of young evangelicals think likewise, and, by integrating these ideas with the timeless imperative to abstain from sex before marriage, we've created a new optimal life formula for our children: Marriage is glorious, and a big deal. But it must wait. And with it, sex. Which is seldom as patient."

Its a long article, but well worth the read.