Archives For DOMA

cake_topper_c-445x287This past weekend I presided at the wedding of a friend and former youth in my church, Taylor Mertins.

While I officiated the worship service, I signed no license from clerk of court nor did I announce during the liturgy ‘by the power vested in me by the State of Virginia.’

That’s because, tired of marriage being a political football, I gave up credentials to serve as an agent of the state when it comes to weddings.

Since the blog readership is about 10x what it was when I posted this over a year ago, I thought I would pull it out from the vault…

 

Two exchanges with congregants have been running through my mind the past week. This may agitate some.

Take a deep breath, give me the benefit of the doubt, and trust that this is all the fruit of a good faith wrestling of theology and conscience.

Exchange #1

There’s an engaged couple in my congregation who recently asked me to perform their wedding ceremony this summer.

Nothing unusual about that, right?

I do weddings all the time. It comes with the territory.

Here’s the thing.

They’re already getting married in May.

In the Caribbean.

When they stand in front of me- in July- to exchange vows of Christ-like, sacrificial love they will already be married.

As far as the State goes, they don’t need to do anything else. Their- secular- wedding in the Caribbean is good enough for the State of Virginia.

It’s just not good enough for them.

For this couple, Christian marriage isn’t the same thing as marriage as its defined by the State.

And how could it be, really?

Christian marriage is marriage in the name and likeness of Jesus, a crucified and risen Jewish Messiah.

By definition that sort of marriage will (or, at least, should) always be distinct and peculiar from the wider pagan culture.

This couple is intentional enough about their faith to sacrifice the time, effort and expense to do, essentially, a do-over in our sanctuary with me presiding in the name of Christ.

I do weddings all the time. And I can tell you that’s unusual as hell.

My takeaway from this exchange?

I wondered:

How is it that Christians spend so much time and vitriol in the public square advocating for the preservation of “biblical/Christian marriage” when even this couple in my congregation knows, or at least intuits, that the present legal understanding of marriage bears no resemblance to what Catholics call a ‘sacrament’ and what Protestants call a ‘covenant?’

Exchange #2

Last week a friend, who shall remain anonymous, lamented to me how their child soon will be getting married to their partner in a locality in which same-sex unions are legal.

This friend lamented not their child’s wedding.

This friend lamented that their child, a lifelong United Methodist and who’s been with their partner nearly as long as I’ve been married, cannot have a Christian ceremony.

(I’m not going to get into the arguments pro/con about homosexuality. You can do a search on my blog and read everything I’ve ever written on the question.)

My takeaway from this exchange?

I wondered:

What if it was the other way round?

What if my Church didn’t have this position on marriage? What if the United Methodist Church permitted committed, faithful homosexuals to marry?

If it did, then I still wouldn’t be able to perform those weddings because the State, the State of Virginia, would still consider them illegal.

And that, we would say, is crazy.

My Conclusion from Exchanges 1 and 2?

Why in the world is the Church allowing, and in very many cases encouraging, marriage to be kicked around like a political football?

I don’t want conservatives telling me marriage is between a man and a woman when Abraham had more than one wife and Jesus didn’t have any.

And, I don’t want liberals tellings me that marriage is a right. We can debate whether it is in the legal sense, but for Christians, marriage is much more than that. It’s a vocation.

No matter how one feels about marriage and homosexuality, surely Christians should find it odd that we would allow the secular State or the pagan culture to tell us what constitutes the definition of marriage.

Just as we can disagree about homosexuality, Christians can disagree over the particulars of the Eucharist.

But would Christians EVER turn to the State to define the meaning of the Eucharist for us?

Would we EVER think it normal for a government document to be signed by the pastor every time the sacrament of communion or baptism is performed?

Would we EVER waste time lobbying the government to define the Eucharist in terms of consubstantiation or immersion as the proper mode of baptism?

Of course not.

But then every time a couple gets married, I have to sign a marriage license.

And every time I do I’m acting not as a vicar of Christ but as an agent of the State.

And every time, signing that document makes me feel weird because in both the Old Testament and the New prophetic critique of the government is part of the priestly role {See: Jesus, innocent victim of the government].

eucharistwallpaper1024So these two exchanges have prompted me this week to do something I’ve toyed with for some time now:

Today I called the Clerk of Court to surrender my wedding credentials.

This means I’ll no longer able to perform ‘legal’ weddings. In other words, couples whom I marry will be married in the eyes of God just not the State. Couples will have to get a justice of the peace to do that for them.

My priestly role is now untethered from Red/Blue social politics.

It’s another hoop for couples to jump through, admittedly, but then it won’t take them any more time than they’ll spend taste-testing their wedding cake. 

And anyone who does jump through the hoop will be that much more likely to treat their wedding like that couple who’ll say ‘I do’ in July for second time. 

This time in Christ’s name.  

 

 

 

 

 

WV-logo_rgbIn the Church world, no matter what side you are on at some point this week you found this to be outrageous, embarrassing news.

First, World Vision, a global Christian non-profit announced it would no longer discriminate against married gay persons per the policies of their employees respective Christian denominations. Not to mention, World Vision is headquartered in a state (Washington) where gay marriage is legal, making WV a potential target for discrimination lawsuits and thereby jeopardizing the millions of children and impoverished people in the developing world aided by WV.

Not that that actually matters because droves of conservative Christians (or just plain old conservatives) responded by pulling their sponsorship of children in protest. Nice!

It’s not like Jesus ever said anything negative about those put ideological purity above compassion towards those in need.

Wait…well, crap, I guess Jesus did teach about it (See: Samaritan, Parable of)

But that’s why the epistles of Paul more important!

In response to the backlash- and understandably not wanting to throw the world’s vulnerable children under the partisan bus- World Vision reversed its decision.

That I’m sure their decision was carefully planned and discerned and backlash anticipated yet STILL the vitriol was such that they had to do an about face in 24 hours says a lot about the bullying in the American Church on this single, freaking issue.

I get that people disagree about issues of marriage, sexuality etc. I really do.

But let’s be honest.

Just the other night, I was watching the Ken Burns’ Civil War film with my boys.

Haven’t seen it since I was in Middle School. In the first episode, Sam Waterston quotes a Protestant pastor (Methodist, I think) in the South  (Virginia, I think) speaking about how due to the context of slavery the Church amended [willingly] its MARRIAGE LITURGY AND VOWS.

‘…until Death- or Distance- do us part…’

The idea that marriage has been a bible-based, a-cultural institution until only recently is patently, objectively false.

The suggestion that 2 gay Christians who are faithful to each other poses the gravest threat to said institution is repugnant when considered against other historical exigencies in which the Church as proved nimble in what constitutes “biblical marriage.”

Realizing full well that faithful Christians disagree about the issue of marriage and sexuality (as my denomination puts it), the World Vision clusterf#$% prompts me merely to point out this black/white, no wiggle room Bible Math:

# of Times the Poor Mentioned in Scripture: 400+

# of Times Homosexuality Mentioned in Scripture: 2*

*4 if I’m in a generous mood

 

cake_topper_c-445x287-300x193This past weekend I said ‘dearly beloved…’ to a small gathering in our hot, stuffy church library (ac wasn’t working/sanctuary was closed for roof repairs) as a couple who’d already been married in the Caribbean took the vows again before God and God’s gathered church.

They bothered with the trouble of planning yet another wedding service and they suffered the weather and the unromantic decor because it was that important for them to have an overtly Christian ceremony celebrated in their church by their pastor.

Do I have to connect the dots? …… They are NOT the bride and groom norm.

Among pastors, I’m hardly alone or prophetic in arguing that the partisan debate over DOMA and homosexuality obscures a far more troubling and seismic shift happening in plain sight, in black and white font, on the pages of the NY Times wedding announcements.

Namely, the waxing of secular wedding rites and the waning of liturgical ceremonies officiated by a genuine clergy person who wasn’t credentialed via the internet.

Many Christian conservatives bemoan with biblical fervor how quickly the culture has shifted on homosexuality.

Far fewer seem to have even noticed that, just as quickly, the culture has shifted to the point where a non-religious friend getting vested online by American Marriage Ministries to perform your wedding ‘event’ is no longer considered a joke.

While Christians battle over sexuality, secularism- which doesn’t dissipate with age and libido- takes ever deeper root.

Fleming Rutledge, my paramour in another life I’m certain, observes:

Setting aside the discussion about same-sex weddings, let’s take a look at what’s happening on the male-female front. The New York Times for Sunday, June 2, 2013, has notices of 34 such weddings. The overwhelming majority of them were held at “event spaces.” The Roman Catholics are holding their own, as usual; three of the weddings were held at a Roman Catholic church with a priest presiding. Several rabbis presided at weddings held in various secular “venues.” There was only one wedding held at a church with the church pastor presiding, and that one–wouldn’t you know–was held in the South.

Most remarkable, though, is the long list of non-denominational officiants. They include numerous “Universal Life” ministers and “American Marriage Ministries” ministers (“a friend of the couple became a Universal Life minister for the event”), 2 ministers of the Church of Human Spiritualism, and a minister of the World Christianship Ministries (Google that one to get a shock).

Granted, the list of couples chosen for the New York Times is hardly representative of the rest of the country–or even the city itself. But given all the beautiful New York City churches that used to be the scenes for weddings, and all the hard-working clergy of this city, one would think that we could do a better job.

Such is the power of the cultural trends.

How did these Universal Life “ministers” achieve this status all of a sudden?

How can anyone take that seriously? Wouldn’t you think that would be a joke?

During the 14 years that I was on the clergy staff at Grace Church in New York (1981-1995), I started counting the number of married couples who had met at the church. I stopped counting at 50. Most of them were married at Grace Church and all of them at a church somewhere. All were married by a member of the clergy (need I say legitimate clergy). Most–though, granted, not all–are still married. Am I bragging? not really, since the circumstances at Grace in those years were truly remarkable and God-given. However, I think a case can be made for the help given to couples by a strong grounding in the church.

This business of do-it-yourself weddings speaks volumes about the unmoored, self-created ethos of the institution of marriage today. This is a very serious matter for families and for our society as a whole. May God bless all those who are working hard to strengthen marriages in the context of religious faith and Christian community.

largeThat liberal Christians do not pay appropriate deference to scripture is certainly a common assumption among Christians on the other end of the spectrum, and, as Derek Penwell points out, that assumption is something of a hermeneutical dodge.

A friend brought this article to my attention:

I’d had a long day talking to young ministers and seminarians. So, when I lowered myself into the jacuzzi at the hotel, I wasn’t looking for conversation. I just wanted to let the heat work its magic.

Apparently, though, the gray haired man in an over-sized NASCAR t-shirt misread my closed eyes and generally round-shouldered posture as a signal that I was in the market for a little friendly fellow traveler chinwag.

“Where you from?” he asked.

“Louisville.”

“I love how you people from Looey-ville say it. Say it again.”

“Looh-a-vul,” I said, playing along.

“That’s it! I love that! What brings you out to California?”

“I was giving a talk to some young ministers and seminarians at Claremont.”

He gave me a knowing look. “If you’re a church guy, you don’t want to spend any more time in California than you have to. It’s Obama country out here, full of liberals. And I’ve got a pretty good idea about your politics, being a church guy and all. I suspect your political leanings are pretty much like mine: starts with an ‘R’ and not a ‘D.’

Apparently finding a response from me unnecessary, he plowed on. “Yeah, this state is a Mecca (sly wink) for lefties. You probably heard we got gay marriage here again (exaggerated eye-roll). And I know how you feel about that. Am I right?”

This time I didn’t wait for him not to wait for me: “Actually, I’m proud to be in California on this historic day when marriage for all people begins again in earnest.” And, being unable to help myself, I said, “I suspect God’s proud of California today, too.”

At that point, the discussion hit something of a lull, which wasn’t my intent, but a fact I considered serendipitous nevertheless. My conversation partner quickly excused himself, and I went back to staring at the inside of my eyelids.

As I sat there soaking in the jets of heated water, I recalled an exchange I’d had with a seminary president about this very issue earlier in the day. The seminary president made the comment that those Christians who support the full inclusion of LGBT people have done a lousy job over the past twenty years disabusing people of the mistaken notion that one can be supportive of LGBT people or one can believe the Bible — but not both at the same time.

He’s right, you know — the seminary president. My exchange with the jacuzzi conservative only served to illustrate the casual assumption that Christian support of LGBT folks is a hermeneutical dodge … “because, you know, everybody understands that the Bible says God hates gay people (Well, God doesn’t hate gay people; God hates the sin and not the sinner — just like we do. You know what we mean.).”

Unfortunately, all too well.

But here’s the thing: Liberal Christians love the Bible. No, seriously. We love the Bible. We just refuse to treat it as though it is a set of timeless golden tablets that says all that needs to be said once and for all about everything of importance. (It doesn’t say anything, for instance, about why the Chicago Cubs haven’t won a World Series in over 100 years.)

We liberals refuse to treat the Bible as a casuistical rule book for every conceivable eventuality, or as a precise blue print for every possible organizational contingency.

Liberal Christians aren’t liberal in spite of the Bible, but because of it. They don’t pursue justice for LGBT people because they haven’t read Scripture, but precisely because they have. And in the arc of the narrative of God’s interaction with humanity, liberal Christians find a radical expansiveness, an urgent desire to broaden the embrace of God’s hospitality to include those whom the religious big shots are always kicking to the sidelines.

In fact, on behalf of liberal Christians, I’m calling for a moratorium on the Liberals-hate-the-Bible meme. I’d like to suggest that the burden of proof should be on those who would read the Hebrew prophets and the Jesus of the Gospels and come away thinking that God has no problem tightening the screws on the abused and the powerless:

“Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden … and I will make sure that, until you get your life together to suit Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee, your weariness and heavy laden-ness will increase exponentially.”

Look. If Christians are ever going to establish credibility with anyone besides themselves, they’re going to have to start reading the Bible through the same eyes as the people with whom Jesus spent most of his time–those folks whom the religious power brokers are convinced don’t quite measure up.

The problem with assuming liberal Christians hate the Bible isn’t just that it fails to take liberals seriously, but that it fails to take the Bible seriously.

Cue eye-rolling.

 

largeA number of you have asked me my thoughts on the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling last week. I’m not sure if I have anything new to say on the topic. You can search for previous posts on the blog or scroll through the ones here.

Rather than rehashing previous essays, I thought I’d offer you these thoughts from Adam Hamilton, the de facto pontifex maximus of the UMC. Usually, I’m left nonplussed by the fiercely moderate tone Hamilton strikes in his writing and speaking; it’s often pastoral to the point of being vanilla.

Here in this pastoral letter, however, I think Hamilton hits just the right notes while being both clear and bold.

I’m sitting in front of my computer today finishing a chapter on the New Testament epistles for my new book on Making Sense of the Bible. The chapter is called, “Reading Someone Else’s Mail.” In it I am trying to help the reader understand the importance of reading and interpreting the 21 New Testament epistles in the light of the culture and circumstances in which they were written. The New Testament letters were written to answer questions, to give instruction and pastoral guidance, and to address concerns among first century Christians living throughout the Roman Empire.

To help readers think about what a difference time and culture make in one’s perspective and the kind of advice, guidance and instruction one might give, I invited readers to imagine a Christian leader writing a letter to Christians in America in 1950 versus the same leader writing today.

In 1950 the Cold War was going on and the Soviet Union was our enemy. In 1950, 3 out of 4 college grads were men and women were seldom found in leadership positions even in the church (women could not be ordained pastors in the Methodist Church until 1956). Separate But Equal had been the accepted norm for the races since the 1896 Supreme Court Ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson so that even in Kansas City African Americans could not swim in the public pools with white children. This norm was accepted by most white Christians. Though in 1948 the Supreme Court rendered them unenforceable, deed restrictions continued to keep Jews and other minorities from purchasing homes in many of the more desirable neighborhoods in our city. All of this in a “Christian” culture where more than 90% of the people who wrote the laws considered themselves Christians.

The world has changed a great deal in 63 years. The Soviet Union no longer exists, more than half of all college grads today are women, “Separate but Equal” is unthinkable to most Christians, and no one would dream of deed restrictions to separate people of different religion or race from a community. But many Christians could not imagine the world we live in today back in 1950.

How different our world is today from the first century Roman world. Yet often we read the New Testament as though the letters of the apostles were speaking directly to us. They do speak powerfully to our time, but there are elements of the letters that are clearly shaped by the cultural norms of the times. Slavery and the subordination of women are two of these norms reflected in the New Testament which 21st century Christians no longer believe reflect God’s heart and character even though they are recognized in the New Testament epistles.

One of the things that precipitated my decision to write this book on scriptures is the conflict over homosexuality in the church. As I’ve taught our congregation, within the Christian faith the question of homosexuality is not a question of biblical authority, but biblical interpretation. Both conservatives and liberals agree that there are places where the Bible reflects the cultural norms and needs of the times rather than the timeless will of God. Even the apostles recognized this, as we see in Acts 15 when they decided that most of the Law of Moses – the early church’s Bible – was no longer binding upon Christians. The apostles were recognizing that the needs of the children of Israel, and the expectations of God for his people were different in the first century than when Moses had led the Israelites 1,300 years earlier. The apostles continued to value the law of Moses and saw much of it as timeless, but there were sections they believed were no longer applicable.

The question conservatives, moderates and liberals in the church disagree upon is whether the handful of verses on same-sex intimacy, are like the passages on slavery, women’s subordination and those sections of the Law of Moses the apostles set aside.

This week there were three news making events that were focused on this issue. The first was a week ago when Alan Chambers, the President of Exodus International, publicly apologized for the ways that Exodus had hurt gay and lesbian people in its work. It’s board then voted unanimously to close down the ministry. Exodus International was founded 37 years ago and was the leading advocate in America of “reparative” or “conversion” therapy in which they held out the hope that same-sex attraction could be “cured.” You can read Chambers’ remarkable apology here. This created waves within large sections of the Christian community.

Then on Wednesday of this week the Supreme Court issued two decisions related to homosexuality. The first was concerning a case brought by 84-year-old Edith Windsor who was partner with Thea Spyer for 44 years. They married in 2007. When Thea died in 2009 the Federal Government did not recognize them as married because of the Defense of Marriage Act, despite the fact that the State of New York did recognize their marriage. Consequently Edith had to pay estate taxes on half of their shared property – something that married couples do not have to do when one mate dies. Edith paid $363,000 to the IRS and $275,000 to New York (who recognizes gay marriage but follows IRS tax practices).

The Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act that applied to this case and thus the Federal Government had to recognize a legal marriage because it was legally recognized in the State of New York and must return the taxes paid.

Had Edith lived in Kansas or Missouri she would have still been required to pay the estate tax as though she and Theo were not married because neither state recognizes same sex marriages from other states. The Supreme Court’s ruling has no effect on what happens in Kansas and Missouri.

The second Supreme Court decision was that private parties do not have “standing” to defend state constitutional amendments that the state itself refuses to defend. This related to Proposition 8 in California, a constitutional amendment that was passed in California with strong support from conservative and evangelical churches in 2008 that defined marriage as between a man and a woman thus overturning a state Supreme Court decision in 2008 allowing gay marriage. In essence the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday turned the case back to the lower courts, refusing to rule on its merits which had the affect of reinstituting gay marriage in California.

Because these are both limited decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court there will be more cases brought before the court in the years ahead.

There’s a major sea of change happening in our culture and world regarding our understanding of sexual orientation. Conservatives believe the church must stand its ground – its ground being an opposition to same-sex relationships. The basis for this are two Old Testament passages and three New Testament passages condemning same-sex intimacy as well as the broader model of heterosexuality found throughout the Bible.

Yet a large number of Christians are beginning to see the issue differently. This is particularly true for a younger generation of Christians.

I was recently in a meeting with ten pastors of large evangelical churches. Every one of them was wrestling with this issue in their congregation. Some were committed to “holding the line” while others were questioning, as I have been for some time, whether these passages in the scripture actually capture the heart of God toward gay and lesbian people, or if they might be more like those scripture passages that accepted slavery and the subordination of women – a reflection of historic cultural norms not necessarily the heart of God.

You can try to pretend that the issue will go away, but, as we’ve seen this week, that is highly unlikely. You can leave churches that are open to wrestling with the issue like ours in order to find churches that “hold the line.” But it seems unlikely that even those who “hold the line” will see this issue the same in the years ahead.

As a church we don’t all see eye to eye on this. Your pastors don’t all agree about this. And we’ve learned to be okay with that. We have to learn to agree to disagree on this issue as our society and the broader church are going to continue to wrestle with this issue – it is not going away and greater change is coming. As a church we’ve committed to be a place that welcomes everyone. We’ve committed to be a church where thoughtful, committed Christians on both sides will agree to disagree with respect and love.

I personally believe that twenty years from now most churches will welcome gay and lesbian families, will call gay and lesbian people to live lives of faithfulness and sacrificial love in their relationship just as they call heterosexual couples to do, and that they will see the passages on same-sex attraction as reflecting cultural norms just as the passages on slavery and on the subordination of women reflected cultural norm and not God’s heart and timeless will.