How I Came to Understand the Bible on Homosexuality

I wrote much of what follows in 2005, in some email conversations that took place when our denomination was struggling with whether to accept homosexuals in leadership roles. By writing it, I convinced myself where I stood on this issue–and stand by it even more strongly now. I’ve edited and updated it to share with you today. It’s long. In case you don’t get all the way to the end, here’s the bottom line for me: If I make a mistake, I’d rather the mistake be based on the fact that I tried my best to be as accepting and as loving as Jesus.

Some issues are best discussed in deep, heartfelt one-on-one discussions, by people who know and trust each other. So this will be a long blog post because I can’t give you my opinion without letting you know more about me and some things that I believe first.

I love the Bible.  It is my source of knowledge about God, the book that instructs my life, the place I go when I need guidance, strength, wisdom, nurture, etc. It is the authority for my life, therefore I do not read it lightly and I do not think that any part of it has more authority than any other. I continually pray and seek to understand it in depth and with high respect.

I love to teach Bible study.  An important focus of my ministry has been to teach others to understand the Bible deeply, to explore the rich depths of unconditional love and amazing grace that shines through the written Word. One of my favorite thoughts to share in Bible study is that God’s grace is more amazing than we can understand or acknowledge.

I honor and respect the historical Baptist tradition that emphasizes the freedom of each person to “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.” I respect each person’s “soul freedom” to believe in God as it seems right to them, as well as each church’s independence to determine its own governing theological understandings and principles.

My personal walk with Christ leads and guides my theological perspective. My greatest desire is to walk closer and closer with Christ, to do God’s will on earth, and to do and say things that are pleasing in God’s sight.

I have absolutely no doubt that God called me into ordained ministry. My call to pastoral ministry has been confirmed for me by the members of the three congregations I’ve served, the numerous churches and groups where I’ve spoken and taught, and many family and friends who seemed to know even before I did that this was the call for my life.

God called me into ministry later in life, as a divorced female. I now believe that that was quite intentional on God’s part. According to some traditional biblical interpretations, I would have had three biblical strikes against me that would have stopped me from answering my call.

The first strike against me would have been because I am an African American.  At one point in our country’s history I would not have been considered a complete human being, but something less than human, a slave.  At one time in our country many good, Bible-believing Christians knew with all their hearts that the Bible supported and possibly required that there be slaves who were second-class citizens.  Since that time, God has enlightened most of our society that slavery is wrong, and that the Bible shouldn’t be interpreted to support slavery.

And as a divorced person, many good, Bible believing Christians feel very strongly that I should not hold a leadership role or office in the church.  The Biblical passages that tradition has used against divorced persons must be read with an understanding of their cultural background.  Jesus refused to support the divorce that Jewish tradition allowed because the simplicity of the procedure was being used by the males to oppress the females in that society.  The way I understand those passages is that Jesus’ pronouncements on the issue were for the purpose of helping the oppressed females of that culture, and that while divorce is not to be encouraged, what is more important is to ensure that people are not oppressed.

As a female, many good, Bible following Christians still believe that God would not call me to serve as ordained clergy, and certainly not to be pastor of a church.  I might not be overstating it to say that probably most Christians still believe that, considering the Catholic take on this issue. I was raised in an A.M.E. Church, which is one of the denominations that was ordaining women when I was a child.  I joined a baptist church as an adult, but it was one that was more progressive than many other baptist churches on this issue.  It never occurred to me when I finally answered God’s call on my life that anyone would have the right to tell me that God wouldn’t do that. I’m among the many who have explored the Bible more fully on the issue of women’s leadership, and I read the many Biblical passages that are supportive of women’s leadership as being just as authoritative as those passages that have been taken out of context to deny women’s leadership.  But there are still too many who ignore the support for women’s leadership shown in the Bible because they’ve been taught that only those oppressive-sounding passages (i.e. “Women shall keep silent in the churches…”) are “what the Bible says” on this issue. (See my “writings” page for a link to more of what I’ve written about this.)

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So when I discovered how the Bible was being used to oppress women, when I read what Jesus said about divorce, and when I paid attention to how the Bible had been used to support slavery, I knew that I needed to understand the Bible better.  I learned to study the Bible deeply and not to simply accept what many otherwise good church leaders have been teaching.  I now read the Bible for understanding in a deeper and more meaningful way, which involves knowing more about the historical background and the cultural, social and literal contexts in which the writings took place, as well as paying attention to our modern day predilections as we read through our own limited social locations.

Through this kind of in-depth reading, the beauty, majesty, authority and love of God comes shining through the Bible for me, and I have grown to love it even more and more. This is one of the reasons biblical interpretation is so important to me….not just for justifying my own position, but because deep bible study helps us to understand so very much more about just who is our God. I will not give up my beloved Bible to traditionalists and fundamentalists to have the final say on what the Bible says. And because of where I came into ministry, I will always question Biblical interpretations that support discrimination and oppression.

So yes, there are Biblical passages that seem to denounce homosexuality.  But my brother John and the gay people I have met in my life force me to think about this issue more carefully, to study the Bible more deeply and to reconcile what my heart and my head tell me who God is with the teaching that people who are born homosexuals are not to be allowed to live out the life that is natural for them.

In order to find guidance on issues such as this, I find myself leaning on what the Bible tells us about Jesus, His words and His actions. Jesus came to help the Jewish leaders understand more deeply the sacred texts and commandments, because they had interpreted them in a way that was oppressive, emphasizing complex rules and regulations that governed who would and would not inherit the Kingdom of God.  He helped the people delve deeper into the purpose of the commandments, teaching people to “turn the other cheek,” go the extra mile, give the extra coat, etc.  He sums up his discussion with a key phrase for me, and that is that all of the laws are for the purpose of helping us to love each other better—to treat each other the way we each want to be treated.

Jesus says to us that all the law and the prophets—all that God has taught God’s people—hang on the two highest commandments, which are to love God and to love each other.  I know there are many people who believe that love includes forcing people into acceptable molds, but from experience I can tell you that it doesn’t feel like love to be told that, because of who you were born to be, you are not good enough–especially when God is telling you something else!

Jesus’ grace is truly amazing.  His grace is so amazing that He angered the synagogue when He told the people that the widow of Zaraphath and the Syrian leper received the blessings of God versus the religious leaders who thought had a right to inherit the Kingdom of God.  Jesus’ grace is so amazing because He was willing to anger the Pharisees by sitting and eating with sinners and the hated tax collectors, people they knew were condemned to hell.  Jesus’ grace is so amazing because He used a hated and condemned Samaritan to show how much more important love is than holding positions of authority, and He allowed unclean women to touch Him and to engage in the priestly function of anointing Him before His death.  Jesus’ grace is so amazing that most of His disciples did not understand it, at least before His death.  We need to continue to allow Jesus to amaze us with His grace, and not try to limit it according to our limited understandings.

I need to understand that as soon as I believe I see a speck of sawdust in someone’s eye and think I need to correct them, I have a plank in my own eye.  It is not my right to judge, that’s God’s right.  It’s not my right to draw the lines on who’s in or who’s out, that’s to be left up to God. I always need to be reminded that I can never fully know God’s plan for salvation.

While I have not done a full-scale in-depth study of the passages that are used to condemn homosexuals, I have read some interpretations that made me think.  Here are some of the thoughts I’ve read on the subject:  The sin of Sodom was not just because the men wanted to have intercourse with men, but had to do with the sexual abuses of rape and sexual excess, and there were other abuses in that city as well.  Leviticus 18:22 sentences to death men who would lie with other men as with women, but Leviticus also had laws that sentenced to death people who committed adultery, children who curse their parents, and incest. There are a lot of rules that made sense to the people of that time that no longer make sense for us today.  These were rules that were designed to keep the children of Israel together and set them apart from the other nations around them.  Many of these nations were engaged in temple prostitution and sexual excesses, including sexually abusing and sacrificing male and female children.  This sexual worship formed much of what is the basis for Paul’s corrections to the churches, which had more to do with keeping the idol-based sexual excesses out of the church than with homosexual behavior.  Jesus had nothing to say about homosexual behavior, and neither did the 10 commandments.

Finally, I need to remember that I do not have the final authority on how to interpret God’s Word—no human does.  We all see through our glasses darkly. As soon as I think that I have the final and only interpretative take on the Bible, and that everyone who does not agree with me is wrong, I’m substituting my wisdom for God’s wisdom, and that makes me arrogant.  Jesus and the prophets had a lot more to say against arrogance than they did about homosexuality.

I know this way of looking at things does not provide hard and fast rules like many people like to have, and that’s part of the problem.  I truly believe we hurt the congregations we serve by laying on them hard and fast rules that are easy for us to pronounce, without teaching them to search for the deeper understandings that we must gain in order to see more clearly what God’s Word has to say to us today.  It’s a lot easier to lay down rules than it is to teach people to care enough to wrestle with how to love each other better.

For me, the answer to the question of whether God would want us to condemn and demonize homosexuals is that that doesn’t sound like the God of my experience.  I do know this: that I can recognize the people who are called by God because of their love for God and their love for others; and I know who are the people of faith because they try to do their best to usher in God’s Kingdom on this earth.  My experience is that some of those people happen to be homosexuals.

I don’t know why God has inclined some persons to homosexuality, but that’s not my knowledge to have.  I do know that when I don’t fully understand, all I can do is lean towards love and remember Jesus’ amazing grace.

My bottom line is this:  If I make a mistake, I’d rather the mistake be based on the fact that I tried my best to be as accepting and as loving as Jesus.

I’m not alone in my thoughts on this; many progressive Christian leaders agree with me.  Here are a couple of links that I’ve seen recently: A blog post by Rachel Held Evans:  “The Bible was ‘Clear…” and an interesting view by Roger Wolsey: 16 Ways Progressive Christians Interpret the Bible.  Here are some books that also can help: Struggling with Scripture, Walter Brueggeman (2002), Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality by Jack Rogers (2006), The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, by Peter J. Gomes (1996).

If you’d like to comment on this post, you can click the little balloon at the top of the post for the comments section.  Contact me if you’d like to receive these posts by email. Please know that I always wish for you to know and feel the love of God and thereby be filled with peace, joy, and hope.

 

The Church and Gays

Let me first thank all of you who responded to last week’s post about my gay brother John–I heard from many family and friends who knew him. You helped me to recognize that I need to say a little more about John. I was so focused on my relationship with him that I failed to mention that he was quite successful; he traveled around the world in his early career and worked as a high level manager at AT&T towards the end of his career.  He was quite popular as an adult and had a multi-cultural group of friends.  He was smart and well loved by many.  His life was a blessing to many people, not just me.

I said last week that one of the things John’s life taught me is that he did not choose to be gay. This is important because many in the church have characterized a homosexual lifestyle as a sinful choice that can be reversed.  And while some church folks are changing their minds on this, many still use it as an excuse to discriminate against people in the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgendered community.

thI have seen African American religious leaders become furiously indignant at the mention of equating the gay community’s struggle for equal treatment with the black civil rights struggle. More moderate religious leaders may welcome gays into their churches– as long as the gays will recognize that homosexuality is a sin and repent, and that means to me that they will be expected to change. Others take a “don’t ask, don’t tell” position. Many do not want them to marry in the church.  All of these positions view the gay life as less than acceptable.

But John’s life proved to me that God made him just like God wanted him. God formed John in my mothers’ womb. His sexual orientation was as natural to him as my brown skin is to me. I don’t know about all people who are LGBT’s, but I do know about John. And if homosexuals (at least some of them) were made the way they are by God, how dare we judge them?

That’s the question my brother John’s life begs to be answered.  And for all of my friends who knew John and his friends from the time they were young boys, you know that they did not choose to be different.  And I suspect that all of you reading this can remember children who you knew were gay when they were young, before they became sexually aware. They didn’t choose to be gay–they just were, despite any efforts their parents’ may have made to make them “normal.”

Neil Swidey wrote an informative and detailed article for the Boston Globe in 2005 entitled “What Makes People Gay?”  He provides an in-depth review of several scientific studies of how human sexuality develops, highlighted by the story of a mother and her identical twin boys, one of whom exhibited female characteristics and claimed to be a girl when he was a small child. Here are some excerpts:

“Canadian researchers have consistently documented a “big-brother effect,” finding that the chances of a boy being gay increase with each additional older brother he has. (Birth order does not appear to play a role with lesbians.) So, a male with three older brothers is three times more likely to be gay than one with no older brothers, though there’s still a better than 90 percent chance he will be straight. They argue that this results from a complex interaction involving hormones, antigens, and the mother’s immune system.” (I didn’t know that!)

“Still, no matter how imperfect these studies are, when you put them all together and examine them closely, the message is clear: While post-birth development may well play a supporting role, the roots of homosexuality, at least in men, appear to be in place by the time a child is born. After spending years sifting through all the available data, British researchers Glenn Wilson and Qazi Rahman come to an even bolder conclusion in their forthcoming book Born Gay: The Psychobiology of Sex Orientation, in which they write: ‘Sexual orientation is something we are born with and not `acquired’ from our social environment.”

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Doesn’t it feel good when science catches up with our own experiences and proves to us what we already figured out?

I believe that God made my brother John to be just who he was, and there is scientific proof to back up my belief. And I see even better proof in my gay friends, some of whom are the nicest, smartest, most spiritual and dedicated Christians I know. How dare I judge any of them? God doesn’t make any junk! And God doesn’t make mistakes! A God who is love (see my post two weeks ago) would not make children only to reject them. God would simply love them with an unlimited, unconditional and permanent love.

th-2And I believe the church ought to accept what God has done and not discriminate against anyone based on sexual orientation, which includes allowing them to marry in church. (This obviously does not imply my support for any behavior that violates, hurts or harms others, especially children– but that’s true for everyone, gay or straight, including clergy.)

 

I can hear some of you now– “But the Bible Says…..”

I love the Bible.  It is the most important, inspiring, life-changing book in my life. My own experience with the Bible has helped me to learn to explore it deeply. The deeper my understanding becomes, the more I love it. Biblical interpretation is my all-time number one favorite thing to talk about.  I’ll share my thoughts about the Bible on this issue with you next week.

If you’d like to comment to this post, you can click the little balloon at the top of the post for the comments section.  Contact me if you’d like to receive these posts by email. Please know that I always wish for you to know and feel the love of God and thereby be filled with peace, joy, and hope.

 

Lessons I’m Still Learning From My Brother John, R.I.P.

I recently came across the obituary for my brother John, who died in 1991 at age 47.  I surely miss him. John was the 4th of my 5 older brothers, the middle of seven children.  He used to say “The middle child gets all the aches, the middle child gets all the breaks”–and I don’t think he meant the good kind of breaks!

brother johnJohn was my buddy. When sibling rivalries and competitions broke out, John was always on my side against my brothers Bill and Robert. (My two oldest brothers, Hosea, Jr., and Donald, were too old to be involved with our games, and the youngest, Rick, came along much later.)

John was a mentor for me my first year at Southern Illinois University– he was a senior when I was a freshman. When he got married, he and his wife became a part of the regular crew who used to party with us in Chicago during the 70‘s. I could count on him to help me out with the children after I divorced, before he moved to New Jersey.  After his two failed marriages, he was here in Washington DC with me, both of us divorced, helping each other out with the kids. His son stayed regularly at my house and vice versa. We played tennis together and sometimes he would even attend church with me.

I really enjoyed having John living near me–the rest of my brothers were in different cities across the country.  So I became angry when he told me he was leaving DC to move to San Francisco. But my anger was about more than him leaving.

You see, he told me that he was leaving not only to take on a new job, but also because he was coming out of the closet.

He probably knew it was hard for me to take because I didn’t talk to him about it. I was angry because I thought he valued his sexual orientation more than his son.  Hosea (named after my father) was a senior in high school, and didn’t want to go to San Francisco, so John asked if Hosea could live with me, which he did, even coming home to my house during his years in college.

But now I know that I was also angry because I didn’t want my brother John to leave me. I knew I was going to miss him.  And I still miss him.

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After he told me he was gay, I realized I should have known it. John was not like my other brothers, who were all into judo and karate and the like. John played tennis. When he was growing up, the other kids used to call him a sissy. He used to hang around several others in our community who were also called sissies. He got beat up at least once that I know of.

Looking back on my anger when he left for San Francisco, I realize now that I wasn’t thinking at all about his needs. He must have been wrestling for a long time with his sexuality at a time when it wasn’t acceptable for him to be who he was. For him to live out his life as a lie to all of us all of those years must have been terribly difficult. The job in San Francisco must have been like a dream come true. He could go to a place where he didn’t have to hide or to lie, where he could be who he was.

I wish I had gotten over my anger so that we could have been pals again, so I could have met his new friends. I don’t even know if he had a special partner or not. I didn’t get a chance to tell him how I felt, because he died of AIDS a few years after he left.  I suspect he knew that he had the AIDS virus when he left, but he didn’t discuss it with anyone in the family.

What I learned from his life is that being gay was not a choice for him.  He would not have  chosen that childhood. He would not have chosen to pretend at his marriages in order to fit in. He would not have chosen to suffer with AIDS without telling any of his family.

I’ve also learned that I didn’t have the right to judge him. I should have been more compassionate. I should have talked to him, listened to his needs and his desires. I should have been there for him the way he was for me when I needed him.

The reason I’m sharing this with you readers now, with tears in my eyes, is because my brother John’s life has helped me to understand some things about how the Church ought to approach homosexuality and LGBT issues.  I’ll share more of my views about that next week.

For now, I’m comforted by believing that John knows how I feel.  He knows that I finally get it. I love you, brother!

 

God’s Christmas Gift

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As prophesied by Isaiah and pronounced by John the Baptist, when Jesus came into the womb of the unwed teenager Mary, the valleys that separate time from eternity were ever so briefly filled in. The mountains that divide the all-powerful God from weak and lowly flesh were crushed down. The crooked paths that keep the unlimited presence of God apart from those who are limited by 3-dimensional space and time were straightened out.  The highways were opened up and smoothed out in order for God who knows all and sees all to become present and dwell in the world among those of us who can only see through a glass darkly.

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Love was born into the world on that first Christmas day, from a God who is love. Love came to walk with us and talk with us and to show us the way to truly love God and to truly love each other. Jesus is the Love of God whose life just shouts at us about how much God loves us. What a blessing God gave to the world! Jesus, the reason for the season, is Love himself, born into human form.

Love was born into the world to die for us. For God so loved the world. The truth about God’s love proven to us by Jesus is that love simply is. God is love. Jesus is love. There is no question about whether God loves or not.  God’s love is a permanent, fixed truth about who God is and there is no more or less about it. The truth about love is that if it was quantifiable, Jesus might not have stayed up on that cross.  He might have said, I love them a lot, but not that much.

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The truth about love that Jesus proved on the cross is that if you love, you simply love–there is no more or less about it. The way we increase love in this world is not by having more love, but by helping more people learn how to truly love.

Jesus proved to us up on that cross that God loves all us, including our enemies, unconditionally. It doesn’t matter how many tragedies happen in this world. It doesn’t matter how many bad experiences happen in our lives. God’s love can never be taken away from us. We don’t understand why bad things happen–we are not privileged to have that knowledge. But we must understand that God is love. That’s what Jesus came to show us.  God loves us with a love so true that He wouldn’t come down from that cross. That’s the truth about real love—it never fails.

The truth about love is that God is love. Jesus is love. The Holy Spirit is love.  Love is pouring out in unlimited abundance by all three persons of God, ours for the taking. Because Love was born into the world we are given hope even in the middle of chaos, peace that the world doesn’t understand even in the middle of fear and confusion, and such amazing joy that we have to sing, to shout, to jump about it, even though tragedies take place around us.

When we begin to understand the unlimited, unconditional permanence of God’s love for us, we’ll want to share it; we’ll want to go tell it on the mountain, that love has been born into the world. God’s love, when we open ourselves to share it, will overflow all across the world.

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May your Christmas celebrations be filled with the warm, comforting glow of love, awe and wonder that surrounded the birth of Christ–God’s gift to us–God’s amazing love for all of us, wrapped up in a little baby boy who was born in a manger.

Gifts of Presence

nw_1659_lowresI don’t think Jesus would approve the rampant commercialism that has become entrenched in how we celebrate his birth, do you? All you have to do is look at how the advertisers interpret the holiday season to see how far removed they are from the real “reason for the season.”  I mean, do you think Christ really intended for us to run out and buy a car or two in order to celebrate his birth? Jesus is not the reason for buying a new Mercedes Benz–or diamonds and jewelry, furs and expensive perfumes–or for that matter, anything that we can’t afford to buy.

I suggested to my husband Bill that we ought to propose that no one should spend money buying gifts for Christmas.  Instead people should show their love by sharing their time and presence with others, like doing fun things with the children, helping a friend with a project, spending time with someone who is ill or sharing a meal with our elders. Or we could make   things that require using our time and imagination, or cook something special. The idea is that we should give the gift of our presence as a blessing to others.

Bill’s response is that we’d probably be assassinated for inciting such a radical idea that would wreck the economy of our country.

In spite of all of the commercialism, materialism and consumerism, I love Christmas.  I love Advent, the four weeks preceding Christmas when the church anticipates both the birth and the return of Christ. And I love that the traditional lighting of the Advent candles begins with the candle of hope, which is what I think Christ’s coming was all about.

Wouldn’t it be great if we did away with the materialism that has become entrenched around the celebration of the birth of Christ and focused instead on how to live out God’s hope for the world?

Next week, I’ll share some information about real hope that I see happening, and some ways we can be a part of it.

My prayer for all of you reading this is that you will feel the presence of God’s hope in you and that you will share that hope with others during the Advent season.

 

Arc Benders

I couldn’t help but cry when I listened to the news reports of President Mandela’s death.    th-2He deserves the reward he will receive for a life well-lived, and I’m really happy that he has transitioned to the Better Place. But I will miss his presence–it somehow comforted me to know that such a wonderful soul was still living among us.

I fully appreciate President Obama’s recognition that President Mandela had helped to bend that evocative moral arc of the universe further towards justice. I was also pleased to learn that President Obama had participated in TransAfrica’s year long March against Apartheid in front of the South African Embassy, led by another great voice for justice, Randall Robinson. Some of you may recall that many notable people were arrested in those daily protests.  I was one of the many unnamed people who marched but were not arrested.

President Mandela’s life and legacy speaks volumes to the world about hope–the impact that can be made by of one person of faith dedicated to a just cause. It’s encouraging for the world to be reminded of his great victory in freeing his people from a racist, cruel and evil system. Yes! We can make the world a better place!

Being reminded of President Mandela’s life achievements is the third of three major arc-bending happenings during the last week or so. The first was Pope Francis’ pointed attack Pope Francis delivers Angelus prayeron economic injustice and capitalism. Here’s a quote from the Pope in an excellent commentary in The New Yorker: “While the earnings of the minority are growing exponentially, so, too, is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. The imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation…. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules…. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything that stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.” Right on, Pope Francis!

I believe this powerful statement made the Pope, who holds moral persuasion over millions and millions of people, did much to move that moral arc towards justice.

And so with President Obama’s speech just this week, saying that income inequality is the “defining issue of our time.”  From an Associated Press Article: “President Barack Obama th-3prodded Congress to raise wages and secure the social safety net as he issued an overarching appeal Wednesday to correct economic inequalities that he said make it harder for a child to escape poverty. “That should offend all of us,” he declared. “We are a better country than this.”  Our president calls for more funds for children in poverty-stricken public schools, increasing the minimum wage and other specifics that will make a great difference in the lives of the poor here in America.  Another powerful voice speaking volumes to millions of Americans and to the world, moving that moral arc towards justice. You  rock, my President!

I believe that when people like Popes and Presidents use their power to help those with little power, change begins to happen.

But their voices are not all that is needed.  Behind President Mandela’s lifelong odyssey was the African National Congress, millions of unnamed Africans who stood against Apartheid for many years, as well as grassroots people from around the world, unnamed folks like me who marched against what seemed like immoveable power.

There are millions of folks with good hearts who speak volumes by their every day work to help this world better reflect the good God who created it.  They, too, are moving the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

The hearts of all of us unnamed heroes and sheroes are encouraged when we hear such powerful calls for justice from leaders like Pope Francis and President Obama. And our hearts are filled with hope when we ponder the success of those truly brave and faithful ones who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause of goodness, like President Mandela.

Do you think it’s possible that our world might one day rid itself of the idea that poverty is inevitable?  Yes.  We can!

 

 

 

 

 

Better than Black Friday Shopping

black-friday-crowd1No, I’m not out shopping ’til I drop today!  I did not rush out from the Thanksgiving table to battle crowds of people trying to save money by spending it.  Instead, I’m thinking about hope and feeling good about doing this rather than that.

I’m thinking about the the kind of hope that derives from success.  I wrote about City Gate last week.  One of the success stories of this non-profit can be seen at Savoy Elementary School on the Southeast side of Washington DC, where one of the 3rd grade classes is taught by Chris Bergfalk (Lynn Bergfalk’s son). Most of the children in Chris’ class were not reading up to grade level at the beginning of the school year–some were still reading at kindergarten level.

City Gate runs an after-school program at Savoy and provides support for a new in-class program that Chris initiated, which bodes well for replication. It’s called “blended learning”– a computer program that helps students improve in reading and math on their own.  This program provides easy and fun (cartoon-like) activities, measures performance, highlights difficulties and provides instructions on how to help when a student gets stuck.

Chris shared with us a chart showing his students’ performance using this system.  Barely 3 months into the school year the results show that most of the children’s reading levels improved impressively. A few who began near grade level are even reading above grade level. One thing that’s making it work is that the program provides the necessary steps for someone to help when a child gets stuck, so volunteers in the after school program can help them and the teacher doesn’t have to try do it all.

While we were visiting, City Gate’s Deputy Director and another staff member were there helping with some of the computers. City Gate provided recycled government computers, the technical support to get the computers up and running, and volunteers to help students in the after school program.  That’s what’s making it work for this class.

The problem in many city public schools is that there aren’t enough computers in the classrooms or sufficient help to provide the children the support they need.  One class out of the thousands around the city may not sound like much, but it’s a start.  And starting is what matters.

Why do people like Dr. Bergfalk and the others who work at City Gate work so hard to help these children?  Lynn said he was drawn to this type of mission work as a way to “practically live out the mandate that we are to love God and our neighbor in the broader community.”   To me that sounds like living love just as Jesus commanded.

Success stories like this help me to know that we have the ability to change things. We can help our children succeed.  With faith, we can defeat the monstrous for-profit prison system by standing in front of our children to keep them out of it.

Success stories like this make me believe that with enough faithful people working together on all necessary fronts our nation can even begin to eliminate poverty. You may remember in one of my earliest posts, “Is Poverty Inevitable?” I said that  “For us as a people to believe that we should try to eliminate poverty, we have to embrace the idea that all people are beautiful children of God, all worthy of our true love. We have to believe that every child born has a right to live safely, to adequate medical care, and to an education that will nurture their gifts.”

The work that Dr. Bergfalk has started gives me hope that one day we’ll get there. Sooooo much better than shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving!

 

Rebounding Hope

I was 17 years old.  We had just come out of gym class, and while heading for the cafeteria for lunch, I saw people crying.  In the cafeteria, many more were crying.  I had no clue what had happened because the announcement hadn’t reached the gym class. President Kennedy had been shot and killed.  I cried.

“If a free society cannot help the
 many who are poor, it cannot save
 the few who are rich.” 
John F. Kennedy inaugural address, 
January 20, 1961

My 17 year old heart felt that evil had triumphed, and that was hard to take.  We all loved the President and his beautiful family.  He had given us so much hope–I felt like he was so modern and cool and that he was really a good person and that things would get so much better for black people with him as President.  Who would do such a thing?  I don’t guess I’ll ever be convinced that such a perfect shot to a moving target from so far away was not the act of an expertly trained professional hired for political purposes, whether it was Lee Harvey Oswald or someone else.

Hope really felt dashed for me the day President Kennedy was killed.  And even more when Dr. King was killed less than 5 years later.  But one thing about hope is that something will always bring it back — and another thing is that you can find hope in lots of different places.  So I want to share with you a new hope that I’ve recently found.

City Gate is a non-profit charitable organization serving children and families in the Washington DC area. I was looking around to find out who’s working with children here, and City Gate grabbed my attention for two reasons–the broad reach of its programs and the steadfast faith of the founder and Executive Director, Rev. Dr. Lynn Bergfalk, Pastor of Wisconsin Avenue Baptist Church in DC.

City Gate was formed in 2000 to extend and expand the kind of programs being run at Calvary Baptist Church, where Dr. Bergfalk was then pastor, into the larger community.  From 2003 – 2006 their central location was in the DC Baptist Convention Johenning Community Center in Southeast. When they had to move, what seemed to be a big defeat turned out to be a great blessing. City Gate found a new home in a local housing development, and through the success and the connections made there, City Gate expanded the after school programs to several housing developments and schools in Southeast and in other parts of the City and nearby Prince George’s County.  City Gate operates right where the people live, and the people have received them well.

staff

Last week Dr. Bergfalk was gracious enough to take me and a new volunteer to visit one of the school sites and some of the after school sites. The after school activities include homework time, STEM clubs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), recreational activities and also dinner for many of the children. Most important is the attention these children receive from caring professionals who help to provide life skills, a safe haven and long-term positive and caring relationships with children who need it. A major focus of the after school programming is to improve the children’s performance in school.

This is intended to directly address the fact that if children are not reading by the 3rd grade, the “accumulated baggage of low performance,” as Dr. Bergfalk calls it, builds up from year to year, and they are likely to end up failing, and also likely to end up in the prison system. See my earlier post for a more detailed discussion about this.

And City Gate is successful. I’ll have more to say about some of their success stories next week.  While this front line work is absolutely necessary in the war against imprisoning our children, help must come from other sources as well.  Non-profits like City Gate need sure sources of funding to keep operating. Schools in impoverished neighborhoods need more funding for computers, specialists, social workers, and others to deal with the “accumulated baggage” these kids carry. We need national, state and local policies that help and support our children, rather than punishing them for what is essentially not their fault.

And that’s why we need people who really care for victims of poverty in places of leadership.  When people like John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama reach the White House, hope for the poor rebounds.  And when politics and political maneuverings dash our hope, we must  be involved to keep hope alive. I still have hope that the Democrats in Congress can figure out how to provide the support that our President needs to move forward with programs that bring some sense of caring for the least in our country. And I’ll continue to urge people of faith to speak prophetically to power about caring for the poor, then to get involved and help those who are doing the caring.

The Cost of Global Warming

Typhoon Haiyan may be the largest and most devastating typhoon in recorded history.  Reports of the chaos that this epic storm has caused are heart-wrenching.

Keith Bradsher reported in the New York Times on Monday that  “Screaming people bobbed in the water — many grabbing for floating debris, but not all succeeding….. Some of them were able to hold on, some were lucky and lived, but most did not.” He also reported that  Richard Gordon, the chairman of the Philippine Red Cross, said that a Red Cross aid convoy to Tacloban had to turn back on Sunday after it stopped at a collapsed bridge and was nearly hijacked by a crowd of hungry people.

Nancy Snyderman, NBC News Correspondent, reported yesterday that in small city Tanauan,  a group of doctors called Mammoth Medical Missions, is running out of supplies after performing more than 100 surgeries in three days, and will have to turn patients away if supplies don’t arrive.  She reported “…throngs of the desperate waited outside to be seen amid the smell of rotting flesh and stagnant water. Inside, doctors cut one dressing into 24 pieces to stretch out the meager supplies. Desks served as examining tables….’It’s like war,’ one surgeon said. ‘I’ve never been in a war but this is what I imagine it’s like.”

NBC News Correspondents F. Brinley Bruton and Becky Bratu, reported today from Tacloban, the worst-hit city: “The mayor said the options are bleak in Tacloban: ‘The choice is to use the same truck either to distribute food or collect bodies.”

I applaud all those first responders who give their time and energy, their hearts and souls to helping in such desperate situations.  I also applaud all those who share their wealth and prayers in times like this.  I hope all who are able will find a way to help.  The New York Times provided today a good list of organizations that are on the ground and can use our donations and so does NBC World News. Samaritan’s Purse and CARE  are a couple of others that I didn’t see on either of those lists.

It’s important for us to help and to contribute when people suffer from such tragedies.  But there’s more we can do.  We need to open our awareness to what may be causing such devastating storms.  The fact that hurricanes, tornadoes and typhoons are becoming more frequent, stronger and deadlier is no longer to be doubted.  The Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory has been tracking hurricanes since 1891. Information collected from them and others by Wikipedia shows on one chart that four out of five of the largest hurricanes (by gale diameter) ever observed in the Atlantic basin all occurred within the last 12 years. Another chart shows a clear increase in the number of named storms and hurricanes per year from 1851-2012.

Could it be possible that global warming is the cause of this dramatic  increase in weather-related devastation?  The answer is clearly YES! If you have any doubts, please read this report by Damian Carrington of the Guardian.

Tragedies like this typhoon ought to make all of us think more deeply about how our lifestyles may be contributing to global warming and how we can help to reverse it.  We’ve become so used to using oil-related products like gasoline and plastic that I can’t imagine what life would be like without them. But we have to ask whether the convenience of maintaining our lifestyles is so important that we won’t change even if it means saving people’s lives.  Can’t we bring our own cloth bags to the grocery store if it will mean saving people and their homes from being swept away by enormous floods? Shouldn’t we get off our comfortable couches and take on the big oil companies to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, demand that we stop fracking, and demand government to put more money into research for renewable energy resources if doing so will keep kids from drowning?

For those of us who are Christians, we need to think more carefully about what Jesus taught….he told us that there is no better proof of love than to be willing to give up your life for your friend.  He says we are his friends if we do what he asks us to do, and above all, he asks us to love others as he has loved us.  ( See John 15: 12-17) If Jesus was willing to give his life in order to save us, how much of our conveniences, our comfort, our time and our resources would he expect for us to give up in order to save the lives of others?

When we get this part right, then we can go out and share the good news.

 

 

 

 

Becoming a Friend of God

I’m preaching at Simpson-Hamline United Methodist Church this Sunday while the Pastor is on vacation.  Bill preached last Sunday, and he started his sermon by singing “My Tribute” in his wonderfully deep and resonate baritone, then went on to give a powerful testimony about God’s saving grace.  So he set the bar pretty high for me to follow up this week!

The text I’ve chosen, John 15: 12-17, is a part of Jesus’ farewell discussion with his disciples.  I’m focusing on verse 14-15, where Jesus calls his disciples friends.  He no

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longer calls them (us) servants, he now calls us his friends. I’ve been fascinated by my deep study of this text.  One of the things that happens when you delve deeply into a text to understand it more fully — I call it “deep sea diving”– you come up with many treasures, usually more than you can recount effectively in one sermon (although many preachers are too inclined to try). So don’t worry, if you come to Simpson-Hamline this Sunday (service begins at 10 am)  this blog isn’t usurping my sermon. The reason I’m sharing this with you now is that I really haven’t been able to focus on anything else that I want to share here, so I decided to stop trying and just let you know what’s on my mind.

The other thing I’ve been doing this week is reading comments from a LinkedIn group, “Interfaith Professionals,” where comments  are being posted by persons from different faiths on the question “Why does God let people suffer?”  The responses are interesting, as you might expect.  People wrestle with this question a lot, and it has caused many to challenge the goodness and/or the reality of God.

All of this brings me to the question for today:  If Jesus — God — is really our friend, why do we still have to suffer?  Since we understand that God is all powerful and can do anything, then why would God-our-friend ever allow pain and difficulties into our lives? Why doesn’t God just step in and stop whatever it is–all the time?  Why wouldn’t God save the lives of many good and God-believing people from the horrible typhoon that is hitting the Philippines right now? Wouldn’t God stop a Christian woman from being raped or tortured? Wouldn’t our friend Jesus always carry us through the storm, away from harm, as the above picture depicts?

Many of us know from personal experience and testimonies from others that God does intervene, God does save and God still works miracles in this world.  But that does not mean that we won’t ever have to suffer, because we will. And we have no way of knowing when or why God will save some and not others or when the storms will come into our lives and we will find ourselves suffering.

tears

What kind of friend is someone who has the power to save us from pain and sorrow and doesn’t do it?

I believe the best kind of friend.  Not because God wants to us to suffer–I believe that God cries right along with us–but because God wants us to be better people than we would be without suffering. We could never understand what it means to have love and compassion if we weren’t required, from time to time, to open our hearts to others who are living in or going through difficulties.  We’d never know how important it is to have friends unless we had a need to lean on someone else every once in awhile–and that includes our friend God!

Humanity grows intellectually, deepens spiritually and gains wisdom from searching for the causes of suffering and figuring out how to relieve them.  So that’s the job that we’re given by the challenge of human suffering–to wrestle with the things that cause suffering and fix them.  That’s what people are called to do, and it involves everything from helping people to experience the God of love to researching the causes of diseases, from offering a meal to a homeless person to enacting legislation to create affordable housing and living wages, from being a friend to an at-risk child to working to overcome poverty and to dismantle for-profit prison systems. The added benefit is that these are the kind of works that make life truly meaningful for us.

That’s the call of God on all of us, all of humanity, to use all that we are to help each other– hearts that care, minds that study, hands that help, strength that endures and souls that understand the importance of rejoicing through it all. When we do these things, we’re helping to accomplish God’s purposes in this world, and that’s when we become friends of God.  You see, friendship is a two-way street. You can’t really have a friend unless you are a friend.  Sooo….you want Jesus to be your friend???