Friday, March 28, 2008

And Now, for Something Lighter

How do I love The Onion? Let me count the ways...

Church People Gather to Discuss Sex

I went to a "hearing" on our draft Sexuality Statement last night. Hearings are being held around the church, in our 64 synods. This was actually only the second one, churchwide. I promised to report back to Lutherans Concerned, our friendly advocacy/fellowship/all around good folks organization. So I figured I'd paste part of my report here, after scrubbing some of the names and such. There are some line numbers referenced. If you're really curious, the document is on the ELCA website. So here it is, for any who are interested:

The meeting was at Trinity Lutheran in Lawrence, Kansas. In attendance were 17 total people:

8 were pastors, one of whom is a recent PhD currently applying at seminaries.

5 were laypersons from local congregations: Abiding Peace, North KC; Immanuel, KC; Trinity Lutheran, Lawrence (host congregation--two attended from Trinity--one was our moderator and did a fine job); Peace in Manhattan, Kansas. Abiding Peace is the only RIC church in that list.

1 works out of the Synod office

1 was our synod bishop, Gerald Mansholt (I'm not taking out the bishop's name. It's pretty public :) ).

1 was an assistant to the bishop

1 was adjunct to the Sexuality Task Force until two years ago. The Sexuality Task Force is supposed to have a representative at each hearing, and he was ours, though he said himself that they were "digging deep" in inviting him, and it was probably because the closest Task Force member is in Denver. I was glad he was there, because he is a great straight ally and eloquent speaker. He did not speak much until the end, when he did express some hurt on behalf of the Task Force folks who worked hard on the document. I think we understood his point. He was not able to answer many questions on the document, since he wasn't there when they put it together, so in that way he may not have been the best rep.

As far as I know, I was the only non-heterosexual person in the room.

The Discussion

We took the full two hours allocated, with a little break to move from the large sanctuary to the small chapel, which facilitated much better conversation (and was a lot warmer :) ). The bishop opened us with prayer, and I was asked to say the closing prayer, which I appreciated.

We began by trying to understand what the purpose of a Social Statement is. I'd say there is a lot of confusion around this topic. The church hasn't done a great job of clarifying the role of a Social Statement. The Task Force rep. wasn't quite sure if you could say they're used to set policy, and the bishop didn't seem all too clear either. A participant pointed out the part of the statement which suggests that they are used to lead to policies, but that is a little murky as well, since later it says that not all church members need agree with a Social Statement. The comment was made, only half facetiously, that only clergy need to agree, since they'll be subject to the subsequent policy.

I tried to get clarification about the impetus behind the Social Statement, which I understood to be determining policy regarding same-sex unions and ordination of folks in same-sex relationships. I said it seemed to me that it was these two issues which led the 2001 CWA to request a Task Force. There was agreement on this, so I made the comment that it seemed like it would be a long way from the Statement to policy, since ordination isn't mentioned and blessings are only mentioned in passing. No real clarity emerged on this, though we were reminded that the Task Force will make policy recommendations next February. Later we heard the timeline on this, which is a bit curious, if correct:

--The recommendations are made in February,2009, and sent first to the Conference of Bishops and the ELCA Church Council. Those two groups will meet in April (or the latest of the two meetings is in April). Then the recommendations are released, which means that most substantive conversation will likely have to occur at Synod Assemblies. It also seems possible--and maybe likely--that this timeline will preclude most synods from developing resolutions around the recommendations, except in an ad hoc manner, if that is allowed.

The majority of folks in the room were in favor of change in current policy. A couple didn't say much, so it is hard to know where they stand. The bishop's assistant is definitely "stand-fast," as were two of the pastors. One of those pastors expressed the common concern that this is a church-dividing issue which we are not ready to tackle. The other is a mission pastor in our synod. His concerns are couched in the language of "evangelism," which he is always quick to remind us is the "E" in "ELCA."

His position is one we must know and combat, I think. His credential--to use organizer language--is that his is the "fastest growing church in our synod." This was actually the first thing he said at the meeting. It seems to give him the sense that his words deserve extra weight. His church presents its mission as reaching out to the unchurched. His definition of "unchurched" seems to include mainly very conservative folks. He also mentioned wife-beaters, twice. He claims to be moving them all more to the center, which he may well be doing.

Here are some of the things The Mission Pastor had to say:

--The Statement is "wishy-washy" about sin. Lutheran theology teaches that we are all sinners (hum along if you know this one). The Statement seems to tell lesbian and gay people that they are not sinners, and we (Lutherans) don't teach that. That sort of teaching "provides ammunition for 'The Enemy,' however you define 'The Enemy.'" (This is verbatim; I wrote it down.) He went on to talk about how we (Lutherans) lift up all sorts of examples of sin, and don't rank them. For instance, we would call it sin for a pastor to drive a giant, gas-guzzling SUV.

I pointed out that we don't legislate against pastors who drive giant, gas-guzzling SUV's, so it would seem that we are in the business of ranking sin. He conceded that point, and I jumped out of my seat and ran around the room pumping my fist. Just kidding. Well, he did concede the point.

TMP used the language of evangelism over and over. We've heard his point before, and it will be compelling for CWA (Churchwide Assembly 2009) voters, and the synod assembly voters sending memorials (recommendations to the CWA). Here is the argument: The church will not be able to reach out to "the unchurched" if it adopts a policy which those people will consider "out of step" with society.

TMP didn't speak much to the theology of the document or to the biblical underpinnings, except for the sin stuff, and the acknowledgement that he knew that he was "being Pauline" on this subject. He noted that Paul, in trying to grow the church, "was willing to tell women that they should shut up in church," because that teaching would appeal to the people Paul was trying to reach.

This was a new argument for me--gay people are expendable because that will appeal to "the unchurched," just as women's voices should be silenced if it appeals to men.

Go ahead, shudder. I couldn't last night, but you're not sitting in that chapel.

TMP said several other things. The other one you might enjoy (and by "enjoy" I mean "lose your lunch") was prompted by a young woman (27), who spoke up for those who will also be lost to the church, if change doesn't happen. TMP acknowledged that younger people have a different attitude toward same-gender relationships, and that if he went to the youth in his congregation and told them we have to love and respect those whose sexual orientation is different from ours, they would all "go down to the local treatment center and start working with people who are drinking and using drugs because they're so torn up by their sexual orientation."


I swear.

Didn't need to write that one down--it's burned into my brain.

Some of the more neutral conversation included:

--Lifting up the sections on children and youth as well-written, specific, and providing clear teaching. One participant asked if slavery was mentioned, and we noted teaching on sexual exploitation which would seem to include slavery.
--Questions about the foundational language of trust, which permeates the document. Our TF rep said he was actually surprised by the language, since he didn't recall it being a fundamental idea in their earlier conversations. The group seemed to feel that the language was appropriate.
--The explication of Lutheran theology, while long, was generally considered quite good and helpful.

Those favoring change made some of these comments/arguments:

--There is a false dichotomy at work in the church, and underpinning the beginning of our conversation last night. It says we are choosing between doing nothing and changing. The reality is that we're doing something now: we're refusing to ordain gay and lesbian persons in relationships and to stand up for gay marriage. This something is causing a lot of people pain.

--There is a real anti-gay bias evident in the document.

--The privileging of heterosexual marriage is insulting and unfair. The sections on "Marriage" and "Same-Gender Committed Relationships" (predictably) received the most scrutiny. There was anger over the sentence beginning at 1127 which describes "those who regard same-gender sexual relationships as sinful" without comment (and therefore with tacit allowance or even approval). The same holds true for the statement starting at 1142 which allows that "In their pastoral response [to those in same-gender relationships,] some pastors and congregations will advocate repentance and celibacy."
-->Is our church really willing to say that it is okay for pastors and congregations to regard g/l relationships as "sinful" and to "advocate repentance and celibacy."

--LGBT people are fast losing patience with the language of "welcome," when it is accompanied by teachings which are equivocal and even cruel. This one was mine. It was the big thing that I wished to get across, and I hope I did. I said that as a pastor I could no longer hear the word of welcome coming from the ELCA, and that it was becoming increasingly difficult to ask my congregation to hear such a word of welcome from a church which calls our relationships less worthy.

--Of course there was real pain around the "definition of marriage" section, 1151-1155. A number of people expressed passionate disappointment with the language of this part of the document. One woman pointed at me and said she was really hurt that her church would teach her that her marriage is more valuable than mine. She then shared that she doesn't believe this to be the case.

--Side note: the woman above has a lesbian sister. We continue to see that change is rooted in relationship. We've got to get LGBT people and allies out to our churches, somehow.

I think that is most of what I found striking last night. Our bishop, who has been on a long journey of acceptance, said directly to TMP that he heard his concerns about change and its effect on our outreach, but that he had also just read Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" again, and believed Dr. King was right in calling white pastors out for saying "now is not the time." I don't think our bishop will be out front on this. He is very clear that the semi-local-option adopted at last year's CWA (which could allow ordination of gay pastors) requires "a planetary alignment" and won't apply in his synod (I think this part was for me :) ). I did appreciate his prophetic voice at the end, when he offered those comments. I always appreciate his struggle to be faithful and pastoral to the many folks of different opinion who people the ELCA churches of Missouri and Kansas.

So that was the night. I took along one member of our congregation, who said a couple of the best things said all night. So once again, I'm disappointed in my denomination, proud of our congregation, and hopeful that we will be the change we seek.

Monday, March 24, 2008

4000 Reasons

Four thousand American soldiers have now died in Iraq. I still haven't heard a good reason why. But I can think of four thousand reasons why this war should have been stopped before it began.

Estimates of the number of Iraqis killed vary widely, from 80,000 to over a million. Over two million have been displaced--no disputes there.

What a horrific tragedy this is, and I use that word advisedly. As an English major, I was taught to be very judicious in my use of the word "tragedy." It should refer to a great fall caused by hubris--human pride mixed with arrogance and brought out by temporal power.

That sounds about right.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Wright Stuff

A Prayer:

Please, Lord, don't ever let a member of my congregation run for president. For then Inquiring Minds will comb through my sermons in search of salacious and controversial words and sentences.

And they will find them, because, like Pastor Jeremiah Wright, I am not as smart as other preachers. I am not careful about what I say. I do not swear "Do not offend" as my Preacher's Oath.

I, too, have made the outrageous statement that ours is a racist country, which continues to provide advantages to those with lighter skin, and unequal access to those with darker skin.

I have preached about politics, as if the gospel somehow applies to the public sphere. I have named names--the names of those who would make war in The Name--Yahweh, for instance.

Lord, I really hope I'm never a famous or interesting pastor, because my words will not stand up to public scrutiny. If the requirement for preachers is that they dance along the top of a fence, speak in generalities, bow before Caesar, and favor prosperity over truth--I'm toast.

May it ever be so.

Stuff I Wonder About 1

Why isn't "pounds per square inch" abbreviated "LSI?"

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Is that "Draft" or "Drift"?

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, our denomination, released its Draft Statement on Human Sexuality today. This statement is the result of six years of study by the Human Sexuality Task Force, which was constituted by the 2001 Churchwide Assembly. The Task Force released study documents--the obsequiously titled "Journey Together Faithfully" I & II--and collected responses from across the church. All that work turned into the Draft Statement.

If you understood all of that, you may be a Mainline Protestant.

One of my colleagues said recently that he wasn't particularly interested in seeing what the Draft Statement on Human Sexuality said, since it was his opinion that it wouldn't say anything.

I had higher hopes. I've watched our church wrestle with human sexuality (which is, of course, church-speak for "homosexuality") for twenty years now. We tried to get together a statement on human sexuality back in the early nineties. Someone leaked it to the press, the New York Times announced that the Lutherans were "affirming homosexuality and masturbation" and that was all she wrote for Attempt One.

But this is Attempt Two. It's 2008. Surely we're ready to Journey Faithfully into the twenty-first century Together. Surely it is time that the church take the position that gay and lesbian relationships are worthy of the same respect and ecclesial fortitude as straight relationships.

Alas, my colleague was right, and I have never wanted less to be a Lutheran.

This is my favorite paragraph:

It is only within the last decades that this church has begun to deal in a new way with
the longing of same-gender persons to seek relationships of life-long companionship and
commitment and to seek public accountability for those commitments. In response, this
church has drawn deeply on its Lutheran heritage to dwell in Scripture and listen to the
Word of God. This listening has brought biblical scholars, theologians, and rostered and
lay persons to different conclusions. After many years of study and conversation, this
church does not have consensus regarding loving and committed same-gender relationships.
This church has committed itself to continuing to accompany one another in study,
prayer, discernment, and pastoral care.
Apparently a few decades is a short amount of time. Depends upon your perspective, I think. If you're waiting for the church to decide what it thinks about someone else, a few decades may feel short. If you're waiting for the church to decide how it feels about you, a few decades is an excruciatingly long time.
Of course, in using the language of "the church," I've fallen into the same hole the Task Force is trying to write its way out of. As long as we're waiting for "the church" to have consensus, we'll study ourselves to death. There are nearly five million members of the ELCA. No--they don't have consensus on human sexuality. They don't have frigging consensus on weekly communion! Stop me if I'm wrong, but I think that the people of "the church" asked the Task Force to do six years worth of thinking and studying and to make a suggestion about what we as a church were going to stand for.
Apparently we stand for not being able to stand for anything. Please forgive my bluntness, but the idea of "continuing to accompany one another in study, prayer, discernment, and pastoral care" makes me want to vomit. We just did "study, prayer, discernment, and pastoral care." Six bloody years of it. On top of the twenty years we did before that. If we spent six years and a couple million dollars to learn that we need more study, we could have been feeding hungry kids in Africa.
It's only a draft. It may get better. I'm going to take some deep breaths now and calm down. Then make some notes for the synod listening post next month.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Here's a Good Conversational Name Drop...

...well, in my Old Testament class at Yale...

Yale has opened an Old Testament class to online participation. Go here to check it out.

Hat tip to LutheranChik, who rocks always!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Religious Landscaping

Sorry--I know this graphic is hard to read. That's as big as I can make it.

You may have seen the report out last week from the Pew Religion Forum which outlined "America's Religious Landscape." It told us a lot of stuff we already knew, like "Americans are increasingly unaffiliated religiously." (Though some are religiously unaffiliated). The survey confirms that denominational identity is increasingly unimportant, which we also already knew, though it still makes those of us with denominational affiliations in our job titles a little queasy.

It used to be easier to answer the question "Why are you a...[insert religious affiliation here]?" You were a Lutheran because your parents were Lutherans and you were raised in the Lutheran church and it seemed fine and fine is good for Lutherans. We're good with fine.

That sort of denominational default ended a while ago for many people. I'm a Lutheran because my friend Sara took me to her church when I was 11 and I fell in love. With the church. We moved before I could fall in love with Sara, though I think the reverse is not necessarily true but I digress.

So none of this is big news, though the flip-flop in percentages from Mainline Protestant to Evangelical Protestant is still startling. They're growing. We're not. Lots of people have guessed why, but I don't like most of the answers.

Here's what I want to know: Why do we go to a particular church? I'm not concerned with denominations here, necessarily, though that's salient, of course. Mostly I want to know:

  • Why does a particular faith community make your heart sing?
  • What's the thing that gets you out of bed on Sunday morning (or Saturday morning, or out on Saturday evening or Wednesday evening or whenever you go out to practice your faith)?
  • What can't you live without?