“I’m So Sorry”

Marin Foundation photo of signs at Chicago Pride parade

I’m a pastor. But there are days when I wonder whether I belong in the Christian Church, whether I’m really a Christian. Ever wonder that about yourself? Or have you left the church as a matter of dissent, embarrassment, or protest?

Take the last two weeks. President Obama shares his faith at a National Prayer Breakfast. He declares that we are “our brother’s keeper”. I feel proud. The comments on CNN run heavily against him. Ayn Rand’s “the virtue of selfishness” – not the story of Cain and Abel or the teaching of Jesus – has won the hearts of the people. Rick Santorum tells an Ohio audience that Obama’s agenda is based on “some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible.” I feel sad…and angry. I read the story about the church court case of the Rev. Jane Spahr, a lesbian Presbyterian minister rebuked for officiating at same-gender marriages, one of them the wedding of Lisa Bove. Lisa was an ordained student elder at the church I served at The College of Wooster. She went on to seminary and was ordained a Minister of Word and Sacrament. I feel proud of Janie and Lisa, their tenacity, their courage, their strong and gentle spirits, their deep faith. I feel sad that the church still doesn’t get it.

I’m embarrassed by how ridiculous the church debate is and how absurd this church family feud looks to the world. I want to withdraw, pull the covers over my head, go to sleep, take a sedative maybe. But I’m also angry. I want to fight. I want to weigh in on the debate. Yet to do so will only continue the polarization, the disrespect for others, the tendency on all sides of a church argument to proclaim with Little Jack Horner, “What a good boy am I!” If I stick my thumb in the pie, I’ll just continue the ludicrous display of Christian arrogance. What to do? To keep silence feels like abdication of conscience. To speak adds my voice to the appearance of the church’s absurdity. But I’m give fan of the Theater of the Absurd and Albert Camus, as well as Jesus.

I decide to stick my thumb in the story. My comment is the first thumb in a hot pie:

“I know Jane Spahr and Lisa Bove as colleagues and love them both. Lisa was a student leader at the Westminste­r Presbyteri­an Church at The College of Wooster where I served as Pastor. Jane is that rare minister of the gospel who has managed to remain gentle and bold, acting in conscience and ecclesiast­ical disobedien­ce without becoming hard or cynical. Lisa is the same. When you’ve been working for GLBT full inclusion as long as Jane and Lisa, that’s a testimony to their soulfulnes­s. For Jane, Lisa, and so many of us, the Bible calls disciples of Jesus to live in love and to be advocates for justice. The Presbyteri­an Church (USA) last year restored an older principle of church order that removes the restrictio­n against ordaining GLBT members. The issue of marriage remains contentiou­s in the church, as it is in the society as a whole. Some pastors have declared that until church and civil law permit them to officiate at same-sex marriages, they will not marry anyone as a witness to justice. Jane and Lisa are sweet, sweet spirits whose lives bear witness to justice, love and peace, working from that inner light of courage, conscience and consolation that keeps them sane and strong.”

Three replies come quickly:

1) “You are a faithful and honest servant of God.  It has taken a long time, but every year there are more like you” (i.e., “What a good boy am I Good boy!”); and

2) “Pastors should know and preach the truth of God’s word. Please read: 1 Tim: 3:1-7 and Titus 1: 5-9  When folks go against the truth of God’s word, then they are following deceit and you should know who the great deceiver is”  (“Bad boy! Bad boy!”)

3) “Let’s hope this church sees the light and retracts the rebuke.  And perhaps even apologizes­.”

Then this morning a classmate sends me this story about an apology: “Christian Group Shows Up to Chicago Gay Pride Holding Apologetic Signs“.

Marin Foundation photo of signs at Chicago Pride parade

I wish I’d been there to hold one of these signs.

I’ve experienced the forgiving hugs of gay and lesbian church members like the guy in the underwear. And when I write comment or a commentary like this one, I hear a little voice inside myself: “Good boy! Good boy!” Then, as soon as I feel the relief, I know I’ve fallen into the very self-righteousness I despise in others. “Bad boy! Bad boy!” and I’m back where I started: “God help us ALL!”

Read the story. Ponder it. Then stick your finger in the pie with a comment here on the blog.

“It’s not easy being real”

Last night I listened to President Obama’s speech on contraception and religion institutionso courtesy of Unedited Politics. I then looked to see if there were comments. There was only one:

“This has nothing to do with so called women’s health, it’s Marxism 101.”

With no elaboration as to how or why the President’s speech or position on women’s health care, on the one hand, and religious liberty, on the other, was Marxism 101, the comment accomplished what such comments nearly always do, until they are challenged. It called someone by a name. End of discussion. No need to explain how or why it’s Marxism. “Bad! Boogie Man! Evil in the White House!! The Marxists are out to get us!”? So I wrote my own comment:

Oh, my! Dear friend, whoever you are, you must never have taken Marxism 101. This isn’t Marxism. It’s the work of a democratic republic – messy, balancing values that sometimes conflict with each other, protecting the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority, and guaranteeing equal protection (in this case, health coverage) to all citizens. It’s comments like this – confusing a health care position with Marxism (i.e. communism?) – that divert the discussion and take us back to the darkest time of American history, the Senate Hearings of Sen. Joseph McCarthy that painted decent, patriotic Americans as evil. The President is NOT a Marxist, my friend. Time to rescind the comment for the sake of civil discussion that helps to solve real problems.

The reply came soon after:

Try reading his books and consider the fact that he attended a Marxist church for 20 years.

Again, I replied:

I’ve read Marx. I spent the summer of 1966 in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia as the Chicago Ambassador of the Experiment in International Living. I lived with the Schulz family, all members of the Communist Party. Marxism is more than a figment of my imagination. And the church Obama attended is a CHRISTIAN Church, United Church of Christ, one of America’s historic “mainline” denominations. ABC watched 500 sermon videos and chose to air a one-minute clip from a sermon on one of the Hebrew prophets that led viewers to conclude Jeremiah Wright was a communist. Radical? Yes. Off the wall? Sometimes. But Marxist (i.e. not Christian, not a disciple of the Jesus who turned over the money-changers tables)? No. And to talk about this President as a Marxist is…go back and watch Joe Welsh’s final rebuke to the character assassination campaign of Sen. Joe McCarthy: “Have you no decency, Sir. Have you no decency left?” Please think twice before raising McCarthy’s ghost. It’s ugly.

In 1966 I was certain that my finalist interview with the selection committee of the Chicago Chapter of the Experiment in International Living had disqualified me as a candidate as Chicago Ambassador to Czechoslovakia for the summer of ’66.

“You’re a Christian and a seminarian, asked Paul Harvey. “Why would you want to go to a communist country?”  I responded at some length that I didn’t trust the stereotypical representations of Eastern Bloc countries any more than I would trust their representations of the West. I felt there was propoganda on both sides of the Cold War. I wanted to see for myself.   I also told them that there was a theologian in Czechoslovakia named Josef Hromadka, the father of Christian-Marxist dialogue. I had been reading Hromadka and others and wanted to participate in this discussion. I believed that the Marxist classless society was a rendition of the central biblical message of the Kingdom of God. I came out of the interview and said to another candidate, “Well, I just eliminated myself. Hope you have a great summer.”

To my surprise, they selected me. The generosity of Pan Schultz and Pani Schultzova, their son Vlado and daughter Jana who welcomed me like a member of their own family, conversations with students about Franz Kafka and the existentialists at the university coffee shop, and the ugliness of fellow-American Ambassadors (there were 11 of us) who insisted on ice cubes in their drinks combined to further open the aperture of my camera lens as I look at the world.

I decided long ago not to keep silent when the labels like “Marxism 101” march across the field of my camera. My experience is only mine, but it’s the only experience I have, and God knows how limited it is. But, I decided to to heed Frederich Buechner  counsel – “Listen to your life”, he wrote – and to speak out loud what I see and hear, hoping and praying, as I do every Sunday morning before I dare to preach, that in some inscrutable way, “the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts will be pleasing in Thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.”  I’d love to hear your meditations. Leave comment to share.