Sunday, November 13, 2016

What the Lord Requires

I shared the following deeply felt prayer concerns with the Avery UMC congregation this morning. Then we talked about living as people of hope, which we will commit to doing today and every day until Christ comes in final victory, and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

A lot has happened in the world since we last met in this space a week ago to worship and pray together. While I am tempted to push these things aside and lead worship as if all is well, this is not the time for that. So allow me a moment to share with you what’s on my heart today.

First, the presidential election. The choice, as always, was between two flawed candidates who both promised a future that is brighter than present reality. One was elected, the other was not. With regards to policies, plans, promises, and party politics, we will disagree as Americans, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Many good, faithful, upstanding citizens voted for Clinton, and many voted for Trump.

Donald Trump is now in line to become our next president, and just as President Barack Obama deserved our support, so does Donald Trump, however we feel about him. He will be the president for all of us, and we all ought to pray for him and hope that he will exercise good leadership for all 320 million Americans.

However, there is one way this election cycle was different than any other in my lifetime. There is no denying that Trump’s campaign included inflammatory rhetoric towards women, people of color, Muslims, and persons with disabilities. His running mate has a history of restricting civil rights for the LGBT community.

As a result, the election seems to have led to an uptick in harassment and violence, particularly towards persons of color and Muslims. Women are feeling hurt and undervalued, and LGBT persons wonder if the rights they’ve fought so hard for will now be taken away. Simply put, there are a lot of Americans afraid of a Trump presidency right now.

Whether we believe these fears are justified or not doesn’t matter. When our fellow citizens are fearful, our responsibility isn’t to encourage them to “get over it.” We cannot tell people how they are supposed to feel. Our responsibility as Americans and Christians is to advocate for and protect them, just as we would want someone to do for us if we felt scared or undervalued. Our citizenship and our faith requires it.

However, for most of us here in Washington County, the election was overshadowed by the events in Canonsburg on Thursday morning. This was a tragic event in so many ways. The death of one police officer, Scott Bashoium, and the wounding of another, James Saieva, reminds us that every day, police officers in our communities put their lives on the line in order to keep us safe. They need our prayers not only today, but every day.

While we pray for the family Scott Bashoium, and for all law enforcement officers, two other persons died in this altercation. Their families are grieving today as well.

We must not overlook that Dalia Sabae, who was three months pregnant, was killed by a man she had a protection from abuse order against. This marks the 2nd time in 3 months in our region that a woman was killed by the spouse she had a protection from abuse order against. This should be enough to raise our awareness of domestic violence and begin to work against it.

If you’ve ever wondered why more victims of domestic abuse and violence don’t seek help, this is why. The seeming ineffectiveness of protection from abuse orders is only going to make it even more difficult for people in this area to report that they are being abused. We must do more to protect the vulnerable among us, and that work must begin immediately.

We also must think of our children, and teach them that abuse and violence is never okay. While women can be abusers as well, it is much more common for men to be the abuser, so our boys and men need to be taught from an early age that violence is not okay. It is never okay. This is learned behavior.

Yes, we’ll pray for all these things today, but let this also be a wake-up call for us to do more than pray. Our Christian faith compels us to seek justice and to defend the powerless. This is a clear issue that calls us to take tangible action as a community, so this does not happen again. Volunteer with or donate to Domestic Violence Services of SW PA. Work to make laws more stringent. If you know of abuse taking place, don’t look the other way. Take a stand. It’s the responsibility of all of us to work together to end domestic violence. The Lord requires this of us.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

It's Time.

“Hey Erik: what do you think about LGBT persons?” called a seminary friend across our student lounge. Not many people were around, but the handful of students who were would definitely hear my response. I do not like being put on the spot, especially when it comes to controversial issues. I scanned the room for an exit, but that wouldn’t work. I was stuck – I had to answer the question.
“Well, I don’t agree with the lifestyle, but I don’t see why it should be a barrier to friendships.”
To my relief, my friend simply shrugged, mumbled an “okay”, and went back to pecking away at her laptop. We never spoke about the subject again, though since it was Friday, we played Ultimate Frisbee together on the quad that afternoon.
Sometime later, I learned that this friend identifies as bisexual. When I found out, it brought new significance to that brief interaction. Despite my disapproval of her bisexuality, she has never stopped loving me just as any other friend. And I have never stopped loving her.
But there’s something I’ve never told her. It’s a secret I’ve kept from friends and family for years. I no longer consider identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender to be sins to avoid or “defects” to cure or correct. I don’t see them as lifestyle choices, but rather as part of a beautiful God-given identity some of us are created with.
So this is me coming out. I want to be an ally to LGBT persons. They need allies, because discrimination is prevalent in many forms. Their right to find housing or employment is often denied. Harassment comes from coworkers and strangers. And in the church, we pretend to welcome them with “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” but as soon as they step beyond the threshold, they are told their committed romantic relationships are not blessed by God. Furthermore, if they feel called by God to serve in ordained ministry, they must deny this part of their identity.
Ten years ago, I would have never imagined I would identify as an ally. But people change, and I have come to my current understanding as a result of years of struggling, questioning, and wondering if God created me this way. Indeed, God created me to be an ally to my LGBT brothers and sisters, because God created and called me to love my neighbor without restraint.
I still don’t feel comfortable being vocal about controversial topics. And I worry that identifying as an LGBT ally might strain my relationships with friends, family, and members of my church. Some people will try to change my mind, some will question whether I can really be a Christian, and some may even stop talking to me.
If it’s this scary for me to come out this publicly as an ally, I can’t begin to imagine the courage it takes for people to come out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Those who come out within the context of the United Methodist Church, which is exclusionary in nature, must be among the most courageous people of all.
So, dear church, it’s time. It’s time to remove hurtful and exclusionary language from the United Methodist Book of Discipline that describes the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.” It’s time to remove restrictions on ordination based on what happens behind bedroom doors. It’s time to allow churches and pastors the ability to encourage and support marriage covenants between two people committing their lives to each other, even if those two people don’t look like a traditional wedding cake topper. Simply put, it’s time to stop causing unnecessary pain to our brothers and sisters in Christ who identify as LGBT.
I have needed a long time and an open mind to get to this point. Friends who had the courage to come out to me helped me see that LGBT persons also happen to be among the most committed Christians I know. Proponents of LGBT rights showed me the ugly side of discrimination in civil and ecclesial arenas, which I cannot reconcile with a God whose greatest command is to love. My understanding of church history reminded me of ways tradition and scriptural interpretation have evolved over time as we learn more about the nature of God’s good creation, which includes humanity.
The limits of time and space preclude me from going into depth about my theological journey on this matter. Yet, please understand that I have not come to this position lightly, or just because I have LGBT friends, or because our culture is progressively becoming more accepting of the diversity of human sexuality. It has been, and continues to be, a difficult intellectual and theological exploration for me. As I continue to seek clarity, I’m thankful for friends like the seminary classmate above, who patiently love me and give me space to work out my own theology for as long as it takes.
We live in a world that seems to be moving ever deeper into opposing shores of love and hate. And each time the United Methodist Church refuses to take legislative steps toward greater love, it means we drift closer and closer to hate. Eventually, our drifting will run aground on hatred’s rocky shore, and when that occurs there will be no denying our sin: we will have completely separated ourselves from the love commandment that is central to scripture. At that point, our ability to be in ministry with all people will be so diminished that our witness to the Gospel will be ineffective and hollow.
It’s time. It’s time to end the pain we are causing our brothers and sisters. It’s time to welcome and celebrate everyone who comes to the UMC, without regard to sexual identity. It’s time to end our hypocrisy and finally live into our commitment of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” It’s time to love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s time, church. It’s time.