Archive for January, 2007

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

Anyone who follows church politics knows that homosexuality is one of the most divisive religious issues we face. The Episcopal Church is on the brink of a national split, based principally on this issue. Meanwhile, just up the road, a mega-church is still reeling from the news that their leader engaged in some form of homosexual extracurricular activity.

Like a phoenix from the ashes comes a summit to be held in, of all places, Colorado Springs. Religious leaders and thinkers from across the sociopolitical spectrum will come together for three days to discuss homosexuality and the church in a respectful, thoughtful environment. The purpose of the event is to begin engaging in constructive dialogue about something that threatens to divide an already weakened Christian community.

Despite how you feel about sexuality with respect to scripture, it’s in our best interest as Christians to deal with this in a matter-of-fact way. For some, it’s a moral wedge issue. For others, it’s a call to justice and equality. The idea that both parties will take the time to discourse about their beliefs – and even their differences – is encouraging.

My only wish is that the debate could move beyond the conceptual level, though this is better than nothing. As long as we’re simply discussing issues and ideas, we’re not likely to get much further than agreeing to disagree, with an amicable willingness to coexist.

If the summit included first-hand accounts from gay and lesbian clergy, or from family members of gay people, we’d start to get past ideology and begin dealing with the flesh and bone of the matter. After all, we’re talking about people, not issues. Still, the face time offers hope, suggesting that some Christians still are willing to share a table together, even if they don’t see eye to eye.

Then, just when you thought it was safe to wade back into the religious waters, a volley is fired over the bough.

The Southern Baptist Convention still claims that women should not be allowed to preach or lead churches, based upon a verse in I Timothy, wherein the author – who some claim is Paul – says, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” The issue entered the media spotlight this month when Dr. Sheri Klouda, a tenure-track professor of theology at Southwest Theological Seminary since 2002, was fired on the grounds of her gender.

Under the leadership of Paige Patterson, the seminary’s current ultra-conservative president who was hired after Dr. Klouda became a professor, the school is returning to a “traditional, confessional and biblical position that women should not instruct men in theology or biblical languages,” according to Van McClain, chairman of the Southwestern trustees.

Clearly, I have a strong personal bias about gender roles in the church, but it’s hard for me to imagine that we still discriminate in any professional role based upon body parts. It’s tragic to justify oppressive, discriminatory behavior “because the Bible says so.” I also believe it’s un-Christian.

The Bible tells stories about men selling their wives into slavery, fathers giving up their virgin daughters to angry mobs, concubines and teen marriage. Shall we observe these traditions, “because the Bible says so?” Everything from indentured servitude to genocide has been carried out with one hand on the Bible. That doesn’t make it right.

I’m glad we’re making progress in some arenas, but the fact that we are still contending with such issues as sexual orientation, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and gender in the church is disheartening. Some might say I should be happy with any development at all, but I expect more from the church.

Bottom Line: Love trumps gender roles for kids

Sunday, January 21st, 2007

Bottom line: Love trumps gender roles for kids

James Dobson wrote a Dec. 18 editorial in Time magazine about Mary Cheney, her pregnancy and her plan to raise the child with her partner, Heather Poe.

Dobson wastes no time building a body of scientific evidence about why this is inappropriate.

Three decades of social science indicate children are best off when raised by a male and female, both of whom are their birth parents. Though he concedes the couple undoubtedly will love their child, he goes on to argue that “love alone is not enough to guarantee healthy growth and development.”

He quotes several sources, from Dr. Kyle Pruett of the Yale Medical School to Psychology Today. Most indicate that both male and female caregivers offer unique pieces to a child’s overall upbringing.

Dobson is right. Love alone doesn’t guarantee healthy development. He’s also right that it’s best to have both a male and female role model for children. My graduate work was in child development, and I would not argue with either of these statements.

He then uses these premises to assert that not only childbirth, but also adoption, is “the purview of married heterosexual couples.” Finally, we get to the essence of his position: Gay people don’t deserve to raise children.

He softens his claims with verbal buffers like “with all due respect,” and “Focus on the Family does not desire to harm or insult . . .” If I were she, I’d be insulted.

Granted, all of the research does suggest that children do best with male and female figures. This, however, does not mean that both role models must be birth parents. The leap from scientific evidence to his desired endgame is fallacious.

Second, though love is not enough to guarantee positive development, there is no other combination of factors that will guarantee this either. Just because someone is raised by their birth parents does not guarantee they will receive the care and love they require for optimal development.

A couple in our family decided to adopt a girl into their existing family of four, more than a decade and a half ago. She is black and the other family members are white. There was some discussion about the challenges this could present, both for the parents and the child. They went ahead with the adoption anyway. Less than two years later, they received a call that the same mother had another child, whom they also adopted.

True to expectations, their life together has not been perfect. Though they sought out an African-American woman to be their adopted grandmother, they lack some ethnic identity with their family of origin. But they’ve definitely fared better than they would have with their birth parents, one of whom has disappeared, and one of whom is dead.

Before you start your letter to the editor, I recognize both that the couple I’m referring to is a married heterosexual couple, and that the situation involves adoption rather than artificial insemination. Would I prefer that Ms. Cheney would adopt? Absolutely. There are enough children in the world in need of a loving home that I consider this a more reasonable alternative to artificial means of getting pregnant. Is it my right to tell her what she can do with her reproductive system? No more than she has a right to tell me what to do with mine.

Dobson’s argument holds water in a perfect world, which we don’t have. Ideally, every child would be born into a family where they are wanted, anticipated and loved before they take their first breath. What children need more than anything else is love offered generously and modeled. Whom the parents love is secondary to the need for the love to be healthy and real.

As for a father figure, Dick Cheney will soon have plenty of time on his hands. As soon as he hears that baby gurgle in his arms, my guess is he’ll be the proudest grandpa in the world.

Is life like hell without faith?

Saturday, January 13th, 2007

Is life like hell without faith?


My wife, Amy, and I have been in Pueblo for nearly three years, trying to grow a new church. Had we known how hard it would be, we might have opted for an existing ministry. Starting a new church is one of the most emotionally volatile experiences we can imagine.

It’s easy to get hung up on the number of people who show up on any given Sunday. It’s hard not to take it personally when someone says they will come, and then they don’t. That, or they come once every few months and consider themselves regulars. Both of these scenarios happen all of the time.

We’ve heard nearly every excuse for not coming to church that could be imagined, to the point that we don’t hear them anymore. We believe we have something to share that’s worth people’s time, but we can’t make them do anything.

Some people said they really wanted to come, but that meeting in our home where we originally began was too intimate for them. When we moved to the college they still didn’t come. Some who felt the CSU-Pueblo campus was too far away hedged. We’re now located on the southwest side of town, and they still don’t come. Dozens of people said they’d come if we had services in the morning, so last week we had our first morning worship. None of the new people came.

Why should they, after all?

There’s a growing perception that faith can happen in a vacuum, that we don’t need community to nurture our connection with God. As Amy said in a recent sermon, many people find their spiritual nourishment on a mountaintop, in a book or by the ocean. While these things are useful and perhaps even inspiring, when you need an ear to listen or a shoulder to lean on, a book is no consolation.

No matter how much you love the divine creation of the outdoors, a mountain just can’t love you back.

Author Anne Lamott concedes that she makes her 14-year-old son go to church. She says it’s one of the only places she knows of where he can see people loving God back.

We learn about our spiritual ancestry by learning from the wisdom of others. We understand compassion and humility by seeing it modeled. We can’t learn the value of a community of faith if we’re so isolated that we never take the risk of sharing what we believe.

Church can really suck. I’ve been hurt by church, as have many people, but this is no excuse for walking away. We don’t abandon our families simply because we have hard times, do we? Do we quit our job every time we experience conflict? Maybe some people do both of these, but it’s a sign of one’s character to see how they respond to hardship. Do you withdraw, or do you allow yourself to be vulnerable?

No one has to go to church, though some churches are based upon the very opposite precept. Somehow they have a corner on salvation, and without them, you’re outside the circle. Lamott’s response: Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell, and faith is for people who have been there.

Fear is a terrible reason to go to church. As Lamott says, we’ve all been through hell, in one form or another. Still, we feel like we shouldn’t burden other people with our problems. In an increasingly do-it-yourself society, a communal approach to healing is hard to comprehend, let alone embrace. It’s risky, scary and will demand more from us than sitting on our butts, thinking up reasons not to go.

Church isn’t about getting a weekly dose of religion. It’s about realizing faith by living it together. You’ve been through enough. It’s time to stop thinking of reasons why you don’t deserve to be loved, for God’s sake.

Robertson Spins “Prophet” Into Profit

Saturday, January 6th, 2007

Robertson spins ‘prophet’ into profit

Pat Robertson claims that God gave him a message during a prayer retreat. The perennial figurehead of the 700 Club says the divine missive warned of an imminent terrorist attack on American soil in 2007. Whether or not the threat would be nuclear was unclear.

Whether it involves reports of superhuman strength or condemnation of Louisiana residents for exacting God’s wrath in the form of hurricane Katrina, Robertson finds regular excuses to thrust himself into the limelight.

If said attack does transpire, Robertson’s self-proclaimed status as a modern prophet is given credibility. If not, his faithful are sure to go along with whatever reason he comes up with for the hand of terror being stayed. Most likely, this will involve a sufficient supply of prayer, Christian piety and a demonstration of faithfulness in the form of pledges to his media empire – oops, I mean, ministry.

Robertson has been hit-and-miss with his previous God-given predictions, yet his spotty record as the Farmer’s Almanac of eschatology has done little to affect his stature. It seems the man can do no wrong in the eyes of millions of advocates, no matter how hateful, self-aggrandizing or deluded his claims are.

Does that say more about him or about us?

It’s with some reticence that I commit this much space to talking about someone who I consider to be nothing but a charlatan. Each time his critics go on the attack, it only raises his profile to greater levels, suggesting that his rhetoric is worth the ink. What is worth discussion is our insatiable need to know, to lay claim to a magic lens that will peer into the future, giving us a Godlike perspective on the universe, and subsequently some greater sense of control over the outcome of things.

Growing up, a lot of my friends were particularly interested in the prophecies of Nostradamus. I too bought a book of his writing and eagerly tried to connect historical occurrences to his ominously vague prognostications. Even today, people continue to use this sage’s predictions in an effort to determine the trajectory of our collective fate.

There’s one little problem with all of this, however; Nostradamus predicted the world would come to an end at the dawn of this millennium, rendering any predictions beyond the year 2,000 facetious.

Biblically a prophet doesn’t have a .500 average. They’re either a conduit for God’s truth or they’re not. Those who claim to be prophets without such a divinely ordained gift are called false prophets. We’ve been duly warned of the consequences of investing our faith in such characters.

Also, prophets aren’t just fortune tellers. Prophets are more broadly defined as proclaimers of truth, inspired by the word of God. This includes calling B.S. on those who would seek to mislead people with false hopes, misplaced fears or other human-seated motivations and desires.

Here are a few of my own predictions, just for fun.

Global climate patterns will continue to spiral into chaotic and destructive patterns as we continue to ignore the signs of ecological instability, right in front of our noses.

We will reduce our military presence in Iraq over the next few years, but the place will be a mess for decades. The Middle East will never achieve the kind of peace we think they should have in our lifetime, or our children’s lifetime.

Terrorists indeed will continue to target us as long as we are the biggest kids on the block. It’s always been that way.

Some day we will have a non-white and non-male president, but neither will happen in 2008. Finally, energy prices will continue to creep upward until we figure out it makes better financial sense to seek alternatives more aggressively and conserve non-renewable energy sources.

Here’s hoping these predictions offer you a bit of the solace you seek in the new year. Feel free to send any checks you had planned for Pat Robertson my way.

Christmas spirit persists, sometimes in spite of us

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

At the beginning of advent, I wrote about our apparently futile efforts to keep our three-year-old son, Mattias, focused on the central message of Christmas. Though we shared the story with him daily, he continued to insist that Santa was the most important thing about Christmas.

Every day, we sat down at the dinner table and lit the advent candles and read the meditation from the advent book. He’d make it a paragraph into the story before squirming onto the floor or sticking his fingers in the melted wax.

It’s enough to make a parent wonder if anything is sinking in.

Then, a few days before Christmas, Mattias crawled up into his chair at the table and, pointing to each of the five candles in the advent wreath said, “Look dad! All around the Jesus candle is peace, hope, joy and love.”

On Christmas morning, he gasped when he came down the stairs to find an empty milk glass and cookie plate by the fire. He squealed when he found his dinosaur beneath the tree.  Then, before playing with any of his new toys, he headed to the dining room table to help light the candles.

I’ve heard plenty of cynicism this year from any number of people about commercialism devouring the true meaning of Christmas. I’ve shared in the tirades about obligatory stuff-swapping and grudging acceptance of yet another Garfield necktie or fruitcake log. How, after all, do antlers that play “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” remind us of a child born on the fringes of Bethlehem?

I tire of the superficiality and glitter as much as anyone, but to be honest, I’m almost wearier of the complaining about how we’ve lost our way amid the gifts and tinsel. I’ve appreciated the stories I’ve read over the past few weeks about the quiet generosity that often goes unnoticed, all around us.

A woman in Spokane jumped aboard a public bus, along with a cloth satchel filled with envelopes. Before anyone on the bus could identify her, she handed Christmas cards out to everyone on board, each containing a $50 bill, and jumped back off to head to several other buses. No one ever figured out who the mystery woman was, but in the end, she had distributed thousands of dollars to people she had never met.

In Pueblo, scores of churches and community groups joined together to buy gifts for needy families, troops stationed overseas, and to collect clothing and supplies for children abroad. These people will forever be anonymous to those who benefit from their generosity, and they won’t receive so much as a tax break in most cases.

On Christmas day, more than a hundred volunteers took time away from home to feed hundreds of homeless and otherwise isolated people at the Union Depot in what has become an annual tradition. Everyone involved found benefit in the experience according to the Chieftain article, pointing to the fringe benefits of charity for the giver.

Sure, we can all get caught up in the hoopla of the holidays. We eat too much, spend more than we should, and sometimes forget the point. We can find plenty of reasons to believe we’ve gone astray, but in some ways, the Christmas spirit persists quietly around us whether we acknowledge it or not.

Much like the child born to dazed and bewildered parents two thousand years ago, the spirit of Christmas doesn’t impose itself upon the world. It works steadily and quietly whether it’s recognized or not. It whispers amid the shouting, revealing itself one relationship at a time.

Christmas may not look exactly the way we think it should, and we’ll never purge ourselves entirely of the material pageantry. As I watched my son blow out the Christ candle for the last time this year, I’m reminded that people are basically good, despite my inclinations to believe otherwise.