The Need for Unity and Love

Let’s dive right in.  Last night is was announced that Proposed Amendment to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) 14-F will pass.  The vote is unofficial as of this moment, but enough presbyteries have responded to show that it will pass.

What is Proposed Amendment to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) 14-F?  It is the amendment that allows pastors who believe that same-sex marriage is something that can be blessed by God to perform same-sex marriages in jurisdictions that it is legal (and perform ceremonies blessing civil unions already created) and sessions to use their facilities for such ceremonies.  To do this, it redefines marriage to be between two people instead of a man and a woman.

Now, if you are wondering why I wrote that as a description of something humdrum and rote, it’s because I don’t particularly care about the decision. I could make it all sensationalized, write it in a way that charges the emotions and sets your battling heart afire, but this, to me, is not that big of a decision. It does not compel any action whatsoever. Pastors who want to refuse to have any part of same-sex marriages are empowered to do so. Any sessions that want to categorically deny the use of their facilities for same-sex marriages can do so. Pastors and sessions who believe God can bless and be present and the third person in a same-sex marriage can do so. It is freeing, not compelling.  Anyone can treat it as the same interpretation as it was before if they desire.  It simply takes the decision of conscious and put it in the hands of sessions and pastors instead of the General Assembly.

I happen to believe that our restrictions on same-sex marriage hold a lot less biblical weight than a restriction on second marriages after divorce would and are a symptom of discomfort, not strong morality. I think we should be seeking, as churches, to be welcoming people who want Christ to be part of their lives to invite Christ into every facet of their lives and because same-sex civil union (legal marriage, which I think should be the term for all contracts that bound two people, not just same-sex) will soon be nation-wide and likely federally recognized, we should act in a way that opens the door for the Spirit to work within all couples that are legally bound and have Christ bless all unions. Call me crazy, but forcing people to seek Spiritual care, counsel, and guidance elsewhere because of homosexuality strikes me as antithetical to the message of love in the gospel.

That’s what I think about the decision. That’s my answer, as I am able to state it right now.  I wrote that before I had even gotten out of my pajamas, before I had any coffee, I spent the day working on a sermon and worship prep, and my position hasn’t changed.  That’s what I think of the decision.

But, as I said, I don’t particularly feel strongly about it.  I don’t think it as historical of an issue for the church as everyone feels it is, and I think our desire to make it historical has more to do with emotions and right now than it does with 20 years from now.  But that’s me.

You know what I do care about, though?  Hatred and disunity in my church.

If you read that post I wrote last week, you had a glimpse into the struggles I’ve had getting ordained.  There were multiple times I contemplated leaving this church that I love so much because the ordination process was killing my faith.  There were times that I felt this church that raised me and helped me grow was pushing me out and wanted nothing to do with my ministry.  I had to choose to be here, to fight to be there, and sacrifice time in my career (and likely some of Nora’s career) to stay in this church.  And I’m on the right path now, I see a light at the end of the tunnel – and the tunnel isn’t nearly as dark as it used to be – and ordination no longer feels like a pipe dream but an eventuality if I’m willing to work for it.

I had to fight to stay here, though.  I chose to be in this church, and made that decision multiple times when it felt like it was the wrong decision.  I would not have done that if I didn’t love this church, love God, and worship a savior through Biblical means.

Here is what I’ve seen my church do since the passing of 10-A in 2010 and affirmation by presbyteries in 2011:

Disunity and Hatred

I decided to visit the websites of the two PC(USA) groups that fall on the radical ends of the spectrum – the Covenant Network and the Layman – to see what each had to say.  The Covenant Network had a simple letter expressing joy that the measure they had worked to get passed had come to fruition yet understanding that it would create a rift between Presbyterians and hope that the conversation between them could continue.  In honesty, I thought it was a classy gesture and expressed joy while recognizing that not all would be celebrating.

I can’t fault them for that.  They faithfully believed this was the action that God was calling them to, and the celebrated in having it pass.  It’s the same as celebrating victory in an election.

I wanted to present a balanced account of how people were responding and yet I couldn’t because the response wasn’t balanced.  Covenant Network’s letter was about unity and not compelling any action.

When I visit the Layman, I was horrified as I was in 2011 to see how they responded.  I want to give them a benefit of the doubt, that they truly believe that this is so antithetical to Biblical teachings that all who agree with it should be labeled as heretics and stop being called pastors.  (To the Layman’s benefit, much of my horror was from the comment section and not the letter – though the letter wasn’t exactly unifying, either – but those comments point to a mentality.)  I can’t give them the benefit of the doubt when I read nothing but judgement – not admonition or disagreement – in their response.

I can’t understand it because I know people who were fighting this battle on the side that won.  I know pastors who have fought this battle from day one who are biblical teachers, well read and knowledgable and faithful.  I know scholars who have spent a considerable amount of time with the scriptures, the historical context of the words, and the style of literature each book is made up of, and come to conclusions that aren’t just well reasoned but faithful and Spirit-filled, in my opinion.

I know these people.  Some of these people are the reason I’m still in the process and didn’t jump ship.  Some of them have radically changed by views through use of the scriptures – the whole scriptures.  They have made me better at preaching, better at interpreting, better at every facet of ministry.  I am three or four times the pastor I would have been had I just been with people who agreed with me.  I still disagree with many of them – MANY – but I am better, and hopefully they are, too, because we butted heads.

So when I see people calling these faithful, loving, well-read, and Bible-followers heretics, evil, non-pastors, or anything other than loving Christian leaders, I get incredibly angry and I see a symptom of our fallenness.  We desire to be right so much that when we think we are right and the majority disagree with us, instead of seeking to find a way to reconcile that, and reconcile back with each other, we lash out and act in hatred instead of love.

That is unacceptable.  I had a list of people who I believed where literally pushing me out of the PC(USA) for no reason other than they didn’t like me.  Those feelings lead me to lash out at the process – not necessarily the wrong things to say in the situation, but certainly not done in a pastoral way to people who were judging my fitness for pastoral ministry – and that lashing out rightly risked me being removed from the process.  Everything that lead up to it was wrong, but my lashing out made it worse, and needlessly so.

Lashing out of emotion is not helpful.  It may feel good in the moment – I know it did for me – but it does nothing but create hostility.  If you are going to claim that your lashing out is because of something in scripture, show me in the same book of 66 pieces of literature where lashing out of emotion is how to reconcile differing opinions.

The other response from the losing side I see is the victim status.  I could spend hours dissecting that and saying why I think it is childish and baseless, but I’m going to say this:

Nothing in this decision compels anyone to do anything, and no one made this decision outside of their understanding of scripture.  You don’t get to claim victim status if it has no effect on your ministry and wasn’t an attack on your beliefs.

All teaching elders require seminary education, and there isn’t a PC(USA) seminary that doesn’t have exegesis courses.  We may not all agree on the path of interpretation, but we all have a strong background in interpretation because of our educations and the heritage we come from.  No one is a heretic in this situation – conservative or liberal.  You can’t make that claim every time you lose; you have to be an adult about it.

Fight for the next 100 GA’s.  Create resolutions every two years.  Discuss and debate passionately and peacefully.  Spend time honing your Biblical, theological, and historical arguments, and make them stronger so your position can become the majority position.  I encourage it; that’s how we grow.

What you cannot do, period, is claim that anyone who disagrees with you does not follow Christ.  It’s not fair, and you know it.

The other half of victim status is presbyteries who are making it difficult for churches to leave the denomination.  I’ve seen it a couple of times today, and I just want to address it like this:

I think leaving a denomination, further splintering the Body of Christ, is the wrong action.  Period.  If you can show me where we are supposed to fracture and splinter over disagreements of teachings and faithful interpretation in scripture, I will delete this whole thing and publicly shame myself.  But it’s not there.

We are one Body.  One.  I support presbyteries who make it difficult for congregations to leave – especially over an issues that have no effect on ministries that don’t want to have an effect on them – because we preach unity.

If the decisions today were to compel pastors to perform the ceremonies and sessions to allow them under their roof, then I would think the splintering was done to the congregations.  As it is now – and has been stated as the goal all along – the decision is to lie with the teaching elders and sessions.  You can be blunt about disagreeing, vocal about not doing it, put it in bylaws.  You are not forced to be something you cannot faithfully be, and splintering because effectively nothing changed for you is unacceptable and an emotional response.

And again, if it were truly heresy, then it would no longer represent the Body of Christ.  As it is, we also ordain women and allow women to enter the church while menstruating and eat shrimp and say slavery is bad and no longer have concubines and polygamy, all of which is from scripture.  This isn’t a heretical decision much like saying slavery is bad wasn’t a heretical decision; it is an interpretation of scripture, done faithful and humbly.

We cannot become splintered because of this.  We can’t just run away every time we don’t get our way.  Some of us fought to serve this church and find it offensive that people are willing to split because a decision didn’t go their way.

And ignoring my selfishness, that isn’t the way we show love to one another.  If you truly believe something is evil, you stick around and lovingly try to fix it.  If you believe someone has erred, you admonishing them lovingly, from a position of humility, and seek to reconcile.  You don’t respond out of hate, disunity, and a desire to break apart.

We are called to be One Body, and confess to One God.  Maybe we should worry a little bit more about that and not a decision of conscious being given to the individual churches instead of a mandate from on high.

Breathe in.  Breathe out.  Pray my sermon – which is completely irrelevant to this blog post – is actually Spirit filled and not just me blabbering for 15 minutes tonight.

In Christ and out of love,

– Robert

Coffee

Every morning that Nora doesn’t have to open, we sit and drink coffee.  It isn’t a ritual thing, or even really an activity that we do together – right now she’s enjoying her coffee and I’m writing while we occasionally say something to each other.  Nora drinks coffee every morning.  Sunday morning rolls around and, because the sermon is never complete early, I need that cup of coffee to not be yawning throughout the service.  A nice cup of fauxspresso and Irish creme is…well, it’s just heaven.

We love coffee.  I honestly can say that I think I am better for having acquired the taste for coffee.  There are three things to have conversations over – food, beer (or whiskey), and coffee – and not having one of those three in my back pocket would have made the conversations I’ve had over the last 4 years less.  Period.

Have you ever offered a coffee drinker a cup of coffee when they had none?  It is amazing how much that cup of coffee can warm that person, both physically and emotionally.  I don’t remember where I picked this up, but I firmly believe that you can any knowledge of a person you want if you just offer them the comforting drink of their choice that isn’t alcohol-based; for coffee drinkers, and especially caffeine addicts, a cup of coffee will more usefully loosen a tongue than a bottle of bourbon or vodka.

My grandfather went downtown every day until the day he died and had coffee with all of the other old farmers from Battle Creek.  It was at the gas station, but either the coffee price went up or they took out most of the booths so they changed to one of the bars.  Then for some reason that didn’t work out so they moved to a small collectible shop across the street that basically served coffee and sweets so they would have a place to drink coffee and eat sweets in the morning.  And they did until many of them had passed.

My grandpa was at a funeral the day before he died and someone snapped a picture of him drinking a cup of coffee; even now, ten years after we lost him, my grandma still has that picture taped to the wall and she still has coffee with him.

Coffee is a part of life for a lot of people.  I’m not talking about a mochafrapaccinolatte (yup, made that up) concoctions that mask all of the coffee taste; I’m talking about a pot of drip coffee, milk and sugar for those who want, sitting around talking.  Growing up, after church on Sunday, the kids went upstairs for Sunday School and the adults went downstairs and drank coffee.  The coffee pot in the seminary lounge had the worst coffee imaginable and yet there was always a group of people talking and preparing their coffee right before and in-between every class.

There is something about the warmth, the bitterness, and the ritual around it that just brings people together.  It’s an intangible, something I can’t put my finger on, but it’s there.  Coffee brings people together.

(Note before I continue: I’m not a coffee-elitist.  Tea is wonderful, as well.  As is hot chocolate.  Mmmmmm, hot chocolate.  I just one, grew up in a coffee-culture, and two, find drip coffee in coffee mugs to be a unique part of our culture.  Other parts of the country, and other parts of the world, probably have their own thing that has the same effect coffee has on people in rural Iowa and much of the United States.)

As wonderful as coffee is, and it is wonderful, it has a serious dark side to it.  Big, multinational growers of coffee had harmed people in the name of cheap coffee.  People have been killed, have been starved, have been hurt just to make cheap, bulk coffee.  I’m not a social justice warrior of any sort and I really understand how money works for people who are without, but there was a point that I had to be honest with myself and align my consumption with my beliefs.  I can’t remember when it was, but I remember drinking a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee, enjoying the taste quite a lot, and then thinking, “Someone has hurt to make the situation correct for this cup of coffee to be placed in my hands.”  And mind you, Dunkin Donuts coffee isn’t a cheap brand of grind, either; more ethical coffee costs a bit more, but it isn’t cheap like a store-brand grind.  It just struck me that I was participating in hurting people, and for a cup of coffee that was good but cheap(er).

I didn’t get perfect right away; it took me a bit to get to that point where I drink mostly ethical coffee.  You will still occasionally find cheap, store-band coffee in our fridge.  We aren’t perfect, and I will still get a cup of coffee at a restaurant without asking about it’s sourcing, but I am trying to help the situation.  I am trying align my love of coffee with my love of humanity and doing the small part that I can to help people who are being hurt for coffee.

So what do we do?  I’m not a huge proponent of Fair Trade because, though I agree with the philosophy and the goal completely, I’m not sure I agree with the practices nor the price of certification.  I will never look down at someone who has switched to Fair Trade because every ethical option helps but that isn’t the route I’ve been following.  Instead, I’m a huge fan of a couple of smaller outfits who aren’t certified but do a lot of good.

The first one is Justo Cafe/Just Coffee.  What I love about this is that everything – growing, roasting, and distribution – benefits the actual people in the area.  It’s also organic and shade grown, which is good for the Earth and not just her people.  And it’s good coffee; the preaching professor gave us a bag for class and it was quite fantastic.  In honesty, learning about this coffee really planted the seed to start drinking ethical coffee in me and guided me into wanting to change my plans.

The second is More Than Coffee.  There are a lot of groups that have this name; the one I am talking about is at http://www.morethancoffee.info.  The coffee itself is delicious, sourced from Ethiopia, and the farmers are treated as well or better than Fair Trade farmers are.  In terms of ethics, they are solid.  What is cool about this group, though, is that the profits are put back into helping the orphans and widows of Ethiopia.  What is even cooler is that I actually got to meet the woman who started it, know people who work with them personally, and I can attest to their love of God and love of helping people.  I have faith in the goodness of people who do these things, but knowing the people who do this makes it the obvious choice for us in our coffee drinking.

Their Ethiopian Delight is also the only coffee I have ever had that stopped me in my tracks with how delicious it was.  It is just amazing coffee.

Do I think these are the only good options for ethical coffee?  No, absolutely not.  I just know about them and have done research into them.  What I’m saying here is that you should know where your coffee comes from, know how the growers are treated, and find coffee that aligns with the second greatest commandment – Love your neighbor as yourself – and isn’t a selfish choice for you.  Just do a bit of research and find a brand that you feel is doing good instead of harm in the name of coffee.

Small choices, small actions by everyone change the world.  This is a small thing you can do.

In Christ,

– Robby

Do No Harm

Writer’s block, you are just a horrible, horrible thing.  Not only do you prevent me from actually be productive but you also force me to play 2048 in hopes that something in my creative brain will spring a leak and I’ll finally get the ambition to either get up and leave or just write something.  And how fickle she is with what will spark the fuel.

Facebook.  I spend so very little on Facebook when I’m not working on SSEM stuff or trying to fall asleep and I get bored easily on it.  But I do like to post interesting things, and when I see Vince Gilligan is making a show that has the same name as my home town (Battle Creek, which I assume is Michigan because a crime show about Battle Creek, Iowa is going to be about as exciting as Corner Gas), I had to post it.

After that, I looked a bit and I saw a Methodist pastor friend of mine had posted a short guide to a Wesleyan approach to social media and the first rule was “Do No Harm.”  I’ve also been bingeing on House, M.D. (thank you Netflix) and that whole ideal pretty much gets thrown out the window constantly in hopes of diagnosis and healing.  I’ve also had the Westboro Baptist Church in my mind, both their hatred and some of the positive response to their hatred (and negative response), and I’ve wanted to address that whole method of evangelism.

I think it sticks in my mind so much because my goal with every sermon is, first and foremost, to “Do No Harm.”  Whenever I’m writing a sermon and I come up on something that is going to poke the congregation in the eye with a sharp stick – which I do like to do – I always consider the ramifications beyond forcing thought and questioning.  I don’t even really mind offending people but just offending people for offense sake is going to do nothing for their soul.  There is no reason for me to kick the souls of those who are gathered there to worship on Sunday just because I want to be edgy and whack all of the preconceived notions they hold in their hearts with a flaming sledge-hammer as violently as possible.  There is not point or reason for that unless those preconceived notions are actually harming them in a way that is comparable to the harm I am doing to their psyche by doing this.  I am not that arrogant.

The one big thing that I am always stuck on is the harm that can be done around death and mourning.  I tell people their being jerks, their being judgmental, or that their views on sin are all sorts of wrong with only a slight amount of trepidation but even mentioning death and dying makes me want to fall into that path of no resistance.  If I can just get “Jesus loves you” across without saddening anyone too much, I think I’ve won.  In that moment of mourning, it is so incredibly easy to lose faith; trying to use that moment as a springboard for a prophetic word is basically forcing people away from God.

But the prophetic words are necessary.  We have 4 major prophets and 12 minor prophets that get their own book in the Bible.  We are sinful and we need those who have a prophetic word to share to actually share it with us and guide us back to a path of righteousness.  It is necessary and good, but it also should be intentional, timed well, and should focus on the glory and goodness of God and not at all on the goodness of the messenger.  “You’re evil and I’m good!” is not a prophetic message, as much as those who preach would like it to be.

No matter the message, and no matter the messenger, there are times that a prophetic message will do harm and no good.  I think about the prophetic messages in the Bible and I cannot think of message that was given in a time of mourning.  There are plenty that came preceding and telling of times of mourning, plenty that basically told the Jewish people that what was coming was brought upon them by themselves, but it was never delivered once they were mourning.  People don’t hear those messages in times of mourning.  Christ taught a lot of prophetic things and yet he simply mourned at Lazarus’s death (then brought him back to life, but that’s a bit off topic).

A prophetic word given specifically in terms of a death will do nothing but drive people away.  Even if the person was (insert horrible, disgusting sin that the community believes will send them to Hell), that moment is not the moment to remind people of Hell and condemnation.  The funeral of a 14-year-old son of a minister and grandson doctor is certainly not the time to give a universal prophetic of how the United States is going to Hell because of homosexuality and holding funerals.

Trying to not get pointed but can you see the flaw in their logic?  This boy probably loved everyone around him, his father has dedicated his life to teaching Christ’s message, his grandfather dedicated his life to healing, and they were shot in cold blood.  The Jewish people mourned and held services to honor the dead.  Christ’s body was to be prepared by Mary Magdalene.

Disagree with the theology around having a body at a funeral?  That’s fine.  Think we worship the dead a bit too much?  I agree with you.  Think the funeral of a 14-year-old boy who has friends who need to cope with the senseless loss of life and need to see a body for their psyche to accept that his death is real is the place to protest funerals?  No, it isn’t.

Do no harm.  No matter what your theology is, what your message is, there is no where in the Bible we are called to do harm.  If we take Christ as an example, especially on this Maundy Thursday submitting himself to the priests to become the sacrificial lamb for humanity, we should also be submitting ourselves, sacrificing ourselves for others and looking to life them up, not tear them down.

Do no harm.  I’m also struck, though, at the hatred that is shown towards people of this nature.  I’m not surprised by it – heck, I’ve even joyfully participated at times – but I am struck at how easily we hate them because of the sins they commit.

Have you thought about what kind of room in Hell Fred Phelps is sitting in right now? Because I have, and I am shamed by that.  I have had a serious shift in how my theological stances express themselves in a practical manner and if I am going to stand by the ideal that there isn’t a sin that is uniquely capable to condemning you to Hell, I have to stand by that.  Condemning anyone, judging anyone, and glorifying yourself are each sinful, but so is gluttony and sloth.  If my sins don’t condemn me to Hell because of my faith in Christ and recognition of my sin, then I cannot begin to claim that he is in Hell when I am saved.

I posted this sign before but I am going to post it again.  I’m going to be working with the “What Not To Do” when talking about sin but I think we need to worry about what to do, as well.  So in practice, the inverse of “Do No Harm” is “Do Good.”  So if I wanted to do good with this, this would be my option:

Do good.  I wonder why people don’t offer them food and drink, feed them and make sure they are healthy.  I get the counter-protests, I get the desire to drive them away, but we should be like the Good Samaritan.  Even if they are the most detestable group of people to us, we should be loving them like we love each other.

“Do No Harm”

To loving each other,

– Robby