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The United Methodists and Homosexuality: What I Think

I was asked by some United Methodists about my reaction to the called session of General Conference in St Louis recently. I have not been involved in the debate and I’m essentially an outsider now that I’ve left my former work in the church. So my opinion hardly matters.

But I started to write my thoughts and before I knew it, I had six pages and over 2,000 words. Too much for a blog post unless it’s a long form read.

So I extracted a few random thoughts. I’m not interested in re-engaging this debate. William Sloane Coffin said, “The problem is not how to reconcile homosexuality with scriptural passages that condemn it, but rather how to reconcile the rejection and punishment of homosexuals with the love of Christ.” Can’t be done.

Here’s the short version. I’m simply sharing my views. You may agree with these thoughts, disagree, or disregard, but I’m done with debating.

  • I’m disappointed, heartbroken, frustrated and angry.
  • The hurt that has been done to LGBTQAI persons is so deep it is difficult to see how it can be repaired.
  • The legacy of theological malpractice by the missionaries from mission sending agencies of the church for the past 100 years took a seat at GC2019, as Dr. Pamela Lightsey so correctly posted on Twitter and Joey Lopez posted on the website
  • A generation that has grown up in the digital environment and is turned off by judgmental religion is lost to The United Methodist Church.
  • This decision is a rear guard action (See Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus, p. 277) by a church looking backward, reacting to a genuine movement for liberation, and it raises the question, Why would skeptical, informed secular people who are open to seeking spiritual growth bother with this church?
  • The existential crisis affecting The United Methodist Church is indicative of a much broader existential crisis affecting the whole Christian community today and it raises another question, If it can’t get this right does this church have anything of value to say to the world?
  • Broadly speaking, the faith narrative of the 20th Century does not hold up in the 21st Century and the biggest theological challenge facing Christians now is to re-frame Christian belief to show it is meaningful and relevant. Phyllis Tickle was right! See The Great Emergence, p.162.
  • It’s inevitable that a new unitive Christian narrative will emerge because the old Greek idea that the world can be explained in dualistic terms as material and spiritual, later adopted by Christian thinkers, is running out of steam. As science searches for a unified theory of everything, even postulating a multiverse rather than a universe, Christians are challenged to think holistically about God, Creation, and our place in the cosmos.
  • By putting this issue forward as a matter of the authority of the Bible, the self-styled Orthodox movement has assured that the authority of the Bible is diminished even further because the explainers of meaning, to borrow Richard Rohr’s phrase, are no longer limited to the clergy, the church and sacred texts. They are the scientists, technologists and media producers who are shaping culture, changing our lives and explaining the cosmos. Authority has shifted and expanded.
  • A church that arrived at this decision risks making itself irrelevant in the secularized, technologized, media-saturated world of the 21st Century.
  • The claims of Traditional Plan advocates that the vote assures the future of a global church committed to their understanding of orthodoxy is as hollow as it is naive. As Harari points out “History is often shaped by small numbers of innovators looking forward rather than by backward-looking masses.” (Harari, Homo Deus, p. 271.)
  • African and Asian United Methodists will experience the same challenges of secularism, scientific authority, technological change and generational conflict as the U.S., including legal rights for LGBTQAI persons.
  • The decisions by mainline communions including The United Methodist Church in past decades to withdraw from participating in public media leaves the church outside the public conversation and incapacitated to influence attitudes toward justice for LGBTQAI people. “Religions that lose touch with the technological realities of the day forfeit their ability even to understand the questions being asked.” (Homo Deus, p. 271.)
  • Alternative giving options should be considered to assure that financial partnerships support empowerment, justice and equality and do not contribute to discrimination against LGBTQAI persons, women and other marginalized and disempowered people.

Something new and fundamentally different will emerge. And it will be of God.

Who Loses When Institutions Fail?

On the first business day of the new year, I received an automated telephone message telling me that a preauthorization for medical care had been denied and I would receive paperwork later to explain.

This is the first message I’ve had from a new insurance policy that we were required to purchase after the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA), the treasury arm of The United Methodist Church, for which I worked, dropped our retiree insurance policy.

Without explaining why, but promising we would have more choices and perhaps lower costs, we were thrown into the health insurance marketplace. In order to get coverage we were required to deal with a health care marketing firm whose function is to sell policies for select insurance companies.

Descent into Hell

After four days and at least 10 1/2 hours on the telephone and online doing research for a policy, Sharon and I stopped counting the time we were investing.

We gave up the search and enrolled in a policy that isn’t as good as the one we’ve had for the past several years. It’s less flexible, we had to give up one physician who has helped me through two surgeries for an on-going condition, and it’s not clear whether we will pay more or less money.

But, unlike 4 million other U.S. citizens, we’re insured.

In lieu of contributing the employer’s share of a premium, the GCFA is contributing to a health reimbursement account amounting to $4,100 per year for a couple.

As insurance and drug costs rise, no doubt the reimbursement will stay the same, so retirees on fixed incomes will absorb the increase.

I won’t list everything that went wrong. I don’t have enough space and I don’t want to try your patience because the list would be long.

The description one of my friends gave as he went through the process should suffice. “It was a descent into Hell,” he said.

Instead, I want to discuss a larger issue that looms over this decision.

Institutional Failure

The decision made by my employer was an institutional shift away from an understanding of deep ties of mutual obligation rooted in community to far weaker ties based on market choices by individuals engaged in a transaction.

There is a growing body of analysis that traditional institutions in Western liberal democracies are failing. They are being replaced by market-based capitalism.

Health Care as a Commodity

In virtually every country in the developed world, health care is a basic right, and a service. However, in the U.S. we buy access to health care through insurance as if health care is a commodity.

We have turned it into a retail transaction. Thus, insurers, health providers, device makers, and big pharma all are given a piece of the action, all of which is funded from the pocketbooks of everyday workers, retirees, employers (if they offer it), and the uninsured.

This is a system that gives competing forces of predatory capitalism the ability to profit from the potential and actual suffering of people, otherwise known as consumers.

I contend my relationship with my doctors is more than a retail transaction and I am more than a consumer.

Together, we make decisions about my life that affect me and my loved ones. These decisions are about how I live a meaningful, purposeful life. I’m not buying a product, I’m seeking well-being.

The consequence of my employer’s decision to place one of its most vulnerable, powerless and voiceless constituencies into this transactional marketplace illustrates the problem. It’s a direct rejection of this religious community’s theological claim to a preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable as an expression of social holiness.

Where the Power Resides

As we listened to the insurance brokers read scripts written to protect the corporation and remind us “this conversation is being recorded,” it was clear where the power resides in this transaction. Not with us.

As we surveyed which policies included or excluded our physicians, hospital and certain drugs, it was also clear our choices were determined not by our needs but by the commercial relationships large corporate interests have made for their own benefit.

We had to make judgments from a range of choices dictated by corporate bottom lines that would confound the most astute mind.

We are subjected to the vagaries of the market without voice, vote or right to appeal.

This is hardly an authentic expression of our theological teaching about caring for one another as Jesus taught in Matthew 25.

The Church as Community

In the past, as the CEO of one of the global church agencies, I encouraged staff to view themselves as an extension of our larger community of believers, and their work as a form of ministry on behalf of the community as well as service to the community.

We were not individuals pursuing our self-interests, we were part of a collective, multi-layered, interwoven community that ultimately extended from our workplace to congregations to global connections.

It is true that we were in a workplace, but it was a workplace within a context of shared values, common identity, mutual interactions, obligations and shared purpose.

We were deeply rooted, connected and responsible for a common good.

These are the qualities that mark a traditional institution. And this is what is being lost as the marketplace and predatory capitalism subsume the place of these institutions.

If the church does not preserve this understanding of community and commitment in a market-driven, consumerist society, we will continue to leave those without leverage in this predatory system unprotected and vulnerable to principalities and powers far stronger than any one of us can influence alone.

Our Evaluative Outlook on the World

Matthew B. Crawford, writing in The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction says, “commercial forces step into the void of cultural authority and assume a growing role in shaping our evaluative outlook on the world.”

This is the crux of my concern about the decision my institution made—it transfers responsibility for a common good to a transactional, market-based culture. It further diminishes the role of the church in the culture. It fundamentally changes our evaluative outlook on how we view this piece of our world.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck says that the great contribution of traditional institutions is that they provide us the means to resist forces of predation: commercialism, secularization of values, economic exploitation and the depletion of the natural world.

Traditional institutions won’t suddenly disappear, Streeck says. They die by a thousand cuts, conceding responsibility, or being shut out of power, in small, almost imperceptible ways.

Imperceptible that is, until they realize they have no power to resist. They become subordinated to the dominant values of a secular, commercialized, market-dominated dynamic, that is by definition predatory.

That’s why a decision like this has larger implications than recognized on the surface.

The Most Perfect Christianity–to Seek the Common Good

An early church father, John Chrysostom (c. 347–407), once wrote: “This is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good . . . for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.”

When it functions as it should, the church provides us moral instruction, and functions as a moral compass, to blunt, if not challenge, the destructive effects of rampant and unrestrained materialism promoted by predatory capitalism.

It offers us an evaluative outlook on our world.

But today that challenge requires adjustment to a new world of technology, information, and economics unlike humans have known in the past.

New Forms for a New Day

It requires new forms of institutions, constituted to address the powers and principalities of the 21st Century.

It requires imagination and creativity.

Thus, the institutional church should be seeking new ways of being in community in a diverse and complicated world. It must resist the pressure to move toward a society governed by materialistic transactions and offer creative, innovative alternatives.

I believe this involves leaders in the global church giving deep thought and action to conceive new policies—pubic and private—that support a moral economy.

Re-imagining a Place in the World

To be specific, it means imagining how to provide health care to everyone as a basic human right.

In frontier America, the church did this by creating hospitals that became the backbone of the health care system that exists today.

At this writing, in Africa religious organizations provide 40% of health care in the same spirit of public concern.

Nothing less than bold, creative effort is needed in the U.S., and the church should be leading in this effort, not merely reacting to (admittedly) powerful market forces.

It is not enough for our church’s administrative arm to hand-off its retirees’ health care to a transactional marketplace as if they are little more than an economic liability to be written off.

As we hurtle toward an over-heated world whose resources are being depleted beyond the capacity to sustain us, market-based transactions will not save us, they will only hasten the downward spiral.

If the institutions that inform and protect our highest values and ideals abrogate their responsibility for the common good and don’t help us prevent that downward spiral, we all lose.

Bonds of Mutual Affection

Institutions that worked in the 20th century and earlier are faltering and in some instances failing to fulfill the functions for which they were created.

Banks and financial institutions crashed the economy. Our federal government is dysfunctional–and in actions like family separation, it is demonic.

Wherever you look institutions are under duress. Education, government, religious organizations and health care are among them.

I was reminded of this as I sat through a recent meeting in which church officials and third party vendors explained a change in health insurance for retirees from church agencies.

Before you turn away for lack of interest in retiree health insurance, hang with me for a moment because the issue is about much more than that.

In various ways our failing institutions are grasping for alternatives. Some, like banks, seek even more power and freedom to move without regulation. Others, such as churches, are struggling with divisions that threaten their survival.

The move by my national church to put retiree health care into the private market through a third party broker represents how changes in the larger society are eating away at the institution.

In the church, as in civil society, we have viewed ourselves as interconnected. In religious language, we call this “community.” We care for each other and for the larger world.

Community is not only immediate, it includes “the great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before over the centuries.

We are connected. Our humanity binds us in ways that are profound and enduring.

In civil society, Lincoln put it poetically and realistically in his first inaugural address in 1861. “We are not enemies, but friends,” he said. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

These bonds of affection, however, are strained today, and in some cases they are breaking.

We’ve moved from these communitarian values to transactional values. We are less connected by bonds of mutual concern and more connected by the exchange of money.

The market economy has replaced the blessed community.

In the case of the church and retiree insurance, the church agency responsible for managing insurance is turning it over to a third party broker who will put the retirees into the private insurance market.

At the meeting where this was announced, everyone who spoke stated how much they care for retirees. I believe them.

However, this affection yields to the necessity of changing the connection between the retired employee and the institution.

Our speakers promised concrete advantages by including more choices in insurance packages. For some in the room that is vitally important.

Some of us might even get insurance at no cost, they said.

To check this out, I used the Henry Kaiser Family Foundation insurance calculator to explore scenarios for no-cost insurance.

I can’t find a no-cost insurance scenario for my state, a state that chose not to expand Medicaid, and therefore, chose to deny some of the benefit of the Affordable Care Act to its low income citizens.

But I did find that an individual with $15,000 annual income and no spouse who is eligible for insurance through an employer could qualify for a subsidized policy at a cost of $20.00 per month.

I truly fear for you if you’re living at a level that qualifies you for no-cost insurance. You’re on the edge of survival.

And more than 40,600,000 U.S. citizens subsist below the poverty line.

The market economy erodes the bonds of affection. It puts relationship on a fee for service basis.

The Affordable Care Act is based on the principle that those of us in better health would support the health and well-being of those less fortunate through mutually affordable insurance.

This is civic interconnectedness. It is based on the idea that we are a better society when we reinforce our mutual bonds of affection and care for one another.

But both our political institutions and corporate health care have broken these bonds. They have imposed a survival of the fittest system upon us in which wealth correlates to access to health care.

Nearly 40% of U.S. citizens say they have gone in debt to pay medical expenses and 31 million have no insurance.

The projections for the future of the health insurance maketplaces are not good. The actions of Republican legislators to destroy the ACA have charted a course that looks like it will further undermine the principle of mutual benefit through cost sharing.

The church is caught up in the transactional model that is strangling us through the market-based economy led by politicians bought and paid for by large corporations and by the insurance industry that profits from this system.

I do not fault my church officials who made the decision to move us to the private market. They see no viable option.

If we are to recover meaningful civic and spiritual engagement–to be the kind of society that cares for all its people–we must create alternative models and new structures that connect us and restore our mutual bonds of affection.

It is left to grassroots people to organize around the issues that affect us and to seek solutions. We now understand that the political, health care and health insurance institutions are too entrenched and controlled by principalities and powers to create change.

Christian communities and their humanitarian organizations must partner with community organizations addressing poverty and health care to envision new ways of interconnecting.

It is up to those at the ground level to restore the mutual bonds of affection, and to construct new, more humane policies that foster community, equity and justice.

We must do nothing less than envision new ways to connect in order to create new institutions for the future. Difficult as it will be, health care is as good a starting place as any.

Do No Harm

Two United Methodist clergypersons who helped bring charges within church processes against Attorney General Jeff Sessions for instituting family separation write a cogent, compelling explanation in an op-ed published today.

They clearly articulate the United Methodist tradition, placing their action squarely within the theology of the Wesleyan movement and John Wesley’s preaching.

Wesley organized small study groups made up of the poor who were marginalized and overlooked by key institutions, including the church, in 18th century England.

He instructed them to follow three simple rules: “Firstly, by doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind…; Secondly, by doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men (sic); Thirdly, By attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are:

The public worship of God.

The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded.

The Supper of the Lord.

Family and private prayer.

Searching the Scriptures.

Fasting or abstinence.”

In 2007, retired U.S. Bishop Reuben Job abbreviated these succinctly in his small book Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living. “Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.”

Beyond the three simple rules a body of social teaching known as the Social Principles adopted by United Methodists through their global represesentatives known as the General Conference have a section on The Nurturing Community.

Within this section is the affirmation of the importance of family: “We believe the family to be the basic human community through which persons are nurtured and sustained in mutual love, responsibility, respect, and fidelity. We affirm the importance of loving parents for all children.”

The Rev. Monica Corsaro and The Rev. David Wright have done exactly what United Methodists should have done in explaining their actions.

They have engaged the public conversation in a way that is within the finest mainstream theological tradition.

They have explained how faith can inform public policy by pressing for moral behavior and not by imposing doctrinaire dogma on others.

They have provided a clarion call for compassion and reconciliation based upon their understanding of Wesleyan theology, a theology of grace, and of graciousness coupled with a strong commitment to social outreach with particular attention to be with the poor.

They illustrate how United Methodists emphasize two important components of Christian faith: personal and social piety. The two cannot be separated.

The introduction to the Social Principles states: we care enough about people’s lives to risk interpreting God’s love, to take a stand, to call each of us into a response, no matter how controversial or complex.

The Rev. Ms. Corsaro and The Rev. Mr. Wright have provided us an instructive and helpful public witness.

My hunch is that Mr. Wesley would be proud.

Jimmy Carter on Faith

Faith: a journey for all

Jimmy Carter has solidified his global reputation as a statesman and moral leader.

He’s an evangelical who takes politics seriously, but he’s not in the least like those who most loudly represent this branch of the Christian tree in today’s media.

In his latest book Faith: A Journey for All, he explains his evangelical faith, an explanation which is about as traditional as it gets.

It’s so different from the fundamentalist, partisan evangelicals in the public eye today as to make it distinctive, perhaps even redemptive of the word.

His understanding of faith is gracious, compassionate, inclusive and just.

He writes, “I try to remember what I frequently teach: that the love and grace of God does not have to be earned; the message is not ‘Try harder and do better’ but ‘Receive the gift with happiness, and show your gratitude by sharing God’s love with others.’

He illustrates with one story after another. One of the most interesting is how he brought Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat together at the historic Camp David negotiation that resulted in Egypt and Israel entering into a new relationship.

He offers compelling personal history about how his parents, and later he and Rosalind, stood firm against the racism in Georgia that threatened their income, and sometimes their lives.

I found it instructive and challenging. If only I had that attitude of magnanimity and perseverance, I thought as I read.

As we know, his faith has practical consequences. He’s shown this throughout his life.

His discussion of faith, framed with insight from Niebuhr, Barth and Tillich among other mainstream theologians, is more than pieties. Faith values inform his understanding of diplomacy, policy, global relations and the body politic.

For example, his formula for dealing with dictators like Kim Jung Un where sanctions have brought extreme hardship to his people is to target the elite with sanctions on travel, foreign bank accounts, and other privileges of government officials, and not on the economy in which the oppressed are already suffering.

He warns that politicians in the U.S. at all levels are becoming obligated to big money donors. As a result, we are changing from a democracy to an oligarchy.

This is not a new thought, of course, but coming from President Carter, it rings with a power that sounds less like partisan sniping and more like a diagnosis to be taken seriously.

He recalls telling his students in a class at Emory University that church members are more self-satisfied, committed to the status quo and exclusive of dissimilar people than are many politicians he has known.

Many congregations are more like spectators than participants in the quest for justice and social change, he says.

He writes that he believes faith is both a noun and a verb.

Recently, when Jeff Sessions justified ripping immigrant children from their mothers at the border by citing a passage from Paul in Romans 13, in which Paul says we should be obedient to the laws of government because God has ordained government for his purposes, I turned Carter.

He wrote presciently. “Jesus went to his death and Paul spent his final years in prison rather than conform to religious and secular laws they could not accept.”

“We are not required to submit quietly to the domination of secular authority without assessing whether it is contrary to our religious faith.”

Carter explains a complex faith in simple language. He practices what he believes.

He is a gift, and we benefit from his telling of the Good News, truly an evangel.

The End of Diplomacy

Several years ago I produced a film in Ethiopia about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Research took me across the country and I was privileged to see the breadth of this ancient, colorful culture and the landscape in which it has evolved.

At one point, my traveling companions told me about the “China bridge.”

It was a new structure that replaced an older, less reliable bridge over a mountain pass.

Later, I was in another African country and heard about the “China road.”

I began to keep my eyes and ears open to the presence of China in this part of the world.

I knew Chinese workers had provided the labor to build the Nairobi to Mombasa railroad in Kenya under British colonial rule, but it was not a strategic actor in modern times.

China into Africa

However, it was becoming clear that China was inserting itself into the continent by building infrastructure, doing business and exploiting natural resources.

At first, it was a bit clumsy because Chinese workers weren’t there for diplomacy, they were there to get a job done and they didn’t interact well with local populations.

Moreover, China was also buying large tracts of land for agricultural development and this didn’t sit well with locals who were often thrown off the land.

In effect, I was witnessing a new geopolitical move by China to extend its reach into a continent to which it had not given much attention in recent decades.

I thought of this as I read the excellent account of the decline of U.S. diplomacy by Ronan Farrow, War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence.

The Decline of U.S. Influence

Farrow provides first-rate reporting about how U.S. diplomatic strategies were implemented, ignored, or compromised, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

He offers unique insight and detail about the efforts of special representative Richard Holbrooke, among others.

It’s a compelling story, as well as one that should be of great concern. It illustrates how elections in the U.S. make a difference.

Importantly, it makes it clear how the loss of U.S. influence puts national security at risk in these days of geopolitical crises.

As I read Farrow’s account of U.S. involvement in Somalia as recently as 2004, I recalled my own experiences there two decades earlier.

It concerned me way back then that Somalia in anarchy was a destabilizing force in east Africa. But it seemed a mere blip on the radar of U.S. politicians until Somali pirates began to highjack tankers moving down the Gulf of Suez into the Indian Ocean.

To be sure, they were interested in the region much earlier and appropriated the island of Diego Garcia for an airbase, and later estabished a large militay presence in Djoubti, but less about Somalia.

From Diplomacy to Military Think

The crux of the case Farrow makes is that the U.S. has reduced its diplomatic capacity worldwide in favor of increasing its military footprint. This has the effect of putting our international relationships in the hands of generals who have military power but are not skilled at, nor assigned to develop the kinds of relationships with civilian populations as diplomats have cultivated in the past, nor to assist to in the development of countries to encourage democracy.

They enter under security-building protocols, and this is very different.

In fact, so-called “nation-building” is derided and ridiculed today. There will be no Marshall Plan coming from politicians who quietly and spinelessly accept modern-day isolationist ideology.

And that’s a shame as well as a danger.

What is Being Lost

Farrow writes that what is being lost is generations of skill, knowledge and relationships that undergird the U.S.’s efforts to grow democracy and create a more peaceful world, as idealistic as that sounds.

He notes in precise detail how frequently the ideal has been hypocritically betrayed.

China, on the other hand, has stepped up its efforts—it’s transactional diplomacy, not the type of relationship diplomacy the U.S., at its best, has attempted to do—and China is filling in the gaps.

Among other things, this means that youth around the world are interacting with Chinese programs and receiving a worldview from the Chinese perspective, business people are developing transactional relationships with China for business and infrastructure, and politicians are interacting with Chinese officials more directly.

And the U.S. is in the background diplomatically.

A Lost Future

In his epilogue, Farrow quotes senior State Department official Bill Burns as he is leaving his post in the opening days of the Trump Administration.

Burns summarizes the dilemma, “There’s a real corrosion of the sense of American leadership in the world and the institutions that make that leadership real. You end up creating circumstances where you wake up fifteen years from now and say ‘Where are all those Foreign Service officers who should be just short of the mark of becoming ambassadors?’ and they’re not going going to be there.”

But, Farrow writes, China will be there.

Here are two interesting takes on the decline of U.S. diplomacy, not directly related to Farrow’s book, but certainly complementary to the core idea: Trump’s America Does Not Care and Trump Has Put America in the Worst of All Possible Worlds, This Should Have Been the Real Headline of the Trump Kim Summit.

Church Leaders Speak Against Family Separation

The practice of separating children from their mothers at the U.S. border is against the values I have been taught that the United States holds with respect for human rights and it is certainly against the teachings of Jesus. I have written the bishops of my church asking them to speak out. I have written my Senators and Representative asking them to stand against the policy and if necessary rush emergency legislation to block family separation. Silence is complicity. 

In Matthew 25:35-40 Jesus’ message could not be more clear:

35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’



Recently, the U.S. Administration announced that it will begin separating families and criminally prosecuting all people who enter the U.S. without previous authorization. As religious leaders representing diverse faith perspectives, united in our concern for the well-being of vulnerable migrants who cross our borders fleeing from danger and threats to their lives, we are deeply disappointed and pained to hear this news. 

We affirm the family as a foundational societal structure to support human community and understand the household as an estate blessed by God. The security of the family provides critical mental, physical and emotional support to the development and wellbeing of children. Our congregations and agencies serve many migrant families that have recently arrived in the United States. Leaving their communities is often the only option they have to provide safety for their children and protect them from harm. Tearing children away from parents who have made a dangerous journey to provide a safe and sufficient life for them is unnecessarily cruel and detrimental to the well-being of parents and children.  

As we continue to serve and love our neighbor, we pray for the children and families that will suffer due to this policy and urge the Administration to stop their policy of separating families.

His Eminence Archbishop Vicken Aykazian
Diocesan Legate and
Director of the Ecumenical Office
Diocese of the Armenian Church of America

Mr. Azhar Azeez
Islamic Society of North America

The Most Rev. Joseph C. Bambera
Bishop of Scranton, PA
Chair, Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs

Senior Bishop George E. Battle, Jr.
Presiding Prelate, Piedmont Episcopal District
African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church

Bishop Kenneth H. Carter, Jr.
President, Council of Bishops
The United Methodist Church

The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry
Presiding Bishop
Episcopal Church (United States)

The Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer
General Minister & President
United Church of Christ

The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton
Presiding Bishop
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

The Rev. David Guthrie
President, Provincial Elders’ Conference
Moravian Church Southern Province

Mr. Glen Guyton
Executive Director
Mennonite Church USA

The Rev. Teresa Hord Owens
General Minister and President
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Rabbi Rick Jacobs
Union for Reform Judaism

Mr. Anwar Khan
Islamic Relief USA

The Rev. Dr. Betsy Miller
President, Provincial Elders’ Conference
Moravian Church Northern Province

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II
Stated Clerk
Presbyterian Church (USA)

Rabbi Jonah Pesner
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

The Rev. Don Poest
Interim General Secretary
The Rev. Eddy Alemán
Candidate for General Secretary
Reformed Church in America

Senior Bishop Lawrence Reddick III
Presiding Bishop, The 8th Episcopal District
Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

The Rev. Phil Tom
Executive Director
International Council of Community Churches

Senior Bishop McKinley Young
Presiding Prelate, Third Episcopal District
African Methodist Episcopal Church


Jesus Christ Superstar, Where to From Here?

Watching Jesus Christ Superstar last night brought memories of the introduction of this musical in 1970.

It was part of a much larger cultural turning point. Preceded by the musical “Hair,” which condensed and commercialized hippie counter-culture on stage and created a new form of musical theater (the “rock musical”), Jesus Christ Superstar went even further.

It reinterpreted the biblical account of Jesus’ life in rock opera.

The Fusion of Culture and Biblical Story

It was the fusion of pop culture with biblical storytelling, and it captivated young audiences in a way that traditional Christian education could not.

I was reminded of this a few months ago when I returned to speak at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Bellevue, Nebraska, where I served as pastor during those years.

Adults who were in their teen years while I was there reminded me of the study groups in which I used Jesus Christ Superstar as the subject matter.

Whatever their reaction was at the time, the experience stuck, and after all these years, they remembered it.

Before Superstar, the sickly sweet images of a pale Jesus by the artist Warner Sallman defined him. They hung in virtually every local church in the country.

Superstar brought him into the streets. It was gritty. The language was in the vernacular. It captured the human dilemma of power politics and self-serving religious leaders.

It showed us his followers were sometimes faithless and they fought among themselves.

Humanizing the Biblical Story

Superstar humanized the biblical story and made it accessible.

Jesus, Judas, Mary Magdalene—even Pilate—became true to life.

They were more like us than the unapproachable, elevated mythical figures presented in our Sunday school instruction to whom we were told we owed pious devotion.

Last night’s mounting of Superstar by NBC adapted to our steampunk era and performed the same function.

It leads me to this thought: It is imperative to reinterpret the Christian story to make it accessible to justifiably skeptical seekers today.

White evangelical Trumpian Christians have trashed the faith. They have done more damage than most dedicated detractors.

After this, how will Christian faith recover?

Strong Headwinds

The headwinds are strong. Here are a few: the enormous capacity of corporate capitalism to commercialize and exploit virtually every humanistic impulse making life transactional and materialistic, economic inequality, extra-judicial killing of Black people, incessant messages inviting consumption and self-gratification, degradation of the environment, and anti-science religionists all make the challenge of humanizing the culture and re-sacralizing life enormous.

As Franciscan Richard Rohr is saying, it is the challenge to rebuild the faith from the ground up.

In a small way, and as an unintentional consequence of commercial theater, Superstar abets this process. But it will require creative, innovative, biblically informed followers to move the process forward.

Superstar reminds us that our best intentions are not enough. It’s the price we are willing to pay that makes the difference. And the cost may be higher than we bargained for.

Making Disciples, Pale Response

Now, I’m aware that new forms of white suburban upper middle class faith communities are seeking to “make disciples,” but I wonder if they pale in the face of the existential dilemmas experienced by the poor and vulnerable, the opioid addicted and LBGTQI people. They are soft on discrimination, racism, economic injustice and environmental destruction, and strong on personal growth and personal piety.

They are destined, I suspect, to become the equivalent of Sallman paintings when viewed backward from the future.

And Trumpian white evangelical leaders who make so much noise. Well, I’m done with them.

Lest I sound cynical and pessimistic, it’s because I’ve visited dozens of faith communities over the past dozen years, evangelical, progressive, and middle of the road.

Preachers in flannel shirts and blue jeans, backed by praise bands singing an interminably repetitious version of “Our God is an Awesome God,” is a lot like being pummeled by marshmallows. If you swallow them it’s a sugar high that dissipates by the time you leave the parking lot.

Rooted in Community

On the other hand, some local churches are deeply involved in their communities. Mostly, in my experience, these are in areas where people are up against the odds, vulnerable to systemic injustice and troubled by economic hard times. These churches are rooted in places of vulnerability where troubles are on open display.

The Jesus of Superstar was with these people. He was prophetic, and he paid for it with his life. Oh, wait, that is the Jesus of the Bible.

And that is the value of Superstar. It focuses us on the Jesus of the gritty streets. It shines light on conflicted human passions, political power and religious hypocrisy.

Discipleship and the Uneasy Questions

It reminds us that discipleship is not easy, and asks if we’re up to it.

Mary and Peter remind us of ourselves when they sing to him:

“I think you've made your point now.
You've even gone a bit too far to get the message home.
Before it gets too frightening,
We ought to call a vote,
So could we start again please?”

(from MetroLyrics)

I’m left with this. How to start again. To be an authentic follower of Jesus today, what is required of me, and am I up to the challenge?

And, most importantly, the plaintive song Mary sings, perhaps the most moving in the whole opera:

I don’t know how to love him
What to do, how to move him,
I’ve been changed, yes, really changed
In these past few days when I’ve
seen my self,
I seem like someone else.

I don’t know how to take this,

(from Metrolyrics)

In the confusing times in which we live, a turning point in history, a time when the faith has been trashed by hypocrisy and ideology, the wonder, and enormous challenge before those who would seek to live in the faith he inspires, I am haunted by these two questions.

What does it mean to love him?
And, could we start again please?

Nature as Grace

Snowy Owl

I was sitting in a ditch alongside a road in farm country in Kentucky. It was cold and windy. The ground was wet.

My legs cramped as I tried to arrange them around the tripod that held my camera close to the ground. My back hurt and my backside was wet.

I was focused on a snowy owl that had chosen to winter in this place.

The only way I could get a decent photograph was to get low and make the sky the background.

The owl sat on an old concrete building foundation barely three feet above the ground.

Central Kentucky is an unusual, even rare, location for this arctic native.

I heard footsteps and turned as a lady in rubber boots wearing a coat with a hood sat down on the ground beside me and started to talk.

She told me we could park in her driveway at the top of the hill, apparently as a polite and subtle way to tell us we were improperly parked.

Then she began to relate her experiences with the owl. It has been hunting on her side of the road, finding water at her stock pond, and landing on fenceposts nearby.

She shared photos she had taken.

I listened. She spoke of family, nature, the owl and her beautiful dogs. I take great joy in moments like this. Unplanned, authentic, spontaneous connection.

Spontaneous Connections

But she was only one of the half dozen folks I got to talk to that day. There was the farmer who owns the land on which the owl was resting, a local man who bragged that the owl came to his place in the evening to hunt, a local newspaper photographer who interviewed me about my interest in the owl, a mother and adult son who had driven about as far as Sharon and I to see the owl and take photos.

Some people stopped their vehicles in the middle of the road to talk, such is the lack of traffic in this beautiful farm country.

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.

I’ve been thinking lately about nature, and how it is more than a resource for humans to exploit, despoil and use up.

Thoreau on Nature

Thoreau wrote in his journal in 1857, “In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it — dining with the Governor or a member of Congress!! But alone in distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even on a black and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that the cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home… It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked with him.”

I understand Thoreau. I’ve come to myself in solitude. But I’ve also come to others when we share a deep respect for nature. We connect. And when we honor it, nature makes healing connections.

Original Blessing

What I’ve been thinking about is this. Religions that speak of original sin need to be reconsidered. As Fransiscan friar Richard Rohr writes, it would be more accurate to think of our presence on this earth as “original blessing.”

“The first act of divine revelation is creation itself. The first Bible is the Bible of nature,” says Fr. Rohr.

In one of his meditations he shares the words of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore:

Silence my soul, these trees are prayers.
I asked the tree, “Tell me about God.”;
then it blossomed.


We sought a little owl far, far from home. We found, however, connection, community, beauty and joy–a shared experience of the divine.

Teilhard writes, “By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagined [the divine] as distant and inaccessible, when in fact we live steeped in its burning layers.”

Snow Falling Gently

A pileated woodpecker goes about finding food.
(Click to enlarge photos.)

Snow falling gently in a quiet wood is sacramental, a gracious act revealing the sacredness of Creation.

I was reminded of this on a cold winter day as I listened to the rat-a-tat-tat of a pair of pileated woodpeckers and the low hoot of a distant owl as snow covered the woodlands where I stood.

The ethereal rustle of snowflakes alighting on trees provided a musical undertone.

Shhh, shhh, shhh whispers the snow. Be quiet. Be still. Listen. See.

A quiet snowfall is so completely innocent and deeply authentic.

Snow covers the forest bed.

In contrast to the noise with which we all live these days, and to the tawdry artifice of popular culture, this beauty leads to contemplation and reflection.

Before your eyes, the wood is transformed. How can you not be swept away from the mundane and led to consider the sublime?

If the place in which you stand can change so quickly and beautifully what other surprises might nature teach about “reality?”

Snowflakes fall ever so gently.

Well, there is much to learn: Creation is dynamic, an on-going process, as is life itself, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

Life need not be bound by limited expectations. Reality need not be immutably fixed. Transformation happens, sometimes simply and quickly. And it can be beautiful.

Nature awakens us to a higher level of consciousness–or is it a deeper, more interior way of comprehending?

Snow gathers on a reed-like stem.

Of course, the scientist can explain how moisture condenses as warm air rises, clashing with cold resulting in ice crystals that fall to earth. But science cannot explain why we are transfixed with wonder, mesmerized by its beauty and led to contemplate and reflect as it happens.

We can lose ourselves in higher thought and our trivial cares melt away in a snowy woodland day. That’s beyond the ability of science to explain.

A tufted titmouse collects a kernel from an icy plant.

We are invited, however gently, to cultivate the ability to be present and fully attentive, so that we can see and hear in more profound ways, to reach beyond the obvious limits and break out of the binding cords that can make life seem routine and wearisome.

We live in an age that makes a fetish of being productive, an age of doubt, violence, fear and alienation.

Religion has, for many, been turned into uncritical certitude devoid of mystery and wonder, a refuge for exclusion and authoritarianism.

It is diminished, and as a result, matters less to the truly inquisitive.

And yet we yearn for the transcendent.

We must answer the question Einstein said is the first and most basic: Is the universe a friendly place?

I say, “yes.” And more.

What is sacred is not “out there” in some distant nether land. It is here before us and within us. Emmanuel, the holy in-dwelling.

The very ground upon which we stand points to the holy. That we do not see does not make it untrue.

The holy, or, if you wish, that which offers meaning and inspires us, is already before us to apprehend, to discover, with insight, compassion and concern.

That is why snow falling gently in a quiet wood is sacramental.

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