Monday, July 29, 2013

Prayer that Makes Sense

One of the frequent misused teachings of Jesus involves his instruction to ask, seek, and knock (Luke 11:9–13). There are Christians who treat this as something magical like a genie in a bottle or mechanistic like putting money in a vending machine. They think that if they say the right words, or use the right formula, or if they believe with all their hearts then the answer will be granted.

The section on prayer in Luke’s Gospel where this teaching is found begins with the disciples asking Jesus how to pray. Jesus starts with the model prayer: When you pray, say . . . (11:1–4). This model prayer orients and frames the rest of his teaching on prayer. This is a prayer that teaches us how to be in relationship with God, how to be God’s friends and partners in doing God’s will.

When we pray this prayer we are learning how to work with God for the common good. We are learning how to participate in the realization of God’s rule of peace — justice for the poor, liberation for the oppressed, and the redemption of all creation. We are learning how to trust God’s provision to sustain us on our spiritual journey and empower us in our struggle against the powers that be. We are learning how to give and receive forgiveness and work for the reconciliation of all that is estranged and at odds. We are learning how to bring healing and hope to others and to enhance life on this planet in whatever ways we can.

At the end of this section on prayer Jesus draws an analogy with a loving parent. If a loving father or mother with all their imperfections knows how to give good things to their children, how much more does our Father/Mother in heaven. It’s important to note that Luke changes Matthew’s version in a particularly important way. Instead of saying that our Father in heaven will give “good things” to those who ask, Luke’s version says that our Father in heaven will give “the Holy Spirit” to those who ask. What God gives is God’s self.

It’s all about a growing, dynamic relationship with God through which we participate with God in the redemption and transformation of our world. In Luke’s sequel, the book of Acts, the filling of the Spirit is always connected to empowerment for mission, witness, and service.

So to be in relationship with God means that our circles of interest, compassion, and engagement will always be expanding. Ten or fifteen years ago I would not have been engaged in issues of social justice as I am now, but my concern and involvement has expanded as I have grown in my relationship with God.

C.S. Lewis in God in the Dock points out that there are two kinds of causation. One is entirely under our control. The other, which is not, works through the medium of request.

For example, if I have weeds in my garden I need not ask God to remove them for me. If I want them out of my garden, then I best go pull the weeds or find someone to do it for me. All of this is within my power and authority to do. On the other hand, let’s suppose I have a friend who is an alcoholic and his alcoholism is ravaging his family. I hurt for them and because I love them I want desperately to “fix” the problem and make life better for them, but it is not within my power to fix. If I try to demand or force a “fix” upon them or if I resort to conniving and manipulating, I will end up making things worse.

So what can I do? I can ask my friend to get help. If he doesn’t listen the first time, I can keep asking. I can ask his wife and children to not enable his behavior and to get the help they need. Asking is the way to genuinely help them. I can also ask God to give me wisdom and create within my friend and his family a desire to seek help. So asking is a very crucial aspect of any relationship, and this is certainly true in our relationship with God.

In a dynamic relationship with God not only do we ask, seek, and knock, God does too. Sometimes our minds are closed and our hearts are hard, but the Spirit is persistent. The Spirit is “the hound from heaven” who constantly pursues us. 

We can only start where we are and that’s exactly where God wants us to start. We can decide right now to cultivate a spiritual life—a life of listening, asking, and partnering with God in God’s healing, restoring, reconciling work.

The invitation to prayer is an invitation to a life of intimacy and partnership with the Creator and Sustainer of all things, who indwells us all and is active in bringing healing and harmony to our relationships, communities, and our global village.

Monday, July 22, 2013

There Are Limits to Religious Freedom

Currently in the city of Frankfort, Kentucky where I serve as a pastor, a fairness law is being considered by our City Commission that would prohibit discrimination against the LGBT community. The ordinance, if passed, will be an amendment of the city’s fair housing laws, adding new sections banning discrimination in the categories of public accommodations and employment. It also adds “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the list of classes already protected under state and federal law. 

The primary opposition to the fairness ordinance is coming from conservative Christians. Hershael York, Pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, recently wrote an op-ed that appeared in the Frankfort State Journal signed by fourteen other local clergy. The op-ed was titled, Fairness Ordinance hurts people of faith.  

The basic thesis of the op-ed, which has been the incessant cry from the conservative Christian community, is that a fairness ordinance reversely discriminates against people of faith. Rev. York raises the question: “If a landlord believes that she would be acting contrary to scripture by renting to a heterosexual couple who live together without being married, shouldn’t she have the right to refuse them regardless of how many units she owns or where they are?” He closes his piece by saying: “No city ordinance should put any of our members in the position of tacitly approving or enabling what we sincerely believe to be contrary to God’s will. It’s just not fair.”

The question posed by York is like asking: If a restaurant owner wants to have separate restrooms for blacks and whites because he believes that such is necessary to preserve the natural order created by God, shouldn’t he have the right to? The obvious answer to both questions is a resounding no.

Are people of faith being treated unfairly because fairness laws prohibit them from discriminating based on their religious values? This same argument was made by religious people against desegregation and, prior to that, abolition.

The practice of my religious freedom ends when it infringes upon the rights of others and discriminates against them—at least in public life. Religious communities are still free to discriminate up to a point. For example, many churches still do not allow women pastors, elders, or deacons. The freedom to discriminate against women within religious communities is protected by our Constitution. Outside religious institutions it’s a different playing field.   

Rev. York makes reference to Sunrise Children’s Services, an agency of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, who got into trouble with the state for dismissing a worker on the basis of her sexual orientation. His point is that promises of exemption for religious institutions are not reassuring. But the reason Sunrise Children’s Service is in a court battle is simple: When you take Caesar’s money you are obligated to play by Caesar’s rules. When a religious institution accepts state money then, it can be argued, it should have to conform to the antidiscrimination laws that govern state institutions.
If a landlord cannot in good conscience rent to unmarried heterosexual or same-sex couples for no other reason than on moral grounds, then that landlord needs to get out of the renting business. Should a business owner be allowed to discriminate against people who fail to conform to their religious values? Of course not. That’s why we need fairness laws. Healthy religion, by the way, respects these boundaries and pursues the common good. 


Friday, July 19, 2013

What Conservatives Can Do to Protect their View of Marriage

Conservative analyst and commentator Charles Krauthammer in a recent piece in the Washington Post lamented that in striking down DOMA the Supreme Court enumerated equal protection as one rationale for their decision. He argues (rightfully so) that the rationale of equal protection will lead eventually to nationalizing gay marriage. 

We have turned a corner. While conservative states will rev up their stands against gay marriage as they did when the Supreme Court ruled segregation laws unconstitutional, their ultimate defeat on the issue of gay marriage is inevitable.

Just as there are key transitional stages in biological evolution, so we have now entered a transitional stage in our spiritual and moral evolution, at least in our part of the world. Recent polling indicates that in some estimates as much as 80 percent of the younger generation now supports gay marriage.

What’s a conservative to do? In an excellent piece in Baptists Today executive editor John Pierce contends that progressives and conservatives could agree that government should get out of the marriage business all together, because “holy matrimony belongs to the church (and other religious communities), not justices of the peace or any other government official.”

Distinguished Kentucky author Wendell Berry argues the same point. In a presentation at Georgetown College (Kentucky), Berry said that “the sexual practices of consenting adults ought not to be subjected to the government’s approval or disapproval, and that domestic partnerships in which people who live together and devote their lives to one another ought to receive the spousal rights, protections and privileges the government allows to heterosexual couples.”

In other words, for the purpose of equal protection under the law (tax benefits, inheritance rights, etc.) the government should treat all civil unions and domestic partnerships equally. It should be left solely to religious bodies to determine who is married according to their rules of faith and practice. Religious marriages would obviously be recognized by the government as civil unions, but civil unions would not be limited to marriage. Civil unions guaranteeing equal protection under the law would include same sex partnerships.

Would this not solve the controversy? Marriage is a sacred union most often performed in religious institutions by a religious leader. God is invoked in the process. Let religious communities set their own standards for marriage and let government govern without discrimination.

I would think that any religious community that believes in the separation of church and state could champion this modest proposal. If conservatives continue to fight same-sex marriage on current grounds, they will lose. It is just a matter of time before a federal mandate will overturn state laws prohibiting gay marriage. Eventually all 50 states will find themselves on the right side of history, swept along by the tide of an evolutionary change in spiritual and moral consciousness, even if they cross over kicking and screaming.

Monday, July 1, 2013

No One Who Claims to Believe the Whole Bible Does

            No biblical inerrantist who claims to apply the Bible literally actually does. Consider these examples.
            In 1 Peter 3:3 Christian wives are told not to braid their hair or wear gold ornaments or fine clothing (see also 1 Tim. 2:9). How many literalists do you know who apply that literally?
            In 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 the Law is invoked to silence women in the church. They are not permitted to speak or even ask questions in the assembled congregation. Do you know of any church claiming to believe all the Bible (God said it and that settles it) who actually practices this? (Many progressives believe this passage was inserted into the letter by a later Christian scribe as a reaction to Paul’s egalitarian practice of including women in ministry and leadership; see 1 Cor. 11:5; Rom. 16:3-16; Gal. 3:28.)
            In Mark 10:1-12 Jesus allows no exceptions for divorce. We know that biblical inerrantists divorce at about the same rate as the rest of us. Obviously they do not actually apply what they claim to believe. (Some progressives believe Jesus prohibited divorce in order to give Jewish wives equal footing. In Palestinian culture wives could not legally divorce their husbands.)
            All of us—biblical inerrantists and non-inerrantists—give certain Scriptures more authority than others in our lives and faith communities. We all read and apply the Bible in keeping with the beliefs, ideas, attitudes, biases, worldviews, etc. that we bring with us into the interpretative process.
            If we can admit this, then we can be more intentional in reading and applying Scripture. We can choose more carefully which Scriptures will have the most meaning and authority in our lives and churches. We can be more aware and purposeful about the biases and preferences we bring to the interpretation and application of biblical texts.
            For example, I intentionally begin with the assumption/belief that God is good. This is how I have experienced God. So when I interpret passages that include the image of “hell,” I interpret those passages metaphorically and spiritually, not literally, because my assumption is that a good God would never torture people. To claim that God is good and God tortures people is a blatant contradiction. Inerrantists claim to believe the contradiction, because they claim to believe the whole Bible, but they really don’t, as the three examples above show.  
            To claim that one does not bring any presuppositions, assumptions, biases, and beliefs into the interpreting of Scripture is to be like the ones to whom Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:41).
            To recognize our blindness, to acknowledge all the ways our vision is clouded and distorted, is to begin to see. But to claim to see clearly, like claiming to believe and apply the whole Bible, is to remain blind.