Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Town Hall Address on Behalf of the Fairness Ordiance

The following address was spoken on behalf of an effort to pass a fairness ordinance in Frankfort, Kentucky at a town hall meeting: 

My name is Chuck Queen and I speak as a citizen of this community, a participant in the Frankfort coalition for fairness, and as a Christian minister in the community.

It seems to me that all the arguments that have been marshaled against this ordinance are the same kind of arguments that were used against civil rights legislation. And we know from this side of history how wrong those arguments were and how they cloaked deeply entrenched biases. I do not want to suggest that the same motives are behind the opposition to this ordinance, because I am no one’s judge, but they are the same arguments. And we all should be aware that the larger world will judge us on that basis and will make that connection.

As a Christian minister, and particularly a Baptist minister I am deeply disappointed that the major push against this ordinance is coming from the Christian community and the Baptist community in particular. But I can assure you as a Baptist minister that the voices of opposition certainly do not speak for all Christians, nor do they speak for all Baptists.

One of the constant themes in the Gospels is how Jesus over and over crossed borders and boundaries, overturned barriers, and tore down walls to welcome, accept, and include the very ones that the religious and social establishment had marginalized, disenfranchised, and excluded. I’m sure the religious establishment of Jesus’ day had some very rational and reasonable arguments why these others could not be included. At great personal cost Jesus challenged the status quo and refused to conform to the voices of exclusion.

I want to urge our City Commission not to heed the voices of exclusion.  There are other Christian leaders like myself and many other Christians who favor this ordinance and we believe that fairness and equality and inclusion are Christian principles.

I would ask you to listen to the voice that speaks from and to your deepest self and then go forward with drafting and passing an ordinance that protects our LGBT sisters and brothers while respecting religious freedom. Passing such an ordinance is the just, good, right and fair thing to do. 

I wrote the following letter to the editor after the ordinance passed:

Frankfort passed a fairness ordinance, thanks, in no small part, to the excellent work of the Frankfort Fairness Coalition. They have demonstrated that progressives passionate about equality, inclusion, and bettering our world can be just as mobilized and engaged for a cause as conservatives when they are fueled by oppositional energy against a cause. It seemed to me that many of those who participated in the Fairness Coalition, who claim no church affiliation, acted more Christian (like Christ) than some Christians who vehemently opposed this ordinance.

Special thanks to Mayor Bill May and Commissioners Katie Hadden and Tomas Haines for voting for this ordinance. This ordinance will play a vital role in helping to create a climate of inclusion, equality, and antidiscrimination in Frankfort.

Also, I would like to thank the local ministers who supported this ordinance, some of whom spoke for it and wrote letters to the editor. They have demonstrated that a progressive Christian vision is alive and well in Frankfort.

Progressive Christian leaders take the Bible just as seriously as Christian conservatives; we simply have a different way of understanding and interpreting Scripture. And we especially take Jesus’ life and teachings seriously, who we believe embodied and proclaimed an inclusive vision of the kingdom of God.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Kingdom Finances 101: Not What You Would Expect.

Jesus tells an intriguing story in Luke 16:1–9 about a dishonest manager who, on his own, strikes off significant amounts owed by the owner’s debtors so that when he is dismissed by the owner the debtors will welcome him into their homes. Jesus or Luke says (it’s hard to know where the story ends and the commentary begins):

“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (9:8–9).

Who are the “children of this age”? These are persons who live by (who are motivated and driven by) the values of this age. Jesus or Luke infers that the “children of this age” are quite clever in arranging and securing their future in this world. This is obviously a general observation. Not everyone is so good at that. But that is the goal isn't it? To secure ones place and future in this world.

Now let’s be honest. We are all caught up in securing our place and future in this world. Let’s not pretend to be more pious than we actually are. I’m caught up in it and you are too. In some measure, we are all children of this age. And we don’t stop being children of this age even when we identify ourselves as children of light—at least not practically.

We have to be very careful about drawing narrow and rigid distinctions in either/or terms. Unfortunately, this is a common practice that must change. Practically speaking, we are not one or the other, we are both. We are both children of this age and children of the light. We desperately need to move beyond the talk of “in” groups and “out” groups as much as we can. I know it’s not possible to do that completely, but we must learn to see that it’s never totally one way or the other; it’s almost always a matter of degree.

So the issue is: To what degree are we children of this age and to what degree are we children of the light? That’s the real issue. It’s never absolute; it’s never simply one way or the other.

To be “children of the light” means that in some measure we reflect the light that Jesus is. It means that to some degree we share Jesus’ values, we embody his compassion, we incarnate his concern for the poor, we exercise his love for all people, and it means that we are committed to God’s dream of a just world, the dream for which Jesus lived and died. 

Jesus is saying that we who identify ourselves as children of the light can learn something from those who are living primarily to secure their own well-being and future.

What can we learn? There’s a lot not to learn or to unlearn, but we can learn this: We can learn how to use money for kingdom purposes. We can learn how to use money to make kingdom friends.

As we follow Jesus in the Gospels we learn who these friends are. The religious leaders complain to Jesus and his disciples: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30). Jesus is accused of being the friend of tax collectors and sinners (Matt. 11:19). Jesus tells his disciples that when they throw a banquet to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13).

Kingdom purposes are of a different nature than that of securing one’s own well-being in the world. Kingdom purposes are kin-dom purposes—purposes related to the common good because we are all kin, we are all one family. The kingdom or kin-dom of God is about securing justice for the poor, liberating the oppressed, healing the diseased and demonized, setting free the addicted, forgiving sinners (that includes forgiving ourselves), bestowing dignity upon outcasts, and including the excluded.

I find it interesting that Jesus or Luke calls money “dishonest wealth” (NRSV). The RSV translates it “unrighteous mammon.” Mammon is a transliteration of the Aramaic term that references money as a god.
Money has a god-like quality that appeals to our allegiance and devotion. By calling it “unrighteous” this means that money is not morally neutral. It is a rival god that must be dethroned. 

Richard Foster, in his book The Challenge of the Disciplined Life puts it this way: “Money has power out of all proportion to its purchasing power. Because the children of this world understand this, they can use money for noneconomic purposes. And use it they do! Money is used as a weapon to bully people and to keep them in line. Money is used to ‘buy’ prestige and honor. Money is used to enlist the allegiance of others. Money is used to corrupt people . . . Rather than run from money, we are to take it—evil bent and all—and use it for kingdom purposes. We are to be absolutely clear about the venomous nature of money. But rather than reject it we are to conquer it and use it . . . to advance the kingdom of God.”  

What Foster is saying is that when money is subdued and captured and stripped of its power to corrupt, it can then be used for kingdom purposes. Instead of serving money we are called to use money to serve the higher goals of God’s purposes. 

This is a very different agenda from that of securing one’s own future isn’t it? We can learn from the children of this age (this involves learning from ourselves) how to use money wisely and shrewdly to help create a just world, to help bring healing and hope and redemption to whomever and wherever we can.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Releasing the Divine Image

I love the legendary story that has emerged with regard to Michelangelo’s Pieta (a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture that depicts Jesus being held by his mother Mary after being taken down from the cross).

According to the legend, Michelangelo was too poor to purchase new marble for his work, so he went out among the stones deemed unworkable and discarded by other artists. As he made his way through this graveyard of rejected stones, a particular stone captured his attention. As he studied it, he could see the figures of Jesus and Mary just waiting to be released.

Does God see in us an image just waiting to be released? Of course, the archetypal image for Christians is the Christ image. We are called to follow Jesus, to reflect his love, his grace, his compassion for the downtrodden and his passion for a just world.

What needs to be chiseled away for us to become like Christ? Does God need to chip away at our anger, our indifference, our apathy, our resentment, our greed, our need to be in control? Do we have sharp edges of character that need to be smoothed over? What do we need to be released from in order to become the masterpiece God envisions?

The image of the potter and the clay in Jeremiah 18 functions as an analogy for God’s relationship with Israel. It is a poignant image, but not a perfect one. All analogies break down somewhere and the point of departure for me is found in the nature of the clay. God doesn’t work with lifeless material. I have heard persons who work with clay say that the clay tells the potter what it is meant to be. Well, maybe that’s stretching it.

Our relationship with God is not a passive one. It is a dynamic, interactive relationship. It is a partnership that involves give and take, asking and receiving, even arguing back and forth.

I think of the stories where Moses and Abraham argue (barter?) with God. The implication in these stories is that God is influenced by our actions. The shaping and forming of our lives and communities is a cooperative and collaborative project. We are an active part of the process.

This is a paradox that runs through the Hebrew-Christian tradition. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he instructs: Work out your salvation (liberation, transformation) with fear and trembling. But then, in the very next breath he says: God is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure (2:12–13).

Which is it? Are we working it out or is God working it out in us and though us. It’s both. We are much more than lumps of clay; we are thinking, reasoning, discerning, acting partners with God, and God values that partnership.

I love the paradox of the creation stories: We are both dirt and divine. Fashioned out of dirt, we possess the divine Spirit. Dirt and divine DNA—what a combination!

It is significant that the clay is “spoiled in the potter’s hand (Jer. 18:4). It is marred and imperfect; there is no flawless material with which to work.

God understands and accepts our flawed humanity. So just because we fall and fail—numerous times, just because our journey involves three steps forward and two steps back or three steps or four steps back, just because there are many twists and turns, setbacks and obstacles, these factors offer us no excuses for failing to keep offering up our lives to the Divine Artist who desires to work in us and with us and through us to help us be all that we can be and do all that we can do to help usher in God’s just world.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Almighty in Love, not Power

The idea that God is somehow directly engaged in the tearing down and building up of nations was a common view in ancient Israel (see Jer. 18:7–10), but a view that progressive Christians cannot accept.

It seems to me that God has ordered life on this planet with an inordinate amount of freedom. The number of children who die daily due to malnutrition and preventable diseases is staggering. Many of these deaths are due to the systemic injustice that results in the disproportionate distribution of resources in our world. God does not intervene to make things right, nor does God intervene in natural disasters, genocides, brutal killings, torture, etc.

God’s method of creation (evolution) and the time and context required for life to emerge and evolve to its present state suggests that God values freedom over power. The very nature of creation limits God’s power. God does not micromanage the planet or our lives; God loves freedom too much.

Whenever I come across the word “Almighty” in a translation of Scripture (which translation is questionable), or in a song of worship or hymn, or in a worship litany or responsive reading, I immediately translate that in my mind to mean, “Almighty in grace or love or goodness” rather than “Almighty in power.”  

An expression uttered a couple of times in the original Jurassic Park film has stuck with me: Life will find a way. God found a way to bring forth life. Suffering is an inevitable part of this process. God’s power is limited in the face of suffering. Such is the nature of life on this planet.

But I do not believe the same limitation applies to God’s presence. God’s presence pervades this planet whether we know it or not. A transformative spiritual life begins with an awareness of the divine presence.

I also believe that God’s presence is an embodied presence. God partakes of flesh and blood; the divine resides incarnationally in our world and in each one of us. The divine Spirit infuses our spirit, so much so that God’s life is inseparably bound to our lives. When Paul envisioned a future day of redemption, he imagined that it included “the whole creation” (Rom. 8:22).

So while I do not believe God is capable of tearing down and building up nations or directly intervening with infinite power into human affairs, I do believe that God is moved by what we do or do not do. I believe that all our planetary and human responses to various events, experiences, relationships, etc. impacts and influences God.

When the prophet gives voice to God by saying, “I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring . . . or the good that I intended to do,” while rejecting his interventionist theology, I do think the prophet captures something essential about God.

God is engaged in the sort of intimate, dynamic relationship with this planet and human beings in particular, so much so that when we suffer, God is impacted by that suffering. In a way that is beyond our capacity to understand, God shares our suffering.

God is influenced by our generosity and animosity, our travail and joy, the good and evil we do. I don’t know how it works, but this is at the core of what incarnation is about. For Christians, Jesus’ suffering on the cross is the archetypal image of God sharing the human condition.

Joni Eareckson Tada has been a quadriplegic most of her adult life. She has put it this way: “God does not give advice. God does not give reasons or answers. God goes one better. God gives God’s self . . . If you are the one who is at the center of the universe holding it all together . . . you can do no more that give yourself.”

I believe that God gives God’s self everyday, every hour, every moment in ways that we can scarcely imagine. I believe that God is so intimately attached and intricately connected to the web of life on this planet that God is impacted in some way by everything that happens. God is not the unmoved mover; God is the most moved mover.

Where is God when bad things happen? God is right in the midst of the bad things, experiencing the tragic with us, just as God experiences the good with us—walking with us through it all.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Jesus' Idea of a Church Dinner

Nearly every weekend for six years, church groups have passed out free biscuits and coffee to the homeless at Moore Square in downtown Raleigh, led by an organization called, “Love Wins.”

On Saturday, August 24, when the volunteers showed up to pass out the biscuits and coffee, police officers met them on the side walk and threatened to arrest them if they passed out the food. They cited a city ordinance that banned food distribution in the park. Because of that ordinance, the Love Wins volunteers had always set up on the sidewalk along the edge of the park.

Soup kitchens do not operate in the county or city on the weekends, and so the Love Wins breakfast is one of the only ways the homeless can have a free, warm breakfast on the weekends. More than 70 people had already lined up for the free breakfast when the police issued the threat.

Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, has noted that some cities are trying to cut off homeless people’s source of food in hopes of forcing them out of downtown areas. Apparently that’s what Raleigh was trying to do.

What a contrast with the mission of Jesus and his followers. According to Luke’s portrait of Jesus, on one occasion when Jesus is dining in the home of a religious leader on the Sabbath, he observes how guests are jockeying for position to occupy places of honor.

Jesus instructs them to take the lowest seats, not the highest, and then he says (cutting against the grain of all conventional wisdom and norms): “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbors . . . invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:12–13). Jesus redefines our understanding of hospitality, to say the least.

Liberation theologians call this Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. The very fact that Jesus is in the home of a Pharisee when he says this shows that Jesus is not exclusive of anyone.  Jesus does not reject or condemn the religious and political elite, though he certainly does not pander to or comply with or ignore and let stand their abuse and misuse of power, position, and possessions.  

However, it is also clear that the focus of his ministry is with regard to the down-and-out and downtrodden, the poor and impoverished, the diseased and demonized (see Luke 4:18–19).

I wonder what would happen if we (I am rebuking myself first of all) actually obeyed this teaching? What if we actually decided to be collaborators with Jesus in this divine conspiracy against normalcy? What havoc would it wreck on our current church budgets? How would it affect our investment of talent and time? And what would it do to our church potluck suppers?