Thursday, May 26, 2011

Where do we go from here?

A few months ago I became convinced that, at some point in the near future, same-gender matrimony will become a reality in the U.S. I say this as a concession, not in jubilation, as I have never believed that homosexual conduct can be of God.

I'm not the only one who believes that, either. Yesterday I read a piece on the wire at work by columnist Bonnie Erbe in which she quoted Focus on the Family's Jim Daly saying that the organization was no longer allocating resources toward fighting "gay marriage" -- it's convinced that it has already lost. Unfortunately, I think he's right.

The reason is because those of us who don't believe in it have lost every single argument in the greater society, especially among people in their 30s or younger who will be in power in a few short years.

Part of the problem is that, when Christians signed onto the "culture war" in the late 1970s, we already compromised our witness by partnering with unbelievers. That determined not so much our beliefs but the way we expressed them, often negatively -- based on fear of the "other" rather than a positive confession of foundational truth. (There was a reason for that -- Cal Thomas, vice president for communications for the late but hardly lamented Moral Majority, was once told by a fundraiser, "You can't raise money on a positive.")

As a result, we came across to gays and their allies as persecutors; truth be told, some of us became exactly that. When I was in high school the youth group leader passed out a paper saying, without any evidence, that "Homosexuals tend to recruit." (I later learned that it really meant that gay groups simply leave their literature on college campuses. Like any other group.) One interviewee on a Christian radio program referred to contracting AIDS was something that gays "deserved"; I won't go there.

What about "God's design" for marriage? Well, look what we Christians have done with it -- a higher divorce rate that the world, especially in some "red" states. And considering that too often we choose partners based on what some might call spiritualized lust, we don't have the authority to respond when someone attracted to the same gender says, "Can I help whom I love?"

And also consider the large number of family members and friends, even in the evangelical church, who are coming "out of the closet" -- at that point, it's no longer "out there somewhere." So when gay groups and liberal activists consider the right to marry as a civil right, well, it resonated. Court decisions and legislation cannot but follow.

I participated in a fast today, as my church does on Thursdays, and one of the issues we're wrestling with is how to minister to gays that may cross our path. There may come a time when, because we subscribe to a "traditional" sexual ethic, we may run into problems. Because of all the ministry we do in the community we maintain a great reputation citywide; are we prepared to lose it because we'll willing to say that homosexuality doesn't represent God's ideal? More to the point, will we and similar churches eventually experience persecution or, at the very least, be relegated to being considered "out of touch?"

But if that be the case and we do lose our standing in the 'hood, it might be good in the long run for us spiritually. After all, the early church didn't have the greatest of reputations and often found itself on the run -- and yet people were flocking to it, being drawn only by the Spirit of Christ. In that day the church took in strangers and riff-raff because it understood personally what that was. Maybe being marginalized will determine just who truly belongs to Christ -- or not.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Herman Cain and Allen West -- nothing but noise, avoiding reality

Many conservatives these days are touting two African-Americans, Herman Cain and Allen West, as the "next wave" in presidential politics, perhaps in the hope that folks would take them seriously as candidates that could topple Barack Obama. Of course, they're also saying that anyone who refers to them as "Uncle Toms" or "sellouts" is slurring them unfairly.

Well, here's the truth: The two pejoratives, if you understand history, are painfully accurate.

The conservative movement, when it got started in the 1960s, recruited Southern racists out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican Party -- something not lost on the vast majority of African-Americans (in this context, "big government" has a somewhat racist connotation). Understanding this and because of its wealth, for quite sometime the movement has been willing to pay top-dollar to blacks who are willing to put their names and faces on policies that historically been racially regressive, in part to try to convince whites not aware of that history. For that reason it doesn't matter if the blacks in their stable really believe what they're saying.

However, such a strategy has so far proven, and will likely remain, unproductive.

For openers, contrary to popular conservative opinion, African-Americans' overwhelming support for Obama in 2008 was totally unrelated to his color. Indeed, when he began his campaign most black leaders were somewhat suspicious of him in large part because he didn't come up through the civil-rights apparatus and was thus an unknown quantity; besides, because she had done the legwork ahead of time, conventional wisdom held that Hillary Clinton had the black vote locked up.

Furthermore, African-Americans don't do symbolic votes. Jesse Jackson had limited appeal as a candidate in 1984 and '88 primarily because they knew he had no chance of winning; they didn't even warm to Obama until he started winning primaries and caucuses that the Clinton campaign had pretty much ignored. Only when Hillary started playing the "race card," which she did here in Pennsylvania, did African-Americans begin abandoning her in droves. Then, with the memories of Florida in 2000 and amid concerns that Republicans would do their best to depress black turnout, the black community voted in record numbers.

So what do these have to do with Cain and West? A lot more than you might believe. As I said, African-Americans don't vote race; they vote policy, and to them the political right is by definition offensive regardless of color. I note a certain irony in that, while the right, and by extension the GOP, publicly opposes affirmative action as policy it will use it for political purposes -- no way would Michael Steele have become national president otherwise. Bottom line, if either Cain or West gets the nod next year he will go down in flames.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The end of the world -- NOT!

I come from a religious tradition that rejects the idea of the "rapture of the church" -- when Jesus supposedly comes down to take believers in Him out of this world and to heaven. Anyway, a couple of months ago, on the way into work I saw a man carrying a sign saying that it would happen on May 21, 2011. I said, to his face, that he was lying.

Now that the prophecy has been shown to be false -- and while a few people were convinced that it would happen, the vast majority of Christians correctly rejected it on the grounds that Jesus said that He Himself didn't know when He would return -- let's consider a couple of things.

One, a local revivalist said about two decades ago that, were there actually a Rapture, we'd hardly notice because of all the activity going on supposedly in His Name that in fact He didn't authorize. And that's especially the case in America, where many Christians are more interested in getting things, power, money and the like but truly aren't satisfied with Jesus. (At times I'm one of those.) Two, He said He would come as "a thief in the night," the point being that we're supposed to watch -- not wait -- for that.

So, with all the hoopla about whether He comes or not on this date or another, let's remember that, while He did say He'll be back, we need to be at His work until that day comes.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Growth through pain

Last month I started working in earnest on a new big-band chart, an arrangement of a tune, "Summit in the Snow," that I wrote 25 years ago. The tune was inspired by a early March (thus, still winter) heart-to-heart talk in a city park with a student at one of the local women's colleges that at the time I had hoped to marry -- she, then and still a friend, was trying to "let me down easy" because I learned a couple of weeks earlier that she was dating someone else and I was, quite obviously, very upset.

So why would I even want to revisit that pain? Because the LORD used this particular relationship, despite the sad ending, to produce growth in me that I hadn't had before and, really, haven't had since. She had actually awakened a desire in me that I had never before experienced, but I recognized that I was powerless -- not only over her but also, at that time, my entire life, so I was forced to turn to Him. Since I knew that was His goal, I accepted the suffering of, in this case, unrequited love as part of the process. I also knew that He never promised her to me, so I was ready for even a "no" to my request. (Which I ended up withdrawing the next year.) Not only that, but it's a truism that pain produces the best creative product because you have to summon resources from a deep place in you, and big-band writing of late has become a passion of mine.

You see, Jesus promised that His followers would be "up against it" and thus have to learn to trust Him. Why does He do this? Darned if I know. However, I've told her a number of times that I didn't realize how messed up I was until I met her, and for that I'm grateful that God put her in my life -- even if it meant grief for a time.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"Believe Out Loud" -- obscuring the point

The blogosphere has recently been riled by the Sojourners organization, generally progressive and the sponsor of the "God's Politics" blog that I frequent, over its refusal to support a Mother's Day ad featuring a lesbian couple and their son (the focus of the ad) entering a church -- while parishioners stare at them, the officiating pastor says, "All are welcome." Sojourners' rationale for rejecting the ad was that accepting it might threaten a broad-based coalition to fight domestic poverty it's trying to assemble because conservatives wouldn't associate with it. Sojourners is certainly right about that.

But there's a larger issue: The organization that produced the ad, called "Believe Out Loud" and which I understand to be an association of 10 mainline denominations, is unabashedly pro-gay; as such, its underlying message is not that gays shouldn't be welcomed into the church (they should) but that they shouldn't be required to change to belong. Such a stance spits in the face of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Who calls us not to a "good" or "moral" life but a transformed one. And while I have never accepted homosexuality as morally good and never will do so, there's a larger point to be made.

Which is: The core of the Christian message is that you can't make it on your own because of a chronic condition called "sin." You can approach Jesus properly if, and only if, you recognize that your life is a mess -- an insult to even "good church folks" (which is why the religious authorities hated Him) but a source of hope to the desperate. And rather than cleaning up one's act to come to Him, He does the cleaning. This is the part that many mainline and "liberal" churches miss -- redemption.

My previous church, while not openly "gay-affirming," toward the end of my time there had a number of gay couples who came in (which I didn't entirely notice) because the lead pastor was gay-affirming in many of his sermons, though in fairness he was right on a lot of other things. Over time, I noticed the spiritual discernment in the church, strong when I started, begin to slip and it developed a very bad reputation in the local Christian singles community; I eventually had to leave because I found myself backsliding a bit. My church previous to that was overtly gay-affirming and had no discernment whatsoever; I told my mother years later that we as a family should never had gone there in the first place.

On the other hand, my present church is full of those who weren't always "good church people" -- substance abusers and gang-bangers, for example -- and violence and prostitution have been rampant in that immediate neighborhood. However, one reason the church has grown so much over the past two decades is because, while we opened the doors, we never watered down that message of transformation; as a result, half our testimonies during our annual Thanksgiving service are given by people who are staying "clean and sober." (And though I rarely drink and have never used drugs, I applaud right along with them.) And while many of us still have issues -- I mean, who doesn't? -- we recognize what God has called us to and commit ourselves to knowing Him; my CLC group right now is studying the late Michael Yaconelli's book "Messy Spirituality."

This is why we evangelicals don't mix too well with what we consider liberal Christianity -- for our purposes it means two different and entirely contradictory things.

I see a certain irony in the pastor's line "All are welcome" because I wonder: Will Jesus Himself be welcome? Not just the kind, nurturing figure emphasized in the Gospels but the King and Judge who will eventually come down and kick some butt. (They are the same person, you know.) The "Believe Out Loud" group, in its desire to foster "inclusion," instead is in danger of excluding, in the words of Ron Sider, "the full Biblical Christ" due to making Him in their own image.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Thank you, Miss Davis

A few moments ago I learned about the passing of Marian Davis, who retired in 1981 as the sixth-grade teacher at what is now known as Trinity Christian School in suburban Pittsburgh. It's perhaps not unusual to give props to teachers who have influenced your life, for good (in this case) or ill.

However, Miss Davis, I realized just a few years ago, holds a special distinction: She was, in effect, my first evangelist.

I came in 1971, in the fifth grade, to what was then the Christian School of Wilkinsburg, and in retrospect it was never a good fit. I was regularly bullied, usually on the bus home from school but also at home and, since I don't come from a classically Christian family where the Bible was the law of the house, many of the concepts of the faith just didn't make sense at the time. Even though I was a fairly bright student, excellent athlete and talented musician, I had trouble building relationships with schoolmates and ended up leaving the school during seventh grade because that teacher and I never got along (indeed, to this day I'm convinced that he hated my guts).

That atmosphere made my year with Miss Davis all the more remarkable and influential.

I'm not sure just how she viewed me back then, but I think I always felt that I counted with her. From her I got a lot of encouragement that in those days came from nowhere else in my life. One day she put me in charge of devotions and the Pledge of Allegiance while she left the room, and at the time I had no idea why she did that.

Decades later, it dawned on me: She was trying to get me to exercise some leadership. (She said later, "You were so timid.")

Every Thursday we had a ritual called the "Number Game," in which two students faced off to guess the answer to math problems that she had on flash cards; the first to guess correctly the first time got a point and moved on. Let me say that, if there existed a Hall of Fame for Number Game participants, I would have been a charter member because the game almost always ended when I was defeated, often with double-digit points (high game 41), while I don't recall anyone else getting any more than nine. Although my extreme success came at the expense of my classmates, I think Miss Davis was pleased to see me do something very, very well and develop confidence.

But it was the spiritual side that Miss Davis first nurtured in me. Once I came into class during one of my angry tirades, which unfortunately wasn't unusual, and she prayed for me -- by name -- that morning. Even in more private moments she was telling me that I needed to become a Christian; today I'm convinced that she had been praying for years for that day to come.

On May 16, 1979, just weeks before my graduation from Wilkinsburg High School, those prayers were answered. That afternoon at the school district picnic, facing my parents' impending breakup and seeing my future in the process -- to say nothing of an eternity separated from God -- I finally threw in my lot with Jesus Christ. I decided to call her three months later, just before going off to Georgia Tech, to let her know, and that was the second thing she asked.

The last time I saw her (in this life, that is) I attended her 94th birthday party in October at the personal-care home between Ellwood City and New Castle, Lawrence County, north of Pittsburgh, where she last lived. A couple I knew from our mutual church and kept in touch with her took some photos of us, and I will keep them in my Bible for as long as I walk this earth.

Whatever her flaws or influence on her other students, for what she did for me alone should earn her the ultimate accolade from God: "Well done, good and faithful servant!"

So here's to you, Marian Davis. And see ya later.