Saturday, February 20, 2010

Presbytery News

National Capital Presbytery voted today to submit several overtures to this summer's General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Three of the overtures originated in my session and they call on the assembly to
1) delete the section of our church's constitution (Book of Order) that blocks the ordination of gay and lesbian candidates for ministry and other church offices;
2) change the wording of the church's directory for worship in the section on marriage to be inclusive of same gender couples;
3) call the entire church into a season of discernment on nonviolence and address the question of whether just war theory is an adequate response to contemporary war.
The nonviolence measure passed on a voice vote. The other two were counted and each passed by substantial margins.
It did not surprise me that the ordination overture passed by 2 to 1. NCP has supported this effort consistently for many years, and I believe this measure will pass the assembly again this summer. That the marriage amendment passed by roughly 80-50 did surprise me a bit. We have not voted on this issue here, and there remains so much anxiety and confusion around it. I doubt the assembly will endorse it, but only time will tell.
In the meanwhile, it looks like I'll be off to Minnesota this summer.

Friday, February 19, 2010

God loves dust

We are about to lose one of the elders of our community who is lingering near death today. When it comes, death will arrive as a friend to a man who has suffered the cruel symptoms of Parkinson's for many years and its accompanying dementia for the past several.
He is a few miles further down the road my father is traveling, and thus the end of his life strikes me in a more personally felt way than is often the case.
Being often with the dying was just one of the many things I did not fully consider when I finally surrendered my wrestling match with God over the whole ministry thing.
I don't know what I would have thought had I considered that reality 15 years ago. Perhaps it would have seemed frightening or overwhelming. I don't think I was wise enough to imagine that it would be a privilege.
Now I know better.
To be sure, it is still overwhelming to stand close to the unfathomable mystery of death, but it is not frightening, and it is mostly a humbling privilege.
The spirit is present in the company of death, brokenhearted in some cases I believe, filled with gratitude in others, and graciously welcoming in all.
We are dust, and to dust we shall return. But it seem abundantly clear that God loves dust.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin ...

Google that phrase and you get about a million hits. I didn't read most of them. Duh.
But the first couple of pages were, as one would expect, about either GLBT concerns or the origins of the phrase itself. I did find one riff on loving Mac users but not the sin of using Macs -- or maybe it was PC users. But I digress.
Gandhi actually said "hate the sin but not the sinner" in his autobiography long before the phrase's contemporary usage, and Augustine offered a variation on it -- Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum, “with love for humankind and hatred of sins,” (Letter 211) -- about 1,500 years earlier -- more or less.
It's instructive to look back to Augustine, for whom the sin of wrong belief was critical. Like so many defenders of the Roman church, he took up "the problem of the Jews," about whom he wrote, "the Lord Jesus Christ distinguished between His faithful ones and His Jewish enemies, as between light and darkness." On the other hand, while many in the church were calling for the death of Judaism -- and, thus, of the Jews -- Augustine gave voice to a more temperate perspective best captured in his phrase, taken from the Psalms, "do not slay them." Let them survive but never thrive for their existence bears witness to the prophecies about Christ in their own scriptures, he argued.
For a thousand years across Europe popes and bishops resorted to Augustine as they preached against the Jews as enemies of Christ, and again to Augustine when they tried to stop mobs of Christians -- inspired by their preaching against the Jews -- from killing Jews.
Those popes and bishops found themselves in the same impossible tension that certain American evangelical leaders find themselves in today in the face of the proposed draconian anti-gay laws in Uganda. The steady drumbeat of Christian preaching against "the sin" of being gay helped create a context for such laws, and no amount of "loving the sinner" preaching can turn that around.
What James Carroll writes in Constantine's Sword about the church and the Jews might just as well be said about the church and homosexuals if one substitutes the word "gay" for "racial" and the phrase "Christian-GLBT" for "Christian-Jewish":
Because religious dispute was the source of racial hatred, there are sweeping implications here not just for Christian-Jewish relations, but for fundamental Western attitudes about identity itself. The modern world, which prides itself on being a repudiation of the irrationalities of a culture that could give rise to an Inquisition, was in fact forged in the fires of those irrationalities, and we can still feel their heat.

Carroll's book tries to answer one central question: is there something central to Christian faith that led inevitably to the Shoah? Given that tens of thousands of gay men were arrested by the Nazis and thousands died in concentration camps a similar question presses in on the church regarding the long history of anti-homosexual vitriol that has spilled forth from its pulpits.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

This has absolutely nothing to do with Ash Wednesday, but, hey, it is Ash Wednesday so I thought I'd at least note the day.
I just finished James Carroll's Constantine's Sword, and I'm sure I'll reflect some on the book itself in the coming days, but for the moment I am thinking about why I just read this book.
Carroll published it in early 2001, and I picked it up in late 2002. It sat on the bedside table for months, and resumed its place there after we moved to Arlington in the summer of 2003. I tried to read it, but couldn't get past the first 50 pages. It simply did not grab me for some reason.
In the meanwhile, I read Carroll's An American Requiem, a couple of his novels and plowed through the monumental House of War. Clearly, I like the man's writing. I find his personal reflections insightful and moving and his historical reflections fascinating and thoroughly researched. Moreover, his theological reflections are somehow both subtle and powerful.
But I read through at least four of his books without ever picking up Constantine's Sword. In fact, the book found its way to the bottom of a basket at the foot of the bed.
We rearranged our bedroom last month, and I came across the book and put it on a shelf, still with no real intention of reading it. But one evening about three weeks ago I had finished whatever I'd been reading and was looking for what would be next and I thought I'd give Constantine one more shot.
This time around I could barely put it down. I shot through it in about two weeks, and it's a dense tome.
Obviously the book didn't change, so what changed me?
Perhaps the trip that Bud and I took to Italy last spring helped bring to life the long history of the Roman church, a struggle stretched across the Italian landscape. Perhaps reading Carroll while reading Harvey Cox's The Future of Faith provided a nice balance of historical reflection and prophetic imagination.
Perhaps the time was simply right for me to bring some new thoughtfulness to the effort of reading.
Whatever it was, I'm glad for it because the book is important and it ought to command the attention of the church entering the third millennium. As to why a book speaks to a reader at one moment but not another, I have no real clue and I still think it's an interesting question.