Wednesday, September 14, 2011

And Now I Wonder...

I survived preaching on September 11. I even surprised myself on walking the line of political affiliation. And the sermon was more Gospel than me. It was prayed over, Spirit breathed on, that much I know.

I knew, though, the potential problems in my congregation. I can honestly attest to a few people skirting me at the door. A few others made a special stop to thank me. Some genuinely responded to the sermon. All in all, I'd say a pretty standard Sunday.

Before I preached at all, though, that sermon that inevitably tipped my hand away from something like "kill all the terrorists," the conversations were already flying about the tenth anniversary of the attacks. The person most adamantly sharing her beliefs was one well on the other side of things from me. It was that union of God and country that is almost synonymy. It also included her conviction that if the threat of the Muslims ever came too close, she would "lock and load." There were accompanying motions, as well.

I like this woman. I gratefully accepted the number of her hairdresser a few weeks ago. She's funny, in the witty, not over the top kind of way. Then this happened.

For the last few weeks, I've been considering more and more what boundaries place a person outside the Christian community. The questions started when about ten people walked out of worship a couple of weeks ago, which is a long story all by itself. In the fundamentalist world I grew up in, the ability to say something was outside accepted behavior of the Christian community was present. I can't say I agreed with the choices made even then, but I miss the ability to hold the community accountable.

The choice for accountability is made by a community that isn't so afraid of money or decline in numbers that it can take the risk of demanding something of a person's life. Most of the choices about accountability made in other communities weren't ones I would replicate now. They usually involved things like drinking alcohol in public and sex among teenagers. Even now, though, I respect the choice of accountability if not the parameters of it.

And now I wonder what to do with this member of my congregation. It's political, which is always messy. If I answer from a purely political stance, I'll surely throw around words like bigot and racist. But to love this woman does not mean looking the other way. To love her in the name of Christ does not mean that.

I am aware that I am offended by her beliefs and attitudes; I am also convinced that they are not Christian. While I believe Christians and Muslims worship the same God, she does not. She would say that Muslims are our enemies and a threat to our lives. Actually, she did say it. She believes they are persecuting us. Ok, then. Jesus said to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Really. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.

Jesus didn't elaborate a lot on that particular teaching; Paul didn't elaborate a lot on penalties of not adhering to such behavior in a Christian community. There are no guidelines for how failure to adhere to a teaching might sever a person from the community.

Now I am wondering, though, where is that line? Where is that line that once crossed, means you're not welcome in this community any more?

I admit, I'm willing to draw the line right there, right where she crossed over from viewing a certain group of people as our enemies to wanting to destroy those enemies and believing that's the way it should be. For me, that is an utter failure to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If I do draw that line, though, all of a sudden I have an enemy I must love. At least I'm pretty sure that's how that works.

So now I'm left to wonder, is there anything so great that it can actually oust a person from the Christian community? Or is love really the greatest of all?

Friday, September 9, 2011

That Can of Worms

I had about eighteen hours to think about what I would say, what I would do, possible repercussions. I don't know that I would do anything differently if I had eighteen days.

Yesterday, I got the call I had skated past a couple weeks ago. It was from the local anti-abortion clinic. They go by a lot of names, some good, some derogatory, but at the end of the day, if one thing is an abortion clinic, they must be anti-abortion clinics. This time, it wasn't the community recruitment lady, Nancy, calling, it was a guy from my church, quite excited about the fundraising walk in a few weeks. He wanted to know which promotional materials he should bring to the church and well, would I talk to Nancy since I knew what we could do and couldn't?

I did. And he called late last night to confirm when he could bring the materials to church and the plan for Sunday and further promotion. All the time, I knew he was going to ask me to walk in that fundraising walk and I was grappling more and more with the fact that I would have to tell this man that I would not do that. I had to tell this to a good-hearted man who genuinely cares about people and is also a proud supporter of the Tea Party. Yes, we have some differences of opinion in lots of things.

Sure enough, this morning, I was right. He came bringing the materials, bearing the news he would be out of town that weekend and would I be willing to walk?

The rest of the conversation (a shortened version) went something like this:

"I'm not a pro-lifer."

"Are you serious? Well this changes my opinion of you, it really does. I didn't know any minister wouldn't be pro-life."

"Most of the ministers I know aren't pro-life."

"Well, that's the Lord's decision, not ours."

"I agree. And we should talk about it some time, but we probably won't ever agree. But no, I don't personally support the pro-life movement. Now what do we need to get out to the church?"

"You're still ok with making the announcement on Sunday and telling people about it?"

"I knew when I became a Disciples minister this kind of thing would happen. There are people in this church who strongly agree with you. Others don't. And this church has supported this in the past, so I'm not going to do anything to keep the information from them."

It wasn't much messier than that, truly. I could see the dismay written on his face; it only got stronger as our conversation progressed. I think the cognitive dissonance was wreaking havoc.

I'm sure it won't be the end of that conversation, as much as I'd like it to be. I'm sure more people in the church will hear about it and will hear a lot of things about not being pro-life that are or aren't true about me. There's little room for nuance on the subject in just about any circle.

I think more of the shock, though, came from the fact that I was still passing on the information to the congregation, or that I didn't want to fight about it. Both things are definitely true on my end.

The thing that drives me crazy about the whole scenario isn't what anyone would easily guess. The thing that drives me crazy about it is that he, like so many others in my church, doesn't think the bond of the church is strong enough for this kind of thing or anything else that might cause heated debate. They don't think that bond that exists among members of the church is strong enough to hold opposing opinions and bend, not break, under the strain. That bond is strong enough. Really, truly, it is.

It takes the grace of God. It takes a strong presence of our Lord. The Spirit may be tested to its very limits. But the bond is strong enough to hold us together if we don't let ourselves get in the way. The schisms in the church testify to the fact that we don't believe the bond is strong enough to hold us together. And there are certainly things that stress us to the point that we really can't be in fellowship with one another--women preaching, yes me preaching, is one of those things. Trust me, I've been there.

But I wish it weren't true. Then, later this afternoon, I read the Epistle reading for the week and can think only, "May it be so."

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, "As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God." So then, each of us will be accountable to God. (Romans 14:1-12)


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Christ & Country

I confess, I've been dreading September 11 for months, ever since the day I realized that date is a Sunday. Or maybe since the day I realized it was the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Maybe those two events were even close together.

All I know is that there's this sense of dread about the intersection of faith and memory. Except if it were just memory, I think I could handle it. Instead, I'm around people who fear all Muslims. The military thing continues; I don't even know what to call it any more. I pride myself on my ability to quickly navigate the ins and outs of current airport security. Less than ten years ago, I know my life wasn't like this. Our country wasn't like this. Fear wasn't so much a part of our lives.

I know there was fear on that day. I know there was pain. I know there are many, many people who still miss the people who were lost that day. I know that it was the first time in my life something happened that was so dramatic, I realized that the President of our country actually was my leader and waited with deep anticipation to hear what he would say.

But I still don't know what to do with the worship committee meeting where we think the way to mark the anniversary of the attacks is to sing patriotic songs in worship. It so happens that September 11 is also the day where the lectionary text recounts Jesus' teaching to forgive not seven times, but seventy-seven times--or seven times seventy, depending on which translation you're reading. Coupling that teaching with the memory of a wrong done against our country is...well, it is a good way to name a lot of problems and raise a few questions and tick off a lot of people in my congregation.

For many of them, God and country go hand in hand. Most of them would say they respect both, but God trumps country. For me, God and country are mostly at odds with each other.

I didn't always feel this way. I know what changed me: my first year of seminary. It was nothing I learned in the classroom. Instead, it was the people who shared my apartment building. My German roommate. My Bulgarian neighbors, also Christian. My Afghan neighbors who were Muslim.

They feared my country. All of them. I never dreamed any European on a student visa would fear deportation. I never knew that my country's government would let people wait in suspense for visa clearance until a few days before leaving for a new country. I never dreamed those same people would rather spend a year away from their young children than risk not being allowed to return to the country to complete their studies. Both of them were doctors who later would return to Afghanistan to work to build a medical infrastructure.

These were people who I welcomed in my home and welcomed me in theirs. We ate together a few times. We carved pumpkins once, since I was from the US and would surely know how to do that. My roommate helped me study Hebrew. I let one of my neighbors drive my truck because he was so fascinated by an automatic transmission; he'd never seen one before. His wife served me Bulgarian espresso that I loaded with as much sugar as possible and choked down in order to be polite. I didn't sleep for about a day and a half after drinking it.

Those relationships were holy. The fear was not. I knew which one claimed my life; I still know it is the holy thing from God matters most.

There was grief that came with this new reality. But in the midst of that time, I decided that I would not celebrate my country in worship any longer. The fear it brought was too unholy. And for the first time, I also felt the schism that my country created between my fellow Christians and me. There is no way I can ever celebrate something that divides us from each other. I'm one of those naive people who still believes there is only one church, one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

The problem is, this conviction about my country creates some friction with Christians with whom I also share a nationality. I don't know what to do with that friction. But I am sure that what we are is Christian. That identity not only trumps the other one, it erases the other. Paul wrote that a few places, just in case I need some back-up.

More than having some things to quote to back me up, I wish that we knew our identity is first and foremost in Christ. And yes, that really is worth even our lives.

For now, though, I'm dreading that upcoming Sunday.