Thursday, November 17, 2005

Thanksgiving - for what?

I'm sitting here in the seminary library and everyone is finishing up their classes before going home for Thanksgiving. We have no classes next week so that everyone (faculty and students alike) have time to take care of personal business and travel to be with family. That's really nice, but it has me questioning the whole idea of Thanksgiving in the first place. For those of you who don't the history of this American holiday, the "first thanksgiving" occurred in 1621 between the Puritan pilgrims and the Native Americans of the area, although they weren't eating turkey and pumpkin pie. That particular event was not repeated, but then around the time of the American Revolution a yearly day of national thanksgiving was suggested by the Continental Congress. Then some states began adopting Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln appointed a day of thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November and each president since then has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the date for Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November in 1939, and this was approved by Congress in 1941. For more information, I recommend the History Channels page at

Setting aside the notion of "separation of church and state" and looking at all of this history around the holiday, I find it particularly interesting that it was seen as primarily a religious holiday, and yet I don't think we often take that seriously today. I don't know any churches that have services on Thanksgiving Day, although I will admit that many families pray before dinner on Thanksgiving that may never pray before any other meals during the year. Still, I wonder if people really think about how much they have to be thankful for. How do most people celebrate this holiday? By eating. We don't just cook some traditional food - we make a LARGE meal and generally eat ourselves to sleep! In a world where there are so many people who don't have homes (tsunami, hurricane and earthquake victims come to mind as well as refugees from various area of violence), never mind food to cook and eat in that home, do we really appreciate how much we have? We live in the richest country in the world, and yet there are people in our own country, state and city who are homeless. There are people in all of our communities who can't afford to feed their families. Don't kid yourself - most of these people are NOT lazy, clueless people who don't have jobs or know what they need to do. Many of them are working, but work in jobs that don't pay enough for them to pay the essential bills, like rent/mortgage, electricity, and some mode of transportation to get to and from that job. If you don't believe me, I recommend the book Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich which gives an indepth look at our country's working poor. People who work in many "blue collar" jobs are barely making ends meet - and I'm not talking about New Orleans. It's everywhere.

So, when we celebrate Thanksgiving, this national holiday to thank God, what are we really thankful for? Are we just thankful that our country has enough money that we can be in a war in several countries at once? Are we thankful that we can afford to not see the homeless people because the police make them leave public areas? Are we thankful that we can have a huge meal that will lead to leftovers for two weeks, but never really think about those that aren't even getting a turkey sandwich? I encourage everyone to REALLY think about what they are thankful for and what it is that God is asking of those who believe in Jesus the Christ. Does God want us to just say "thank you" like a kindergarten child is taught to do, or are we called to do more than that? I think most Christians know that we are called to do more, yet that won't stop us from sitting in front of our dining tables next Thursday, eating until we're so full we have to unbutton our pants, and then we fall asleep in front of some football game on TV.

I personally am tired of being a hypocrite. I'm not going to have the big traditional dinner. If I cook a turkey, it will be to share with a lot of people I am not related to and I will make a point of being thankful that I was able to simply go to the grocery store and buy that turkey when so many others don't have that opportunity. I won't just make myself feel better by throwing a couple of cans into a food drive. I choose to educate myself about the underlying causes of poverty and hunger and work to change some of those things. If you want to educate yourself as well, check out and particularly pay attention to the ONE campaign. It's easy to understand and they are not asking for your money - just your time and a little effort to read your email. Until next time...

Monday, November 14, 2005

What the flip?!?

Sometimes I really don't know what to do with this world and this church of mine - that would be the United Methodist Church, although it's clearly a misnomer. I'm beginning to wonder if being "united" is really possible when people are always focused on themselves as individuals rather than as members of larger communities. Don't worry, I'm not getting all sappy or anything, but just trying to ask honest questions. When people are all taught to be individuals, and all have their own opinions and ideas, it can be very hard to work together on anything. You would think that in the church, there would at least be the commonality of faith, but that too seems to be something that is experienced individually. The way I express my faith is very different than the ways 20 other people may express theirs - yet we all profess to be Christians and believe in the same God!!

You may be wondering where all of this is springing from. On October 29th the United Methodist Church Judicial Council made several ruling on a cariety of court cases, but a few of those really stood out. In one case, an ordained woman was "defrocked" after publicly declaring that she is a lesbian. A bummer, yes, but a completely expected ruling since the same thing has occurred several times before now. What's that definition for insanity you hear? something about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results...

Anyway, the other two ruling dealt with the same particular incident where a pastor in Virginia refused to allow a man into membership of the church because he was gay, practicing (although I think he's probably done practicing and could be considered an expert at this point), and refused to repent. Upon his decision to not let this man into the church, he was talked to by his Distrcit Superintendent and the Bishop of the conference and told that there was nothing that said he could keep this man out of the church and he had to let him in. He refused, was put on a leave of absence for insubordination and the whole conference (his fellow pastors) voted to reprimand him in that way. The first case the judicial council ruled on was whether the Bishop acted appropriately and he should/cound have been suspended - and they reinstated him and granted him retroactive pay and benefits for the time he hadn't been working. Not exactly expected, but there were legal technicalities involved and I don't know what to make of alot of the "legalese" of the Book of Discipline in places. The second case is the one that has really caused an uproar (and rightly so I would say)! The council ruled that this pastor did not have to let the gay man in as a member. They said that the pastor acts as the administrator of the local church and that means that she/he has the responsibility of determining if a person is ready for membership. The Book of Discipline doesn't say that every person shall or will be admitted for membership, but uses the word may and this makes it inherently permissive for the pastor to refuse someone.

Again, I'm not a lawyer but a lot of this stuff seems to boil down to semantics. Whether the book says shall or may, a person being denied membership based on his sexuality is just downright WRONG! I have never seen anyone get refused for membership outright - I've heard of people being asked to have some talked with pastor before they make the vows of membership, or being asked to take classes so they'll understand what membership in the church means - but never flat out denial. This decision has been out for a couple of weeks now and there has been an amazing response from people in the church around the country - some lay people, some clergy, some seminary professors - and the conversation is what so amazes me. The issue of homosexuality is a polarizing one in this country and in the UMC, yet this decision goes beyond the "issue" and touches at the core of what it means to be church, communion, the Body of Christ. Jesus never turned anyone away. John Wesley didn't ask people to repent of all of their sins before they could become members - he asked for their committment to regualrly attending and working on their spiritual lives so that everyone would be actively growing towards perfection. If we were already perfect, would we need church?!?

Of course, this does come back to the basic question of beliefs about homosexuality - did God create me gay or was it my choice? Is it a sin? If it is a sin, is it any greater than lying or adultery or any of the millions of other things that people do? I personally believe that it doesn't matter if homosexuality is a choice or not - but that will be another rant for another time. As far as the church is concerned, even if we go with the assumption that homosexuality is a sin, I don't know how it can become a sin that is somehow so big that it eliminates someone from the grace of God and the ability to become a member of the church. I don't know what the gay man in the middle of this situation has done since the pastor refused him. He may still be singing in the church choir and attending their events, or he may have gotten so upset that he walked out. Either way, I hope he knows that it was only the opinion of that one pastor and that he is more than welcome at a number of other United Methodist churches - regardless of his sexual orientation. If you're looking for such a place, I recommend checking out the Reconciling Ministries Network - the organization that is working toward LGBT people's full inclusion in the life of the UMC (ordination and marriage are also battles being fought). They have a list of churches around the country who have chosen to call themselves Reconciling congregations - meaning they are open to all people, even GLBT's. I personally attend Trinity United Methodist in Kansas City, MO which you can check out at - we just celebrated 11 years as a Reconciling Congregation.

As far as the judicial council and what to do now, I don't know. I just keep asking them "What the flip were you thinking when you made that decision?" - at least I'm asking them in my head. I have sent a letter to them, as well as a copy of it to the Council of Bishops. For their part, the Council of Bishops made a statement, a pastoral letter to the whole church explaining that the church has always been open and homosexuality is not a barrier to membership. While it seems to refute the judicial council decision, it doesn't call for a review of that decision or even really criticize it. There are some movements in the church that are happy about the decision, but others are upset for a variety of reasons and there is a lot of talk. I can't even keep up with all of the statements that are being written and posted online or mailed out! I'm glad to see that people are talking - that something has moved them enough to talk and even take some action. Now we just have to see where it goes...