Durham CAN

It has been brought to my attention that what I have written about politicians in this summer’s Sunday school quarterly could leave some folks with the impression that I don’t believe it is possible for elected officials to act in the public interest.

I could make the excuse that Amos and Micah both are occupied with oracles against the leaders of Judah and Israel. However, their own words are not intended to be a condemnation of any who would govern. Instead, they objected to how these leaders governed. I had not by any means meant to suggest that “politician” and “public servant” are necessarily mutually exclusive terms. Neither do Amos and Micah seem to support the idea that those who would lead are necessarily unjust and self-serving.

So in the midst of the more readily found stories of malfeasance, I would like to share a hopeful example of what community leadership can be: Durham CAN. (“Congregations, Associations, and Neighborhoods.”)

Last night, my husband joined folks from all over Durham for a meeting convened by Durham CAN. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss plans to make Durham a better place for everyone. Not vague plans, but concrete policy suggestions – specific proposals for affordable housing (including proposed building sites and blueprints), specific proposals for fair paying jobs, and specific proposals for improving police-community relations. Government officials came to the meeting, having already been briefed by Durham CAN (so that they wouldn’t be blind-sided by any of the proposals). They came prepared to share their own commitments with the assembled body. Among those who spoke were Bill Bell (the mayor), Ellen Reckhow (a County Supervisor) and Steve Schewel and Cora Cole-McFadden (members of the City Council.)

My husband came home from the meeting feeling glad that we live in Durham, and feeling actually excited about certain of our elected officials. Excited on the level of, “I can’t wait to vote for that person again. They really do care about _____.”

There are some politicians who do indeed work for “justice for all.” Some of them do it once in awhile, some of them do it more often than not. Praise God! Let us pray that there would be even more of them.

Affirming Christianity

One of the benefits of having so many new visitors to the blog is that I am discovering broken links!

For a long time, one of the websites listed under “Sarah’s other writing” has been a blog that I contributed several articles to in 2012. This blog, “Affirming Christianity,” was convened by a seminarian in Wales, and I was the only contributor from “across the pond.” The common thread among the contributors was our hope for full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in the life and ministries of the church.

Several people clicked through on this link, or tried to, only to discover that the link went nowhere. So I’ve deleted Affirming Christianity from my list of other writing.

The easy thing to do would be to just let this pass without mentioning it, given that I have so many new readers from across the United Methodist spectrum. But that would be dishonest.  Not that my convictions have not changed since 2012. Instead, I feel even more strongly that the church has too often offered a poor witness in its treatment of sexual minorities.

Particularly in this post, I’m focusing on the “LGB” in LGBTQ — same sex loving people whose love has been labelled “sin.”

The reasons for my convictions are many, but I began on this journey when I was in the third grade: I was given a Bible by my church, and I began reading it. I read it voraciously. And while I spent most of my time reading and re-reading the gospels and Genesis, I left no part untouched. And I discovered something in Genesis: we are responsible for one another. And I discovered something in the Gospels: Jesus put the real lives of real people above the strict observance of any rules.

Here’s one example of this: each of the four gospels records stories of Jesus healing people on the sabbath.[1] Arguably, if Jesus is God Incarnate, then everything he did in life is significant – he need only have broken the sabbath once in order for us to discern some lesson pertaining to this rule. However, Jesus heals on the sabbath so frequently, he seems almost to have gone out of his way to break the sabbath in this way, to the consternation of the religious authorities. On another occasion, when his disciples were plucking grain to eat on the sabbath, Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”[2] Keeping the sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, and doing any kind of work on the sabbath was punishable by death.[3] But Jesus was repeatedly much more interested in what the impact of this rule was on actual human beings. (If you are interested in reading more about Jesus’ sabbath healings, check out this article by Morgan Guyton in Ministry Matters.)

There are a lot of “rules” in the Bible. And a lot of them we ignore for various reasons, and other ones we observe strictly. Now, imagining that there is a “rule” in the Scriptures against same-sex intimacy (which is arguable, but I’ll concede it for the purpose of explaining the first step of me getting to where I am with respect to same-gender loving people), Jesus’ regular refusal to strictly observe the Sabbath gives us a model for reading this (or any) rule: Following the example of Jesus, our first thought when we encounter a rule in Scripture ought not to be, “Obviously, God desires for us to always follow this rule!” Instead, Jesus’ own behavior invites us to ask, “How will the unilateral application of this rule impact the lives of actual human beings?”

If you have sat across the table from someone crying as she recounts having been rejected by her pastor as a teenager after confiding that she was attracted to other women…

If you have known someone abundantly gifted for ministry who could no longer serve because he wanted to marry another man (knowing that choosing between marriage and ministry would never be demanded of a person who wanted to marry someone of a different gender)…

If you have heard story after story of straight women who were married to closeted gay men (men who could not acknowledge that they were gay because they were good Christians, and “good Christians aren’t gay”)…

If you have encountered people with stories like these, then you know the answer to this question. How do the exclusionary policies of the UMC impact the lives of actual human beings? It separates them from their church community, it deprives the church of their good gifts, it alienates them from God. It is not the love of some people for others of the same gender that does this. It is the rule that calls this love “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Like the UMC Book of Discipline, the Bible can be read as a book of rules that must not be broken. When the Bible is seen as a rulebook, then prooftexting is bound to happen – Christians will read for the rules. Perhaps it is not surprising that a denomination with so many pages of rules tends to view the Bible as a book of rules when it comes to determining whether it is a sin for two people of the same gender to have sex. Finding a place in the Bible where this kind of sex is apparently forbidden or labeled as sin makes rule-oriented Christians feel more comfortable – they feel they have a clear “answer.” But what if “sin” does not mean “breaking ‘the rules’”? What if sin is something else altogether? What if sin is about our relationship with Jesus? What if we sin when we obstruct others’ relationships with Jesus?

Long before I had heard the words gay, lesbian, or bisexual, long before the word polysexual had even been coined, my scripture reading was informing my answers to those last four questions. It still does.

[1] Matthew 12:9-13; Mark 3:2-5; Luke 6:6-11; 13:10-17; 14:1-6; John 5:1-11; 9:1-16

[2] Mark 2:27 (NRSV)

[3] Exodus 20:8-11; 31:14-15

What I’m reading now

I’ve been ill for the past few weeks, so I have been spending a lot of time reading. Here are a few of the titles that have been keeping me company:

Prayer, by Karl Barth – I picked this one up in order to better answer a Sunday school teacher’s question about the Lord’s Prayer. In addition to a translation of some of Barth’s lectures on the Lord’s Prayer, there are also several essays interpreting the way prayer functions in Barth’s theology, and some of Barth’s own pastoral prayers. This is Barth at his most accessible, speaking about our most familiar prayer. I am so glad to be re-reading this one!

Wearing God, by Lauren Winner – This is shaping up to be my favorite book by Lauren Winner yet. Or at least since Mudhouse Sabbath. Although Still was also so good. If you have not been reading Lauren Winner, you have been missing out! This is a great place to start. In this book, Winner examines Biblical metaphors for God, including the metaphor from which the book receives its name: God as clothing. I am reading this one slowly – a few pages every time I am needing a spiritual infusion.

The Half has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist – In the introduction to his book, Baptist writes, “The idea that the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans is what made the United States powerful and rich is not an idea that people are necessarily happy to hear. Yet it is the truth.” Baptist spends the rest of the book sharing the historical data that leads him to this conclusion. Groundbreaking.

Southern Cross, by Christine Leigh Heyrman – If you have ever wondered how the South went from fortune seekers and carousers to the Bible belt, then you will find this book as fascinating as I do. I have an “a-ha!” moment on almost every page.

A Mercy, by Toni Morrison – Alongside my slow moving parallel non-fiction reading, I usually have a novel that I am speeding through. Most recently, I finished this Toni Morrison novel set in the pre-Revolutionary war Atlantic Coast colonies. It was (as has been my experience with other Morrison novels) both gorgeous and devastating – and convicting. So many of our lives are a series of lost opportunities to see other people as they really are.

What have you been reading?