What kind of community will we be?

The late-March passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the uproar that preceded it and crescendoed in response have had me reflecting on this important question for all of us to consider: What kind of neighbors will we be?

We’re in the midst of a historical season in which fear is a constant companion in our civic community. Fears of terrorism and street violence, economic vulnerability and political corruption are constantly whispering in everyone’s ears. And for some, fears of moral decline and government overreach have been particularly pernicious; both of these fires have been stoked by recent changes in societal attitudes about the place of gay people in our common life. As acceptance of homosexuality as a human trait analogous to heterosexuality has grown, laws prohibiting gay marriage are being seen as the acts of discrimination they are, and they are melting away in the glare of the Constitution. This and many other developments are leaving social conservatives feeling like an unprotected minority in need of legal defense against being compelled by the government to act against their moral convictions.

Enter the RFRAs, which seek to protect individual rights. Because of the lack of explicit protections for LGBT citizens against discrimination in Indiana, the RFRA as passed in late March legalized discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. Even when the legislature “clarified” the law, it still left room for explicit discrimination everywhere there aren’t explicit anti-discrimination protections, which for LGBT people, is nearly everywhere in Indiana.

This is not a new idea in America. It’s the idea we fought against and outlawed in the Civil Rights movement half a century ago. Civil rights legislation limited the religious freedom of American citizens in the name of prohibiting discrimination. As a nation, we chose the common value of equal treatment for all over the value of religious freedom in the public sphere.

We are revisiting that conversation these days. Should refusing service to a gay person be the right of a public servant or business owner? Should a person’s right to free religious practice in public trump the right of all people to be treated equally, without discrimination?

When we ended legal racial segregation in America, we proclaimed a resounding “No!” to those questions. Our answer shouldn’t change, even when this means a religious person must act against their religious conviction to serve a gay person. Just as we said back then to those who thought racial segregation was God’s way for humanity.

To allow discrimination of any type for any reason in our public space is un-American. At the very heart of our separation from Great Britain was the concept that all people are equal. We have struggled for since our founding to live this value fully, but it is at our very core as an American people: all people have dignity that must be respected, and discrimination is a fundamental sin in our civic morality.

Mature religion—of every stripe—rejects exclusion and discrimination as a holy act. Discrimination is most certainly un-Christian. Jesus was very clear with his life and his teaching: boundaries based on morality and righteousness were the opposite of the way of God. If there is any preferential treatment in God’s realm, it is in favor of those we consider morally impure and those pushed to the margins.

The deepest question we face is not a legal one or a political one. It’s a moral question about what kind of community we will be. Will we be a community of exclusion or one of inclusion? Will we be a community that allows mistreatment of some of our neighbors by others, or will we stand up for just treatment of all? Will we be a community of separate groups that never overlap or listen to one another, or will we be a community that celebrates and embraces diversity with genuine curiosity and willingness to grow?

Will we be a community run by fear, or a community characterized by trust?

Here’s a way forward for all of us: be a proactive neighbor. Reach out and get to know your neighbors. Look for their beauty and giftedness. Learn their story (rest assured: everyone has a story!). Understand what inspires them and drives them to be their best self.

For all of us, that’s easy with some people and difficult with others. What people might you have a hard time reaching out to? What group would you rather eat tinfoil than spend an hour listening to? That’s important information; pay attention to it. Is it gay people? Republicans? Slobs? Uptight rich people? Welfare recipients? Liberals? If it’s hard to imagine having a person-to-person conversation with someone from that group, you’re seeing something about yourself. This is an opportunity for growth for you! There’s something in you that is preventing you from experiencing all that life has to offer. Stretch. Reach out. Listen. And let the wall you’ve unconsciously (or maybe consciously) built begin to crumble. For your own sake, for your kids’ sakes, for our community’s sake, and for our nation’s sake, be a proactive neighbor. And discover the joy that comes from familiar walls crumbling before our eyes and new friends standing on the other side.

This piece was written for publication in the April-May 2015 edition of Indy Midtown Magazine.

An Open Letter to Indiana Governor Mike Pence

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 2.34.41 PMThe Religious Freedom Restoration Act (a name that makes me throw up a little bit every time I hear it) has been passed by both chambers of our state legislature and now sits on the desk of our governor for his signature. His veto is the only way for Indiana not to make a name for itself for legalizing discrimination in the public sphere. It’s incredibly unlikely, but you never know. Occasionally, public leaders surprise us with their moral courage…

Dear Governor Pence,

Despite the political costs that a veto would incur, I invite you to join the winning side and veto RFRA. Even though signing the bill seems like the smart political move today, tomorrow the celebrations of the extremists in your party will have ended and the hangover of moral regret will settle in. Your name will settle right alongside leaders like George Wallace in the history books as so-called “leaders” who traded what was morally right for what was politically expedient in the grossest way: by capitalizing on fear and bigotry at the expense of a minority, all the while claiming to stand on religious ground.

This is a dream situation for a power-hungry politician: exploitation of the minority dressed up to look like protection against some nebulous threat. This is the exact opposite of courageous leadership.

And, with sad irony, all this is happening exactly fifty years after the rally in Montgomery at the end of the march from Selma. We pat ourselves on the back for that progress at the same time your signature on RFRA will legalize discrimination in Indiana. Shame on us.

Religious freedom in America always comes with limits, and discrimination in the public sphere is one of them. When our nation decided to desegregate water fountains, buses, and lunch counters, when our nation decided to allow all people to vote as equals, when our nation decided to decriminalize interracial marriages, we didn’t leave it up to local communities to decide whether they believed in desegregation. We didn’t allow counties or towns or states to choose whether they would serve blacks, because we declared discrimination un-American. We didn’t leave room for objection on religious grounds at any level; if you were a public business or service, you would serve all. Individuals and whole communities disagreed, saying they were following their religious beliefs, claiming discrimination was their right.

But if America was to be the land of equality we aspired to be, equality must apply everywhere, even if equality was against some citizens’ religion. As a nation, we chose our common value of equality for all people over some people’s ‘religious’ value of discrimination. Those who objected to equality lost their right to discriminate.

RFRA is regressive, and history will judge this signature, Governor Pence. Do you have the stuff to be a courageous leader? Show us by joining the winning side. Veto RFRA.

An Open Letter to Christians Who Support RFRAs

Note: this post was written for the Reconciling Ministries Network blog. RMN is active within the United Methodist Church, working for the full inclusion of all people in all aspects of the UMC. It’s here on their site.

The so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” (RFRA) have become law in 19 states and are in process in several more, including my own Indiana. Proponents argue that they are necessary to protect conservative Christians from being forced to serve gay people. Sure, there are better-sounding, well-polished explanations/obfuscations, but let’s be real: it’s about making sure discrimination against gay people is legal. And supporters of these laws are using Christianity to justify it.

To my Christian brothers and sisters who are claiming this legislation is necessary and right, I say:

First, stop using Christianity to justify your fear, judgment, mistreatment, and abuse of gay people. Your religion may justify such things, but any religion that leads to discrimination is not Christianity rooted in Jesus Christ. Discrimination and exclusion are not values of Jesus, though they are apparently values held dear by many Christians. That’s not new, though. These were core values of some of Jesus’ opponents, purity-obsessed members of his own religious group that fought Jesus at every opportunity. They were disgusted at Jesus’ lack of morals, at his libertine social boundaries, and at his disdain for the rules of his own religion. They were disturbed by his willingness to associate with the filthy and the despicable. They insisted on their right to refuse service to the unclean, to marginalize those contaminated by what they self-righteously labeled ‘sin’. They loved interpreting scripture in ways that led Jesus to call them hypocrites for worrying about specks in ‘sinners’ eyes while ignoring logs in their own. Perhaps their perversion, which mutated what was surely a sincere pursuit of faithfulness into its exact opposite, should cause you to reconsider your support of RFRA and of your sense of ‘purity’ that calls on you to discriminate against gay people in general.

Any use of Christianity to justify discrimination is evidence of a misunderstanding about who Jesus was and what the good news Jesus lived means for humanity.

Second, stop claiming victimhood as some sort of oppressed minority. The fact that the culture as a whole is no longer in agreement with your moral compass (as it was in some ways in the mid-20th century) is not evidence that you’re being oppressed. Being denied the right to discriminate is not the same as suffering discrimination. Being denied your hegemony of the public sphere is not an infringement on your religious freedom.

Finally, if you wonder why we Christians have such a reputation as hypocrites, RFRA is only one example in a long, long list. We talk about love and grace, sin and forgiveness, and then we push for a law that allows us to behave like racists in 1940. Really?

I’m grateful to live in a nation that will likely check my bigotry when it appears on the surface and hold me to account for discriminatory behavior, even if I try to justify it as part of my religious commitment. May we, the Church, learn to recognize and call out misguided religion today with as much clarity and fire as Jesus did.

After a Mass Shooting Down the Street

This past Sunday, 30 hours after seven people were shot down the street from our church after an apparent argument turned into a shootout, I reflected on what Christ-like response might look like. (You can listen to the full sermon [7/6/14 “Out of Control”] here.) Here are the key points:

  1. For disciples of the God who chose incarnation and solidarity with suffering people, caring is the first step. Feeling connected to the events and the people involved and letting it grieve us is much easier said than done. Actually caring is harder when I don’t know them personally. Caring is harder because of the fact that I see the world through racial lenses; when the images of the scene show that many of the wounded and other innocent bystanders were African American, my immediate thought is to feel separated from the events (“it wasn’t us”). That’s the legacy of racism deep in me: a tribalism based on skin color even within my own neighborhood. Maybe that’s not as much of an issue for you (though I’d encourage you not to dismiss that possibility too quickly…); maybe the source of separation is cultural: “that’s not me; it’s those people who waste their energy getting drunk and loitering”. Or maybe it’s generational (“that’s not me; it’s those young people”). The challenge of recognizing the connection we have with all humanity is a spiritual challenge. Can I let the truth of our common Creator overrule the sin that tells me ‘they’ are not part of me? The truth is my little brother was shot last Friday night. My little sister was nearly killed on Broad Ripple Ave. And it was my other little brothers who pulled out their guns in response to being insulted and shot several people. It was my brother Major who killed my other brother Perry on Saturday night. The deep truth of God’s reality is that there is no ’them.’ Every human being is ‘us’. Can I let that sink in? If so, I grieve violence like this past weekend’s in a deeper way. I care.
  2. My inclination is to be grateful for my separation from the violence; I’m relieved that Broad Ripple by day is a very different place from Broad Ripple late at night on a holiday weekend. I keep my distance from violence and suffering; I’m tempted to ignore it, because I can. But Jesus is moving toward it. Jesus draws near—to embrace and to share the suffering of his sisters and brothers, both the victims and the perpetrators. That’s what Jesus is up to. And he invites us, the Body of Christ, to be part of that presence, that work of redemption and reconciliation. God’s work of healing brokenness in our society is in full swing; the choice I have is whether I will join in. The river of God’s love and grace is flowing, now as ever; the question is whether I am standing on the bank watching it go by, sitting on the side with a toe in the water, or floating down the river.

photoI’m looking for ways to join in. I changed our church sign—our primary communication with our neighbors—Sunday afternoon. I will be standing on the street tomorrow along the route of IMPD Officer Perry Renn’s funeral procession as part of our city’s expression of grief and solidarity in the face of violence. I have reached out to IMPD in an effort to join their meeting with Broad Ripple business owners to discuss how to reduce the likelihood of future shootings. I’ll reach out to a Broad Ripple bar owner through a mutual friend. When we gather for worship, there are photos of Broad Ripple on our signwalls as a call to prayer. In particular, there’s one of  street signs at the corner nearest the shootings last weekend. I’ll encourage our congregation to let seeing it prompt compassion and prayer for the business owners and workers and the community that gathers down the street late at night. That’s why those images are on our walls: to help bring our neighborhood into our collective heart when we gather in God’s presence. And I’m leading our church cluster is planning an interfaith gathering for peace in Broad Ripple Park at the end of the summer (a process which started long before last weekend’s shootings).

But all that activity doesn’t fix the pain of acknowledging the truth about the racism deep inside me. It’s painful to recognize how comfortable I am with the separation I enjoy from the suffering in my city. It hurts to be real about how much I enjoy standing on the bank, watching the river of God’s abundant life go by, safe from getting wet.

I hope I can welcome God’s persistent invitation into the depths of abundant life through courageous discipleship continuing to coax me into the water. Because the deepest part of me knows the water’s a joyful, connected place to be!

Reflections from the Waiting Room

It’s been an early morning. I’m at a hospital in St. Louis, sitting in one of the least-pleasant waiting rooms I’ve waited in. My wife is in surgery this morning. And I’m waiting.

This isn’t a new experience for us. I’m grateful for that right now. It gets easier as the track record of positive outcomes gets longer. Eight other times in seven years (that’s most of our married life) I’ve waited while high-stakes procedures were performed on my wife. Every time, she’s been fine and things have gone well.

But that doesn’t change the fear; it sneaks up on me, like a wave from behind. All is well, but then, before I realize what’s happening, I’m under water. In that moment of terrible clarity, I’m face-to-face with reality: the body is delicate. Life is fragile. Sometimes things go wrong, even in the best hands. My wife is vulnerable. I am vulnerable.

It was almost overwhelming when the nurse, working her way through the pre-op checklist, asked about whether L has a living will and how we might summarize it in a sentence to be added to the chart. All measures possible? Husband decides? For a quietly frantic moment, we’re under water. It’s real. I could find myself in the position of making life-and-death decisions before I leave this place. Today could be the day everything changes.

The chances of that are incredibly remote. This is an outpatient surgery. Her surgeon does this surgery every day, with outstanding results. But I’ve lived That Day before. I know That Day sometimes arrives. It’s been almost 20 years since my family got the call that my dad was on the plane that went down. Everything changed that day. It happens. So I can’t help but take seriously the remote possibilities. I can’t help but feel the vulnerability of stepping up close to the edge that divides life as we know it from a very different life or even death. What’s normally far enough away that I don’t have to think about it is frighteningly close today. I’m glad the surgeon is behind the wheel. But sometimes even the best drivers can’t keep the car from going over the edge.

The redemptive part of feeling this vulnerability, this deeply-rooted fear, is the fact that it’s a sign of love. It’s the flip side of the same coin. There’s no love without vulnerability, and the greater the love, the greater the potential loss, the greater the fear when the possibility of loss comes closer. It occurred to me as we were saying our “I love yous” earlier that this would be a lot easier if I didn’t love her. Everything else in our married life would be harder, but this morning would be easier. Sometimes, in the course of everyday life and its frustrations and headaches, it’s hard to be aware of how deeply I love my wife. But this morning, it’s real. So real I’m scared to death. Sure, that fear is wrapped in layers of reassurance and logic, but it’s there. It’s there because of the depth of love that’s there at the core.

As much as I prefer not to ever feel vulnerable, especially at this level, I am grateful for what it shows me: the love that has been built in almost a decade of marriage (and the four years of friendship before), the depth of connection that has been forged in the crucible of a hard road together, the amazing blessedness of our life together and the beauty of our son. All of these raise the stakes and deepen the vulnerability.

I’m reminded of a huge community of sisters and brothers who share this human experience of vulnerability and fear. I’m sharing this waiting room this morning with a number of them. And this is the same-day surgery waiting room; elsewhere in this hospital, there are others whose loved ones are much closer to the edge than my wife. And, of course, around this city, across the country, all over the world, right now, I have human family members who are in this very same place of uncertainty and fear.

And we’re all surrounded by love—the love of family and friends, of caring professionals at work, of spirited bystanders who care. Of God.

On Canceling Worship

As a serious winter storm is bearing down on us, it’s been interesting to wrestle with whether to cancel worship. It raises practical questions, certainly, but there’s a lot of gray in between the obvious go- and no-go-situations. And underneath the gray lie our basic understandings of worship and the church.

There is a range of points of view about what it is we’re doing when we gather to worship, and that shows up in the ways we approach the question of closing. (Keep in mind, no one would use this language directly; these points of view are carefully dressed up in proper religious language.)

  • On one end of the spectrum, there are the those who see Sunday gatherings as a weekly class session or club meeting. Canceling is easy in this case; there will be another session next week. It’s an entirely practical matter.
  • On the other end of that spectrum are the folks who see Sunday gatherings as a mystical date with God. Canceling is almost unthinkable; it’s like standing God up. How could we do that?! God is there, waiting for her lover. We couldn’t possibly leave her there, all by herself, tear running down her face, wondering where we are, questioning our love for her.
  • Then there are those who see Sunday gatherings as a duty commanded by a demanding God who’s keeping track of attendance. Cancel at your own peril. One more X on the attendance sheet will most certainly lead to The Look from God, that slightly sad, slightly mad, very scornful “I’m so disappointed in you” Look we all remember from when we were children. It will take us months to regain the trust we destroy if we don’t show up this week.
  • There are folks see Sunday gatherings as an achievement we use to demonstrate our holiness. These are the superheroes of righteousness who find themselves bragging with gems like, “I haven’t missed a Sunday in years!” or “I’ll be there no matter what. You may choose not to come, but I’ll be there even if I need to get a ride with Fred on his snowmobile.” They have adopted the USPS’s “Neither rain, nor sleet, nor dark of night…” Canceling is a sign of spiritual weakness or lack of commitment.
  • There are people who see Sunday gatherings as the only venue for worship and spiritual connection. For them, it’s very difficult to cancel because we’re taking away people’s only chance to connect to God for the week. It’s like church is the only recharging station for their lives; we owe it to them to be open so that they can connect to God. What happens if they can’t plug in on Sunday morning? How will their spiritual batteries last?
  • There are those who see Sunday as the revenue day; closing the church on Sunday is akin to closing the cinema on Friday night or the mall over a weekend—too much income would be lost. For them, the masses can’t be trusted to adapt their giving; cancellation is a last resort because it’s too financially costly.

Another spectrum on which all of these perspectives fit: how important is Sunday morning worship? All of the above POVs would fall at different points on the importance spectrum, for different reasons. For some, Sunday worship is the only reason the church exists. For others, it’s simply one activity among many. For some, the church’s activity is the most important thing that happens in the realm of God. For others, church activity is one piece in God’s mosaic self-portrait.

This question of worship cancellation brings to the surface our basic paradigms of what church is. Is it a social service agency—the last hope for people in need? Is it a spiritual mall or a spiritual club—a consumer service provider competing for customers or members? Is it an institution like a business or governmental agency that trades in size, influence, and image? Is it a family, a community, a living organism? Sure, in some ways, church is all of these; but at the core, which of these carries the day for you? Strip away the religious language (put down the ‘Body of Christ’ and the ‘incarnation’ and ‘grace’ and ‘love’ and ‘mission’ and try to use non-church terms) and see what emerges when you try to name it: what is church? What’s it for?

How we answer this question says a lot about who we understand God to be. And how we answer this question drives our activity. How we answer this question matters.

For me, this episode of canceling worship reveals several layers of my POV about church. Every one of the perspectives above is familiar to me at some level. All of those voices are in my head to some degree.

There is a part of me that feels the obligation and is afraid of the scolding disapproval that comes with the charge of laziness and shirking work responsibility. I feel the tug toward being at work at all costs to earn the ‘hard worker’ badge and avoid the possibility of criticism on that front. That same part of me buys into the assumption that the pastor should be the holiest disciple in the church, the most committed, the one working hardest, the first one in and the last one out. ‘Even if no one shows up, the pastor was there worshiping’ sounds right in some part of my soul. That same part of me wants to see Sunday morning worship as the very center of God’s spiritual universe, the pivot around which everything revolves. And I am at the center, scripting, facilitating, directing the Divine drama that is the point of all existence. This part of me is the child, perpetually trying to earn love, forever replaying the anxious childhood game of ‘if I’m a good boy, you’ll approve of me, right?’ And it’s the adolescent, needing the security of self-satisfaction and importance. I am okay as long as I am competent and I matter to others. To this part of me, choosing to cancel worship is like facing a firing squad. This part of me is flinching, just waiting for the shots to be fired.

Another part of me (the part that is more spiritually grounded) sees the church as an organism, global and apart from time as well as local and now. The church is part of the living presence of the Divine, and I get to be part of that. It’s much, much bigger than I can ever know. I’m a speck in the whole, one star in the galaxy. My church is 100 stars in 100 billion. The light I shine matters, and it doesn’t. The light of 100 starts is significant—that’s a lot of light!—and it’s not. I am one gallon in the Mississippi River and my church is 100 gallons. What we do matters, but it matters in the way that ‘chunk’ of water matters in the flowing river. That 100 gallons has an effect on the bank as it flows by, and the river continues to flow regardless of the presence or absence of those 100 gallons. This part of me is free from the grandiose illusions about my importance and the importance of what we do on Sunday morning. Through this lens, I see the church as a family, intending to gather every week to be together and access that greater Presence that we experience when we’re together. And if we’re not able to meet some Sunday, or if we choose to forego our gatherings for a time for the sake of a particular purpose, no big deal. The family is still the family. The organism exists in relationships, not space. Our connection to the Divine happens in myriad ways throughout the week and in every place we inhabit, not just Sunday morning at the church building. Sunday morning is not a consumer product, and the church is not a service provider. The church is Christ living in the world. All are welcome to participate in that Divine life, both through Sunday gatherings and every other way the family of God lives.

Today the life of God goes on uninterrupted, in me, in our congregation, in our neighborhood, in the world, despite the fact that worship is cancelled. Thanks be to God!