Wednesday, May 31, 2017

For Evangelicals-The times they are a changing

After the Tribune-Eagle published news that Highlands Presbyterian was certified as an “Earth Care Congregation,” I received an email warning that I was leading my flock into a “Lake of Fire.” The story mentioned Highlands is a More-Light church, meaning it welcomes the LGBTQ community. It’s uncertain whether the Lake-of-Fire destination is located at the end of one or both of those paths.

Then there’s Rev. Bob Norris’s columns asserting Cheyenne’s faith community is divided between what he says is a large number of “Bible-believing” churches and a small number of liberal churches. His proposition is that Christians cannot be both liberal and “Bible-believing.

To paraphrase Satchel Paige, “Hey, liberals, don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” That “something” is a growing number of evangelical churches who are coming to believe that welcoming gays, lesbians, bisexual, transgender, and gender-questioning folks is quite Biblical as is working to protect God’s creation. Don’t take my word for it. Ask these evangelicals what happens when judging is replaced with curiosity.

Highlands was inspired to join the green movement by conservative Christians. Mitch Hescox and Paul Douglas both grew up in coal country, joined the Republican party, and are devoted evangelicals. Douglas is a meteorologist and Hescox, after pastoring a church, heads the Evangelical Environmental Network.

The two are also writers. If you doubt that Bible-believing can inspire you to become an environmentalist, read their book, “Caring for Creation: The Evangelical’s Guide to Climate Change and a Healthy Environment.”

These two conservative Christians may be the vanguard but they are not alone. A PBS documentary on the subject opened, “In the rising Eco-Right movement, you could say these are the Eco-Righteous.” Listeners were introduced to a few of the more than 10,000 members of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action.

They weren’t sitting in the pews. They were marching in the streets, chanting, “Hey, hey! ho, ho! Fossil fuels have got to go.” One young evangelical connected his pro-creation stand to his anti-abortion sentiments. “To be pro-life,” he said, “means that you care about human life, you care about humans flourishing free from the impacts of a changing climate on people’s ability to grow their food and provide for their families.”

These conservative Bible-believing Christians share the respect that liberals exhibit for the data and the science telling us what the Apostle Paul said is true. “The whole of creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth.” Paul Douglas erases the lines some draw between liberal and conservative Christians. “Being open to data, facts, and science doesn’t make you a liberal,” he writes. “It makes you literate.”

Even more surprising to the fellow who issued the “Lake-of-Fire” warning is that a growing number of conservative Christians are finding that Bible-believing leads to welcoming the LGBTQ community into the life of the church.

A recent story on the Religious News Service (RNS) reported, “over the last eight years, a number of evangelical scholars have argued for alternate readings of key biblical texts that would make space for LGBT relationships.” That was background for a story about the change of heart at a large evangelical church in Denver.

Rev. Michael Hidalgo, pastor at Denver Community Church, said change came after members “committed to pray together and to study scripture, not just about the verses that speak to same-sex behavior, but also about the history of biblical interpretation.”

The RNS story calls Hidalgo “the latest in a string of evangelical leaders who have studied the Bible, committed to a period of discernment, and then publicly changed their minds on same-sex issues.”

Being a “Bible-believer” demands more than having some preacher tell you what it means. Before laying claim to that title while asserting that others are not Bible believers, work at taking the Bible seriously, though perhaps not literally. It won’t lead to a “Lake of Fire,” but it can lead to other surprising places.

We liberal Christians are pleased to see some of our conservative brethren gaining on us.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Where the Apostle Paul got it wrong

“To an unknown god”
Highlands Presbyterian Church
May 21, 2017

Acts 17:22-31

Then Paul stood in front of the Air-ee-opagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortal’s life and breath and all things. 

From one ancestor, he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.

While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by one whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
For centuries, this story has been the model for evangelism. Paul taught us how to toss out the bait. “Athenians,” he said, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” And then he praises their object of worship. “I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.”

Paul sounds accepting…sounds like a man interested in an intellectual conversation about how some come to see God differently than he… then comes the zinger. “What you worship as unknown is actually known, at least to those of us who have a corner on the truth market.

Listen up, says Paul, we know who God is…we know and you don’t and we are here to save you. There is only one way and if you’ll hear me out, I will show you the way. And then comes the topper. Paul says God has ignored your ignorance up until now. God’s judgment will be up on you soon. You’re either with us and “in” or you see God differently and you are “out.”

That’s the sort of thing I heard growing up in the Protestant church but it didn’t make any sense to me…it didn’t square with Jesus’s teachings. The Good Samaritan never once tried to convert the man he found along the roadside. He bound up his wounds and found him help…and then went quietly on his way. The inconsistency between what Jesus taught and what my pastors were telling us is was why I left the church as a teenager and didn’t come back until I became a parent and reluctantly decided that while I didn’t need church, my children did.

It was there that I was inspired to help start the Habitat for Humanity chapter in Cheyenne. It was then at First Christian. Highlands was a big part of it. The founder of HFH was a fellow named Millard Fuller. Millard was a rich man who literally awakened one morning and gave it all to the poor and started HFH. You know how Habitat works. Those who “have” help build houses for those who “have-not.”
Along the way, Millard often ran into complaints from fellow Christians. “I want to do this but I can’t work alongside Mormons…or Catholics…or Jews…or…Muslims or…on and on it went. People. Most often Christians of one flavor or another objected to working with those whose theology differed. Millard’s response was what he called “the theology of the hammer.”

This theology is about bringing a wide diversity of people and faith communities together to build houses and establish viable, dynamic communities. It acknowledges that our political, philosophical and theological differences exist, but we can all find common ground using the hammers and nails as an instrument of God’s Love.

The theology of the hammer recognizes the problems of the world or even the problems down the street can’t be solved by people who find God in one way working alone without others who find God in an entirely different way or, I might add, without those who are skeptics, agnostics or even non-believers. It doesn’t matter how or whether you believe, we believe everyone has been given gifts that can be used to bring us a little bit closer to the Kingdom of God.

There’s another story that makes my point. It’s a Bibles and Beer story. It’s a story that begins like an old joke. “A Christian pastor, a Jewish Rabbi, and a Muslim Imam walked into a bar.” It does sound like the opening of a gag but it is actually how Bibles and Beer began 6 years ago. A Christian pastor, a Jewish Rabbi, and a Muslim Imam walked into Uncle Charlies and invited others of diverse faiths to join us.

A couple of years after it all began, one of our members, a Game and Fish biologist, came with a guest. He was from Kenya, Africa. He was a Muslim from a part of the world that saw very little cooperation or even friendships with Jews or Christians. He too was a biologist, a part of a delegation of African scientists who spent the summer in the U.S. studying with American scientists. This fellow came back every Monday evening and took part in our Bible study. At the end of the summer, they all returned to their African homes.

Before leaving, the entire delegation gathered to share what they had learned while in the U.S. Each took turns telling of the new veterinarian techniques they’d learned or about the wide-variety of research projects in which they’d been involved. When it came time for our Kenyan-Muslim friend to share, he said, “What I learned is that it is possible for Jews, Christians, and Muslim to sit together and study the Bible.”

How different things might have been if that had been Paul’s message that day in Athens. How different the history of the world might have been if there would have been a focus on doing the work of the divine and not how we each come to know the divine from the start; no one marginalized, rejected, discarded, or killed in the name of someone’s limited view of god.

How different it could be if we shifted now from concerning ourselves with whether someone else is a Mormon or a Muslim, a Hindu or an evangelical…whether they are inspired by the Quran or the Bible or the sayings of the Buddha…how different it can still be if we just worked with one another to feed the hungry, house the homeless, comfort the addicted, visited the prisoner…and loved our neighbor.

How different things might have been if Paul had acknowledged the truth in the inscription he found on that Greek altar. The unknown God is the God of all of us.

Sorry Paul…but it is possible, even more likely, that we can live out our faith without being concerned with converting those whose faith directs them to work with us side-by-side. As Job said, “Behold, God is great, and we know him not.” AMEN

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Profile in Courage? Not here, not now

The refusal of Wyoming’s congressional delegation to meet constituents in town hall meetings exhibits a fundamental lack of courage. Yeah, it might be a tough couple of hours, but, some are folks concerned, angry or frightened. Instead of stepping up, they send staffers to face the crowd.

Wyoming politicians haven’t always lacked “profiles in courage.” I read John F. Kennedy’s book by that title in junior high. It gave me a vision for public service. Kennedy wrote of, in his words, “pressures experienced by eight U.S. Senators and the grace with which they endured them-the risks to their careers, the unpopularity of their courses.” Alas, there’s no such grace or risk-taking among current Members of Congress.

It’s useful to revisit times when Wyoming had courageous public servants.

One early hero was Asa Mercer. He had the wherewithal to speak the truth about the Johnson County War. Initially a supporter of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association, Mercer came to believe the cattle barons weren’t protecting their interests from “rustlers.” They were trying to drive small ranchers off land they wanted for themselves. Mercer exposed them, publishing a controversial book. The barons endeavored to suppress “Banditti of the Plains.” Mercer was beaten, an arsonist destroyed his publishing office, and he lost his job. But, his 1894 book still stands.  

Stan Hathaway, a Republican Governor from 1967-1975, boldly fought the powerful mining industry and members of his own party to enact Wyoming’s first tax on minerals. He battled the same power base for a Constitutional amendment creating the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund. A Casper Star-Tribune headline at the time said, “Stan drops bomb, backs mineral tax.” It took audacity for a Republican to “drop” that bomb on an industry that exercised such control over Wyoming politics.

Teno Roncalio was Wyoming’s Congressman in 1972, when El Paso Natural Gas proposed a crazy fracking project. They planned to detonate underground nuclear explosions in Sublette County to free deep deposits of natural gas. Even the Atomic Energy Commission supported “Project Wagon Wheel.” There were many heroes in this struggle but even though Teno had lost Sublette County by a significant margin, he valiantly fought their battle. After persuading the Speaker to appoint him to the House Atomic Energy Committee, Teno maneuvered to kill Wagon Wheel’s funding.

Governor Milward Simpson opposed the death penalty as a matter of principle. He knew it would cost him the Governorship. It did. Milward’s son Al fearlessly supported gay rights and the right of a woman to choose, costing him the 1988 GOP vice-presidential nomination. When Congress authorized LBJ to escalate the Vietnam, Senator Gale McGee was one of 56 Democrats voting for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. As the war became increasingly unpopular, nearly every other Democrat abandoned the President. Undaunted, though abandoned, McGee maintained support for the war with an unflinching belief that it was in America’s interest.

In state-federal relationships, political pandering almost always overcomes principle. Not so for former Governor Leslie Miller. When FDR proposed expanding Teton National Park in 1943, every Wyoming politician was opposed. Miller, a Democrat, believed the highest use of that region was tourism and recreation. Looking to the future, Miller was alone in testifying for the park’s expansion. He said of the opponents, including a Democratic Governor, “Seldom, if ever, in the history of Wyoming has a project which should be entitled to sympathetic consideration been so grossly misrepresented.”

If only Leslie Miller or other intrepid souls were around to offer similar words to Governor Mead who fearfully insists Wyoming remain the only state unwilling to permit refugee resettlement. Miller’s words would be a welcome retort to the Congressional delegation’s blindly partisan willingness to toss thousands of their constituents overboard to fulfill a campaign promise to “repeal and replace” Obamacare and to state legislators who voted party rather than conscience to deny expansion of Medicaid to thousands of low-income working people.

Time passes and, sadly, one need look farther and farther back in history for any “profiles in courage.”