Hope Confirmed

I hope the readers of this blog will forgive this congregation-specific post.  On Pentecost Sunday five high school students, members of the Confirmation Class, will make their profession of faith and become confirmed members of the church I serve.

All of these young people have grown up in First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee – and it shows.  Their level of commitment and their ability to articulate their Christian faith is an expression of the nurture they have been receiving since they were babes in arms.  In an age when participation in the life of a congregation is no longer a priority for many families, it’s heartening to see how one congregation really does “grow” Christians.

Ours is a culture obsessed with “measurable objectives.”  The FCAT is only one example of how we dehumanize children and young people, turning them into products, rather than beloved individuals chosen and cherished by God.  Christian nurture is not about turning out cookie-cutter Christians who can recite creeds and catechisms and score high on standardized tests.  It’s about joining the Holy Spirit in a process of growth toward the Triune God.

To use Paul’s words, Christian education is about equipping the saints “. . . for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ  (Eph. 4:12-13).

I admit that I can become discouraged by the cultural shifts away from all things having to do with “organized religion.”  Instead of swimming against the stream, Christian parents seem to be allowing their households to be swept along by the current as soccer tournaments supersede worship, cheerleading practice replaces youth group, and discipleship ceases to be the first priority.

The congregation I serve doesn’t treat young people as second-class Christians.  We don’t assume the youth group will always do the “grunt work” that adults find burdensome.  We don’t have “Youth Sunday” when young people take leadership in worship for a single Sunday in the year, and we don’t assume that they are too young to be involved in many kinds of mission.  You never hear it said around here that “Youth are the future of the church.”  They are the present members of Christ’s body, the church.

If you had been a fly on the wall these past few weeks as the Confirmation Class has been meeting, you would have been have been encouraged.  I certainly am.  I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that we do some things well at First Church – and one of them is to bring up the children in “the nurture and admonition of the Lord” – provided, of course, their parents give us the opportunity.

It all comes down to choices.  The most important choice is the one God made to love us before any of us could love God back.

More Light Welcomed

Last Wednesday President Obama announced his support for “marriage equality.”  He was nice enough to write me an e-mail about it — well, me and a few million others.

I have been as forthright as I can be about my struggles with this issue.  Same-sex marriage is not allowed in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  As a Teaching Elder, I must live under the authority of the church. From the standpoint of the church’s constitution, marriage is between one man and one woman.

On the other hand, the General Assembly of Church has repeatedly called for equal rights for lesbian and gays.  I can’t offer a resolution to this matter because neither I nor the Presbyterian Church has arrived at one yet.  But I can at least clarify a couple of points about the President’s position.

First, I respect the President and the stance he has taken.  In his e-mail announcement he said that, although he once thought that “civil union laws that conferred legal rights upon gay and lesbian couples were a solution,” he has now concluded that “same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.”

Of course, the President is speaking in terms of secular law, not church law.  He writes, “ . . . I believe that in the eyes of the law, all Americans should be treated equally. And where states enact same-sex marriage, no federal act should invalidate them.”

As people say these days, “I’m fine with that.”

Second, I appreciate the President’s respect for people of faith who will, based on their religious convictions, find themselves at odds with his position.  He writes, “I respect the beliefs of others, and the right of religious institutions to act in accordance with their own doctrines.”

Some religious leaders are already saying that the President wants to force churches to perform same-sex marriages.  This is not the case, but that won’t keep people from asserting that the President wants to annul the First Amendment.

I have clergy colleagues in the African American community and in the Roman Catholic Church who will find themselves at odds with the President over this matter, even though they are in agreement with him in most other matters.

And, of course, I have gay and lesbian colleagues who are frustrated and angry that they are being denied in church what some states already allow in law.  For them, and for those who love them,  “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

For this Christian President, the Golden Rule trumps any reservations he might have had.  I honor that reasoning.  I also honor those who think that he has framed the matter wrongly.

I thought about preaching on the matter last Sunday, but neither the lectionary texts nor my state of mind would cooperate.  I’m not even sure a sermon would be helpful.  Sometimes a sermon stirs the pot without feeding the flock.

In 1620 John Robinson addressed a portion of his flock upon their departure to the New World.  Convinced that God’s Word is living and active, he told the pilgrims, “God hath more light and truth to break forth from his Holy Word.”

I don’t think God has spoken the final Word in this matter.  I welcome more light.


For other blogs on this issue, see Rev. David Lewicki’s “The Case Against Christian Marriage.”  David makes some good points, but his dismissal of the  the Genesis “myth” is problematic, in my opinion.

Also, see Adam Copeland’s post in A Wee Blether.  I agree with Adam that the theological challenge is to construct a positive case for same-sex marriage based on scripture.

Weep With Those Who Weep

By now the “coming out” of  former United Methodist pastor Teresa Macbain as an atheist is old news.  Indeed, I’m not quite sure how it became news in the first place.  Perhaps it’s because her appearance at a March 26th American Atheist Conference took place only a week before Holy Week.  Perhaps it’s because she resigned as pastor of the Lake Jackson United Methodist Church here in Tallahassee the day after Palm Sunday.  Most likely it’s because the YouTube video of her talk to the atheist group went viral.

I missed the story altogether.  I stay pretty busy this time of year, and I long ago quit watching the local TV news.  I just can’t stand the vacuous chatter that suffices for news coverage.  Apparently the local newspaper, the Tallahassee Democrat, didn’t think the story newsworthy.   So I missed it.

My first knowledge of Ms. Macbain’s change of heart came on my way into worship on “Low Sunday.”  A church member was very upset because several members of her family are members of the Lake Jackson congregation.  She said they felt betrayed – not so much that their pastor would go through a dark night of the soul, but that she would make her announcement not to her flock, but to a meeting of the American Atheist Conference.

You can see their point.  It would be hard to see your pastor in the pulpit one Sunday and on YouTube the next Sunday telling her audience how wrong she had been to believe all that stuff about God.

One would have to be pretty hardhearted (not to mention unpastoral) not to empathize with a person who finds herself deeply conflicted about her faith.  I can certainly empathize with my sister Teresa.  It must be a special kind of hell to feel as though you are living a lie.  By some reports, Mother Theresa had a similar struggle.  Surely no one would want a preacher to proclaim what she did not in fact believe.

On the other hand, my pastor’s heart goes out to a congregation of people who must have loved Teresa, sought her counsel, and invited her into the most intimate moments of their lives.  As someone who has spent 26 years attending to the same congregation, I know what it’s like to doubt.  I also know what it’s like to confirm the children you baptized, perform the marriages of children you confirmed,  keep watch by their bedsides as your dear friends draw their last breath, and stand by their gravesides singing “Alleluia.”

Sometimes you can’t sing at all.  You have to let the community sing for you.  But that’s what faith is all about.  It’s not about you.  It’s about Someone far bigger, more wonderful, and a good deal more understanding that you.

From what I can tell from her public comments, Teresa Macbain doesn’t believe in a God who condemns atheists to hell.  The thing is, neither do I.  It’s sad to think that my sister renounced faith in a God who never existed in the first place.