Photo by Mike Ewen

Last night First Presbyterian Church hosted a vigil in response to the shooting in Orlando.  Sponsored by Equality Florida and several other LGBT organizations, the vigil was scheduled to be held on the steps of the Old Capitol, the go-to place for public rallies in Tallahassee.  However, the Capitol Police were fearful that Monday’s temperature, which hovered near 100 degrees, might make an outdoor vigil risky.  At our church’s invitation, the vigil was moved to First Presbyterian at more or less the last minute.

Some folks in the LGBT community were uneasy about meeting in a church — and for good reason.  The church has not always lived up to the radical hospitality called for in the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Our own sanctuary, finished in 1838, has not always been a place of welcome and inclusion.  The bricks in the walls of Old First were made on Col. Richard Shine’s plantation.  Richard Shine was an elder in the church and a slave owner.  The sweat of injustice is baked into the fabric of this old meeting house. The slaves of church members, although included on the Roll of Communicate Members, were required to sit upstairs in the north gallery.  They could share the sacrament with white folks, but they couldn’t sit next to them.

Still, the church was a true sanctuary — at least for some.  During the Seminole Indian Wars the building was a designated refuge for women and children.  A clearing around the church provided defenders a clear shot, should there be an attack.  That clearing served as a fire break in the great fire that destroyed most of downtown on May 25, 1843.  If it hadn’t been a “sanctuary” in a physical sense, the church would have burned along with the rest of downtown.

The Pulse Nightclub in Orlando was a “safe place” — a “sanctuary” —  for many in the LGBT community.  It was the one place where people felt safe to be themselves — until last Sunday, June 12.

Our role in the vigil was strictly one of hospitality.  There was no prayer and no liturgy.  I gave a welcome, touching briefly on the history of the church and confessing the need for repentance on the part of Christians.  I told them, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are welcome.”

That is by no means everything Christians need to convey to LGBT neighbors.  But it just might be the first thing.

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Garden Grown to Seed

lawn-weedsIn the final verses of the letter to the Philippians, Paul encourages his beloved sisters and brothers with these words:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

After viewing the Republican presidential candidates’ debate last Thursday, I felt like (1) taking a shower and (2) reading Philippians 4:8.

What the world witnessed last week was more than embarrassing; it was an insult to the democratic process. I am aware that politics often gets down and dirty, and that ad hominem attacks are nothing new, but when people running for the highest office in the land resort to sexual braggadocio, they drag all of us down into the pigsty with them.

This is not a partisan concern. Whatever your political proclivities, surely you can’t be proud of what took place last week on national television. As Hamlet said,

Fie on ’t, ah fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this.

What bothers me most about last week’s debacle is the message it sends to our children and to the rest of the world. America is supposed to set the standard for democracy. Struggling democracies look to us to see how it’s done. And what are we offering? “Things rank and gross in nature.”

Maybe I’m just a prude, but some things just shouldn’t be said in public by an adult who is seeking to be the leader of the free world. If one of our Preschool teachers had been in the moderator’s chair at that so-called debate, she’d have stopped the whole procedure, had the combatants sit still for a few moments, and led a discussion about what we do and don’t say to one another in a civilized community. Gently, but with firmness, she’d have explained that even if you’re angry, you don’t call people hurtful names and you keep your private parts private.

Our political garden needs some careful weeding. What it’s producing right now isn’t ready for prime time.

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Who will testify?

fracking-infographicThere are certain liabilities attendant to serving a church two blocks from the State Capitol.  Because of my proximity, I am (too) often asked to testify before Senate and House committees.  As Moses said to the burning bush, “If it weren’t for honor of the whole thing, I’d just as soon not go.”  

However, I have agreed to address the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government this afternoon, January 25.  The Committee is taking up Senate Bill 318, which, among other things, declares null and void actions taken by local governments to ban fracking in their jurisdictions, and calls for a million-dollar study to see if fracking might be safe, and preserves as “trade secrets” the list of chemicals used in fracking.  

Of course, the bill doesn’t speak of “fracking.”  It talks of “high-pressure well stimulation” — a much less volatile phrase.

I was asked to make the moral case against the bill — in less than two minutes.  So here’s what I plan to say to the good senators:

Thank you for your service. According to John Calvin, public service like yours is the highest form of service – far above that of pastoring a church.

I urge you to consider the moral case against SB 318, and indeed, the moral case for a ban on fracking in the State of Florida.

I stand in a religious tradition that affirms that “The earth is the Lord’s and fullness thereof . . .” (Ps. 24). You and I are not the owners of creation. We are the stewards of creation. As stewards, we are responsible to God and to our neighbors to manage the earth’s resources with regard to the good of all.

We do not need a million-dollar study to tell us what is already known about what the bill calls “high-pressure well stimulation.” The harm caused by fracking is already well documented in peer-reviewed studies. The jury is not out on this matter; it simply is the case that fracking cannot be done safely. The questions in this bill regarding groundwater pollution and harm to general health have already been answered, and to maintain otherwise is either misinformed or, frankly, disingenuous.

This bill overrides the decisions of elected officials who have already declared a ban on fracking in their jurisdictions, undermining the will of the people who elected them and undercutting their proper authority. It also prevents ordinary citizens from knowing what’s being injected into the earth beneath their feet.

You may not share my religious conviction that we humans do not own God’s creation. But, as members of the human race, regardless of your religious convictions, you owe it to your fellow human beings to protect them from the harm that fracking clearly causes. You have this obligation not only to this generation, but also to our children’s children for generations to come. In other words, all of your true constituents have yet to be born.

God will not thank you and me for doing our job as stewards of the earth. That’s our job. But I do thank you for weighing this matter in a morally responsible way.

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Shared Faith, Different Visions

Screenshot 2016-01-11 08.06.05Just down the street from the church I serve, Franklin Graham, my brother in Christ, will be holding a prayer rally in front of the old Capitol building.  According to Brother Graham’s website, the purpose of the rally is to challenge Christians to share and live their faith at home, in public, and at the ballot box.  I join Brother Franklin in the fervent hope that Christians in American will do just that.

At the same time my brother is appealing for Christian unity through prayer and action, however, he is fanning the flames of homophobia and Islamophobia.  As I read his tweets in social media, it is clear to me that he and I differ as to how Christians should live out their faith, both in private and in the public square.

I won’t being attending the rally.  Three busloads of immigration reform activists are coming to our church on the same day.  Our congregation will provide hospitality, including, meals, showers, a warm place to sleep.  We think partnering with the Florida Immigration Coalition is a good way to live out the gospel.

But I will pray.  Here’s what I’m praying for.

I pray for Christians in American to reach out to neighbors – especially to neighbors who do not share their race, religion, or culture.  I pray this because I believe that Christians are to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love neighbors as themselves.

I pray for elected leaders to seek justice for what the Bible calls “the least of these” – the people on the margins of society — the hungry, the naked, the thirsty and the imprisoned.  That means reforming our penal system, restoring civil rights to ex-prisoners, and amending immigration policy so that families are not torn apart and children who know no other home than America can share the American dream.

I pray that my fellow Christians will follow Jesus Christ, our mirror to the human and our window to the divine, by crossing boundaries and welcoming the stranger, the outcast, and the dispossessed.  It seems to me that’s one of the best ways to share what we Christians call “The Gospel,” that is, the “good news” of Jesus Christ.

I pray that all Americans of all faith traditions will not fall victim to fear and hate, but instead will seek to understand the variety and complexity that is part of every faith tradition, including Christianity.  Before we decry the speck in the eye of the one who differs from us, we need to remove the log from our own eye.

According to his Facebook page, Brother Graham believes that “The problem we have in this country is sin.”  As a Christian and a Calvinist, I couldn’t agree more.  From my theological perspective, “sin” means, among other things, falling short of God’s best hopes for us.

The way I see it, Brother Graham and I have much in common.  We differ, however, in our vision of what Christians are called to be and do.

That Christians in America are falling short is clear.  I have faith that God will sort out our divers prayers and answer those that conform to God’s best hopes for this fallen world – this world God loves.

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An Open Letter to Brother Donald

John Knox Witherspoon

Presbyterians are no strangers to high office.  Some have sought it, some have attained it, and some have helped to shape others who have held it.

John Witherspoon, the only member of the clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence, was the President of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University).  Among his students were James Madison, Aaron Burr, Philip Freneau, William Bradford, and Hugh Henry Brackenridge. From among his students came 37 judges (three of whom became justices of the U.S. Supreme Court), 10 Cabinet officers, 12 members of the Continental Congress, 28 U.S. senators, and 49 United States congressmen. When the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America met in 1789, 52 of the 188 presbyters had studied under Witherspoon.

Abraham Lincoln and his family never joined the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., but they worshiped there regularly.  When beloved son Willie, age eleven,  died, the Rev. Dr. Phineas D. Gurley, pastor at the New York Avenue Church, presided at his funeral in the East Room of the White House, and when Lincoln was shot, it was Dr. Gurley who was called to his bedside.  Dr. Gurley continued to provide pastoral care to the Lincoln family.

William Jennings Bryan, of Scopes Monkey Trial fame, was nominated for president and ran three times, losing every time.  A ruling elder, he also ran for Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1923 — only once, but he lost that election, too.  Brother William might not be my favorite ancestor, but then again, you can’t pick your relatives.

Woodrow Wilson, a son of the manse, was thoroughly Presbyterian.  Dwight Eisenhower was born into a tradition that became the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but shortly after his first inauguration he was baptized in a Presbyterian service and remained a member of the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Presbyterian Church until his death.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump identifies himself as a Presbyterian, too.  He says the Bible is his favorite book.  Recently the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly wrote brother Donald an informative letter:

Mr. Trump,

I am the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the denomination of the congregation in Queens, New York, where you were baptized. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) develops its policies through councils of teaching elders and ruling elders. At the national level it does that through the General Assembly. I would like to share with you the Presbyterian policies on refugees and immigrants.

Presbyterians profess a faith in Christ, whose parents were forced to flee with him to Egypt when he was an infant to save him from King Herod. Knowing our Lord was once a refugee, faithful Presbyterians have been writing church policy urging the welcome of refugees and demanding higher annual admissions into the United States since the refugee crisis of World War II. Presbyterians have a mission presence in many refugee-sending countries, including Syria and Lebanon, where we have been present since 1823. Our relationship with people of faith and communities in these countries gives us knowledge of the root causes of the flight of refugees and further cements a commitment to welcome.

Presbyterians through decades of policy have demanded humane treatment of people of all nationalities and faiths who find themselves within our borders. We have challenged our government when it neglects to acknowledge the refugee status of those fleeing persecution. We have pushed for due process at the border and we continue to petition for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented persons.

As a Presbyterian I acknowledge my immigrant ancestors and my new immigrant sisters and brothers. I also respect that we came uninvited to a land already occupied by people. This creates a sense of humility about my citizenship that shapes my views on those who seek a place here. I hope you will find this helpful. I especially hope it will inform you on your policies going forward.

In Christ,

The Reverend Gradye Parsons
Stated Clerk of the General Assembly
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

What a helpful letter. I hope brother Donald takes it heart.

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Sister, But No Martyr

Screenshot 2015-09-08 09.56.44Christianity began not as a new religion but as a sect of Judaism. Jews within the Roman Empire enjoyed an unofficial exemption from the requirement to offer sacrifices to Caesar as a divine being. As a kind of work-around, sacrifices for the Emperor were offered in the Jerusalem temple twice a day.

Furthermore, Jewish law required every adult male to pay the “temple tax” which helped to maintain the temple in Jerusalem. The Roman authorities also tolerated that deviation from official policy. In other words, Jews and Caesar figured out a way to co-exist.

That doesn’t mean that Jews were treated well under Roman rule. Like every conquered people, they suffered greatly under the Pax Romana.

As Christianity began to be distinguished from Judaism, Jewish Christians were expelled from their synagogues, and the ranks of Gentile converts grew.

Christians now labored under a kind of double prejudice. They were still suspect because of their associations with Judaism, but they had the added burden of being thought of as “atheists.” After all, they didn’t worship Caesar as a god, clinging to that peculiar Hebrew notion that there is only one God. Furthermore, they declared that there is only one Kurios (Lord) and it isn’t Caesar.

Hence the earliest Christian creed: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Although historians disagree about the extent, it is clear that Christians suffered persecution in those early centuries.

The Edict of Milan (313), decreed tolerance for Christianity, and it soon became the official religion of the Empire. What began as a sometimes persecuted cult became, in three short centuries, the established religion of the “Holy” Roman Empire.

Kim Davis, the Rowan County, Kentucky, clerk, who now occupies a jail cell, likens herself to one of those early Christians who suffered persecution for the sake of her loyalty to the Lord Jesus. Her crime, so far as the law is concerned, is her refusal to obey a federal court order. From her point of view, she is obeying “God’s law” instead of “man’s law.”

Many Christians and not a few presidential candidates have rallied to Ms. Davis’ cause. Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee speaks of the growing “criminalization of Christianity.”

Let’s be clear. Ms. Davis is not being jailed because she is a Christian. She’s being jailed because she refuses to carry out her sworn duties as an elected official. She is not being persecuted. She’s being held accountable.

Kim Davis is my sister in Christ. I respect her deeply-held opinion regarding same-sex marriage. She is a principled woman for sure, but she’s no martyr. If she feels obliged out of conscience not to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples, then by all means, she should not do so. But she should not at the same time expect to keep her job as the Rowan County Clerk.

To characterize Ms. Davis’ incarceration as persecution is to minimize the genuine persecution Christians suffered long ago – and still suffer in many parts of the world.

If Ms. Davis can’t obey “man’s law” as the County Clerk, she should find a new job that fits her understanding of the Christian faith.

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Protection From the Pastor Protection Act

AngryThis will be a brief post.  I’ve already had my say about the so-called “Pastor Protection Act” on the pages of the Orlando Sentinel.  

Much of the response to my op-ed piece has been favorable. Of course, there were also negative responses.  I know the issue of marriage equality stirs up deep feelings within people of faith, and I respect those who disagree with me on religious grounds.

I do wish, however, that Christians could talk about this matter without ad hominem attacks and accusations of apostasy.  Here is an excerpt from e-mails to illustrate my point:

Brant Copeland’s letter in the Orlando Sentinel on Sunday calling the Pastor’s protection bill “homophobic” is a perfect example of why the Presbyterian Church USA is bleeding members. Spineless apostate hirelings like Copeland that support same sex faux “marriage’ is the type that Jesus spoke of when He said  ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.’ If Copeland wants to throw around the stupid and worthless word “homophobic” he need (sic) to call God homophobic since He declared sodomy an ABOMINATION! And don’t forget Paul who said in Romans 1 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts . . .

If the Presbyterian Church USA wants to support homosexual phony “marriage” please stop calling yourselves a church. Hang a disco ball over the alter (sic) and write ICHABOD over the door and turn it into a “gay” bar.

And this:

Your Orlando Sentinel op-ed article is highly offensive.   I am a pastor; however, my feelings are not limited to what you might suspect would be my objection. 

Yes, it is obvious that I would be offended by your perversion of God’s word.  Your position on homosexuality and gender politics indicate that you either are not aware of God’s word on the subject or you simply choose to ignore God’s word.  I believe that more than likely you have chosen to ignore it.  And, yes, that is offensive to the Gospel as it totally ignores truth  . . .  Your positions are not as “progressive” as you may think.   There were heretics in the First Century Church too . . . Further, while you claim pastors don’t need protection from those who may choose to sue then for not performing same-sex marriages, your words actually prove why we do need a law that protects pastors from people with ideology such as you espouse. 

And so it goes.  It’s probably a good thing for a boring straight guy like me to get this kind of mail.  It gives me a tiny taste of what folks in the LGBT community have been enduring for a very long time.

That so many LGBT sisters and brothers have remained in the Christian fold bears testimony to the power of God’s grace and love revealed in Jesus Christ. To my mind, that amounts to a kind of miracle.

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