The Raleigh Rant

National and UMC Church Politics

            Although the general election is still eight months away, we’re in the midst of the primary season.  I can’t turn on the TV without some political debate, town hall, political ad, or panel discussion on who’s winning or losing the primaries.  The distinction between the two parties on the issue of homosexuality has never been starker.  The Republicans still use us as the bogeyman, and the Democrats are finally pushing beyond grudging tolerance to full acceptance.  Both parties seem fixated on same-sex marriage and never even mention discrimination in employment and housing.  The federal employment non-discrimination act has been bottled up in the Congress for 20 years.

      My intent is not to tell you to get out and vote Democratic; you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog if you were not already one.  I won’t even argue against the shibboleths of the radical right that seem to make more outrageous statements every day.  Even they can’t out-do Donald Trump.

Read more: National and UMC Church Politics

Using the Bible as a Club

            One of the themes of my blogs has been the abuse of the Bible by using it as a weapon rather than a guide.  Many in the LGBTQ community hate any organized religion for being hypocritical and not even following its own principles.  Of course, the church is made up of people who are human and fallible.  We’ve been debating dogma for centuries and have become even more fractured with the passage of time.

      I belong to a small (10 – 12) Bible Study group who has managed to stay together for 12 years.  We started with the Methodist Disciples series and have progressed to selecting studies on our own.  A couple of years ago we used John MacArthur’s studies on Genesis and Exodus that were a challenge because of his fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible.  He believed every word was literally true but conveniently skipped over sections that didn’t fit his theology and even made us some theories that weren’t in the Bible.  He used the Bible to conform to what he believed, even when it became very convoluted at times.

      We’ve recently started on Mark Strauss’s Four Portraits: One Jesus that is a study of the four Gospels.  It includes a 531-page text, a series of videos, and workbook.  He claims to be evangelical but not fundamentalist.  We spent two years on Justo Gonzalez’s 2-volume history of Christianity.  We used a couple of Ben Witherington’s III studies on the New Testament and the epistles of Paul.  I read Peter Gomes The Good Book and Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible even though we didn’t use them in class.  We chose not to try the new Abington Press series Covenant, but another class in our church did.

      I will admit that I’ve retained very little of the details of the studies with my fading memory and the passage of a decade.  I feel like I’ve been through an extended but non-credited seminary.  But I’ve learned that the traditions, myths, cultures, translations, and the variety of languages used in the earliest texts provide many opportunities for different interpretations, even of specific scriptures much less the intent of the entire canon.

      We have learned as much from each other in our group discussions as we have from the texts, and although we have not used any of the original studies of John Wesley we have followed in his tradition.

      I don’t cite any of this to claim to be an expert on the Bible, and I can quote very few passages from memory.  But I will say that I’ve learned a lot about Christianity that I did not know even though I was raised as a preacher’s kid who has attended church and Sunday school my whole life.

      The new Pope has been calling for Christians to work together more amicably rather than focusing on our differences and our perennial quarrels over dogma.  He says we need to stick to the basic messages of Jesus, and I support that view.

      Of course, the confusion only increases when politicians claim that their Christian beliefs support their various biases, bigotries, and manipulative demoguery. In fact, some have tried to co-op religion and use it as a political tool to further divide our nation on social, economic, and political issues.  America was founded on the basis not only on the freedom of religion, but the freedom from a dominant religion.  In the 18th Century most European countries had a state religion that was imposed upon everyone regardless of their beliefs.  They fought hundreds of wars over centuries supposedly based upon religion differences, which in fact were simply struggles for power and dominion.

      The Hebrew Bible, the Old and New Testaments, and the Koran can all be traced back to the concept of monotheism, i.e. a belief in one God.  Civilizations up to and including Rome practiced religions with many Gods and no uniform dogma.  Native American religions still feature many Gods.

      So what is the point of this discussion about religion and the Bible?  Well, for one thing, the preoccupation in public discussion about same-sex marriage has religious proponents on both side of the issue. Jesus spoke frequently of meeting the needs of the poor, yet we still treat them like pariahs.  Before the zealots set the Middle East on fire, Moslems welcomed the stranger with great hospitality.  Can’t we disagree without shooting each other?

A Divided Nation Cannot Stand

      The schisms in the Anglican and Methodist churches over homosexuality seems small compared with the gulf between the Democrat and Republican candidates, who are polar opposites.  The media, in my attention, still gives too much attention to the “talking heads” that only search for notoriety by making outrageous statements, and the LGBT media overplays them as well.  I am reminded that someone once told me that Jesse Helms was our best fund-raiser. In my blog, I refuse to acknowledge any of the nut cases who rant and rave about how homosexuals are destroying the world.  They are to be pitied but not promoted, and some institutional setting would be preferable.

            Coming off the very successful conferences of the Reformation Project and the Gay Christian network, I was somewhat dismayed at the anti-Semitic riot at the Task Force’s “Creating Change Conference” that seemed to ignore any LGBT US political activism that supposedly is the “grassroots” orientation of the organization. 

      The United Methodist Church gave a “preview” of coming attractions at the upcoming General Conference in May with a recent briefing for delegates on human sexuality.  I can’t see that the discussion has shown any discernable movement in 40 years, and the haggling about dogma continues. Meanwhile the denomination continues to lose members because it has lost its focus on the Wesleyan traditions.  Of course, homosexuality was not an issue in his time.  The big issue was slavery, which split the American church for almost 90 years.

      So many of my LGBTQ friends decry the hypocrisy of organized religion, and it is hard to defend it, particularly in light of some of the outrageous homophobic, anti-immigrant, racist, and misogynistic statements from the radical right.  A lot is written about the splits in Islam, but it seems that we have even more fundamental divisions in the Protestant Church, which is probably why we have 700+ denominations.

      I was born and raised a Methodist, and in spite of my frustrations at time I still consider it “my church.”  Aside from a few paragraphs in the Book of Discipline, I find that it matches my personal theology more than most other denominations.  I’ve been in a Bible Study class for 12 years, and I’m amazed how much that myths, traditions, and cultural mores have diluted the Good News of Jesus Christ into a diaspora of localized fringe elements that focus more on exclusion than inclusion.  Where did we lose sight of his vision?

      When people tell me that we will never elect a socialist Jew, I remind them that we celebrate the birthday of one every December 25th.   

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2015 LGBT issues in review

2015 LGBT issues in review

      Of course, the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage not only dominated the headlines for most of the year but also had the most significant impact since their sodomy decision in 2003.  The rush of gays and lesbians to make their relationships legal set off an economic boom in many communities that continues.  Public opinion has radically shifted on the issue in spite of the predictable backlash in state legislation and comical grandstanding of people like Kim Davis.

      Yes, that was the big story of the year, but other trends also were significant.  The continued growth of movements such as the Reconciling Ministries Network, The Reformation Project, and the Gay Christian Network continued to narrow the wide gap between the LGBT communities and organized religion.  Some denominations are more progressive than others, but the trend is clearly to more acceptance of gays into the church.

      After decades of rejection, gays and lesbians also are becoming more open about their Christian and Jewish beliefs and regular participation in worship services and church activities.  They would have been derided a decade as “goodie-goodies” who were unwilling to accept their homosexuality and “go all the way.”  Well, it is clear now that there is no such thing as a “gay lifestyle,” since people with same-sex orientation and gender identity express it in as many different ways as heterosexuals do.  The “coupling” of LGBT people had been under the radar of the media for decades, but now we’ve been discovered and even celebrated.

      In spite of the “religious liberty” exclusion laws being rushed through the southern legislatures and debated in others, the backlash against same-sex marriage has been surprisingly muted.  In spite of the demagoguery of the Republican Presidential candidates, mainstream Americans have moved on.  Of course, the Tea Party and the Radical Right will continue to pursue this as a wedge political issue, but the facts are that they are losing public support even among the evangelical community.  The anti-gay, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim rhetoric appeals to a radical minority, but it is not a winning strategy for the general election.

      The referendum on the repeal of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance was a major setback in that it reflected the residual bigotry of a large element of the population.  The lies and subterfuge of the “bathroom” ads were effective in framing the issue to appeal to fear rather than to discuss the issue of discrimination.  The big lie can still work. Transgender people are still facing the most discrimination.

      The ordinance also reflected the strategy of the LGBT community that has been focused on getting community and state protections since for 20 years the federal employment non-discrimination act has been blocked in Congress.   The Republicans still have enough votes to block it, and some Democrats are afraid to stick out their necks.   Perhaps Obama can use his final year to seal his record on LGBT rights.  That issue has been raised in the courts, but it is very difficult to win.

      “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military is history, and the problem now has become one of sexual harassment of women, suicides of war-damaged veterans, and spousal abuse.   The predicted cataclysm of gays in the military didn’t happen, as has been demonstrated in all of the other military commands of NATO.

      This was a good year for the LGBT community, but we still have work to do.

The True Meaning of Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving holiday has been over-run by the early Christmas promotions, which is somewhat of a blessing in disguise. It means that Thanksgiving hasn’t been overly commercialized and remains largely a simple family gathering around a feast table. Of course, during the past decade the concept of what constitutes a “family” has changed. Not only with same-sex marriage and the adoption of LGBT couples of children, many gays and lesbians have formed families of friends who are their primary means of social activities and support. Not everyone is rushing to get married or even to pair up with someone. For many older LGBT persons, that prospect came too late in life to even consider.

I have spent several Thanksgivings with friends in varying locations as we join together to enjoy a holiday meal and catch up on visiting since we don’t get to see each other that often. Christmas is usually reserved for time with local friends because the hassles of travel at Christmas become even worse.

A lot of people talk about regaining the true meaning of Christmas, but what is the true meaning of Thanksgiving? Surely it’s more than just getting stuffed with food, overdosing on football on TV, and battling with in-laws over politics. Sharing a meal with family and friends is more than just a social occasion. It is a tradition of enriching a communal experience that is not limited to just Thanksgiving. Even the secular in this country practice the Thanksgiving traditions, which unfortunately are limited just to the United States.

What does it mean to be truly thankful? Well, first it means to focus on someone besides our selves. We reach out to others in kindness and humility. If we are religious, we pray to God in response for our blessings. If we are unable to be grateful, then we are incapable of being happy. Even when life is hard, and circumstances are less than perfect, a moment of gratitude can open a heart that has been bruised. Perhaps when we are too affluent and take for granted our situation in life as something to which we are entitled, then we have a very shallow experience of Thanksgiving.

Sometimes family gatherings are tense when a LGBT couple shows up the first time, and it is awkward for everyone around the table. But that is better than living a lie and playing let’s pretend. It also provides an opportunity for growth and strengthening of family relationships beyond the superficial siblings. We get to really know each other even as we have grown apart as we grow up and have families of our own. Blood relatives sometimes have the weakest links because of incidents that happened long ago that have never been forgotten or forgiven.

After I left home, I rarely got back except for Christmas so I had to bring together another kind of family for Thanksgiving. I did have a partner at various times in my life, but most of the time I was alone and had to look to friends. Now I don’t have a partner or any close living relatives, so my friends have become my family. Our local LGBT Center is wonderful in that it provides a place for lonely people to join together for a meal during the holidays.

The Lord loves a thankful heart, and may he bless you.