19 May 2010



My Christian friends, in bonds of love,
Whose hearts in sweetest union join,
Your friendship’s like a drawing band
Yet we must take the parting hand.
Your company’s sweet, your union dear,
Your words delightful to my ear,
Yet when I see that we must part
It draws like cords around my heart.

And now, my friends, both young and old,
I hope in Christ you’ll still go on.
And if on earth we meet no more
Oh may we meet on Canaan’s shore.
O glorious day! O blessed hope!
My soul leaps forward at the thought
That there we’ll all with Jesus dwell:
So loving Christians, fare you well.

These words come from the Sacred Harp tradition of music, which is a form of hymn singing from the mid-nineteenth century. The popularity of Sacred Harp singing has ebbed and flowed through the years, but even now there are many Sacred Harp communities that gather together once a month or so to sing the old hymns. This hymn, “Parting Hand” is one that is traditionally sung at the end of the day as friends say good-bye to each other.

We can imagine the popularity of this song in the rural South and Appalachia when it was first sung. There was no guarantee that friends would see each other again. People lived scattered and far apart from each other, and might see people from outside their own family or small town for only a few days a year. Travel was difficult and expensive, so the moment of saying goodbye must have been terribly difficult. So glad were they to see their friends, and so sad at their parting, that in this song we hear about a heaven where we never have to say goodbye to our friends.

And yet despite the terrible scarcity these people faced, and the very few opportunities they had to see their friends face to face, their song is joyful, and the words speak tenderly about the friendships we have made, even those that will seemingly end after our parting.

As the summer approaches, we “parting people” tend to graduate, go on vacation, get married, move on, move up, and move out. Often this season is a time when we are forced to say goodbye to friends we have come to love and cherish. Moreover, the anxiety of our current culture heightens our instability and anxiety. Last week I talked to four people who had lost their jobs that week alone. Recent college graduates are entering the worst job market in recent history. In my work at the Church Health Center in Memphis, part of my responsibilities includes coordinating our college intern program. In the past few weeks, I’ve received frantic calls from soon-to-be graduates looking for something, anything, in their field. Even at this time of excitement and change, we can feel scattered and lost, unable to continue things as they have been and yet unable to see the way ahead.

It’s true for us, and it’s true for the disciples who faced a new and uncertain future after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Even in the glorious aftermath of Jesus’s appearances to them, the disciples knew that something was changed, something was different, nothing would be like it was before. They were left to carry on Christ’s church in the midst of a crippling culture. They knew now that they too could be separated from their friends, scattered and alone, left to preach a Gospel of life in the face of death, and to do so without the aid and comfort of their friend, Jesus.

And to their aid, we hear in John 17 that Jesus prays for his disciples, for his friends, and for all those who abide in him. He says: “While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”

The joy of Christ, made complete in us, even in our scattered ways and anxious times, is what Jesus wishes for us in his last prayer. He prays that we may have joy made complete in ourselves, scattered as we may be, and that the joy of his friendship may be within us so that we may carry it with us wherever we go.

The Book of Jeremiah talks about how the law of God is to written down not just on paper but on the hearts of the Israelites, so that even when they were scattered to the far corners of the earth through flood or famine or military powers, they would still have God’s law because it would be within them. And here Jesus lifts a prayer that asks the same thing for his disciples and for us: that no matter where we go, what we do or what friends we have to leave behind, we will carry the joy of our friendship with us, and within us, now and forever.

And this joy of friendship, with Jesus and with each other, is what we must carry with us when we are forced to say goodbye. Scattered joy, written on our hearts, of the friendships we have had and continue to have through our joy of each other, and the joy of the abiding love of Christ. No amount of planning or care or safety measures can prevent us from having to say goodbye to our friends. But when we have felt the joy of Christ’s friendship, written on our hearts and made complete within ourselves, we find ourselves thankful for the times we have spent with friends, joyful in our care for old friendships, and hopeful in the cultivation of new ones.

-The Reverend Stacy Smith is a Parish Associate at Idlewild Presbyterian Church, and is the Supervisor of Christian Formation in Wellness at the Church Health Center in Memphis, Tennessee.

13 May 2010

"Evangelicals and Gays: Why Can't We All Just Get Along?"

A few weeks ago, Tim Dalrymple, a thoughtful Kierkegaard scholar who holds a Ph.D. from Harvard and an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary -- and, yes, a self-described Christian "evangelical" -- contacted me out of the blue and asked whether I would be willing to join an online discussion on patheos.com, a website dedicated to promoting "balanced views of religion and spirituality," about reimagining the relationship between LGBT people and evangelicals.

I have long been puzzled by the animosity between Christian evangelicals and the LGBT community. As someone who is passionate about scripture and biblical languages -- for example, not only do I own and regularly use hard copies of lexicons such as the unabridged Kittel and the EDNT, but I also love working with Bible software such as Logos and Accordance -- I have felt that there is actually much that evangelicals and LGBT people have in common.

At first, I wasn't quite sure what to make of the offer. Would I be "sleeping with the enemy"? What would my fellow queer theologians and ministers think? WWJD (what would Jesus do)? But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that it was critically important for me to engage Christian evangelicals on their own theological terms, and particularly in a spirit of truth, charity, and generosity.

So, in the spirit of Martin Luther, who inaugurated the Protestant Reformation on October 31, 1517, by nailing 95 theses to the door of the Schlosskirche (castle church) in Wittenberg, Germany, I have posted on the web "9.5 Theses for a New Reformation" for reimagining the relationship between Christian evangelicals and LGBT people.

1. LGBT relationships are grounded in love, which is at the very heart of our understanding of God and the Christian faith. I often wonder if anti-gay evangelicals really understand that LGBT relationships -- whether for a night or for a lifetime -- are really about love and not just sex. I personally have been together with my partner Michael for nearly nineteen years, which has given me a profound understanding of what hesed and agape means, both human and divine. If we Christians profess that God is love, that Jesus has given us a new commandment to love one another, and that the two great commandments have to do with love, why are not LGBT relationships, which are grounded in love, any less holy than non-LGBT relationships?

2. Christian evangelicals often lack compassion toward LGBT people, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for LGBT people to hear the good news of the gospel. I have been amazed how anti-gay evangelicals, who ostensibly profess a gospel of forgiveness and compassion, can be so utterly uncompassionate toward LGBT people as well as other Christians with whom they disagree. I myself have been the recipient of hate mail, vulgar comments, and ad hominem attacks from self-identified Christians, simply for questioning the status quo about same-sex acts. Frankly, I believe a lot of the anger and fear comes from closeted Christians -- that is, those who are struggling with their own same-sex attractions -- who thus end up projecting their own self-hate on to LGBT people. What evangelicals should ask themselves is this: How do you expect LGBT people to hear any good news when all they experience is condemnation and hatred from Christians?

3. Christian evangelicals establish a new works righteousness when they require that LGBT people abstain from same-sex acts in order to be saved. Could someone explain to me why using same-sex acts as a litmus test for Christian discipleship is not the very same works righteousness that Paul condemns throughout his letters? In other words, why are not anti-gay evangelicals just like the legalistic "Judaizers" who Paul critiques in Galatians and elsewhere? I know that the standard explanation is that people who are "truly" saved by grace will be sanctified and thus will not engage in same-sex acts. However, in truth, this just seems to be a lot of fancy rhetoric that ultimately disguises a world-view of salvation by works (that is, salvation by abstaining from same-sex acts). If the Donatist controversy taught us anything, it is that sinful actions do not invalidate the underlying validity of our sacramental status (here, the priesthood of all the baptized).

4. Even the Reformers did not treat all biblical verses as having the same interpretive weight. To me, sola scriptura means that all things necessary for salvation are contained in Scripture, but our Reformation ancestors never intended for all verses of the Bible to carry the exact same interpretive weight as the others. For example, Luther described the Letter of James as an "epistle of straw," and even Calvin recognized that the ceremonial law has been "abrogated" in use. Thus, I do not understand why anti-gay evangelicals are so obsessed with the half-dozen or so passages in scripture that purportedly prohibit same-sex acts (e.g., Genesis 19, Leviticus 18 and 20, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, 1 Timothy 1), when there is so much richness throughout in the Bible that affirms the goodness of the self-giving love -- including deeply loving relationships, both sexual and non-sexual -- that I have seen in a decade of ministering to the LGBT community.

5. True proponents of "family values" would not preach and teach values that drive families apart. Although evangelical Christians often profess that "family values" are at the heart of their Biblical ethics, the fact is that their anti-gay preaching and teaching continues to tear families apart by driving a wedge between Christians and their LGBT children, siblings, parents, and friends. This is especially true with families of color (e.g., African American, Latino/a, and Asian American families) in which the Christian faith is a central aspect of their culture and day-to-day existence. For example, in my own ministries with LGBT Asian Americans who grew up in a Christian household, I have seen an incredible amount of pain within such families that is attributable to the anti-gay evangelical condemnation of LGBT people. If family values are so important, then why can't we take families more seriously by encouraging families with openly-LGBT members to stay together and not break apart?

6. If the uncircumcised and unclean Gentiles could be accepted just as they were through the work of the Holy Spirit, then so can LGBT people. A main theme (if not the main theme) of the Book of Acts and Pauline letters such as Galatians and Romans is the evangelization of the Gentiles in the early Church and the amazing breadth of God's love for all people. I think that anti-gay evangelicals often forget that many early Christians were scandalized by the fact that uncircumcised people and those who did not follow the Levitical dietary laws could be Christians. In fact, we modern-day Christians often forget that we are the heirs to Peter's and Paul's outreach to the Gentiles through the work of the Holy Spirit. So why are not LGBT people simply a new kind of Gentiles? Why can't we treat same-sex acts in the same way that Peter and Paul treated circumcision and the dietary laws? Perhaps it is time for a new Council of Jerusalem, which was the apostolic council held around 50 C.E. and described in Acts 15, that concluded that neither circumcision nor adherence to the dietary laws was necessary for Gentiles to be saved.

7. True repentance only occurs as a result of understanding how deeply we are loved, yet Christian evangelicals often fail to show that kind of love to LGBT people. As Christians, we know that we cannot understand the depth of our sinfulness -- that is, the degree to which we turn away from God and neighbor -- until we realize how much we are loved in the first place. Only in knowing that we are loved by God, through revelation and/or reason, are we able to experience true repentance or metanoia. It seems to me that there is plenty for all of us to repent for beyond same-sex acts. In fact, by treating same-sex acts as a litmus test for Christian faithfulness, anti-gay Christians inadvertently place a stumbling block before LGBT people by failing to show them the unconditional love that leads to true metanoia.

8. Focusing on the "sinfulness" of same-sex acts obscures the true meaning of original sin. To me, the heavy emphasis on the sinfulness of same-sex acts actually cheapens the doctrine of original sin and the fallenness of all people. In other words, it seems to me that anti-gay evangelicals fall into the exact same trap that Paul sets up for the Jewish Christians in Romans 1. Anti-gay evangelicals are so busy condemning LGBT people that, just like the Jewish Christians to whom Paul is speaking, they fail to see that all are fallen, which is the point of Romans 2 -- and the primary point of Paul's theology of salvation by grace. I believe that focusing less on the sinfulness of same-sex acts and more on the universality of original sin would actually honor the doctrine of sin as understood by Augustine, Calvin, and others in the reformed tradition.

9. In this case, hating the "sin" is hating the sinner. I have written elsewhere about the fallacy of "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin" with respect to LGBT people. For most of us, being LGBT is such an important part of our identities -- especially given how we experience God's love most strongly through LGBT people and relationships -- that to condemn our sexuality is the same as condemning the individual. Imagine being straight in a gay world but never being able to admit that you are sexually active or that you desire and/or have an opposite-sex spouse, straight children, and other straight friends. Would you experience that world as merely hating the sin or hating the person? I suspect most people would experience the latter.

9.5. Christian evangelicals and LGBT people actually have more in common than either side would care to admit. Last, but not least, I conclude with a thesis that is somewhat less scriptural and theological, but more sociological in nature. As someone who "lives" in both the LGBT world and the Christian world, I believe that both communities actually have a lot more in common that either side would care to admit. In both worlds, there is often a tight-knit sense of fellowship, community, shared experiences and mission, and shared texts and cultures. There is also a sense of being marginalized and persecuted within a larger society. Indeed, both groups often experience difficulty in terms of talking about or "coming out" about one's deepest beliefs and loves openly in many day-to-day situations. It seems to me that a more thoughtful dialogue between these two groups might uncover many of these similarities and help each group better empathize with the other.

In sum, my hope is that these 9.5 theses for a new Reformation might be a useful start in terms of encouraging a deeper and more authentic dialogue between non-LGBT Christian evangelicals and LGBT Christians. As I mentioned above, it is my hope that such dialogue might lead toward a "turning of the mind" by evangelicals about their historically negative views of LGBT people. Similarly, such a dialogue might help LGBT people to reassess our attitudes toward evangelicals, as well as to practice forgiveness of those who may have trespassed against us. I personally would welcome the opportunity to be part of such a dialogue.

The above devotion is excerpted from the Rev. Dr. Patrick Cheng's online pieces:
* "9.5 Theses for a New Reformation," Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/95-Theses-for-a-New-Reformation.html (April 26, 2010).
* "Evangelicals and Gays: Why Can't We All Just Get Along?," Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-patrick-s-cheng-phd/evangelicals-and-gays-why_b_559612.html (May 5, 2010).
Copyright (c) 2010 by Patrick S. Cheng. All rights reserved.

The Rev. Dr. Patrick S. Cheng will be joining the faculty of the Episcopal Divinity School in July 2010 and is ordained in the Metropolitan Community Church. For his website, please see http://www.patrickcheng.net .

05 May 2010

Peter’s Vision for Today

My mother talks about the moment when, in college, she had the sudden realization that she was a Gentile. “I knew I wasn’t Jewish,” she remembers, “but it hadn’t occurred to me until that moment that I was one of those nasty Gentiles!” She shares this memory with a smile at her own naiveté. Having grown up in a Christian household reading the Bible and being fascinated with Jewish tradition, my mother’s experience was surprising but safe. Surprising because she suddenly realized she was a Gentile, one of those “others” who are often looked on with suspicion throughout the Bible. But safe because the Gentiles were already “in”—they had already been accepted by the followers of Jesus long, long ago.

This week, we heard the story from Acts 11 of Peter’s vision, in which he is called to serve the Gentiles: “As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” The passage concludes: “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’”

My mother’s realization, while humorous now, was safe because her group is already included in the Christian sphere. If this passage from Acts—and the whole movement of the book of Acts from a band of small followers to the ends of the known world—tells us anything, though, it is that the Christian community should have no bounds. None. When Christians today welcome the GLBT community into their communities as the early followers of Jesus welcomed the Gentiles, Peter’s vision will be expanded once again. More importantly, God’s desire for open doors and welcoming hearts will see fruition.

Last month, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) took final steps toward abolishing its anti-GLBT policies, effective immediately. My hope this Easter season is that we Presbyterians can follow in their footsteps, embracing the inclusive vision of Acts 11 and extending God’s gracious and radical welcome to all. Particularly for heterosexual allies of the GLBT community—like my mother and me—may we not rest in the safety of having already been accepted into the Christian fold, but rather risk our safety for a broader and more holy Presbyterian community.

—Rev. Ian Doescher
Calvary Presbyterian Church, Portland, Oregon