Friday, July 30, 2010

Can We Be Welcoming and Affirming?

The Kansas City Coalition of Welcoming Ministries is a network of organizations promoting “dialogue within the faith community on the inclusion of all persons regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.” On July 26 I attended the monthly meeting of the KC Coalition for the second time.
There are many denominational groups working to help churches become “welcoming and affirming.” They include Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists, GALA (Gay & Lesbian Acceptance, Community of Christ), GLAD (Gay, Lesbian & Affirming Disciples Alliance, Disciples of Christ/Christian Church), Integrity USA (Episcopal Church), More Light Presbyterians, Open and Affirming (United Church of Christ), and Reconciling Ministries Network (United Methodist Church). There are others.
In spite of these several organizations, except for the UCC the vast majority of the churches in other denominations are not welcoming and affirming, and at this point most of them probably have no intention of becoming so. But as knowledge about and understanding of gay/lesbian persons is increasing, more and more Christians are seeing their responsibility to become welcoming and affirming.
On July 25, the church of which I am a member had a welcome luncheon for four Muslim families, a lunch provided by fellow church member Ed Chasteen and his HateBusters organization. June and I were happy to attend the luncheon and to welcome our church’s guests. The purpose of the meeting was dialogue, not conversion, but I have no problem with our church welcoming and accepting people with other than Christian faith commitments.
But it saddens me to think that our church would be reluctant (or would refuse) to welcome gay and lesbian persons in a similar manner, even if (or maybe especially if) they were Christians. Our church’s position, it seems, is pretty much “don’t ask, don’t tell.” There are probably gay and lesbian persons who attend our church services, but they can’t be open about their sexual orientation the way our Muslim guests could be open about their religious identity.
Many gay and lesbian Christians have a difficult time maintaining their faith, for opposition and criticism (condemnation) is rampant, especially in the church and by Christians. For that reason I am a supporter of persons such as Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge. Candace (b. 1965) grew up as a Southern Baptist PK (preacher’s kid), left the church when she came out as a lesbian at the age of 17, came back to Christian community through a Metropolitan Community Church in Atlanta, graduated from the Candler School of Theology, and is now associate pastor of the Garden of Grace [there’s that word again!] United Church of Christ in Columbia, SC.
Rev. Chellew-Hodge is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians and is also the founder of “Whosoever: An Online Magazine for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Christians.” (If you know of gay or lesbian Christians who are struggling with their faith, these would be helpful materials.)
On her webpage, Candace says she is available for speaking engagements. I hope at some point she will receive an invitation to speak in the Kansas City area. But if she came to visit at my church, I am afraid she would not be publically welcomed or affirmed. And I find that very sad.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Amazing Story of Tetsuya-san

My previous posting was about Will Campbell’s striking summary of the Christian message and the meaning of grace. Since making that post, I have written Tetsuya-san, a friend in Japan, quoting Campbell’s words (in a “dynamic equivalent” rather than literal translation). Tetsuya-san knows about God’s grace, so let me share some of his amazing story with you.
Tetsuya-san is a murderer, now serving eighteen years in the penitentiary. Ten years ago in the middle of the night, he broke into the home of a blind woman, who had been an acquaintance of his for many years, and slit her throat as she was asleep on her futon next to her young daughter. Shortly after that horrible crime, he was arrested and placed in the detention center in Saga City, Japan, where the murder occurred.
Sometime in 2001, I met Tetsuya-san through Mrs. M., a Japanese woman June and I had known for more than twenty years at the time. She went to see Tetsuya-san because she knew his father, a carpenter/gardener who had worked for her. She perceived that Tetsuya-san was “not a bad man,” so she decided to work to save him from receiving the death penalty, which was a distinct possibility.
Mrs. M. saw how Tetsuya-san was suffering great psychological pain because of his hideous crime, so she took him a Bible, although she was not a Christian at the time. The next time she saw Tetsuya-san, he told her how he went to bed the night he received the Bible, clutching it to his chest, and slept well for the first time since he committed the crime. Over the next few weeks he wrote a confession of faith in Christ.
In 2001, Mrs. M legally adopted Tetsuya-san as her son, even though his biological parents were living. She did that partially to be able to visit him more often and to fight for his life more aggressively. It was also at the end of 2001 that I baptized Mrs. M., who said she had become a Christian believer largely because of the change she saw in Tetsuya-san after he began reading the Bible and confessed faith in Jesus Christ.
When we were in Japan in May of this year, I went across the mountains in Kyushu to Oita Penitentiary with Mr. and Mrs. M and another friend to visit Tetsuya-san, as I had done several times before. I had a very good visit with him and was pleased to see that he seemed quite healthy and at peace.
Through his letters in recent years, I knew that Tetsuya-san was thinking about going to seminary when he is released from prison, which may be in only two or three more years. When I saw him in May, he said clearly that he now hopes to become a pastor upon completing study at the seminary.
God’s grace is truly amazing!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

“We’re All Bastards”

Ten days ago my post was about Will Campbell (and his book Providence). Since Campbell is such a colorful figure, I expected to receive more comments, but I am pleased that two people did respond. Both who commented made reference Campbell’s The Convention: A Parable (1988), which I have just started to read for the first time. One also mentioned Campbell’s most widely acclaimed book, Brother to a Dragonfly (1977).
I read Brother, an autobiographical work, many years ago, so I don’t remember a lot of its content. But there is one significant part I have not forgotten. One of Campbell’s Mississippi friends was a man who went by the name P. D. East. On one occasion, P. D. asked Will, “In ten words or less, what’s the Christian message?” Here was his pungent answer: “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway” (p. 220).
I can’t remember when it was, probably ten to fifteen years ago, but I had the opportunity at some meeting to talk briefly with Will Campbell. I asked him whether after these many years he would change his summary of what the Christian message is. He quickly said he still thought that summed it up pretty well. It probably does, for it is a strong statement about God’s grace.
The only way I can understand what happened to Sara Miles (see the previous posting) is by seeing that as an example of grace. Some of you will be interested to know, and others will be put off to know, that Sara is a lesbian with a “bastard” child (her word, on p. 175 of Take This Bread, and used literally rather than figuratively as Campbell did). It was because of her “radical conversion” that she started a highly successful “food pantry” at her church. It was also a few years later that she and her partner were legally married (partly at the insistence of her daughter Katie) when that was possible in California.
Sara Miles didn’t write much about grace in Take This Bread, but what happened to her can’t really be explained in any other way. In her latest book, Jesus Freak (2010), which I have yet to read, she says more about grace, referring to “God’s radical grace” in the first chapter (p. 11). It is that grace which makes Christianity good news. It is failure to affirm grace that often causes us Christians to seem judgmental, unaccepting, and unattractive to many non-Christians.
I am now more than halfway through writing the first draft of my next book Thirty True Things Every Christian Needs to Know Now. At this point, I am still planning for the title of the thirtieth chapter to be “The Last Word is Always Grace.” That’s truly good news for all of us b…!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Who is Communion For?

The practice that Jesus intended to be a sign of unity has become one of the most divisive aspects of the Christian religion. There is not even any agreement on the name. Some of us prefer to call it the Lord’s Supper. It is more widely known as (Holy) Communion or the Eucharist. 

Invitation to participate in Communion runs the gamut from only the members of the local church (or only to Baptists in the case of those known as Landmarkers) to being open to absolutely everyone. “Open communion” used to refer to being open to all Christians who had been baptized, or even to all Christian believers whether than had been baptized or not. But more and more the Lord’s Supper, by whatever name it is known, has become open to literally everyone who wishes to participate.

Soon after making my blog posting on July 5, I received a fairly lengthy e-mail from Bob Sherer, a Thinking Friend who is a former missionary colleague and a good friend from many years back. Among other things Bob made reference to a controversy that has been swirling around the Christians in Japan, especially around those in the United Church of Christ (Kyōdan, UCC), the largest Protestant denomination in Japan.

A UCC pastor was dismissed because of opening Communion to everyone, whether baptized or a Christian believer or not. That has been an issue for many years among Baptists in Japan also. Years ago I received a telephone call from another Baptist missionary who was rather incensed that his Japanese pastor had started inviting everyone, believer or not, to participate in the Lord’s Supper.
Last week I finished reading a fascinating book, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (2007) by Sara Miles. Her grandparents had been Christian missionaries, but her mother rejected the Christian faith and Sara (b. 1952) grew up as an atheist. More or less on a whim, several years ago she attended a service at an Episcopal Church in San Francisco where she lived and partook of Communion—and her life was drastically changed, as she narrates well in her book.

As a “dyed in the wool” Baptist, I have trouble affirming the sacramental aspect of Communion forwarded by many denominations—and by Sara Miles (whose interview about her book you can find here). But I have nothing but admiration for what she has done, and what she has become, since as an ardent non-believer she first took Communion and experienced a radical conversion. 

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Will Campbell and "Providence"

Will Campbell is one of the most colorful persons I have ever met, and I have just finished reading his captivating book Providence (1992). Campbell, a Baptist minister, activist, and author was born in Mississippi in 1924. He was the late cartoonist Doug Marlette’s inspiration for the character Will B. Dunn in his comic strip Kudzu.
Campbell is the author of many books, fiction and non-fiction. His autobiographical work Brother to a Dragonfly, which I enjoyed reading years ago, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1978. And I found Providence, to be a fascinating narrative.
The unlikely theme of the nearly 300-page book Providence is the history of one section (one square mile) of land in Holmes County, MS. From the mid-1830s to 1938 that section was called Providence Plantation, and then from 1938 to 1955 it was Providence Cooperative Farm. 
The latter was founded and run by missionary evangelist Sherwood Eddy and Rev. Sam H. Franklin with the goal of helping southern sharecroppers. Providence and another cooperative started earlier were organized around four principles: efficiency in production and economy in finance through the cooperative principle, participation in building a socialized economy of abundance, interracial justice, and realistic religion as a social dynamic.
According to Campbell, there were many problems and faults with the efforts of the leaders of the Cooperative Farm, although they meant well. I was especially interested in the many references to Sam Franklin (1902-94), for he went on to become a Presbyterian missionary to Japan. When I lived in Tokyo (from 1966 to 1968), I was a member of a book study group of which Franklin was a member, and I remember him well.
The first part of the book tells about the years when that part of Mississippi was occupied by the Choctaw Indians and the shameful efforts which drove the Choctaw from the land they had occupied for untold generations. Then Campbell narrates some of the evils of slavery and the mistreatment of those used as possessions by the white plantation owners.
Campbell goes on to describe the situation on that one square mile during the Civil War, during the terrible time of Reconstruction, and during the following half century of struggles by a series of plantation owners. The last part of the book then tells of Campbell’s own unsuccessful efforts to restore the plantation to the Choctaws.
For all of you who are interested not only in American history but particularly in justice issues, I highly recommend Providence. And if you don’t know much about Will Campbell, or even if you do, I think you will find his story engaging. If you would like to see a brief 2008 interview with Campbell, click here for his thoughts about “Racism and the Church” (a little over two minutes).

Monday, July 5, 2010

In Praise of Cousin Carolyn

Cousin Carolyn has come “home.” Carolyn Houts (b. 1942) arrived in Kansas City on July 3 for her “final stateside assignment” and then retirement. Carolyn, as I wrote previously, is my cousin, the one nearest my age on the Seat side of the family, and she is “home” from Ghana. (The picture on the right was taken shortly after she arrived at the Kansas City airport Saturday evening.)
For nearly thirty-four years, Ghana has been home for Carolyn, as she arrived that west African country as a missionary in January 1977. That is the reason I put home in quotation marks in the first paragraph. If she is anything like June and I were when we returned to the States after thirty-eight years in Japan, it will take quite some time before this country really seems like home again.
Carolyn was a music missionary, although she did a lot of other things as a member of the Ghana Baptist Mission. During the last few years she mostly taught church music courses at the Ghana Baptist Theological Seminary.
Carolyn majored in music education at Northwest Missouri State University and taught public school music for seven years before entering seminary at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. She was appointed as a missionary to Ghana in 1976, and when she first got to that country she studied Twi, one of the local African languages.
Missionaries are sometimes criticized for being patronizing or agents of Western cultural imperialism. But early on, Carolyn began to learn to play traditional Ghanaian musical instruments, and she developed hymns and gospel songs in various local languages across Ghana. She is available for speaking engagements, which can include playing traditional musical instruments. For about a year she will live in Independence, and her telephone number is 816-254-8825.
More than anything else, I have been impressed through the years at Carolyn’s love for the Ghanaian people and the close relationships she formed with many. She has said, “I am single, but have many African friends who consider me like their mother or grandmother now . . . They now call me Auntie Amma as my Ghanaian name.”
A “Welcome Home” reception for Carolyn is planned for 3:00-5:00 Sunday afternoon, July 11, at the Park Hill Baptist Church in north Kansas City. Those of you who know Carolyn and are within driving distance are cordially invited to attend and to be a part of the group who gather to welcome and honor of Cousin Carolyn. (See for contact information for, or a map to, Park Hill Church.)