The Island Life

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Most years, a bit of my summer vacation involves spending time with old friends on an island off of the Maine coast. The island has no electricity and, except for rainwater collected in cisterns to assist with washing dishes, no running water. There are no cars, no stores, no restaurants, or anything of that sort. There are several houses on the island, each equipped with a gas range and gas refrigerator—we are not completely roughing it.

Preparing to go to the island takes a bit of work and forethought. Just getting to the island requires a ferry, then driving across Swan’s Island (not far from Bar Harbor) and then taking a small launch from a lobsterman’s dock over to the island.   Food must be purchased ahead of time and carried to the island. There’s a small (and I mean very small) market on Swan’s Island for things like milk and bread. Alcohol of any kind must be purchased on the “mainland.” The tiny market doesn’t sell those kinds of provisions.

Why go through all of this hassle? For one thing, it’s great to spend some time with old friends. Plus, the island is a beautiful place, featuring nice walking trails and lovely views of the rocky Maine coast:

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These days, perhaps the most significant of the island’s allure: no internet.

I should admit that I’m not completely without access to the outside world while I’m on the island. I have my smartphone, along with an external battery, so that I can be reached in case of an emergency. But, to ensure that I am reachable in an emergency, I limit the use of my phone. After a quick check of email and daily headlines, and then completion of the NYT mini-crossword, the phone goes away.

This year, I cannot adequately articulate how wonderful it was to be able to disconnect from the world. Not only is the news so hard to bear—from politics to the latest scandal from the Catholic Church—but news on the smaller scale is also increasingly difficult.   The town of which we have been part for most of the time we’ve lived in Maine has become a microcosm of what’s happening nationally, politically speaking anyway. Lines are clearly drawn. Terrible things are said—posted, actually, to social media sites—one group to the other, one person to another. And, at least a few people seem to be living and speaking out of an alternate reality.

Along with all of this, there’s work. Thankfully, Old South is mostly quiet and behaving itself. But, my role as chair of the Maine Conference UCC Board of Directors has become rather problematic, with disgruntled people making themselves known, and also making it known that they expect a response to their complaints quickly—like now. As if any Board of Directors can move quickly about anything . . .

It was all too tempting just to stay on the island. So what if acquiring provisions requires considerably more thought and planning. So what if meal clean up is a major task.  So what if water must be fetched and hauled from a well.  So what if an occasional squirrel finds its way into the walls of one of the old buildings and starts scurrying around at 4 o’clock in the morning. So what if my lovely, well-equipped bathroom at home is replaced with this:

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Outhouse and all, it just might be worth it to stay.

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When Right Is Wrong (or, if not exactly wrong, not exactly right either)

Perhaps in response to a humid, but dry, summer in Maine, much of my reading this season has involved a lot of cold and ice. After watching the AMC series “The Terror” in the spring, I read the book by the same name by Dan Simmons. The book is a fictionalized account of the two ships, the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus, and their combined 129-man crew, that went in search of the Northwest Passage in the 1840s. And never returned.

Now, I’m reading In The Kingdom of Ice, by Hampton Sides, the nonfiction account of the voyage of the USS Jeannette. This ship ventured in search of the North Pole around 1880. Of the crew of 33, only 13 returned home, without tales of a successful discovery of the North Pole.

These books may offer a bit of a reprieve from the heat of summer, with the endless scenes of ice, cold, and the notion of a “balmy” June day in the 20s. The books also offer into an interesting view into the age-old concept that we human beings can really get carried away with ideas of our own destiny, God’s desire for us to conquer and dominate, and that sheer will can allow us to achieve what we believe to be ours and will allow us to overcome any obstacle in our path. Hubris is the neat and tidy word.

It’s hard to listen to these stories (I’m a big audiobook fan) and not be filled with a deep sense of dread. How could they not see that so many of their decisions were terrible ones, that they were doomed to failure? From the beginning of the germ of the idea and then all the way through their journey, decision after decision is shown to be misguided or just plain wrong. And, instead of seeing each disaster as maybe a sign that the plan was a bad one, there’s only the sense that God (or some sort of power beyond themselves) likes to place obstacles, somehow in order that strong men (they are all men in these stories) can become yet stronger.

While such groundbreaking exploration as these two stories unveil involves a great deal of risk, these two adventures contain something beyond risk: an overwhelming amount of recklessness. That recklessness is certainly clear in hindsight. Yet, it’s interesting to wonder if the voice of reason was ever raised in the decision-making process—and dismissed—or if the voice of reason was simply silent all the way through.

As I listen to these stories, I can’t help but reflect on my own decisions and, at the present time, the decisions related to my work as a pastor of a local church and as the chair of the board of directors for the Maine Conference United Church of Christ. It’s not hard to be lured into the notion that my decisions or the decisions of which I am part are all good and right ones, that they are part of the laying out of such things as healthier group dynamics. Past decisions and behaviors were clearly bad ones and have led to “dysfunction” and problematic practices. And, now we are all about bringing health and wellbeing.

It’s much more difficult to see that current decisions and choices have their own elements of trouble and waywardness. After all, we are all imperfect beings.   Our decisions and choices cannot lead to a perfect, or even near perfect, system. Yet, somehow we find convenient ways of keeping our own imperfection at bay.

It’s awfully tempting to see ourselves as saviors, of a sort, to the groups of which we are part—church and conference. Look at the good work we are doing, “righting the ship,” so to speak. Such work always invites a disgruntled group, or groups, of those who represent the old, bad way of doing things (which, of course, they tend to see as not at all bad or dysfunctional). Can we get them onboard with our new plan, or find a way to dismiss them or discourage them, or minimize their attempts to undermine this new, better way?

It’s hard for decision-makers to see the mistakes inherent in their own choices. It’s also hard to fathom that some future group will look back to this time and wonder what in the world we were thinking. On the one hand, we see ourselves as contributing to the improvement of whatever situation we are in. But, on the other hand, we are certainly making errors that will contribute to dysfunction of some sort, now and into the future—whether we want to realize it or not.

The decisions that we make may, at least on some occasions, be wayward. Sometimes our choices are just plain wrong. Yet, our intentions are usually good ones. In looking into the past, and trying to undo, or redo, some of the work of our predecessors, we ought to cut them a little slack. With the grace that I’m sure we would appreciate when some of our decisions are clearly shown one day to be bad ones, we ought to look back with that same sort of grace, resisting the dangerous appeal of believing that we are the ones to finally “right the ship” fully and completely.

Decisions in local churches in Maine, and on the Maine Conference board, will likely not result in considerable death and destruction like those adventurous voyages of the nineteenth century, of the Terror and Erebus and the Jeannette. Still, those of us who participate in the decision-making for and with our peers, and for the institutions of which we are part, ought to spend some time in serious and deep reflection regarding the way we are forging. For the sake of the past, the present and the future, we should be of a conscientious mind in resisting hubris, appreciating that our knowledge is, like that of our predecessors, incomplete.  We may steer the ship in a more positive direction, for this time and context, but we will never fully “right the ship.” That is beyond our capabilities, no matter how hard we try.

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Please, Evangelical Christians, I Beg You

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Matthew 5:14-16

At a recent rally in Montana, President Trump took aim at an old George H. W. Bush slogan, the Thousand Points of Light. “We’re putting America first,” President Trump declared, and then continued, “You know all that rhetoric you see, the Thousand Points of Light. What the hell was that by the way? Thousands of Points of Light. What did that mean? Does anyone know? I know one thing: Make America great again, we understand. Putting America first, we understand.” And the crowd cheered and applauded. The President then added, “Thousand Points of Light, I never quite got that one. What the hell is that? Has anyone ever figured that one out?”*

In that crowd, I suspect there were Evangelical Christians. Good, honest people. People who have deep concerns regarding what’s going on in the United States, people who are drawn in by the President’s bold claims, people who helped elect this President, people who have, at least to some extent, the President’s attention.

My guess is that a lot of people in that crowd were among the “thousand points of light,” of which George H. W. Bush spoke when he accepted the presidential nomination at the 1988 Republican National Convention, and then repeated at his Inauguration. The “thousand points of light” highlighted the good work and value of volunteerism, “of taking part and pitching in.”

This is an important element of American life. It is also an essential Christian value.

Yet, the notion of “points of light” is obviously a complete mystery to the current President. The notion is mercilessly mocked, and all that goes with it: volunteerism; taking part; pitching in; getting involved in one’s community; caring for neighbor; etc. You know, that good ol’ Golden Rule sort of stuff that Jesus taught.

Please, Evangelical Christians, I implore you: stop applauding the President when he denigrates good citizenship, when he demeans the Golden Rule, when he casts aside those things that actually make America truly great.

Please, Evangelical Christians, I beg of you: listen to what he is saying. And understand that he’s putting you down, and your way of life. He’s mocking YOU.

And, tell him so. He might listen to you.

I don’t know for sure (I’ve never been to a Trump rally and haven’t ever spoken to anyone who has attended such a rally), but I feel like it’s a safe bet that a lot of people in that crowd in Montana are volunteers. They are caring, community-oriented people, who give back, who participate, who “take part,” who “pitch in.” They are people who help neighbors when they are sick, who give their time and money to places like soup kitchens and homeless shelters, who respond to disasters, who lead local boy scouts and coach youth soccer teams, who teach Sunday School and lead Bible studies.

I think I can safely bet that an average Trump rally attracts all sorts of “points of light.” People who make their light shine in all sorts of ways—big and small—in their own communities and beyond.

Please, Evangelical Christians, tell the President that you are among the Thousand Points of Light, and that volunteerism and caring should not be the subject of ridicule.

This is not the only issue I’d like you to take up with the President, Evangelical Christians, but it’s a good start. And, I beg you to start somewhere.

Please.

__________

*Quote from RealClearPolitics

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Summer’s Here and the Livin’ Ain’t So Easy

Summer has arrived in Maine, finally. As the weather heats up, the overall tone and mood seem to be heating up as well. On the national and local stage, the news is difficult, even crushing—for those who are not fans of the current President (or those who fashion themselves in the President’s style, like some Maine-based politicians). From families being torn apart at the border—and the language that accompanies this practice—to the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, to another terrible shooting, the summer isn’t starting off very well.

I’ve been asked by several non-church-going friends about how I’m “dealing with what’s going on” at work at the church I serve. How am I preaching about the President and his terrible policies? How am I talking about the horrible things that seem to be constantly falling out of the President’s mouth? How am I highlighting how little the President seems to understand such concepts as loving neighbor, and showing kindness, these being the best known Christian practices to liberal leaning non-religious types?

When I respond, initially, to these questions with silence or a slight shrug, indicating that I don’t really talk much about such things (at least not directly), I’ve been met a few times with active derision. Clearly, I’m not doing my job.

I usually try to defend myself, but I don’t get very far. There’s just disappointment, along with a wee bit of anger.

If I’m given an opportunity, I try to explain that my congregation doesn’t have many Trump supporters, if any at all, so I don’t feel the need to offer an alternative view, or “corrective,” in those instances when Christian principles are in the mix. Plus, I’m quite sure that the members of my congregation are already not very happy with what’s going on in the world, and in the United States. To the extent that people express what they are looking for in worship, it can be summed up in one word: respite.

I serve a well-educated, well-informed congregation, with several people who are politically active. I also serve a congregation that embodies something rare these days in that it contains a broad spectrum of political perspectives. We have quite a few Democrats (progressive as well as conservative Democrats), we have Republicans (while some may be relatively content with at least a few current policies and developments, I don’t think there’s anyone who is an active Trump supporter), and several people who are decidedly Independent.

Except for one or two people who occasionally ask for more clearly political material in worship, most people seem to be looking for relief from the barrage of bad, ugly and almost unconscionable news. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, the back-and-forth political barbs that have become outright hostile and mocking are just too much. Most of the people at Old South are looking for a bit of a reprieve.

I don’t believe that they are looking for an escape, exactly. They simply want something different, an opportunity during the week that might offer a balm for their weary souls.

And, that’s what I try to do. Although I will throw in an indirect remark, and certainly lift up justice, love and kindness whenever I have the opportunity, I endeavor to create a space for a little peace and quiet, a place for reflection, a chance to remember the big picture, and to reconnect and renew in our individual and collective relationship with our Creator.

In news coverage, there are plenty of politicians and clergy of various perspectives who seem very comfortable in claiming that God is on their “side.” I am not one of those people. I believe that it is critical, for the sake of others as well as our own selves, to consider deeply and carefully, what it means for us to love our neighbors as ourselves—especially as a dictate that came very clearly from the mouth of Jesus. But, I also believe that it is essential that good people of faith appreciate the notion that to worship God is to know that we are not God. And, therefore, we do not know everything there is to know about the mind and desires of the Creator.

It’s not easy to walk this tightrope. While I would love to rail against the President, and those in league with him, every Sunday morning—for there is plenty to rail against in the gulf that exists between Christian theology and practice and what the President and his administration say and do (even while quoting the New Testament), I simply don’t think that it’s the right thing to do. Sunday morning worship ought not be another place where we get our political ducks all lined up in a row. Sunday morning worship ought to be worship—for praise and prayer; for singing and silence; for renewal of hope in a chaotic and violent world; and a place to connect with what it means to be God’s people, appreciating that we can only barely glimpse the enormity and wonder of what that is.

I may disappoint my non-church-going friends, but in the heat and ugliness of the world in which we live, I choose to refrain from trying to line my congregation up with one particular side.   Instead, I endeavor to provide a bit of rest and perspective for the weary traveler, so that we can be the people we are called to be, sharing love and hope, even in—especially in—these difficult and challenging times.

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Can I Ban Remember When?

Like any church with a lot of long-time members, and certainly like any church that is the midst of the Mainline decline, it’s a fairly common occurrence to hear the construction “remember when” at the start of a sentence or question.

At Old South, I’ve noticed that “remember when”-ing usually has something to do with numbers. Remember when the sanctuary was almost full on most Sunday mornings? Remember when we had a choir so large that it took up both sides of the choir loft? Remember when people had to arrive at least an hour early to get a seat for the Christmas Eve service?

Remember when-ing is also sometimes connected to a sense of status or privilege. Remember when the mayor was always a member of Old South?

I’ve come to loathe any sentiment, sentence or question that begins with “Remember when.” And I want to yell and scream in protest whenever I hear those wretched words.

It’s not simply that sentences or questions that begin with “remember when” tend to be ones that drip with futile nostalgia. The problem is that “remember when” sentences always convey a sentiment that actually has nothing to do with what makes a good church. When people begin their remember when-ing they tend to talk about full sanctuaries and community status. But such things, in and of themselves, do not say anything about the church fulfilling its purpose or mission.

Remembering when-ing statements never have anything to do with the year that the outreach offering doubled, or when a group gathered in a prayer circle, in the midst of a winter storm, to pray for someone who had experienced a catastrophic medical event, or when someone took a big leap of faith and led worship on a Sunday when the pastor was on vacation.

Remembering when-ing steers any conversation to that sad, distant place that usually involves the heaving of the heavy, nostalgia-laden sigh. Oh, yes, those were the days. What’s happened to us? Why can’t we have what we once had? Why can’t we be that thing that we used to be?

Remembering when-ing brings any productive conversation to a complete halt, as heads fill up with all of those scenes of what once was, but isn’t any longer (and may not have been to begin with).

Remember when-ing is never about the church being good church and doing good church things. Although I haven’t been at Old South long enough to have personal experience of those “remember when” days, I suspect I know a bit about them. As a child of the seventies, and an active church-goer for my entire life, I remember the days of larger numbers and fuller sanctuaries.

It’s not that the church of those days did nothing good. I’m sure churches did plenty of good things. But, they were also very aware of, and settled into, their own status and place in the community.

My guess is that churches like Old South are now engaged much more in the work of good church than they ever were in those “remember when” days.

At Old South, we may have a much smaller congregation, a much lower average Sunday attendance, a choir a quarter of the size it was twenty-five years ago, but we are doing more than we ever have in terms of ministry and mission.

Among Old South’s signs of good church:

  • In a very short time, the church has doubled its outreach offering (the offering that goes mostly to local charities, ranging from a fund for prisoners in the local jail to the food pantry to the Maine Conference summer camp), while also contributing generously to denominational and ecumenical offerings. And, more than that, there’s genuine interest in learning about those on the margins of our own community.
  • Old South actively cares for those who are part of the congregation, reaching out with phone calls, cards, etc. People are particularly aware of those in distress and those who are struggling or lonely.
  • Old South takes seriously its Open and Affirming statement, endeavoring to welcome all.
  • Old South no longer relies on supply ministers when I’m on vacation. Individuals from the congregation cover most of the Sundays when I’m away.

Remembering when-ing casts the current church as inadequate and as a failure, instead of asking deeper questions about the whys and hows of the change in circumstance, and how well the church has maintained and expressed its faithfulness, regardless of numbers. Remembering when-ing not only keeps the outlook in the past, but in a past that may not be entirely accurate. Remembering when-ing curtails our call to move ever forward, to be the church in every time.

Remembering when-ing keeps us from fully appreciating the movement of the Spirit in our midst, and the ongoing story of God and God’s people—of which we are part. Now.

There is grief in the changes that we have experienced. But, there is also love and hope, joy and grace—and the ongoing crucial and significant work of being church. For where only two or three are gathered . . .

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Call and Circumstance

In the year King Uzziah died . . . So begins the sixth chapter of Isaiah, in which Isaiah is called as a prophet. In reading Isaiah’s call story, it’s easy to get caught up in the wild elements of the story: the Lord sitting on a high and lofty throne; the seraphs and their various wings; the hot coal and the tongs that carry it, etc.   It’s also easy to focus on the seemingly eager response that Isaiah offers, “Here am I; send me!”

Isaiah’s call story is a truly dramatic and remarkable one. Yet, in the drama, we may miss that vital first statement that marks the context of the call, “In the year King Uzziah died.” Isaiah’s call didn’t come in a vacuum, or in a solitary, personal moment. Isaiah’s call occurred at a particular moment, within a set of circumstances.

This angle of the story came to me as I reflected on the annual honorary degree dinner held at Colby College, where my husband teaches, the night before commencement (which also happened to be the night before I was planning to give my Sunday sermon at Old South with Isaiah 6:1-8 as the focus scripture from the lectionary readings). It’s an event that I look forward to every year, as it offers an opportunity not only to celebrate accomplished individuals, but also to hear from them and to learn a little about their stories. This year, my husband and I served as hosts for one of the celebrated people who was also the commencement speaker this year, Senator Susan Collins.

During the dinner, all of the individuals had an opportunity to speak. I was struck by the sense that each of them had recognized a moment, or a set of circumstances, that led them to response. Each of them experienced a certain kind of “call” to do something, to respond, to take a risk:

Rebecca Corbett is an assistant managing editor at The New York Times. She was involved in the reporting that broke the Harvey Weinstein story.

Theaster Gates is an artist who “creates sculptures with clay, tar, and renovated buildings, transforming the raw material of urban neighborhoods into radically re-imagined vessels of opportunity for the community.”

Greg Powell was contentedly working as an attorney when family friend, Harold Alfond, called and asked him to try something completely new: become chair of his charitable foundation. The Harold Alfond Foundation is the largest charitable foundation in Maine.

Susan Collins is the most senior Republican woman in the United States Senate. At the honorary degree dinner, the story of the evening focused on the government shutdown this past January. While many legislators chose to huddle in their own ideological corner, Collins invited a diverse group of her colleagues to her office. A system was established that forced the participants to talk one at a time and to listen to each other.  The shutdown lasted only a few days.

All of these individuals recognized context and circumstances and then responded accordingly. That they were being celebrated at Colby College (and in other ways too) meant that the risk they took worked out and worked out well.

The lesson that these honorary degree candidates offer is one that should be part of church life as well, especially for churches of the old Mainline. In churches like the one I serve—a church that was once the center of community life, where people had to arrive an hour early for the Christmas Eve service to get a seat—quite a lot of energy is spent in arguing our context and circumstances. We fret and complain. We push against the reality in which we exist.

We are no longer at the heart of community life. The Christmas Eve service, while still the largest of the year, doesn’t even come close to filling the sanctuary.

Over the past fifty years, our circumstances have changed, and changed dramatically. Instead of carefully considering our new context, though, we complain and argue. If only the Sunday morning sports practices would end. If only families would appreciate how important church is to their well-being. If only . . .

As is the case for Isaiah, context and circumstances are important. The call is grounded in a particular moment.

For the current moment, how is the church—and its members—being called? To what mission, to what opportunity, should we direct our focus? What risk is calling us to action, that we might share God’s love and hope?

Certainly, there are opportunities, and plenty of them. Our communities abound with poverty, homelessness, spiritual hunger, loneliness, and addiction. Yet, we so often yearn for what we had, and what we were.   It’s okay to hold fond memories of our past, but those memories shouldn’t get in the way of how we are being called now, in our current context, to be God’s people.

We may be fewer in number, but we are called to important ministries in this time, grounded in our own context. It’s time to let go of the past, and to take stock of who and what we are now, and how God is calling us. As Isaiah recognized his own sinfulness, and that of his people, he was cleared of that sin and was able to see and to hear anew what God was speaking to him. And, when the call of God came, Isaiah responded with a compelling eagerness, “Here am I; send me!”

We, the church and its people, are called to do the same—in this time, in this place.

 

 

 

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The Use and Abuse of the Bible

The New York Times recently reported that, at a rural Oregon high school, LGBT students were assigned certain Bible readings when they got into trouble. [“L.G.B.T Students in Oregon Were Bullied and Forced to Read Bible, Report Says,” May 16, 2018] According to the story, “school officials initially denied that students were required to read the Bible as punishment. But they later told investigators it was true, adding that they handed down the punishment not to promote a religion but ‘to assist students in understanding the effects of certain behaviors.’”

The article didn’t identify which readings were a part of the punishment, but the tone of the article suggested that some of my favorite Biblical readings were very likely not included:

1 Corinthians 7: 8, 32-35—“To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. . . . I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.”

Galatians 3:28—“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Luke 6:37—“‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

Matthew 22:37-40—“He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”

The Bible contains a great deal of everything—narratives, stories, lessons, poetry, commands, appeals, etc. It’s a rich tapestry of tradition, as well as an important foundation especially for those who are within the bonds of Judaism and Christianity.

But, time and time again, over and over, the Bible is used and abused in ways that are deeply unsettling. It’s not only that individuals and communities have been targeted for scorn, derision and even violence, but that in our seemingly knowledgeable and literate society, the tendency is still for large, dominant groups to use the Bible to punish and marginalize smaller, more vulnerable groups.

It’s simply unacceptable to use the Bible to belittle or demean. Those school officials stated that they wished to “assist students in understanding the effects of certain behaviors.” What about the behaviors of the school officials themselves? Did they spend even a moment reflecting on what they were doing and why?

Beyond the problematic use of the Bible as punishment in a public school setting, it’s distressing to see yet another example of the misuse of the Bible. Sure, there are individual verses that can be plucked out—for almost any purpose under the sun. But, the Bible also contains remarkable stories that are more than the sum of their individual verses. How about that story about the Good Samaritan? Or the Prodigal Son? What about all those times when Jesus chose to spend his time in the midst of the despised and downtrodden, rather than the powerful and pious?

All of this is bad enough, but it’s hard to ignore another alarming aspect of this story: the damage done to faith communities for whom the Bible is central and vital. When some people of faith choose to punish rather than welcome, to judge rather than love, to demean rather than respect, to marginalize the vulnerable rather than recognizing their dignity, we fall far short of the lessons laid out in the book that we claim to esteem as holy.

The faithful must consider prayerfully the misuse of our holy book, and invite the wisdom and courage to “understand the effects” of our own behavior, especially those certain behaviors that undermine the love of God.

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