Saturday, August 27, 2016

Coming Out Late in Life

On October 11, a book will be released titled Fashionably Late: Gay, Bi & Trans Men Who Came Out Later in Life []. I have a short essay in that book about my own coming out. Fact is, many of us, though we may have known our own sexual orientation or gender identity as youth wait until late in life to "come out."

Back in April of this year, former Pennsylvania senator Harris Wofford recounted his "falling in love a second time, but with a man" in an opinion piece in the NY Times. I commend it to you for your reading — oh, and I hope you buy the book!

You can find Wofford's essay here:

Sunday, August 21, 2016

LGBT Students and Evangelical Christian Colleges

I am a graduate of a Christian college — Columbia International University — and attended another — Covenant College. One of the things I've wrestled with (and continue to do so) is the relationship between such institutions and their LGBT students. They do have them. I know.

So it was with interest that I read a piece recently by a young man named Brandan Robertson (himself a LGBT graduate of an evangelical Christian school and author of Nomad: A Spirituality for Traveling Light) Here are the concluding words of the essay I read. They are worth thinking about.

"Colleges and Universities that are openly anti-LGBT+ will never be capable of creating safe spaces where LGBT+ people can flourish. They will never be able to address bullying with necessary measures, because the bullying comes as part of the theological belief system being taught. Have you ever sat in an audience of your peers, while you are studying for ministry, when someone stands at a pulpit and proclaims from the Bible, “No homosexual will enter the Kingdom of God!” Do you understand the actual psychological trauma such experiences cause? And how do you think that message gets embodied in other heterosexual students who are unable to sympathies with the “struggle” of LGBT+ peers? It’s embodied in immature and abusive ways that will never be addressed by these universities administrations.

Thus, these institutions will never be safe places for sexual and gender minorities. They will always be places that not only perpetuate discrimination, but abuse. And that is the reason that I believe religious colleges and universities should not receive state or federal funding. Because their teachings and practices do not promote human flourishing, but perpetuate deeply rooted discrimination, which is fundamentally against our interest as Americans."


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Does God Have a Problem? THE BIG QUESTION: WHY?


The most frustrating question for parents is also the most important question that someone can ask. It is a question that many, no doubt, have been asking again during the past month. It is a question that has plagued humankind for thousands of years and will continue to do so. Every religion, every philosophy, must address this question.
North Anderson Community Church Presbyterian is a congregation that is dedicated to valuing questions. This is one that is inescapable.
The question is: Why?
When faced with terrible suffering, when faced with what we must call evil, when faced with tragedy, we ultimately find ourselves asking: Why?
For those who profess a religion — like Judaism, Christianity or Islam — that posits the existence of a perfectly good, all-powerful, all-knowing creator who is personal and who acts in history, in space and in time, asking the question, Why?, creates a big problem.
Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, says: “The problem of evil is the most serious problem in the world. It is also the one serious objection to the existence of God.”
The problem has been posed in various forms, both theological and philosophical. But it is not an esoteric problem. It is not a problem that only academics, theologians or philosophers, wrestle with. It is a very real and personal problem that each one of us who professes to believe in a just, kind, loving God wrestles with.
Bart Ehrman, professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina and a very popular author, stated the problem very clearly in his book, God’s Problem: “If there is an all-powerful and loving God in this world, why is there so much excruciating pain and unspeakable suffering?”
That’s it. That’s it in a nutshell.
If God is good and created the world we live in, why does it contain such evils as disease, death, floods, typhoons, tsunamis, fires and earthquakes? We call these natural evils.
If God is good and created the world we live in, including humans, then why does God allow human beings to commit such horrific evils as we have seen in history, as we have seen in the past few weeks, as we will continue to see.
Another popular way of phrasing the problem is: why do evil or bad things happen to good people? Or, why do good things happen to bad people?
Philosopher David Hume put it this way: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”
Philosopher Paul Herrick put it this way: “The world contains enormous amounts of suffering. Yet traditional theism claims that this world is the creation of  wholly good, all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly loving God. Why would a good, loving, all-powerful being create a world containing so much suffering?”
Here’s another simple way of putting the question: If we are going to give God the credit for good things, like when people say, “God really blessed me when that tornado came, my house was spared,” then we have to also give God the blame and wonder why he didn’t bless your next door neighbor whose house was destroyed.
We all ask this question in one form or another when we are confronted with evil, whether it is natural evil like a tsunami killing more than a quarter of a million people in one day back in 2004; or a political regime that killed 6 million Jews, 7 million unarmed Russian civilians, 55,000 homosexuals and thousands more; or a gunman randomly killing 49 people in a gay club in Orlando; an earthquake in 1976 in China that killed an estimated 655,000; or a sniper who killed 5 police in Dallas. What of the 17 people who died in South Carolina as a result of flooding last year?
Did God want these people to die? If so, why? If not, why didn’t God prevent it?
Sometimes we ask the question when it is much more personal.
I remember asking the question when I was pretty young; my teenaged cousin committed suicide; another teenaged cousin died of leukemia. I’m sure many of you have asked the question in response to some event in your own lives.
Now, let me tell you the same thing that I told my class at Furman’s OLLI program which dealt with this most important of questions: I’m not here to give you answers; I’m here to hopefully make you think. So at the end of this “sermon,” hopefully we will all wrestle with this question, struggle with it, and hopefully come closer to an answer that works for each one of us individually.
Before we look at Job, a book of prose and poetry that is often turned to in trying to parse out this problem, let’s look at Jesus’ teaching.
In the Gospel of Matthew (5:10-22; 10:22; 11:28) Jesus is said to have taught that suffering is to be expected. In the Gospel of Luke (9:24-26 & 14:27) Jesus is said to have taught that following him will bring suffering.
The clearest teaching of Jesus on why there is suffering and evil in the world is found in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 13, verses 1-5:
Now there were some present at the time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’
This statement attributed to Jesus by the author of Luke addresses both natural evil/suffering (the tower that fell) and moral evil/suffering (Pilate). Jesus’ answer is one that we might not like too much.
Why do bad things happen to good people? His answer was that we are all guilty, therefore bad things never happen to good people. He used moral and natural evil as a segue into the need to repent and it echoes the prophet Amos which is the general Jewish view of suffering at the time. God uses bad things, God uses natural and moral evil, to bring about repentance. Jesus said that those who suffered, whether at the hands of Pilate or by being under a tower when it fell, they who suffered weren’t worse sinners that the rest, they were just sinners, and unless his hearers repent, they will suffer the same fate. And just to drive home his point, he said it twice. He never questioned whether or not they deserved to suffer and die; he assumed it.
Doing this, Jesus echoed the typical Jewish thought of the day which always sought to frame the existence of evil and suffering in terms of sin and unrighteousness and God’s efforts to correct us. It does not allow us to question or judge God’s acts or motives. It doesn’t try to get God off the hook.
Rabbi Gottlieb taught that there were, and are, two main strains of Jewish thought when it comes to suffering: 1) the ‘innocent’ may not be so innocent, and 2) God is just, but God is not only just.
From those two principles, he offers a few thoughts:
  1. The suffering person deserves to suffer because of unknown facts of their life; no suffering person is perfect or totally innocent
  2. Suffering is due to not only doing wrong but failing to do right
  3. It is not appropriate to blame God for self-induced suffering
  4. Suffering of others can inspire us to righteousness

In Kabbalist thought our very existence will entail suffering since we are separated from God.
Paul introduced throughout his letters the concept of redemptive suffering; that God uses evil and suffering to make us more like Christ; to magnify our identity with Christ who suffered.
So the question at this point is, do you find these answers to the big question of WHY? to be satisfactory, both intellectually and emotionally?
What of Job? Can we find any help there?
We have no idea who wrote Job or even if such a person ever existed. And we don’t have any idea of when it was written, though it is thought to be one of the oldest books in the Jewish scriptures. It deals with suffering, for sure; but also more, touching on the themes of the absurdity of life, the nature of humanity, the nature of God. It does not try to show us cause and effect when it comes to evil and suffering (which is where we typically want to go, we want to know the motives of those who commit evil and bring suffering, we want to understand why they did what they did, or, when it comes to natural evil, how we could have prevented it). Job doesn’t care about those things. It wants to explore the notion that nothing happens to us that is not ultimately controlled by the knowledge, love, wisdom, and power of the God of all comfort. And therein lies the problem, God’s problem.
We all know the story. There are three sections to the book of Job.
In chapters 1 and 2 we find a prose section which presents us with the familiar story.
There is a man who was blameless and upright, a truly innocent person who feared God. He had seven sons and three daughters; owned thousands of head of livestock and have a host of slaves. He was, as the story tells it, the greatest of all the people of the east. He was a good man.
The Accuser (that’s what the word, Satan, means); it’s a title or role, not a name.  So the Accuser appears before God. It’s important to note that the Accuser can only operate within the express permission of God. 
God brags on Job to Satan and Satan says that Job is only good and righteous because God has blessed him. Satan argues that if all of his blessings were taken away, Job would turn from God, he would curse God. So God gives the Accuser permission to bring great suffering into Job’s life.
Some of his livestock were stolen and some of his slaves were killed by the Sabeans. Some of his livestock and slaves were killed when the fire of God fell from heaven on them. And if that weren’t enough, his children were killed in a freak accident.
So we have moral evil (the killing of the slaves and stealing of the livestock by the Sabeans) and natural evil (the fire of God falling from heaven and the freak windstorm that killed his children).
The next section of Job is the largest. It is a poem in which suffering is explored through conversations with Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu. At first, their response to Job’s suffering is the best possible one: they are simply present with and to him. But then they start blaming Job for his suffering.
The third section is again a prose section, the conclusion which we read earlier. This whole exploration of suffering and evil, of the nature of humanity and the nature of God ends with Job’s confession found in chapter 42:1-6.
Simply put, Job says, God you win. I now know you are in charge of everything and can do all things. I trust you; I don’t always understand you, but I trust you. I despise myself and repent.
And, after Job repents, his fortunes are not only restored but increased. His lives to the ripe old age of 140 and dies, “old and full of days.”
Both the Jewish and Christian scriptures give us the same answer, basically, to the question of WHY? when it comes to suffering and evil. Suffering and evil comes from God, either directly or with permission. Suffering and evil comes to move us to repentance, to turn back to God.
Now what are we to do with that? What are we as individuals, as a faith-based community to do with that?
It seems to me that when we are confronted with horrendous evil and suffering; when we look around us, either personally or globally, and see all of this evil and suffering and find ourselves asking, Why?, we have several ways to go with it.
Another direction in which we could go is toward some form of Buddhist thinking which assumes from the outset the existence of suffering as the essence of life. Life is suffering; we should not be surprised by it or shocked by it. And since there is no concept of God similar to the all-loving, all-knowing God of Christianity, there is no problem in that sense. Suffering, not God, is the starting point of Buddhism. This is clear from the first statement of faith, the first of the Noble Truths. Suffering has its roots in desire; to eliminate suffering, eliminate desire, gain enlightenment.
Another way to get God off the hook, if indeed God is on a hook when it comes to suffering and evil, is to do what so many Christians do and that is to assign the question of Why? to mystery. To say we can’t understand God’s ways and simply defer to our notion of God being love and saying, when confronted with horrendous suffering that we have to trust God. This is the approach of, for example, N.T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham and popular author. He writes in Evil and the Justice of God: “We are not told…how and why there is radical evil within God’s wonderful, beautiful and essentially good creation. One day I think we shall find out…”
Another way is to focus not on the cause, not on trying to figure out where is God in all this, but rather to focus on our response to suffering and evil. How will we respond? Maybe it’s the better question to ask. 
This is not too different from the approach of the book called Ecclesiastes. This view is that everything we call life is transitory, it is fleeting. This is the meaning of the word often translated vanity in Ecclesiastes. This is the approach that says:  live in the moment, enjoy life because you will not be here very long in the big scope of things and while you do, seek to help others in need so they, too, can live in the now.
We can take the approach of Professor Bart Ehrman. He started out religiously as an evangelical Christian. He says that his studies in the history of and development of the New Testament moved him from being an evangelical to being a progressive or liberal Christian. But when confronted with the problem of evil, the challenge of reconciling a truly loving and all-powerful God with the existence of suffering he abandoned his belief in that God altogether. He says he could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world; he became an agnostic saying that if there is a God it is certainly not the all-loving, all-powerful God of traditional Christian faith. In speaking of Job, Ehrman said, “If God tortures, maims, and murders people just to see how they will react (God is testing us???) — to see if they will not blame him, when in fact he is to blame — then this does not seem to me to be a God worthy of worship.”
Here’s one final possibility.
When it comes to natural evil, to the earthquakes and floods and fires and volcanoes, to stadiums collapsing and buildings falling… it simply happens; it happens by chance, the result of natural forces. It is tragic but it happens. Life and death, however they come, are the two components of existence. There is no one to blame, there is no all-powerful and loving God to question, it just happens. While it is true that some natural evil can be exacerbated by human greed, these things simply happen by chance.
When it comes to moral evil, all of us have the capacity — maybe not the inclination, but the capacity, to do both good and evil. What separates good from evil is our choice, our volition. We can be aggressive and selfish; we can be altruistic. What’s important is how we as individuals and as a group act to increase the good and minimize (it can never be eradicated as long as there are humans) the evil.
Are any of these ways of thinking satisfactory for you? Do any of them provide an intellectually and emotionally satisfying answer for you? Do they help you deal with the suffering and evil you encounter and see around you?

I would invite you to continue to struggle with this, this question of WHY? When something terrible happens to you, to your neighbor, struggle, for sure. Evil happens — natural evil and moral evil. Suffering exists. Examine your own mind and heart and see where they lead you. Don’t be afraid of the tough questions. Maybe this is the toughest question of all, the problem of evil. Search your heart and mind and see if you can develop an answer, an outlook, a way of viewing the world, which satisfies you.

Monday, January 18, 2016


When I worked as a chaplain in a hospital setting, I worked closely with the Palliative Care team. A number of times I was present for what are termed “compassionate extubations.” Simply put, that means sustaining curative care was withdrawn from a patient at either the patient’s request expressed in an advance directive (such as a Living Will or Health Care Power of Attorney) or by the designated representative or next of kin of a patient.

I now work as a PRN nonsectarian chaplain for a hospice. The hospice is a part of a larger health system designed to provide needed services for seniors. With these patients and families, the decision has already been made. And hospice can be thought of as an intensification of palliative care; it is a type of palliative care for those people who likely have six months or less to live.

When I tell people that I work for a hospice, invariably their responses are something like this: Oh my, that must be so stressful. It must take a huge emotional toll on you. It must be very difficult. I don't see how you do it; I couldn’t.

The fact of the matter is, it’s not. It’s not difficult. It’s not stressful. It doesn’t take a huge emotional toil. At least not for me.

That’s because for a number of years — starting with the illness and death of my father in 1996 and my mother in 2003 — I have come to a point in my outlook on life that sees the value and importance of what is termed hospice care. Since that time I have engaged in studies at Loyola University Chicago in principles of medical ethics and at CalState in palliative care/hospice chaplaincy. I have also taught classes in the ethics of assisted suicide.

My experience and my post-graduate education have brought me to see that the respect and dignity which we so easily and generally give to the beginning of life are also important for the end of life.

How we die, how we choose to die (if we have that opportunity) are just as important as how we live. If I can help, in the psycho-social realm, patients and families who are receiving hospice care, as they navigate the final stages of life, then it is a source of joy, not stress or emotional drainage.

Much of this, for me, has to do with shedding any notion of death as an enemy and simply seeing it as a part of life and treating it, as such, with the same level of dignity and respect as we afford to life in general.

Palliation is designed to relieve suffering as much as possible. Patients and families (in my experience, most often families more so than patients) suffer as death comes closer. In my world it’s called anticipatory grief. My job is to help them process that, to do what I can do to help them access their own inner resources for coping with the suffering. I don’t give them answers; I help them find their own.

That work is immensely rewarding.

P.S. If you don't have an advance directive indicating your wishes at end of life, prepare one now! It removes a difficult burden from the shoulders of your family.

Thursday, January 14, 2016



That's from the back cover of a really good book which I reference below.

In a post on the Red Letter Christians website, evangelical/queer author and activist Brandan Robertson wrote the following referencing his first time attending the annual conference of the Gay Christian Network:

"...I was beginning to ask questions about my own sexuality and what the Scriptures actually taught about same-sex relationships."

I would be inclined to think that now, given all that's transpired in the evangelical world and in the political environment of the U.S.A., the question evangelical Christians need to be asking is not what does the Bible teach about same-sex relationships, but rather, this:

What does the Bible teach about sex? Answer that and questions like the one raised above are immediately answered.

To wit: if there is no clear ethic of sex to be found in the Bible (which one can argue), if there are only a number of varying ethics, if you can't make the case that sexual activity is reserved for marriage (or even committed, long-term, loving relationships (which I'm not sure you can), then it really doesn't matter.

If, on the other hand, you can make the case that the sexual ethic(s) of the Bible forbid(s) sex between unmarried folks, even if they are in a committed, long-term, monogamous, loving relationship, then with the passage of marriage equality it doesn't matter. At this point, two people of the same sex can be married and, de facto, allowed to have sex.

If you want to allow for gay Christians who are in a committed, long-term, monogamous, loving relationship to have sex according to your ethic, then you are going to have to spend some time making the case for those descriptors; i.e., what is committed, how long is long-term, why require monogamy for those couples who don't desire it, what on earth does a "loving" relationship look like. By whose definition will we address these questions.

The bottom line question for gay evangelicals is not same-sex, it is sex. That's the question that has to be answered. And it will not do to simply assume an ethic that has dominated evangelical Christianity for a long time.

For years the dominate sex ethic in the evangelical world was: Not married? No sex. Period. Simple as that. It's what I grew up with (at that time mainstream Presbyterianism was reflective of the rest of the dominate culture) and it is for sure what I was taught in my evangelical college and seminary.

But is that derived from an adequate reading of the biblical material (since that is allegedly the ultimate reference point for evangelicals)?

That is my only question about the work of Robertson and Vines and Lee, et al. They all seem to simply assume an ethic of sex which probably isn't there. I would love to see them applying the same energy that was given to the issue of marriage equality over to really re-examining that assumed ethic.

If one, who self-identifies as an evangelical Christian, cannot find a singular, comprehensive sex ethic  in the biblical material, then really, what does it matter this whole Side A, Side B thing?

At least that's my observation at this point.

P.S. One of the most helpful books I've read on this subject in a long time was BU religion professor Jennifer Wright Knust's, Unprotected Texts: The Bible's Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire. The subtitle says it all.