Category Archives: Homosexuality and Religion

Happy Graduation, 20-somethings – and good luck

Every time I hear Tom Brokaw talking about the “Greatest Generation,” I wince.  I understand why he would honor World War II veterans and want to tell their stories, but I’m hoping the 20-somethings, and all the Millennials, will be greater.  The reason for this is because things seem a bit of a wreck to me, and I’m hoping they will do some fixing. I’m also hoping those graduating 20-somethings will forgive crap commencement speeches.

A few weeks ago I listened to a white, male, forty-something with this theme: “Be thankful. Be proud. Be great.”  His speech did not get any better than the lame title, worse, in fact.  And just when I was thinking he was too young to say anything interesting, the senior class president redeemed the whole day by saying, “I’m going to be someone who helps other people achieve their goals.” You go, Girl.

When I graduated from Penn we had Denzel. Yes, the Denzel Washington.  I’ll give you the link here because he really was that good.  He told us to “fall forward,” which should be read in the context of Ivy League super achievers unaccustomed to failure – and Denzel was recommending you be willing to fall on your face.  Here’s how he summed it up: “First, you will fail at some point in your life.  Accept it.  You will lose.  You will embarrass yourself.  You will suck at something…If you don’t fail, you aren’t even trying.”  I especially hope the 20-somethings, and all the Millennials, embrace his thinking because as Denzel said, “And let me tell you, the world needs your talents.”

Denzel Washington’s graduation speech at Penn

In case you weren’t already depressed about the state of the world, there was a scientist on the Aljazeera network talking about the tons of plastic frozen in arctic ice.  It’s not bad enough we’re making polar bears extinct or that one day Pennsylvania will have beach-front property, now we have to think about the toxic plastic in the melting ice.   But that’s not all that worries me.

On the way to pondering the Millennials fixing the world, I noticed my 20-something relatives seem adverse to advance planning.  Since I am now the generation who shops for, prepares, serves, and cleans-up holiday meals, I have noticed great difficulty in getting a head count.  In fact the only way to know if there will be representation from that generation is if I see them walking through the door – seldom on time.  Not me, I’m a list person.  I might even add something already completed, but not listed, so I can feel the satisfaction of crossing it off.  Sick.  Yes, I know.  Now you can see why not planning ahead is beyond my understanding.  Still, how can they save the world if they never plan ahead or make a damn list?

In my effort to understand those younger, non-planners I read The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – and How to Make the Most of Them Now, by Meg Jay, PhD, who writes on all 20-somethings, not just Millennials.  In Defining Decadewriting about the twenties she said, “Eighty percent of life’s most defining moments take place by age thirty-five,” (p.xiv).  The current context for today’s 20-somethings is that they are “more educated than ever before, but a smaller percentage find work after college,” (p.xxiii).  Now I’ll be the first to say that money isn’t everything – but survival is, and for most people that takes having a job.  Dr. Jay tells us that those who do have jobs are making less than their 1970s counter-parts, adjusted for inflation.  Here’s the thing, I don’t think they’re going to save the world if they can’t even find a job – or find one that pays the rent.

With all her case studies, research, and good advice for anyone who is floundering a bit, I was surprised that she didn’t talk about volunteering, or civic involvement.  There was a time civic involvement or church attendance were social obligations that only the most nefarious people ignored.  While it is good that these things are no longer empty obligations, it is sad to me that volunteerism continues to decline.

According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, volunteerism in this country has been around 26-27 percent for about a decade with a bump-up after 9/11.  In 2013 it fell to 25.4 percent which may seem insignificant, unless you understand that means that about two million fewer people are volunteering (4/7/2014, p.1).  The Corporation for National & Community Service reports that 65.4 million people volunteered in 2012, and if someone had been paying them it would have cost $170 billion.  Volunteering had been trending up with Generation Xers at 30.1 percent; Millennials are below Xers and the national average at 22 percent.

Volunteering in America

The Pew Research folks define Millennials as 18-29, named for “coming of age” at the millennium.  The Pew Forum’s “Religious Landscape Study” reported that only 18 percent of Millennials currently attend religious services weekly/nearly weekly.  When their Baby Boomer parents were young, it was 26 percent.  If you look at the percent of people who do not affiliate with a religion, 25 percent put themselves in this category.  For the generation in their 40s or 50s, it would be 15 or 14 percent respectively.

The Pew Forum

Here’s some good news, fewer Millennials are homophobic. Among Millennials, 65 percent say they should be accepted by society, whereas it is only 35 percent of people of 65 and older think that.  Our Millennials are not afraid of science, at least that is what I conclude from the percent who think evolution makes sense, 55.  And lest you think they are so liberal they have no moral compass, 76 percent believe there are standards of right and wrong, which is within one percent of older age groups.

Dr. Jay agrees that they are not all good at planning ahead, like my 20-something relatives.  But she agrees with the Pew research people that they do care.  They may volunteer less or have less interest in religion than the next demographic older, but they do care about a sense of right and wrong.  Still, they are better educated but more likely to be unemployed or under-employed. I hope they don’t go all French Revolution on us and storm the castle at Wall Street.  No wait, I would love that. I just hope they don’t revive the guillotine.

Reluctantly, I admit I am at an age that there are things I will not do and probably won’t see.  And though I have done my part to reduce my carbon footprint and recycle, I acknowledge we are leaving the next generation a hot mess. Tom Brokaw can have the “Greatest Generation” because we need the Better Yet generation to fix the mess the Greatest and Baby Boomers have left them. It’s time for a change in focus.  How can we help Millennials do what we didn’t do ourselves? Can I show you how to make a list?  And I’m ok if you’re always late or unable to RSVP, if you’re working on global climate change.  I’m sorry we stole Facebook from you, but you still have Instagram and Pinterest. How about using all these amazing resources for solving problems other than finding a ride to the next party?  I promise I will stop nagging about being on time and making lists.  – J. B. Good

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Hell Hath No Fury: The Pissed-off Passive-aggressive Church Lady

ChurchTrialAt the time of this writing, two weeks have passed since the Methodist church trial in Pennsylvania, and two weeks remain for the final response to the quickie guilty verdict.  It is sad and paradoxical that the church denomination this minister served for 20 years wants him to choose human rules over his own conscience.  Rev. Frank Shaefer said, “Love was my only motivation.  I did what I believe Jesus called me to do and I acted out of love.”

One tension between atheists and people of faith is the response to paradox.  It is difficult to be a religious person if you have an intolerance of paradox.  Atheists interpret it as hypocrisy or evidence that religion is not valid.  I see it as interesting, often frustrating, and certainly sometimes it is hypocrisy.  In this case it is also tragic. 

I attended the first day of the Methodist church trial in rural Pennsylvania (11/18/2013) and read most of the news stories that followed.  It took place at their camp in rural PA about 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia.  Serving as judge, was a retired Methodist bishop with a pronounced southern accent and perpetually creepy smile.  He frequently reminded everyone that “this is the work of the church,” something about which I thought he should have been embarrassed.

Philadelphia Inquirer on church trial

Usually the secular press is not very good at covering religion.  I asked one of the reporters if he liked doing religion stories.  He said he likes the ones that are less theological and more about crime and religion, then told me that this one is “largely a theological argument.”  He is the same reporter who had the stones (literally and figuratively) to follow Shaefer into the men’s room at one of the breaks.  This guy did write a good story, but I do not agree that the trial represented a theological debate.  It is a story of church politics, which is not really about God or theology.  The trial and what it represents is exactly like current secular politics, with the conservatives waging war on progressives, in this case using obscure Bible passages and an outdated Methodist rule book as their weapons.

Reuters story

Methodists call their rules the Book of Discipline.  The index alone is 75 pages and the two sections of content are 364 and 467 pages.  What do you think are the odds that some Methodist pastor around the country is breaking another one of those rules?  Of course they are.  So the trial of Frank Shaefer and others is selective enforcement of a cultural hot-button issue.  Please don’t pretend that the church is above the prevailing culture.  The no-gay-marriage rule for Methodists is only 38 years old.  It was not carved in stone on the 10 commandment tablets.

The Methodist gym-turned-courtroom had bailiffs, a jury, and clergy serving as lawyers.  The jury was not truly comprised of Shaefer’s peers because the “leadership” of the Methodist church is not only clergy but deacons and elders who are lay leaders and not obligated to have a theological education.  The “counsel for the church” was an Ichabod Crane (pre-Johnny Depp) sort of conservative.  The defendant’s counsel seemed educated, well-intentioned, but weak.  The only two witnesses were first the accuser, Jon Boger, and then the accused, Rev. Frank Shaefer.

Meet the first witness, the accuser Jon Boger, who is active military and clearly fancies himself as a hero in this.  It seems on Facebook that he lives in North Carolina with his wife and two kids, though at the trial he said he hasn’t lived with his family for 27 months, while starting to weep slightly – in a manly way, of course.  If you take a look at his Facebook wall you will see guns, dead animals, and the link to a story on why semen is good for women’s health.  Boger has “liked” Pat Robertson, yet on the stand he said he doesn’t go to church.  On the stand he also lumped gay rights, abortion and gun control together and talked about his “interpretation of the Bible,” which of course is more morally correct than Rev. Shaefer’s.  The Pennsylvania church-goer in the family is Boger’s mother Deborah, who is a Century 21 real estate agent in Lebanon, PA.  On her real estate Web site, she lists being a “senior choir director” at Shaefer’s church for 33 years.  Do you see where this is headed? 

Deborah Boger was at Shaefer’s church before he was, and she clearly expects to be there after he’s gone.  I maintain that hell hath no fury like a pissed-off passive-aggressive church lady.  No one reported, at the trial or otherwise, what that disagreement was about.  The “defense counsel” barely questioned son Jon about it.  The accuser, young Boger, described the disagreement as “Pastor Frank requested my mom’s termination.”  Termination means fired, though other accounts are that the pastor suggested she resign, which she didn’t do.

Within 30 days of the disagreement between the choir director and the pastor, the non-church-going out-of-state son, did some online research.  He located a document for a legal gay marriage in Massachusetts.  By the way, why didn’t Deborah Boger do her own dirty work?  And why did the Methodist church accept the accusation of a non-church-goer?

Nearly seven years ago, Shaefer presided at a restaurant wedding of his son and gay partner.  He reported this to his Methodist supervisor at the time.  Shaefer did not disclose it to his Pennsylvania church – probably because there are lots of homophobes there, but also because it was a private family function.  He was not making a political statement at that wedding.  He has not presided at any other gay weddings.  The gay community has not been a ministry for him, either expressed or covert.  He did not lie to his congregation; he kept family business private.  He was acting as a father who loves his son and believes God also loves and accepts his son.

When testifying, one of the quirky things Jon Boger said, which was picked-up by a few of the reporters, “When I see him, I see a clerical collar that is shattered.”  That is a nice sound bite; however, it was odd because every single clergyman (of course they were all white men) at the trial wore a suit and tie, not the collar of clergy, which many Methodist ministers do not wear.  Further, take a look at the church’s Web site and you will not see even a necktie on Pastor Frank.  So who coached Jon Boger on that sound bite?

Zion United Methodist Church of Iona

Methodist Web site version of the first day of the trial

A huge blow to Christian compassion was delivered in the closing comments by Ichabod.  Here’s how the Washington Post reported: ‘“You’ll give an account for that [verdict] at the last day, as we all will,” he told the jury, to audible gasps from spectators.’  Prior to that threat, Ichabod had implied that the reason Shaefer’s son is gay is because of parents who don’t “have their children in proper submission.”  He raged against “sexual immorality and perversion.”  Again, this is why people don’t go to church.

Washington Post story

Even with seedy church politics, vengeance of the church lady, and the redneck military son, there was an inspiring paradox.  In the gallery during the trial there were about 100 people, with another 30-ish outside.  Among the spectators, inside and out, about 90 percent were there supporting Shaefer.  When Ichabod was on his final tirade, appointing himself to speak for an angry judgmental god, something happened in the gallery with the spectators.  Slowly, without prior collusion, the people started to stand silently in an unspoken protest of his homophobic Biblical interpretation.  It was not pre-planned because most of the people there came from different geographic areas and didn’t know each other.  It was silent, one-by-one, and powerful.  It gave me chills.  As the jury was being dismissed the same people started spontaneously singing, “We Shall Overcome.”

In everything I write on this blog, now nearly 10,000 views, it is my intention to tell you a story that is worthy of your consideration, whether you are a person of faith, an atheist, or someone in between.  It is my hope that as a reader, in the story of Rev. Frank Shaffer, you see something of humanity at our best, in a father risking his career for his son and his conscience.  For every good and decent Frank Shaffer in this world, there will be a pissed of church lady, an avenging son, and a host of those in hierarchy who want to put someone in their place, simply to prove they can.  This is not only in religion, but neither is religion above it.  It is a human dynamic, sadly.  So when someone is out there trying to do good stuff, stay tuned, because there will be someone trying to undermine them, fire them, or worse.  I encourage you to look for your opportunity to stand silently – or not so silently – supporting the Frank Shaefers of the world. – J.B.

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The Funeral of Carlos

Carlos was in his late twenties and married for less than a year when he died.  I had worked with him for just over a year in an office of 64 where too many people took themselves too seriously.  I enjoyed having him around because he was really sarcastic.  He had a way of saying “That just stupid” which was hilarious.  I guess you’d have to hear him, but trust me.  He was funny.

Carlos enjoyed looking at shirtless men on the computer at his desk, for example, and had in the past been on more than one vacation with a male lover.  I would describe him as a portly African American with a taste for nice shoes.  When I met him he had just married a bi-sexual exotic female dancer and both of them were trying to be straight and monogamous.

His funeral was at an independent Christian church in North Philadelphia and there weren’t a lot of white folks there.  By way of description, and with respect, I would say the ceremony was a mix of Roman Catholic mass and New Orleans.

The funeral started late with a procession of at least 40 people into a full church of about 175-ish.  The gait of the procession was a mix of dancing and shuffling to the music, at least two or three people wide, in a jumble that couldn’t be called rows.  Their costumes and/or color of clothing had to do with their role in the church and the status that went with it.  The parade came from the back to where the casket was centered just in front of the stage, and then snaked to the right as they started filling pews in the front half of the right-hand side of the church.  All the while there was clapping, swaying and amen-ing all throughout the church.  I’m sure some of the white folks thought this was Baptist service, but I’ve been to numerous Baptist services and this service was different.

The final person in the procession was the officiant, dressed like a Catholic or Episcopalian bishop with a long robe and high hat.  I can see why Carlos was crushing on him.  He was truly gorgeous.  Creepy, but stunning.  He looked just like the guy who played the Mummy in the 1999 movie, only a little younger.  The “bishop” was preceded by a bevy of middle-aged women who were dressed in white nurse costumes, circa 1950.  They dispersed themselves around the room.  I was told they were poised to help anyone ‘overcome by the spirit.’  That never happened, but the presiding clergy did frequently lapse into ‘speaking in tongues.’

The service lasted about two hours.  I didn’t want it to end, but not because I was enjoying it.  I kept waiting for something to happen that actually gave Carlos his due – so little was said about who he was.  His bride was exalted like royalty and was seated on the dais, behind the podium where the “bishop” was speaking.  She frequently burst into dance (though she did keep her clothes on).  She was wearing a white suit, white shoes, and a huge white hat.  Carlos himself had on a long brown robe with a Nehru collar and buttons down the front, indicating he had some leadership status in the church.  I sincerely hope he had on nice shoes.

What I really believe killed Carlos was the impossibility of reconciling who he was with what his church required.  He loved being an active part of his church and holding a leadership position.  It is possible he loved the Mummy-Bishop more, but we’ll never know.  Nonetheless, cultural acceptance by the group to which he wanted to belong would not have been possible without pretending to be straight.

I’m not a shrink, but it seems to me there were a series of events that led to Carlos’ early demise.  He was only slightly overweight and not at all disciplined.  In spite of those two realities, he found some doctor to give him gastric bypass surgery.  Not surprisingly, it didn’t go well.  He had one complication after another until he eventually died.  If his church could have accepted him, maybe he wouldn’t have felt the need to make himself surgically thin and lovable.

The author in the CNN story linked below learned to stop trying to “pray away the gay.”  It seems that was not the experience for my friend Carlos.

http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/22/my-faith-how-i-learned-to-stop-praying-away-the-gay/?hpt=C2

In my way of thinking, Carlos died for his religion.  His was not the usual path of a martyr, to be sure.  Atheists would use this example to say why religion is bad.  The life and death of Carlos is not about what’s wrong with religion, but what’s wrong with people, especially when they are influenced by cultural paranoia.  There is no justification in Christianity for homophobia.

I have had a life-long interest in religion, so I understand what drew Carlos to commit himself to a community and a spiritual life.  This drive cost him the essence of who he was, and eventually his life.  It was irreconcilable.  This was the community in which he wanted to participate and their narrow view of ethics and Christianity made that a destructive path for Carlos.  For some people it is not as easy as just going to another church.  Where is the church that feels right?  Where is the  sense of belonging?  Sometimes the church where you feel you belong doesn’t want you.  In that we see that the Church is as flawed as every other human organization.  And that is the tragedy of the life and death of Carlos.  -J.B.

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Happily Ever After – Fairy Tales and Religion

You may not agree with me, but I really don’t like the movie “Pretty Woman.”  I can watch Richard Gere do almost anything, but trying to pass off Julia Roberts as a prostitute and Richard Gere as someone who needs to hire one was unconvincing and ridiculous.  What is offensive about “Pretty Woman” is perpetrating the mythology of women in need of a rescuer.  There are times when all human beings need or desire a rescue, but that is not exclusively experienced by women.

In The Witch Must Die: How Fairy Tales Shape Our Lives, Sheldon Cashdan tells better stories like “The Adroit Princess” (p.144-8) who saves herself and her sisters from an evil prince while her father is away at the Crusades.  There’s also (my favorite), “The Princess Who Stood on Her Own Two Feet.”  She had a talking dog and was tall and smart.  She tried to dumb it down for her intended prince by not talking and sitting down a lot so he wouldn’t be intimidated by her height, which he was.

The Princess eventually punted the dolt to the chagrin of her parents who gave her a condescending lecture about her duty as a princess.  She said, “I have other duties: a princess says what she thinks.  A princess stands on her own two feet.  A princess stands tall.  And she does not betray those who love her.”  I wish I had heard her story when I was growing up.

Fairy tales didn’t become children’s literature until the 19th century and have evolved to offer the “power to help children deal with internal conflicts they face in the course of growing up,”  said Cashdan (p.10).  Charles Perrault (1628-1703) is credited with establishing the moral of the story and highlighting the good versus evil struggle when he wrote down and edited oral tales.  However, women had already been taking folk tales and infusing magic to create fairy tales in France during Perrault’s time.  According to Jack Zipes in The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales (p.xxii) female writers established the genre.  I bring all of this to your attention not as a bedtime story to lull you to sleep, but to provide context and to suggest what fairy tales and religion have in common.

Cashdan asserts, convincingly, that fairy tales address common fears of children.  In danger or crisis, it’s natural for children to look for a rescuer.  And that’s why I believe this rescue mentality, when applied to religion, is a juvenile interpretation of god.  Many religions apply a parental analogy to help practitioners in how they view their religious leaders, or their god(s), especially in looking for rescue from hardship.  It is understandable, but it is limiting.

In the United States we talk about “fundamentalists” by which we mean Christians who have a fundamental interpretation of their religion and read much of the Bible literally.  And no matter what they tell you, they do not ever take all of it literally or as a verbatim instruction book.  For example, the “Song of Solomon” is an “Old Testament” book that is romantic and erotic poetry.  Not surprisingly, it doesn’t get quoted much.  In book seven, verse 11 (NAS) it says: ‘Come my beloved, let us go out into the country.  Let us spend the night in the villages…There I will give you my love.’  I am not aware of any group of Fundies recommending we all go out in the country and have sex, or even that God is telling us to have sex outside.  That is a juvenile and erroneous interpretation of text.  Abstracting passages from their context and applying a literal interpretation is how Fundamentalist Christians are abusing the Bible to justify gay-bashing.  It’s childish bullying.  Here’s what Jesus said about homosexuality: NOTHING.  The link below is a Huffington Post column that goes into greater detail.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elizabeth-cunningham/what-were-jesus-views-on_b_554230.html

I posted a CNN story on my Web site (www.allthingsreligiousonline.com) about a North Carolina “pastor” who sermonized on how to “get rid of gays.”  I watched the YouTube video of only part of his sermon because I couldn’t stomach the whole thing.  That his brand of vitriol and ignorance is connected to any religion is appalling.

Last night “Modern Family” had an episode with the gay couple trying to adopt a second child and being disappointed.  Yes, I know it’s fiction, but there are terrific real life gay couples like them.  There are probably some dysfunctional ones, too, but being straight doesn’t prevent bad parenting.  So how about the religious fanatics quit bitching about abortion and gay marriage and get all the already born unwanted children adopted to the gay couples that want them?  And while we’re at it, how about the Roman Catholic Church start ordaining women to address the shortage of priests?  Women in the priesthood would start to breakdown the Good Ol’ Boys’ Club that’s been protecting sexual predators.  In my fairy tales, there would be justice and common sense, heroes and heroines, and protagonists solving problems for ourselves so that we all live happily ever after – not just princes, princesses, the wealthy or the religious.  That would be heaven on earth, and we wouldn’t need to be rescued from it, or each other.  –J.B