25 April, 2011

Bullies--No Joking Matter

On March 10th, the White House hosted a conference on “Bullying Prevention,” including remarks by President Obama and the First Lady.

“Bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people,” President Obama said. “And it’s not something we have to accept. As parents and students, teachers and communities, we can take steps that will help prevent bullying and create a climate in our schools in which all of our children can feel safe.”

The White House also unveiled a new website, http://www.stopbullying.gov that includes tips, resources and help for teens, young adults, parents and educators.

What is one of the primary themes for bullies? Many children are bullied over gender identity issues and sexual orientation.

The conference also marked the reintroduction of anti-bullying and nondiscrimination legislation in Congress. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) reintroduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act, legislation that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools. Also, U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, which would require higher education institutions receiving Federal student aid to develop bullying policies that draw specific attention to harassment fueled by bias against race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and other characteristics.

“The alarming increase in teen suicides has shown us just how far we are from making our children’s schools safe spaces,” Polis said. “We must take action to protect the safety of our students and enshrine the values of equality and opportunity in our classrooms. My legislation puts LGBT students on an equal footing with their peers so they can attend school and get a quality education free from fear.”

Statistics continue to show that LGBT youths have a much higher school dropout and suicide rates than other teens—as well as frequently being the targets of violent and persistent school bullying.

All of us are different—but most of us are not required to defend our differences on the playground, in class or at Sunday school. Most of us can conduct our lives in freedom. Let’s make sure that all of our children can enjoy this same freedom. Education is a right for all children in America. Let’s make sure that schools and churches can provide this education in an environment of encouragement and safety.

For more information and a wealth of tools for parents, educators and clergy, go online to: http://www.stopbullying.gov.

Rev. Larry King, Senior Minister

Portland Center for Spiritual Living

24 March, 2011

Killing Me Softly With His Psalm

I have to admit, one of my guilty pleasures had been listening to podcasts of Joel Osteen. Although we differ in our approaches to God, although we differ in the themes we explore as ministers—he’s irresistibly positive. What a relief to have a positive message by an eager man who exudes such simple and easy kindness.

It was good to see him in another forum—outside of his 16,000 seat sanctuary—when Whoopi Goldberg interviewed him on the View. Among many questions she asked him: “How do you feel about folks that are gay…” and “Are gay folks welcome at your church?”

In his kindest voice Joel said,

“Of course, they are all welcome. But I come from that value system of scripture that homosexuality is not God's best… I just try to love them and treat everybody with respect."

I almost missed it—he said it with such sweetness: “Not God’s best.”

Then I got mad. Not because Joel has a different opinion. Not because of the power he holds to sway others’ opinions. I got made because he so sweetly uses scripture to back up his ideas of social engineering.

I love scripture—the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, in particular, are important to me. They help me better understand the timeless truth of the Divine. They help me get closer to God. But scripture is certainly not a good blueprint for modern social engineering. If we are to treat homosexuals as inferior based on scripture, what about all the other scriptural issues that we cheerfully ignore:

  • We freely mix fibers in our clothing (forbidden in Leviticus 19:19)
  • We associate with women during their period (forbidden in Leviticus 15:19-20)
  • We do all sorts of things on Sunday (forbidden in Exodus 20:8)

This is just the tip of the iceberg on items prohibited by scripture—and we cheerfully ignore most of them. Surely the time has come when we can evaluate scripture for its spiritual content and leave the 2,000+ year-old social customs, caste systems and dietary laws behind? When I use scripture it’s to empower. When I read scripture it’s to elevate.

I feel a bit hoodwinked. I confused Joel’s manner for his message. I wanted Joel to like me, I guess! Instead, I feel like singer Roberta Flack in her 1973 hit Killing Me Softly. No matter how sweetly someone may sing, I will not permit anyone “Killing me softly with his song.”

Each of us is “God’s Best.” Now and forever. God doesn’t create anything less than perfection. Each of us may fully embody our Divine nature without worry or shame about who we are.

Rev. Larry King, Senior Minister

Portland Center for Spiritual Living

11 February, 2011

The 10 Commandments: A Call For Inclusion

The story of the 10 Commandments is one of my favorites in the torah.  The storyline could not be better – it begs for popcorn and a blanket next to a good fire.  A people, once enslaved and now free, is wandering in the desert looking for a path to a new homeland.  They stop at a mountain and their leader disappears.  Suspense ensues.  Moses has gone up the mountain!  When he returns, he is expected to bring down the 10 Commandments and to begin a new journey as a people committed to a vision of living a holy life.
 I questioned as a child why God would bring all the Israelites out in to the middle of nowhere to give the 10 Commandments.  Why not just take them to Israel on a direct route and give the Law over at that time?  It didn’t seem to make sense.  What lesson could possibly be learned by three months of wandering around in the middle of the desert? Interestingly, the Mehilta Derebbe Yishma’el, an early commentary on the Bible, offers us a clue that I believe speaks to the radical inclusiveness that exists within pieces of biblical tradition.  The Mehilta teaches that “The Torah was given in public, openly, in a free place.  For had the Torah been given in the land of Israel, the Israelites could have said to the nations of the world: You have no share in it.  But since it was given in the wilderness, publicly, and in a place that is open to all, everyone wishing to accept Torah may come and accept it.”
What a beautiful teaching!  To me it is akin to my colleague and friend, Rev. Tara Wilkins, a UCC minister, who often says that religion should have a “y’all come” mentality – a sense that everyone has a seat at the table.  And for an ancient text like this to offer an opening to rethink the giving of torah, to show us a path in when it may appear that some are to be left out – that is a true thing of beauty. 
The real question remains – so what?  So what if torah is open to all?  The idea of an open access policy feels important to me because it forces the issue of inclusive religion.  It mandates that all are accepted if they freely choose to be part of this sacred community – or in the language of our torah portion – to be part of the kingdom of priests and a holy nation.  The teaching of the Mehilta offers us an insight into what the ancients thought society and religion ought to look like.
Sometimes the journey is just an aid for a juicy retelling.  But every so often the journey is about something more than just the average attention span of a member of the faith community – sometimes it reaches beyond in search of a deeper truth.  The truth offered here, in this journey is that everyone, regardless of gender or sexual identity, is offered a seat at the table of biblical tradition. 
But that kind of radical inclusion is not without its challenges or burdens.  It places the burden for inclusion squarely on communities and institutions by rooting the value of inclusiveness and equality in one of our most ancient midrashic texts.  It offers a challenge to the institutions of the faith community to build structures, both physical and metaphysical, that support the inclusion valued here.  But it also places the burden of seeking religion out on the individual – one me and on you.  It challenges us to use the values of our midrashic tradition to demand our seat at the table from all branches of religious life and community. 

26 January, 2011

When Popular Culture Notices The Truth

Much of the time I ignore popular culture. Whether it’s in the news, on TV or in the magazines at the checkout stand—most of what I see is about people making bad choices. Popular American culture seems to take great delight in things gone wrong—especially for the rich or famous. I also expect that much of what I see may be “made up” for publicity or to knock people off the pedestal of movie stardom.

I couldn’t help but notice how singer Elton John has been in the news lately. The checkout stand is all a-buzz. Sir Elton John (and his longtime partner, David Furnish) had a baby. This is not so amazing in this time of adoption and surrogate parentage. What is amazing is the tabloids are not sending Sir John to purgatory over it. They’re not even evaluating his anticipated parenting skills. They’re on his side by saying that America needs to better tolerate, support and understand non-traditional families.

In USA Today, when Sir John was asked to comment on some of the recent violence against the LGBTQ community he replied:

“We’ve come so far, with a black president, it’s mystifying that this can still be going on.

“Jesus Christ taught tolerance. That’s the example we should follow. We should forgive, understand, be compassionate. We’re not all the same. Thank God! It would be so boring.”

Two days ago he hosted his annual Elton John AIDS Foundation benefit. He was honoring the memory of AIDS activist Ryan White. The teen died of AIDS 20 years ago and helped combat prejudice and ignorance associated with the disease at the time. Sir John said White was an "amazing boy who had no prejudice, no bitterness ... God do we need that kind of thing in America at this moment."

It’s not surprising that Elton John stands for inclusion, tolerance and support for the LGBTQ community. After all, he was one of the early celebrities to self-identify as gay. He knows what exclusion can feel like—and he works to end it in his charitable endeavors.

What is wonderful to me is that this is newsworthy. Does the media really understand that we need to embrace all of our human family? Are the Associated Press, Reuters and TV media just in love with Elton John—or are we experiencing a time when even popular culture must recognize that everyone is worthy of love, life, compassion and their own unique brand of happiness?

Rev. Larry King, Senior Minsiter

Portland Center for Spiritual Living

17 January, 2011

Building the Dream

Yesterday our congregation honored the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in part, by affirming Rev. King’s call as a follower of Jesus. His words rang out as his speech was read and the Gospel proclaimed. The Christian call, a call to justice, requires firmaments of hope and faith focused on the Light of God’s ever present love.

More than the oppression that burdened him, Rev. King’s passion for justice burned from the witness of Jesus and a discerning ear that listened for the voice of God’s revelation to ground him. He said, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing”. His deep connection to God inspired his actions and his words and what became a legacy.

Sister Joan Chittister has been moved by that legacy. She asserts that in Rev. King we see a glimpse of the face of God. In times of adversity, we look to those who can lead us out of darkness into the light. Sister Joan writes, “In their eyes burn the eyes of a God who sees injustice and decries it, sees poverty and condemns it, sees inequality and refuses it, sees wrong and demands that it be set right. These are people for whom the Law above the law is first in their lives. These are people who did not temporize with the evil in one system just because another system could have been worse. These are people who saw themselves clearly as the others' keepers. They are the people who gave themselves entirely to the impulses of God for the sake of the world.”

Rev. King eloquently imparted his dream, his vision for a promised land. He prayerfully conveyed the words and images that inspired a movement. He spoke not only in articulated principles, but with the acknowledgement of the hard work that was necessary to realize them. He knew that the dream alone is not enough. It requires our participation. It requires many of us to bear witness to it. “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

I believe that Rev. King would have been inspired by President Obama. I like to think that he would have been deeply moved, as I was, when the President bore witness to the call for peace and civility at the Memorial Service in Tucson. We HAVE come a long way.

“And so we still have a long, long way to go before we reach the promised land of freedom. Yes, we have left the dusty soils of Egypt, and we have crossed a Red Sea that had for years been hardened by a long and piercing winter of massive resistance, but before we reach the majestic shores of the promised land, there will still be gigantic mountains of opposition ahead and prodigious hilltops of injustice. We still need some Paul Revere of conscience to alert every hamlet and every village of America that revolution is still at hand. Yes, we need a chart; we need a compass; indeed, we need some North Star to guide us into a future shrouded with impenetrable uncertainties.”

Today we pause to remember what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ’s legacy means for us, in this time, in this moment of history. As I listen to all of the political rhetoric infusing our airwaves, progressive rhetoric, conservative rhetoric, outrageous, hostile and crazy rhetoric, I keep thinking do people really believe that we can live into the American dream, that we can solve our problems of poverty and war and education and healthcare by making enemies of one another. Do we think we further our progress and evolution by projecting our frustrations and fears onto others?

I think our biggest challenge is not the tea partiers, the conservatives or the progressives. The biggest challenge is in thinking that someone else is going to solve our problems. As long as we sit on the sidelines and complain about our President or minimize the concerns of those who are different from ourselves, then we have no right to demand that anything be different. If we refuse to muster that Paul Revere of conscience, then all we have is dream. To live into the dream, Rev. King’s dream, the American dream, the dream of God’s kin-dom, is to actively become a part of it. Rev. King said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase”. My prayer on this day is that we take a new path, a different step, a kinder, bolder step toward justice that proclaims the Holy in each of us as we together live in to the dream. Amen.

Rev. Tara

03 January, 2011

The Exodus Story - A Chance to Rebel!

The early part of the Book of Exodus has always been one of my favorite sections of the Bible.  Although I was a bit young to really appreciate Charlton Heston’s portrayal of Moses in “The 10 Commandments,” (I do remember believing, however, that Moses did come down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets in one hand and a machine gun in the other!) I can still recall seeing the movie on TV as a child and my parents reminding me that this was our story.  My grandfather (may his memory be a blessing) even once threatened to make us watch the entire film during a Passover seder! 
 This story of the Israelite people is the story of all peoples who have faced oppression.  Although it remains the core foundational story of the Jewish people, the translesbigay community can and should see itself within this core myth and use the lessons therein as one path forward.  The rebellion of the Israelites against its leadership and Moses’ liberation from his Egyptian upbringing makes this a compelling argument.  Rebecca Alpert, writing in The Queer Bible Commentary, makes a convincing case for this vision by noting that, “…we look forward to a time when with whom we choose to have sex and to live and to love and the ways in which we choose to express our gender identity will no longer be marked by any members of society as sinful, illegal or disgusting.”
But first we must rebel.  Just as the Israelites rebelled both against Pharaoh and later against Moses and Aaron we too must be rebel against the forces of oppression and also be willing to rebel against our leaders when they act in ways that are unacceptable.  We should rebel in small ways; by subverting the hetero-normative aspects of our texts and traditions and by questioning and queering the texts.  We should write new midrashim and weave new stories that speak to the community of queer and allied folks.  We need to be willing to take that step of approaching Pharaoh, the source of oppression, and demand an end to bullying and tormenting and to be let go to live a life of self-expression.
We must also be willing to rebel in larger ways when our government fails us through inaction or intolerance; we should advocate and push our elected leaders to do what is right and just.  We should demand equality for all people.  And we should do it from a place of deep faith and understanding of those values within our biblical and contemporary traditions.  We should demand changes to our laws to protect our youth from homophobic attack and bullying.  We need to be willing to take that step of approaching our own leadership and demand that they do what is right. 
In my desire to get fired up and to rebel, it is easy to forget the simple truth here.  The story of the Exodus is not just a communal story of a people enslaved to Pharaoh and the rebellion of the Israelites.  It is the story of an individual child; a baby placed into a reed basket and sent along the Nile to a new family.  Moses is raised with a hidden identity as an Israelite and is brought up in a position of power from Pharaoh’s palace.  As he grows he realizes that something about him is different from his Egyptian family and he begins to question.  Only later in his life after a long journey does he discover, through an encounter with a burning bush, that he is not part of the majority culture.
Our rebellion for equality is in service of those young people who, like Moses, are struggling to come out of the closet and into the fullness of their identities.  We hold the memories of those children and young adults who were murdered by intolerance in recent months and we offer up a vision of equality to let those who are still here know that it does get better, that people do find themselves and that we will leave this place of oppression and go to a land flowing with equality and justice.
And although we are just at the beginning of the story it is clear where we will end.  God has demanded that the Israelites be set free to live lives of meaning.  We just have yet to fulfill that vision in our time.  May that ancient vision, the freedom of an open society rich with the fullness of human expression, be granted to us, speedily and in our days.  Amen.