Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sexuality: Fork in the Road

The ordination and calling of homosexual couples living in a loving, faithful, committed relationship is the human rights issue of this historical moment. As I recall living through the 60's with the call for civil rights and racial equality, the influence of Vatican II on liberation theology, the passion for peace in Vietnam, the sexual revolution of Haight-Asbury, the ordination of women in the Lutheran Church, and on and on. As those were historical moments when "forks in the road" became real, so now this time presents us with another "fork".

As a Christian, I believe that the reading and study of Holy Scripture is a major piece in our decision-making on this Christian-human rights issue. My previous column explained the texts that guide my decision-making. And there is more. In his column in THE LUTHERAN, Craig L. Nessan, Academic Dean and Professor of Contextual Theology at Wartburg Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, wrote:

The Reformers were confident that God's Word would
guide the church to truth. Martin Luther argued for the
priority of the literal sense of Scripture. "...we must look
and see to whom it has been spoken, whether it fits us."
....Where the meaning of Scripture is confusing or ambiguous,
Luther employed another important principle: "Scripture
interprets itself". Because the Bible is its own highest authority,
one searches the rest of Scripture to shed light on obscure texts.
These observations are helpful because they allow Scripture to address issues of the present, throughout the centuries. They remind us of the importantce of context. All of Scripture was written within various historical contexts, speaking to diverse historical situations. It is good to remember that the Holy Spirit "blows where it wills" and makes the Word of God fresh at each moment of life. The function of the Holy Spirit is in part to make the Truth of Scripture real in the present. Indeed, without the Holy Spirit we could not know God/Jesus. The Holy Spirit contextualizes Holy Scripture and makes God/Jesus relevant for today as it focuses the Word of God as Light for today's issues.
Luther's wisdom also reminds us that it is improper to simply take all the supposedly anti-gay verses, string them together, and come out with a truthful position against gays and those living in a committed relationship. Luther says look at the whole of Scripture! Remember, there are 66 books in the Holy Bible! This means it is dangerous and dishonest to simply use a verse here and there as proof texts to justify our biases. Look at the big picture of the Word!
Bishop Herb Chilstrom, former Bishop of the ELCA, recently wrote a letter in support of the ordination of gays living in a committed relationship. He spoke of the truth of "scripture within scripture". This means, look to Jesus, the Spirit of the Christ, as we also look at the literalness of Scripture. Looking to Jesus gives us a worldview of Scripture, broadening our understanding of the Word along with the reality of context and culture.
Chilstrom also speaks of the value of experience in discernment. Our life experiences influence our understanding of Scripture. I recall being a Bible camp counselor at Park River Bible Camp in northern North Dakota, spending a week with Pastor Nelson Trout, the first African American pastor in the ALC. Working with him was my first experience partnering with a "Negro". It was a refreshing eye-opener! Attending Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, allowed me to make friends with two African Americans, and have them as part of Linda's and my wedding party. I was also part of a student government project to begin a student exchange program between Concordia and Virginia Union University, a primarily Black university in the East. Doing ministry in Milwaukee allowed me the opportunity to work with Black ministers and community leaders. Outdoor ministry opened me to working with our Native American friends, and to also hire and work with gay staff. These experience informed my understandings of Scripture. Word and world are wedded realities. "For God so loved the world...." Experience is hard wired into our Christian identities.
All in all, Holy Scripture opens us to the other, to our committed gay brothers and sisters in Christ. In this historical moment, it is time to open our church, to open our hearts, to open our faith to a bright new time.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sexuality: Grace Makes the Difference!

Come August, the ELCA will gather in assembly to address whether two lesbian or homosexual people, living in a committed, loving relationship, having completed all of the theological education requirements, having demonstrated a solid confessional commitment to Jesus and love for the church and people, will be able to serve as pastors to a congregation.

Since 2001, the ELCA has been disciplined in its study of this question. There has been theological, psychological, sociological, and medical conversation at the highest levels. It is now time to decide.

If I were a delegate to the Assembly, I would vote to allow their service to Christ and the Church. Why? Because there are many theological reasons.

1. WE ARE JUSTIFIED BY GRACE THROUGH FAITH. Grace is for all. Grace liberates. Grace transforms. Grace refocuses us to the absolute essentials of the Christ life. Grace makes the heart, mind, and body new. Grace gives the gift of faith. Grace makes Christ alive in our person. Where Christ is, there is grace, there is faith. The homosexual and lesbian are given this same grace, this same faith as are all.

2. THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT SAYS: YOU SHALL LOVE GOD, LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR, AND LOVE YOURSELF. This love is for the sake of God, the other, as well as for yourself. Our self love is shaped by God's grace which makes complete each member only in light of love for the other. There is one love expressed in three expressions. ALL are called to love, no exceptions. As for all, the USE of the other for self gratification is not of God. We are to gratify each other out of love for each other.

3. MALE AND FEMALE WERE CREATED IN THE IMAGE OF GOD. God created our sexuality as an expression of God's gracious divinity wrapped in humanity.

4. IN CHRIST WE ARE RECONCILED TO GOD AND EACH OTHER. Christ unites all humanity that we may recognize the Image of God in each other, and recognize the presence of Christ through each other. Reconciliation means we are given the gifts of forgiveness and repentance. Forgiveness and repentance in Christ make all things new. In Christ we recognize our sexual uniqueness as a part of our personhood, to be respected, accepted, and affirmed, shaped and reshaped daily through renewal and reconciliation.

5. THERE IS NEITHER JEW NOR GREEK, SLAVE NOR FREE, MALE NOR FEMALE, FOR WE ALL ARE ONE IN JESUS CHRIST. Jesus has come to remove barriers to faith, to God, and to each other. In Christ, we are openned to see and honor the Image of God in the other. In Christ we are a new creation. In Christ, human sexuality is seen in its fulness, as reflected through the cross, rather than through cultural or personal bias.

6. GO AND MAKE DISCIPLES. We are all called to discipleship. No exceptions. Our sexuality is a part of our person to be used as part of all our spiritual, intellectual, and social gifts for the sake of making the Reign of God real today. The care and dignity with which we use our sexuality for the sake of Christ gives testimony to the presence of God's love.

I believe the above statements make for common ground for all our sexual and personal realities.

As I have read and studied the Biblical texts surrounding human sexuality, it occurs to me that in every text which addresses homosexuality, there is ABSOLUTELY NO consideration that the homosexual can have faith, love God or Jesus, care for the other, be passionate for justice, make for peace, or care for the earth. The homosexual is relegated to ONLY being a reprobate, a pagan, a sinner unworthy of social worth, whose word from God is only to CHANGE. Holy Scripture paints an incomplete and biased picture of homosexuality. My reading and experience have informed me that homosexuals, all GLBT, like all people, are daily in need of forgiveness and repentance for what we do and do not do; that some have faith and others do not, like all of us; that some have more social graces than others, like all of us; that some are more "well" than others, like all of us. We ALL struggle, make mistakes, sin most assuredly, kneel in need of forgiveness, win some and lose some, become beggars at various times, and hit home runs now and then. ALL share a common bond of faith and humanity.

I also find it interesting that lesbians are not mentioned in Holy Scripture. They may be saying: What a relief! Bi and trans-gendered people are not even close to being recognized. I suspect that this omission is an example of incomplete knowledge, and the male-centeredness and female-lessedness in Biblical history. What this reveals is the cultural influence of the times upon Biblical writing. It also reveals the lack of a deeper psychological and biological understanding of human sexuality. This is not to throw stones. Understanding evolves, the Holy Spirit continues to reveal God's Truth. As Paul reminds us, we see only dimly.

God's grace through Jesus Christ reshapes our understandings, opens our hearts, and raises the level of our responsibility to God, to each other, to the earth, and to ourselves. Grace makes the difference. Grace opens us. It is time to be openned.

Ron Letnes

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Health Care: More Than a Crap Shoot!

Following means following Jesus. Jesus means being a healer. Christianity and healing go hand in hand. Jesus is our example: healing the man with an unclean spirit (Luke 4:31-37), Jesus healing Simon's mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-41), Jesus cleansing the leper (Luke 5:12-16), and on and on.... So are we to imitate Christ, follow Christ.

The health care debate is about making Jesus' healing spirit a reality in the world. Do we want to follow Jesus? If so, we have a mandate: make it happen! And it must be a good bill which covers all the bases.

In the July 14 issue of The Christian Century, Gary Dorrien addresses the question of what need be part of a "good health care bill". I think he hits the nail on the head. Here is what he says:

A good public plan would be open to all individuals and
employers that want to join. It would allow members to choose
their own doctors. It would eliminate high deductibles. It would
allow members to negotiate reimbursement rates and drug
prices. The government would run it. And it would be
backed up by tough cost controls and a requirement that all
Americans have health coverage.
The profit motive has prevented our nation from providing universal health care. Profit is dependent upon people having the ability to purchase. I think it is fair to expect a fair profit, providing it is fair to ALL. Fortunately, most can afford health care. But many of those who can suffer in other ways by not being able to feed their families adequatly, or pay for their house, or provide for basic human needs. Then there is the deductible, which may bring financial ruin or lesser coverage than needed. But the reality is also that millions cannot afford coverage. They must make a choice: food and necessities, or coverage. Life becomes a throw of the dice. The government needs to be a check and balance on the pursuit of unbridled profits at the expense of the WHOLE. Life in America must be more than a crap shoot.
Following also means following the Constitution. I am sometimes brought to tears when I read our Constitution. The opening phrase: "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union...." The first words, "We the people....". America is about "We", not me first, not profit. Then comes "order". The nation must have order, structure, laws to keep us focused. Then "union". Again, America is about ALL of us, together. The Constitution speaks of "insuring domestic tranquility, and promoting the general welfare" of the people. The Constitution binds us together into a national family, committed to the well being of each other. Creating a self serving anarchy is not the purpose of the Constitution. The Constitution frees us all to pursue "life, liberty, and happiness", guaranteeing individual liberty while simultaneously binding us together for our common good. America is not about survival of the fittest. The Constitution gives us our freedom and our calling as citizens to "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity...." It is about "we".
This is where the government plays a vital role. Instead of the government being the big ogre, the nameless, faceless, cold, uncaring bureaucracy, dedicated only to its own preservation for its own sake, the government is mandated to be the voice and action of the people. Lincoln said it so well at Gettysburg: "government of the people, by the people, for the people". We the people need to let the govenment be the arbiter of fairness, because the government is us! Let's be fair for each other!
This health care bill must be well crafted. The time is ripe to close this gap in our compassion. The bill must be a good bill. Our nation needs it and we Christians must demand it!
One of my favorite hymns is: "O Christ, the Healer", ELW-610. One beautiful phrase states our call: "O Christ the healer, we have come to pray for health, to plead for friends..." We are Christ's healing advocates, Christ's hands, Christ's energy.
Ron Letnes

Monday, July 6, 2009

No Time to Waste

When I was in college, I attended a speech by Supreme Court Justice, William O. Douglas, who had written a book entitled My Wilderness. I had purchased the book and brought it with me and he graciously autographed it following his talk on "Democracy Versus Communism in Asia". In writing of Mt. Adams in Washington state, he says: "The struggle of our time is to maintain an economy of plenty and yet keep [one's] freedom in tact....If our wilderness areas are preserved, every person will have a better chance to maintain [their] freedom by allowing their idiosyncracies to flower under the influence of the wonders of the wilderness".

Then in seminary, I read The Singing Wilderness by Sigurd Olson, sage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Quetico Provincial Park of Canada. He writes, "The singing concerned with the simple joys, the timelessness and perspective found in a way of life that is close to the past."

I love the wilderness. I have hiked the Cascades of central Washington and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, walked the rim walk in Canyonlands National Park in Utah, and canoed in the Quetico-Superior, most recently with our son, Steve, my brother-in-law, Erik, and his friend, Joe. In the wilderness are healing and wholeness. John Muir once wrote: "In God's wildness lies the hope of the world....The galling harness of civilization drops off, and the wounds heal ere we are aware".

In this week's New York Times, Thomas Friedman wrote an op-ed entitled "Can I Clean Your Clock?" It addresses the urgency of dealing with climate change and environmental issues. He says that unless the United States gets serious about inventing clean-power technologies, the Chinese will "clean our clocks" in leading the world in energy technologies. "You'll be buying your energy future from China" writes Friedman. Economically, this means fewer jobs for American workers, less money into our economy, and more dependence on an outside source to which we already owe a supertanker full of national debt.

I consider myself a global thinker. I support open markets and the sharing of resources. Recognizing and responding creatively and peacefully to the inter-dependency of cultures and economies is morally correct. Indeed, this action yields more justice and peace. Hence, the United States needs to do all we can to develop these critical resources for our sake and the sake of the world. We, as well as other nations, must take responsibility to do all that we can to care for the earth. We must challenge our creativity for the sake of the world. Our will for the sake of our nation and world must be loosed! As Bonhoeffer says: "We must take our share of responsibility for the shaping of the future". It is the Biblical call.

The internet magazine,, carried an wrticle written by Arthur Max, entitled "Oxfam to G-8: Climate Change Will Spread Hunger". He says, "Chronic hunger may be 'the defining human tragedy of this century' as climate change causes growing seasons to shift, crops to fail, and storms and droughts to ravage fields...." Peter Sawtell of Eco-Ministries, in a recent commentary, shares a story told by Bill McKibben. Bill and others were invited to the White House for conversation on climate change. Members of the White House staff told the group: "Make us do it! Build the movement that gives us the room to do the things we want to do".

Wilderness. Energy technology. Hunger. A man named Thompson wrote: "You cannot disturb a flower without troubling a star". All things are connected. Time is short. Our will must be now. Write your congressperson, speak, act. Genesis says: "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion...." (Genesis 1:26a). To have dominion means to care for, to demonstrate justice, to create shalom. Let's do it!