NACOGDOCHES, TX (KTRE) - News that the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) has voted to allow gay people in committed relationships to serve as clergy has more conservative branches of the Lutheran denomination concerned.
Take Redeemer Lutheran Church in Nacogdoches. It's affiliated with Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), a branch that will not follow last week's ruling. lcms.org "We are basically the 'other' church," Rev. Bob Kobler said. "Even though we are Lutheran and they are Lutheran, they have a different look on the world, on society and everything and their look is much more liberal than ours," explained Kobler. Kobler was once a member of the ELCA, but shared he left because of his disagreement with some of its philosophy.
Redeemer Lutheran, like other conservative Lutheran churches are concerned current and prospective members will leave the church altogether. LCMS followers don't allow women clergy and is very much against allowing gays and lesbians, even those in committed relationships, from serving as clergy.
The Angel of Joy Lutheran Church in Lufkin is the closest ELCA church. It's pastor, Paul Geye, doesn't plan on losing any of the congregation, even though not all 130 members are in agreement with the gay ban lift.
Geye explained the church isn't taking an official stand on the issue. "Members agreed that we like one another and want to continue worshipping together. We're agreeing in the spirit of graciousness of live and let live," Geye said. He also added, "the congregation is at peace that their pastor isn't a gay or lesbian."
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The following is a letter Geye shared from the ELCA bishop serving the Gulf Coast district.
Sex from the Perspective of Graveside
Where words are many, sin abounds. - Proverbs 10:10
Be still and know that I am God. - Psalm 46
Have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, through prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. - Philippians 4:6
Today we picked out flowers for the casket. Not only was it the same flower shop where we got our wedding flowers 21 years ago, it was the same florist. The owner's daughter. It's ironic how life comes around. We will stand tomorrow in the same place at the same church where Susan was confirmed, and where we were married, and where we buried her mother. And now her father. The end of an era that began decades ago when I stood on her front porch for the first time, for our first date.
And now to her kind, kind father, I have to say goodbye. A lifetime flashes before us. A boy growing up the on the farm. Then a young man flying his first bombing run over Germany on his 21st birthday. He flew 35 missions in all as a pilot of a B-17. I close my eyes and try to imagine those young boys in that paper-thin airplane, bullets whizzing through the cockpit, doing what they had to do. Saving the world from a garish fascism that would have annihilated Jews, homosexuals, political dissidents, the mentally ill, and so on. He once told us the anti-aircraft bullets were often so thick it looked as if you could get out and walk on them. "Were you scared?" I would ask. "We did what we had to do," was his matter-of-fact response.
This is his generation's song. We did what we had to do. This gentle, yet strong man, took everything in stride. He rarely got his ire up. He had the mind of a mechanic. Everything was just a problem to be worked out. He loved puzzles.
He was raised Baptist, then later became a Methodist. He didn't get worked up about the homosexuality issue. He had a live-and-let-live attitude about things. I think he felt sorry for gays and lesbians. He wasn't mad at them. They would not have children. They would be hated. But they were taught never to talk about this. It is taboo. If you're gay, you keep your mouth shut, get married and have kids. Yes, there are people with no attraction to the opposite sex, but this is to be ignored. Society is to pretend it doesn't really exist.
As we met at the funeral home to choose a casket and decide how much waterproofing we needed for our loved one's vault, and how much we would spend on our loved-one's this and that, I watched my 16-year-old son take it all in. "You'll be doing this for me some day," I leaned over to him and said. "I hope." Then all his questions in the car. Why burial? Why cremation? Why embalming? What's it like? Can I touch grandpa? What will he feel like? These are times for deep conversations. The time is now. There will never be a more teachable moment. This we believe. Life is good. God is good. As sad as we are to lose him, we know there is more to life than this life, and we are joyful he has been released from this body of death in which he was trapped. We now say goodbye as he walks down a pathway we cannot yet go, where he will be welcomed by Jesus and a host of loved ones who have gone before us, including his beloved Kay.
We return to the hotel room. Susan reads her dad's letters to his parents from boot camp while I check my email. I have a letter from an angry member, who is threatening to leave the church if I don't do this or that, or say this or that. I sit on the couch and smile, but it is a sad smile. In the light of Ultimate Things, this member's petty manipulation seems so badly focused, his anger so misdirected, for a hundred reasons, I'm not sure what to say. Where do I begin?
Ultimatums are funny things. They are about control. I can control you if you are afraid of something. If you don't do what I tell you, I will leave. If I am truly terrified at the prospect of your leaving, there's no telling what I might do to appease you. Communities get messed up with this kind of stuff. I learned long ago that if I made my decisions by the polls, I made poor decisions. People think pastors are shaking in their boots at the prospect of someone getting mad and leaving. I suppose some pastors do worry. And then they'll blow in the wind, doing whatever they're told, for fear of declining membership and losing their job, when in reality the church needs strong self-defined leaders to grow. Not opinionated, my-way-or-the-highway pastors, but people who are gentle and kind, but won't get pushed around. In the parish, whenever someone said, "Do this or I'm leaving," I usually responded, "We are going to miss you so much." The only way to create healthy community is to take the power out of the equation. Once people see that "I'm leaving" is a playing card that doesn't work on you, they stop using it. And you really need them to stop using it. Congregations where people are constantly threatening to leave in order to get their way are not pleasant places to be. It's like the spouse who threatens divorce in order to get his/her way. It's an ugly, ugly way to be.
At the bottom of things, this conversation is about fear and manipulation, not sex. But I suppose it's also about how we read the Bible, and this has been another disappointing realization for me. Biblical literacy seems so low in our church. We have work to do. When someone can quote Leviticus and assume that it's binding, I marvel. The email writer points out that homosexuality is forbidden in the book of Leviticus as if that should settle things. But Leviticus also says you should stone your daughter to death if she has sex out of wedlock. Everyone knows this is absurd, and yet people continue to act as if everything in the Bible is binding on Christians. I find this astounding. We have so much work to do. Is anyone really proposing we follow all the laws in the Bible? I truly, truly don't understand why this isn't clear to people: The Bible says eating shrimp is an abomination. Do you believe this? Do you follow this law? The Bible forbids lending money at interest. Do you believe this? Do you follow this? Are you proposing a Bibliocracy?
Susan goes through her Father's clothing. His shirts and pants, are so him. They smell like him. They look like him. She decides what to keep and what to give away. She decides to give away his furniture except for a small oval end table that has personal meaning. It's an odd piece, but it has emotional significance. It's so hard to let go of things.
I think people feel this way about change in general. The world has changed. The quaint hyper-patriotic euphoric post-WWII baby-boom world no longer exists. People are grieving the loss. I may struggle with the strange hermeneutics of the Bible being employed, but I understand that there are people who see the world a certain way, and it's changing fast. I wonder what it felt like when we started ordaining women, for those who were strongly opposed. What exactly were they afraid of? Sometimes it's hard to get at. It just may be a loss of what was. I think of America after the Emancipation Proclamation, when European Americans had to accept African Americans into mainstream society. Why was this so hard? What were they afraid of? The slave-enhanced economy might falter? The gene-pool might be weakened? The fragile fabric of society might be somehow irreparably damaged? I'm not sure.
When people are faced with change, they need time to assimilate things. Their first reaction may be joy or anger, but in time we come to terms with the pros and cons of things, and we make better decisions. Try not to let people react too quickly. Don't fuel their anger. Use pastoral conversation to help people dig deeper into their feelings rather than going to the wall and doing something rash. IF they say they're leaving, they may in fact do so. Or they may not. But don't let them make rash decisions in the heat of the moment, decisions that they might regret later. Don't rush things. Give them time.
My parents have flown up for the funeral. It's always comforting to have family nearby at times like these. My family and I don't all agree on everything. We are divided on this and many other issues. And yet we are still family. When we have a stern disagreement on something, no one threatens to leave the family. We love each other too much. We need each other. What unites us is greater than what divides us. I believe this is true of most people in the church. Our love of Jesus, our desperate need of God's grace, and our need of each other binds us together, even when we disagree. People only leave if they don't have this connection. If they don't have that connection, we should let them leave in peace, and find a church where everyone thinks the way they do and where they can get connected in a significant way.
James says be quick to listen, slow to speak, in this coming Sunday's lesson. This is good advice. The author of Proverbs says, "Where words are many, sin abounds." No kidding. Sometimes you just have to listen. When Jesus finished his bread sayings it says many were offended and left his church. He didn't go running after them. Instead he turned to his inner circle: "And what about you?" They responded, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."
In my view, the church is not a place where everyone agrees on everything. It's a place where we go to hear the only message that gives life. The church is a place that agrees on these things: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Because of this, we are saved by grace through faith, not by our good works. This is a perfectly free and undeserved gift. All people are sinners. None of us deserves God's grace. "By this shall all people know you are my disciples: If you love one another." When all is said and done, the dead in Christ shall rise imperishable, and we shall be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.
שלומ سلام Peace,
Rev. Michael Rinehart, bishop
The Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
12707 I-45 North Frwy, Suite 580
Houston, TX 77060-1239