How Should We Respond to Sexual Assault

Perhaps like many of you, I sat glued to my television and live stream on my computer as Christine Blasey Ford testified about an alleged sexual assault that took place while she was in high school. The accused person in the assault, Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, would testify later that day.

It was a moment that recalled the Anita Hill testimony in 1991 regarding then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. It was also a moment that brought up pain for those who have been the victims of sexual assault, their families, and others.

Personally, I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Ford or Kavanaugh in that moment. I cannot relate to their pain, because I have not experienced that for myself. Yet, their testimony and the conversation regarding sexual assault – not just in the past week but, truly, in the last few years – has been on my mind. The question I keep thinking about is this: How does God call us to respond to these moments?

Statistics tell us that more that one in five women and one in 71 men will be sexually assaulted in their lives. The vast majority of these assaults, more than 60 percent, will never been reported to the authorities. Only a handful of the reported assaults, between 2-10 percent, are deemed to be falsely reported.

Those numbers tell us that we likely know someone, whether they have told us or not, who has been the victim of either a sexual assault or an attempted assault. This is something that is close to home for us all.

However, our primary response is often to politicize or demean the accusations. I know this from first-hand experience.

In 2006, I was a reporter for what was then known as the Pope Center for Higher Education Reform in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My role was to cover higher education issues and stories for a libertarian-leaning organization. During that time, the Duke Lacrosse case began to make national news. As a refresher, members of the Duke lacrosse team were accused of sexual assault, only to be exonerated after a lengthy political and judicial process. One of my editors wanted me to push hard on the story, because it was what people were talking about and it was in our backyard. There was a faint connection to higher education policy, even though we largely dealt with public institutions.

I felt uncomfortable with the story. It didn’t feel like it reached the standards of what our organization was about – discussing policy and classical liberal arts education. The editor won, and I found myself at Duke University covering protests related to the case. It was not a story I look back on fondly. I am left with the feeling that we covered the story simply to play “gotcha” journalism with Duke University during a time of deep confusion and anxiety. It was a bad situation.

That moment reminds me of other reactions to sexual assault allegations. We will often use “boys will be boys” language to dismiss allegations that we deem to be unfair or unnecessary. The language casts boys and men as sexually-focused individuals who cannot control their inner needs. At the same time, we will tell girls and women that “if you wouldn’t dress that way” nothing would happen to you. This language dismisses women as mere objects instead of God’s beloved. Neither response is what God calls us to be about, but these are often the reactions we see expressed in the moments after a sexual assault allegation is raised.

We can, and must, do better.

I believe God calls the church to do better in our care for people regarding sexual assault. The Great Commandment teaches us to love God and to love others as ourselves. Our love for others comes out of the commitment and unconditional love God shares with us. We are to love others and value people in the ways we would want to be treated. This is especially the case when it comes to hearing the pain from those who have dealt with sexual assault.

The church, and those who seek to follow in Christ’s footsteps, should be a safe place where we give a listening ear to victims of sexual assault. We should be a place where victims can express their pain and have a community of support who will listen to them, comfort them, and support them unconditionally. The church should be a place of love, and grace for victims of sexual assault.

As well, the church should and must be a place of grace and hope for those accused of sexual assault. We must be willing to offer the accused a chance to express their story, to offer repentance, and redemption. We are, after all, a grace-filled people who seek the resurrection’s hope of second chances for all people.

In all situations, though, we must be willing to pray for the victims, the accused, and their families. At the same time, we must do a better job expressing grace-filled sexual ethics that start at the basic desire of love, respect, and treating each other as we would want to be treated. We must take leadership in creating places of safety and grace, so that our communities will be a place where all people are treated and valued because of their sacred worth in God’s eyes.

This is an important time for our nation, but I believe it is also an important time in our witness of God’s love in these areas. May we share the kingdom ethics in treating others as we would want to be treated.

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Our Values: Foundational Principles for Ogden Memorial

Today is the first day of school in Caldwell County. This has been a day, personally, I’ve been looking forward to for some time since it is Noah’s first day in kindergarten.

The fact schools are back in session reminds me of my educational experiences in Raleigh County Schools in West Virginia. Each of my teachers invested in my life. They sought to teach me how to write, read, and understand the world we live in. I am who I am because of the teachers who invested in me.

Most importantly, though, my teachers tried to instill within me values that would define who I am. Values like treating my classmates with respect, living with kindness, and being patient. Those values are still important to me some 30 years later.

When we think of values our minds go to the core foundational principles that define who we live and interact with others. They are what inspire our words and actions even when we are not aware of them.

Christ calls us to claim values in our journey together. Values that serve as an outflow of our relationship with the Lord and define how we live out our love of God. We see our values being expressed through the Beatitudes, Jesus’ prayers, ministries, and common life with his believers. Jesus often called us to go and do likewise. We follow in the footsteps of Christ by taking on the same values and core principles we see reflected in Jesus as an aspect of who we are in Christ’s love.

Throughout 2018, our vision team has been working with me in prayerful conversations about the values that define our common life at Ogden Memorial. I am appreciative of Sara Brown, Jae Englebright, Elaine Overhults, Mary Rohrer, and Emory Spradlin for their dedication and work. They have blessed me with their prayers, laughter, and desire to see the church come alive.

We began our work with a focus on our values, first, because we wanted to set our mind on common principles that define who we are at Ogden. Values that are unchanging. We recognize that leaders may change, ministries may change, pastors may change, but the values of a community are constant. They define our work and how we live out our purpose of loving God and making disciples.

Together we discerned five core values that will define our work moving forward at Ogden Memorial. They are: love, discipleship, prayer, worship, and community. We believe these are values best described how God is leading us forward at Ogden Memorial. Each of the values have statements that were written by members of the team in collaboration with one another.

Beginning September 2, you will hear more about how these values will shape our mission together during worship. Members of the vision team will share about the values and the sermon will reflect on their meaning and purpose for our shared life together. We will celebrate our values on September 30 with a potluck following worship.

Our values. That is what they are. These are the values God has blessed us with to define our relationships with one another and ministry with our community.

I believe, as I have always, that Ogden Memorial is sleeping giant waiting to come alive with fruitful and vibrant ministry. These values and the work of the church coming together to get to this point are a positive step towards that direction.

I’m excited about what is next for Ogden Memorial. I hope you are, as well.

Love Your Enemy: How Christ Calls Us to Love People We Disagree With

One of my favorite television shows is “The West Wing.” The classic Aaron Sorkin drama about life in the White House was one of the best written dramas and more than 10 years after its last episode aired it still fascinates viewers with its impressive dialogue and storytelling.

The show is one I turn to when I want to get away from the world. Abbi in her loving kindness gave me the entire series for Christmas one year, and life has never been the same for my viewing habits.

The other day I had an episode on in the background while sitting in my home office. It was an episode I’ve seen dozens of time. A Republican lawyer outwits the deputy speechwriter on a national public affairs program. This led to the president wanting to hire her, which led to the frustration of key staff members. At the end of the episode, she is in the chief of staff’s office waiting to give her response to the job offer when she meets the deputy chief of staff and the same deputy speechwriter she debated. Their conversation quickly turned to one of the issues discussed in the episode – gun control in the aftermath of a presidential assassination attempt. After a lengthy discussion, the lawyer ended the conversation by saying the problem with their position was that they didn’t like people who who like guns.

I mention the story not to talk about guns or even gun control, but to reflect upon the meaning of that line. She essentially said, “You don’t like people who disagree with you.” Something about it, even though I’ve heard it time and time again, stayed with me. I believe it is because I see it in our conversations today.

We don’t like people who disagree with us.

It shouldn’t take us long to recognize this issue. We struggle with loving and respecting anyone who disagree with us.

This is something I pay a lot of attention to, both as a pastor and also someone who is interested in public theology (how Christ moves us into the public square to be a faithful witness of Jesus Christ in the world). We are experiencing the rise of what I call “acceptable anger” towards those we disagree with. What I mean is that we find it within the boundaries of normal behavior to demean or ridicule personally those who have a different view than what we may hold. Our actions and words are intended not to discuss the issues, but to dismiss those who would dare to see things from a different perspective. We find it acceptable, because we believe that if we are right then it makes our response towards others automatically virtuous and righteous.

One of the places “acceptable anger” is displayed is on social media platforms. Facebook groups and posts that deal with various issues are often highlighted by resentment towards the people who have a different view. We write in such a way that we seek to separate ourselves from those who offer another perspective.

It is easy to dismiss this as a social media problem, and in some ways, it is because we are unable to personally interact with someone through the words we type it is not. Social media is a user-generated platform, which means how we engage social media is often a reflection of who we are and who we have become.

Where I notice this being especially bad is among fellow United Methodists as it relates to conversations on human sexuality and the upcoming 2019 General Conference. I am a member of several clergy online groups. The intent of these groups is to seek practical advice, discuss issues, and encourage one another in ministry. What often happens is that these platforms can be used by people to demean those who disagree with an interpretation of Scripture, perspective on the future of the church, and the issues facing the global movement of God’s kingdom. Posts quickly turn towards name calling towards anyone who has a different perspective.

These posts and comments are from pastors. If the shepherd of a congregation – the pastor – is dismissive towards others, how can the sheep – the flock of a congregation – know the way to truly loving others as God calls us to love?

I have always been struck by how Jesus’ words to love your enemies from Matthew 5:43 is one of the hardest to apply to our lives. An enemy is more than someone who seeks to do harm towards you. An enemy can be someone you disagree with and do not value because of their opinion. So, how do we love our enemy if our enemy is someone we disagree with?

Perhaps it is found in living out the Great Commandment: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Love means we give of ourselves in deep connection and commitment to God. This is our response to God’s love towards us, which is reflected in God’s creation and presence in our lives.

Our love of God, then, shapes how we respond to one another. We are called to treat each other with the same love we would want shown towards us. That means we value people for who they are and meet them where they are. We can only do this when we see the imago Dei – the image of God – in those we disagree with. Genesis 1:27 reminds of how each person was created in the image of God to reflect the very character of God. Every person is of sacred worth, even those we disagree with, because they are beloved by God.

This changes our response to people. To treat people with love is to see them as someone of worth. It changes the conversation from seeing someone as an enemy, but as a person God loves in the same ways God loves us.

Richard Mouw, a Christian ethicist who wrote the book “Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil Word.” In the book, he shares how kindness and gentleness should be the defining mark of our relationship with others, especially with those we disagree with on certain issues. Mouw writes, “When Christians fail to measure up to the standards of kindness and gentleness, we are not the people God meant us to be.”

He is right. Our calling as Christ followers is to be above the practices of the world, especially as it relates to our conversations with one another about what it means to be the church. Being people of holy love doesn’t mean we cannot disagree with issues nor does it mean we ignore real issues so as not to offend anyone. What it means that in our conversations about the serious issues that face the church and, truly, the world, we must be ever mindful that within the person we disagree with is the imago Dei.

How different would our world be if we enter into them remembering that God’s image is in the person we disagree with?

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Every morning growing up, I would look forward to the simple and melodious sounds coming from my television. They would announce the start to one of my favorite shows. One that would draw me into a world of creativity, imagination, and hope.

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,

A beautiful day for a neighbor,

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, staring Fred Rogers, aired in our homes for 31 seasons. It ended in 2001, but the show and Rogers’ legacy lives on with Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which seeks to promote the same values as the original classic. Though Rogers passed away in 2003, his legacy of encouraging imagination and welcoming all people into our lives regardless of their background is still an important and needed message today. He taught us how to be, well, neighborly to one another.

The idea of neighbor is one that has been on my mind this week, especially in the context we find it addressed in the Great Commandment. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each describe a variation of Jesus’ command to love God and love our neighbor as we would want to be loved. Our love for each other should be the same as the love God shows for us.

So, what do we mean by loving God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength?” (Mark 12:30)

The word “love” comes from a Greek word agape. The Greek language used in Scripture has four different words used to describe love. This particular usage is the highest form of love in the Greek language and references one of commitment to God and to one another. When we see Jesus use this word, especially in Mark 12:30, he invites us to love God with every ounce of our being. That everything we are and strive to be is wrapped up in our love and connection to God. Our love of God is to be the most important thing in our lives and it its to define everything about who we are.

That is especially the case in regards to our relationships with one another. Jesus says we are to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) The idea of neighbor is described in the story of the Great Samaritan in Luke 11:25-37. There we see Jesus encourage us to expand the idea of neighbor – those whom we have a direct connection and identity with – to include more than simply the people we like and get along with. He invites us to treat everyone as our neighbor. The bonds of community Christ are to be extended to all people because of our love of God.

This idea of neighbor was expressed throughout Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, especially in one classic episode. Francois Clemmons, who portrayed Officer Clemmons, was the first African-American to have a regular role on a children’s television show. In a 1969 episode, Clemmons visited Rogers’ home on a hot day and the two sat together in a children’s pool cooling off their feet. The image of the two men – one black and the other white – sitting with their feet touching came during a period of racial unrest in America. It was one that Clemmons would go on to say deeply touched him, because of its embrace and welcome of all people. Rogers’ act was a physical expression of God’s call to treat all people with love and equal care.

Can you imagine what kind of world it would be if we lived out the Great Commandment in our relationships with one another?

So often our relationships are defined by the standards of the world. Is the person acceptable? Are they safe? Are they from a good background? Do we agree with them politically and socially? These are questions that society teaches us. Society would like for us to believe that the idea of the Great Commandment is a good story, but not practical in our relationships with one another.

Jesus never taught that the Great Commandment wasn’t practical or easy. Jesus saw the idea of loving God and loving our neighbor as a core value for all who would desire to be in relationship with the Lord. The call to do likewise from Luke 10:37 is a reminder of how Jesus expects those who follow in his footsteps to love the Lord completely and to love all people the same.

How we seek to love one another is never defined by our connections to the political world, but to the worldview Christ instills within us. We are to make room for people even when it is difficult. Jesus calls us to welcome the unwelcomed. Jesus calls us to love the unlovable. Jesus calls us to embrace people who are different than us. Jesus invites us to make room for people who have special needs.

Jesus invites us to be, well … neighbors.

What would it look like if, because of the Great Commandment, we hear the refrain from “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” as sung by those who are crying out for love today?

Won’t you please,

Won’t you please

Please won’t you be my neighbor?

Walking into an Unknown Future

Recently, the Commission on a Way Forward, a 32-member team tasked with discerning the future of the United Methodist Church, released its initial proposal aimed at resolving questions within the church regarding homosexuality. This team has worked since the middle of 2016 on a plan, which will need approval by a called General Conference in February 2019.472017_436765336365086_256924354_o

According to the United Methodist News Service, the options on the table include:

  1. Keep the Book of Discipline language regarding homosexuality, and place an emphasis upon accountability.
  2. Remove language regarding homosexuality from the Book of Discipline in order to allow for contextualized ministry. The plan would also protect those who would not be comfortable with ordaining or marrying LGBTQ individuals.
  3. Would provide a unified set of doctrine, services, and Council of Bishops, while also paving a way for different groups within the church to have its own values, accountability, and mission.

As is often the case, when receive new information on something that is unknown we want to know more. What does this mean for Ogden Memorial? What does this mean for the Kentucky Annual Conference? What does this mean for the church as a whole?

Many of those questions we cannot answer, at least not yet.

That becomes the struggle of living into the unknown. We want to have all the answers before we take a bold step into an unknown future. The same is true for us, as a local church, as we discern where God is leading us within a changing culture and ministry context. We want to know what will happen, when it will happy, and how it will happen.

I get it, because I am just like that. Sometimes I am more like the Israelites walking with Moses than I care to admit. I want to be like the disciples who dropped everything to follow Jesus. More often than not I ask questions, want all the information, and hesitate to act before I am confident I know what is going to happen and when, just as the Israelites questioned Moses’ leadership continually, in part, because they weren’t sure what would happen next.

Faith, however, is the willingness to see the unseen and trust that God is at work, even when we do not have all the answers. No matter what happens within the United Methodist Church, there are some constants that will not change.

We will love Jesus.

We will love our neighbors.

We will make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our world here in Princeton.

So, even though we don’t have all the answers we know where God is calling us to go and who to be: love the Lord, love our neighbors, and make disciples. That is our greatest purpose as we walk into a new future.

Reflections on Hope in Times of Fear

I’m a father. One of my desires for my son is to leave this world in a better place for him and children like him.

I wonder if I am doing a good job at that.

I don’t wonder about whether my son knows I love him, he knows; I don’t worry about whether my son knows I care for him, he knows; I don’t worry about whether he will have a quality of life much better than my own; he will. I wonder about other things.

I wonder if I am doing a good job of leaving the world in a better place for him, because there are times when I attend a conference meeting, know he is in school, and worry if this will be the day there will be a shooting there. It is irrational, and I know this, but I worry about this.

I wonder if I am doing a good job of leaving the world in a better place for him, because there are times when I have more fear inside of me about the state of our world than I do hope.texas-church-shooting

I’m a pastor and I’m admit that I fear the world we are giving our children. It is not a fear that forces me to lock my doors and hide, but a fear of the unknown. The fear of the what’s next and will it happen here can dominate my thoughts more than I care to admit. I recognize this within me, and I acknowledge my own weakness in leaving the world as a place of hope, peace, joy, and love for my son and children like him.

I recognize my own struggle with fear especially following the shooting in Texas and many others like it. Never did I imagine we would live in a world where mass shootings would be as common as they are today.

This pains and offends me. I remember being a college student at West Virginia University during the Columbine tragedy. I believed, then, we would never see anything like that again. We have seen it, sadly, too often and in such numbers that Columbine is no longer listed as among the worst shooting incidents in our nation’s history.

My heart breaks for the state of our nation, as both a pastor and a father, especially for the violence we see on a daily basis. My heart breaks, as both a pastor and a father, when I see our thirst for violence and video games that advertise to our children that they can be “snipers” and “assassins.” My heart breaks, as both a pastor and a father, when we resort to blaming instead of trying to find a way forward through the pain together.

Whether it is Texas, Las Vegas, or any other shooting incident, I think we are all concerned about the state of violence in our nation. I pray for a world that is less violent, but I also want to be safe and practical in how we respond to these moments.

I also want to maintain my promise to my son and children like him.  I want to leave this world in a better place than I found it, because I believe that is the nature of the Gospel’s call to be a light that shines for the world to see and experience (Matthew 5:14). This is a promise we all make, as followers of Christ, through our baptismal covenant.

So, how do we live out this call in times of fear?

I think of passages like 2 Timothy 1:7 in moments like these. Paul writes, “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” Our best hope in times of fear is to remember whose we are and who we are. We are people of love who are loved by God and called to share love with others. We don’t have to fear, because we know God is present and gives us the strength to resist evil in whatever forms it may come through the witness of grace and love.

When God’s people respond to fear with more fear we miss an opportunity to show the peace that comes through God’s care and love. Yes, we make sure we are wise and safe, but we do not allow fear to dominate our hearts, because our hope is found in the One whose promises are true and whose presence is always there.

In this time of fear, what if we recommit ourselves to a promise that we made to leave this world a better place than we found it? What if we took the time to invest more in our children? What if we reached out to people who are discouraged? What if we showed the world violence only begets more violence and love only produces more love?

What if we leave this world in a better place than we find it today?

Christmas Eve Message: Ordinary Day and Extraordinary Hope

It was just an ordinary day in the City of Bethlehem.

The population, in those days, was around 1,000 people. That is a little more than double the latest Census estimate for Salvisa. All of those 1,000 people and more were gathered in Bethlehem on that day. The people were under the authority of the Roman Empire, which had no problem throwing its weight around. On that particular day, the people under Rome’s authority were required to return to their hometown in order to be counted. This was an ordinary occurrence for the people in Bethlehem, because Rome made it a habit of doing things to reminded people of their authority and power.

It was also an ordinary day for those outside of Bethlehem. Residing around the hillsides outside of Bethlehem were a group of shepherds. The shepherds were doing their job. They were keeping watch of their sheep to make sure they stayed safe from intruders. Shepherds were not the most beloved group of people. Some tolerated them as those who performed a needed task in society, but the people had little use for them. Others viewed them as thieves, because they would do what was needed in order to survive even if it meant taking from others. On that day they were just trying to live and survive. Continue reading