Hospitality Is the Best of Humanity

Nearly all of the world’s faith traditions call their faithful to protect and offer hospitality to immigrants. Judeo Christian scriptures urge adherents time and again to welcome the stranger and offer special care for widows and orphans. We are called to welcome our immigrant sisters and brothers with compassion, and to keep families together, regardless of faith or place of birth.

Yet, in communities across our nation, including in Montana, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security routinely employs Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who subvert protocols and training, and terrorize citizenry with arbitrary practices which threaten to destroy the trust that local leaders have built with their communities and should have with local police. As a result, immigrant families and those connected to them may not ask for help or report crimes, fearing the repercussions if local law enforcement would turn them in to immigration officials.

Many methods promoted by the Department of Homeland Security tear apart families, rend the fabric of our communities, and threaten policies that would harm our local economies. Many such policies and actions are also opposed by a majority of U.S. citizens. The Montana Interfaith Network questions budgets which further fund suffering and hate. With the Rev. Jim Wallis of the Sojourners community, of Washington, D.C., we see budgets as moral documents. From private households to municipal, state and federal levels, the way we designate our common resources indicates where our priorities lie, as families, cities and as a nation. Will we designate our common resources and tax dollars for efforts that promote fear, threaten public safety and destroy families? As interfaith leaders, our traditions call instead for us to treat each other with dignity, compassion and peace.

For these reasons, the Montana Interfaith Network urges our national representatives to oppose any expansion of funding to the Department of Homeland Security. Our federal budget should reflect the values of compassion and peace, lift up families and support thriving communities. As Montanans, we do not want our common resources spent on suffering, hate, and division. We are our brother and sisters’ keeper. We belong to each other. No matter where someone came from or how they arrived in the United States, their life is of value and they deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion.

We ask for an end to budget policies that would further current Department of Homeland Security efforts that incite fear and division, and we urge our federal lawmakers to deny further funding of Immigration and Customs Enforcement practices that do more harm than good. Let’s instead designate those common resources, our tax dollars, towards the things that makes us thrive like education, bridges and disaster response, care for our veterans and seniors, and maintaining this beautiful landscape that all of us call home.

In Solidarity,

Montana Interfaith Network

Clergy to Daines: Healthcare is vital

Signatures:
1) Montana Interfaith Network
Direct Contact: Executive Director Rev D Gregory Smith, STL, MA
montanainterfaithnetwork@gmail.com
406-442-5506

2) Bishop Karen P. Oliveto
The United Methodist Church
ExecAssist@MountainSkyUMC.org
303.733.0083

3) Rev. Dr. Marc Ian Stewart
Conference Minister
MT-NWy Conference United Church of Christ
marc@mnwcucc.org
406.657.0822

As leaders within our faith communities, we hold a deep respect for human life and recognize the inherent dignity of each person, regardless of his or her economic status. At our churches, we especially preach about upholding the dignity of all people: the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the elderly, the hungry, the immigrant, and so on.

Because our faith calls us to care for others, we find the Senate GOP health care plan, the Better Care Reconciliation Act, reprehensible. Health care is a life or death matter. This unjust plan is destined to cause many members of our delegations undue hardship and suffering.

Senators who support this bill will be voting to take away health insurance from the elderly, the disabled, and children. Medical bills often drive families, especially those who struggle to make ends meet, into hunger and poverty. These families we speak of are our friends and neighbors whom we see each Sunday to gather in prayer and reflection.

Even with a longer timeline to phase out funding, the GOP health care plan would dismantle Montana’s Medicaid program. We know this program serves as a lifeline for many across the state. Currently Medicaid provides coverage for one in every three children in Montana. Medicaid also offers critical health services for people of all ages with disabilities to stay in their homes and live with dignity.

Where will these families go when they no longer have coverage and access to care? Where can our friends and neighbors turn when rural clinics are shuttered and small-town health programs are eliminated?

As people of faith, we believe health is a community value. Cold, virus, plague, disability, and death are not something we experience as individuals but are something we experience and react to through our schools, work places, health care networks, ecosystems, and faith communities. Our holy texts often describe ‘healing’ as a return to community, and this leads me to believe that caring for others in their time of need stands as the cornerstone of a strong community. In our congregations, we help our neighbors. We do the very best we can to help each other during hard times and serve our communities. While prayer, pastoral care, and loving friends are critical for holistic health, they cannot replace quality, life-saving, life-sustaining medical care.

On the topic of the health care debate, Senator Daines has said, “Government should serve the people it’s meant to serve.” Unfortunately, the Senate GOP attempt at a health care plan prioritizes excessive accumulation of wealth for the most powerful at the expense of ordinary people’s lives, health, and wellbeing.

This is not the faithful way forward. Our faith challenges us to heal the sick and care for the most vulnerable in our society. This Republican bill does the opposite. We urge our Senators to vote NO on the Better Care Reconciliation Act. Instead of making our health care system less accessible to those who need coverage most, Congress should strive to improve the system so that all Americans have the health care coverage they need. Lives are at stake.

Why Gay Rights are not Special Rights

First off: the fact that I have to write this out is problematic for me- this falls under the category of “General Sense of Decency” for me, but here goes.

I was born a gay male, with dark brown hair and hazel eyes. I don’t like cauliflower or the color orange. I am interested in psychology, spirituality, social justice and equal rights for all human beings. I like chocolate- but not really bitter dark chocolate. Why?

It’s a mystery.

There are many mysteries about our humanity, but sexuality isn’t one of them. Science is on my side: I was born attracted to other men. I know that because I certainly wouldn’t have chosen this difficult life for myself. I can’t help what piques my curiosity or interest. It just happens.

There’s an excitement that happens when we see an attractive person- that’s how we know they’re attractive. I can honestly say that I have never felt that for a woman. I tried. but I realized that going against nature is a waste of time.

My church respects me. My Federal Government (for now) respects me. My State can’t be bothered to get to know me.

Or else it wouldn’t have so callously dismissed HB417.

A bill that would add a few words to take away the significant pain that LGBTQA Montanans are feeling (and if you love an LGBTQ person, you’re the “A”).  As a psychotherapist, I am privy daily to stories of LGBTQ persons feeling disrespected, feeling afraid of an uncertain future. It breaks my heart. And as a Christian, I have to wonder why our culture is so willing to promote and add to the pain of another human being?

Monsters are the only things that do that- and I need to believe the people of Montana are not monsters.

This is an easy fix- adding a few words.
A few words will be a step toward decreasing pain in the lives of thousands of Montanans. And it’s there, believe me.

Being gay is who I am- it is not a choice (who would choose to be so discriminated against?). And being who I am should be good enough to add me and my brothers and sisters to the Montana Human Rights Act.

If a landlord refused to rent to me because I am an Episcopal priest, they would be in legal trouble. Ditto if I was refused service because of my race, national origin, beliefs or disability. But as a gay man, I have little recourse.

Back in graduate psychology, I learned that a hallmark of bullying is exclusion. By definition, this exclusion of LGBTQIA persons from The Montana Human Rights Act is bullying with legislation.

It must stop.

Eulogy

“Life is difficult.”

With these three words begin a book called The Road Less Traveled by Scott Peck. It is a book that literally has helped me change my life- and the lives of countless others.

Today, especially, these words ring true.

Life is difficult for us- who have to try and make sense out of the pain and frustration and difficulties that he faced almost constantly.

Life is difficult for parents, teachers, family members and friends who may feel as powerless as I have felt this past week.

Life is difficult when pain overcomes all the loving words and gestures of family, of friends of therapist, of rabbis and priests- life is especially difficult then.

But how does this happen? How can we address it?

I wish I knew.

My faith tells me that we are all- all of us doing the best we can from our particular point of consciousness. My heart knows this to be true, but my brain often needs more evidence. It keeps telling me that I failed. Some of your brains may be saying the same thing.

He struggled with depression, gender identity and, quite frankly, with being an adolescent- a difficult enough endeavor without adding on the extra baggage. And I thought things were going okay- not perfectly, but there are wonderful parents here offering support and encouragement, supportive professionals taking an interest in helping, friends who do what friends do- remind us that no matter what it seems like, we are not alone. I hoped- I prayed- that he would be okay. Would come through this process with the perspective of a champion- a champion who addressed each struggle as skillfully as possible and never (or seldom) gave in to fear.

Here’s the problem- I’m always underestimating fear. I’m always underestimating the power that potential futures have of paralyzing, shutting down, creating a reaction instead of inviting a thoughtful response. Fear drives us out of our minds and out of our hearts. It’s a powerful thing. It can take the truth and twist it. It can take love and make it insufficient. Fear can make us question the unquestionable- knowing that there is never a satisfying answer- but still, trying to do SOMETHING.

And for a kid who kept things tightly held, who was a perfectionist, whose beauty was seen by everyone else- but not by the one who most needed it- fear was the final distortion.

He knew it- we talked about it- but there was still a desire to be more than just “good enough”- he wanted to be stunning. And those of us who love him saw that stunning quality. We can still see it.

Life is difficult. This is one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know life is difficult- once we truly understand and accept it- then life is no longer as difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters. It’s something everyone has to deal with. It’s not just me. Or you. Or them. It’s us.

Peck ends his book with this:

“The universe, this stepping-stone, has been laid down to prepare the way for us. But we ourselves must step across it, one by one. Through grace we are helped, and through grace we know we are being welcomed. What more can we ask?”

I believe he is being helped, he is being welcomed- and yet most importantly for us today- he is being dearly missed. Because that’s the only way to respond to the loss of beauty in our world.

And how have we failed?

We can’t if we loved.

BZN NDO 2NITE!

Image

Be at the City Hall hearing room by 5:30pm to show your support! Here’s my testimony:

 

I am a native Montanan (4th generation).

I am an ordained priest with 3 degrees in theology and scripture.

I am a licensed Mental Health Counselor.

I am also a gay man, and Bozeman is my home.

Despite the prejudice and discrimination I have experienced in Bozeman, I choose to live here. Despite the stories and concerns I hear from parishioners and counseling clients who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender- I choose to live here. Why? Mostly, because I am now an adult, and I am supported and loved by my family, friends, neighbors and my church.

And I want to ensure that no kid repeats my Montana childhood here. Not anymore.

As a 15 year-old, I attempted suicide because my church and my community called me “disordered”, “unnatural” and a “pervert”. Not to my face- but they didn’t have to. The climate of my community and church and school – where there were no protections against discrimination- did it for them.

I think we forget how sensitive kids are.

But if nothing else happens tonight- I want you to remember just how sensitive kids are.

Thankfully, my suicide attempt failed, but every time I see the obituary of a teenager, I wonder, “Did sexuality have anything to do with this? My God, did a church have a part in this”?

I’m reminded of this verse from Matthew (18.6): “Whoever causes one of these little ones to lose faith in me, it would be better for them to have a great millstone hung around their neck and drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Well, the behavior of discriminatory churches is causing a lot of these little ones to lose their faith.

I know. I’m one of the ones they call, in tears and pain, wondering how they can be a Christian if God hates them so much. They wonder what they did.

They did nothing.

And I always tell them God loves them very much- even if God’s people don’t seem to.

Sexuality is NOT a choice. It is a fact. Gender is NOT a choice. It is a fact.

We have to trust the experience of others to help us to see them clearly.

WE HAVE TO.

That’s what civil societies do. We encourage people to tell the truth about themselves- because it sets them free- and maybe the rest of us as well.

This ordinance provides Bozeman with a chance to speak loudly in favor of truth.

Allowing even the perceived sexuality or gender of a child- or an adult- to be the cause of bullying, pain- or even suicide is inexcusable.

It still happens. Right here. There are too many examples to list in the available time.

If any of you would like to speak to me about it, I am available.

Please pass this ordinance.

 

Thank you.

Dare We Hope?

My sermon to the UUFB today:

There are a lot of words we use every day,
that we don’t really pause to consider.
“Hope” is one of those words.

What do you think of when you hear the word “Hope”?

For most of us, “hope” will conjure up images of fantastical satisfaction and happiness- or maybe the iconic images of a certain presidential campaign.

Maybe almost trite images.

And yet, there’s an allure to the word “Hope”

In that presidential campaign, the opponents made fun of the word, made light of it- and I would submit- that may be why they lost.
They underestimate the human gift of optimism.
And I do think it’s a gift.

It’s very easy to look around and see the evidence of malignancy and evil around us- and far away from us- thanks to the miracle of instantaneous global communication. It’s not hard to find stories of death and destruction, exploitation and pain, suffering and greed, disease and addiction.

It’s not hard at all.
In fact, it’s so easy that our society suffers from all sorts of ills because of it- depression being ubiquitous in this day and age.

I think hope and optimism have a bad rap. It’s easy to make fun of the word “hope”. Realists say that it’s fantasy.

I think it’s completely and perfectly human.

Take Winter. It’s no accident that the early Christians of the Northern Hemisphere chose the solstice for the celebration of the Savior’s birth.

The Advent wreath, the greenery, the Christmas tree- none of them originated with Christianity. Some maintain that Germanic tribes placed candles in a sacred circle of greens to symbolize hope in the return of the sun and the promise of Spring. We know Scandinavian people placed candles on a wheel to honor the cycle of the seasons. We know that midwinter- again in the Northern Hemisphere- is around December 21- when days are at their shortest and night is at its longest.

I can imagine that for primitive people whose lives depended on the return of warmth it was good to remind themselves that winter won’t last forever. And I can imagine that it was very hard centuries ago- without antibiotics and polar fleece and refrigerators and Costco- in a harsh climate when those who were weak would often die- I can imagine that some would find it hard to believe that the winter would ever end- especially during the time that night became longer and longer and colder and colder.

But those who knew- those who had lived through the winters before- they were the strength of those who weren’t so sure.
They held out hope.

They knew that in the midst of the longest night- it was important to tell stories of the approaching spring. To hold out hope- to remember optimism when it was at its most elusive.

As always, our lives our shaped by those who have gone before us.

Hope is in our genes- if we care to think about it.

The basic instinct of survival is a mechanism of hope, isn’t it?

Even the limbic system that shuts down our reason in the face of danger and makes us flee, fight or freeze to enable our survival- even that is a sign of hope. It’s in our biology.

That’s probably why the pessimists never win in the long term. Hope isn’t just a trite term for people who can’t handle reality. It’s an attitude for living.

I like to tell my clients that the only difference between excitement and fear is the projected outcome.

The energy is the same- it’s just the projected outcome that’s different. And that projected outcome starts with us.

In our minds, in our hearts, in the way we choose to interpret the world around us. Excitement and curiosity- or fear and dread? It’s our choice- at least more than we think.

One of my favorite stories is this one:

Two boys who were twins, one an incurable optimist, one a pessimist.
The parents were worried about the extremes of behavior and attitude and finally took the boys in to see a psychologist.

The psychologist observed them a while and then said that they could be easily helped. He felt they just needed to adjust to the world by encountering things that would counteract their strong tendencies of optimism and pessimism.

He said that they had a room filled with all the toys a boy could want. They would put the pessimist in that room and allow him to enjoy life.

They also had another room that they filled with horse manure. They put the optimist in that room. They observed both boys through one way mirrors.

The pessimist continued to be a pessimist, stating that he had no one to play with.

They went to look in on the optimist, and were astounded to find him digging through the manure.

The psychologist ran into the room and asked “What on earth are you doing?”

The boy replied “With all this manure, there HAS to be a pony in here somewhere!”

I love that story.

But I know that sometimes i’m not looking though the manure for the pony. Sometimes I’m just sitting in the manure, disgusted. Because, well, you know, it’s manure.

That’s when I forget myself. It’s when I forget my biology.

It’s when I forget that the energy I feel in my body is often harnessed by the projected outcome I hold.

So, yeah, I can sit in the manure, or I can haul the manure back to the garden where it’ll do some good.

My choice.

Our ancestors have chosen to celebrate the return of the light for millennia- it’s why the early Christians chose the bleak midwinter- to link the returning light to the birth of Jesus. Smart, eh?

They’ve chosen to believe that the dawn follows the darkness, that life will continue.

And so do we.

I’m betting that it’s why you’re here today.

And I’m also betting that you’re interested in learning to become skillful at living life with hope.

I believe that the first step in living a more skillful life
is to become more aware of living an UNskilled life.
And by that, I mean living by habit-
not with awareness, not with wonder, not with hope-
but by automatic pilot- habit. By numbing perhaps- or lying to ourselves.

It’s ultimately unsatisfying.
Habits are things we do without thinking. That’s very unskillful.

Skill means bringing awareness and creativity, attention and intention into our endeavors.

I think it’s only by paying close attention that we live skillfully in this world.
And by paying attention to the possibilities is the way we live hopefully in this world.

During his days as president, Thomas Jefferson and a group of companions were traveling across the country on horseback.

They came to a river which had left its banks because of a recent downpour.

The swollen river had washed the bridge away.

Each rider was forced to ford the river on horseback, fighting for his life against the rapid currents.

The very real possibility of death threatened each rider, which caused a traveler who was not part of their group to step aside and watch.

After several had plunged in and made it to the other side, the stranger asked President Jefferson if he would ferry him across the river.

The president agreed without hesitation.

The man climbed on, and shortly thereafter the two of them made it safely to the other side.

As the stranger slid off the back of the saddle onto dry ground, one in the group asked him, “Tell me, why did you select the president to ask this favor of?”

The man was shocked, admitting he had no idea it was the president who had helped him.

“All I know,” he said, “Is that as I thought of asking the question, on some of your faces was written the answer ‘No,’ and on some of them was the answer ‘Yes.’

His was a ‘Yes’ face.”
(C. Swindoll, The Grace Awakening, Word, 1990, p. 6.)

That, my friends, is the face of hope.

So, dare we hope?

If biology and the human spiritual history of millennia have anything to say about it, we dare not.

Christmas Sermon, 2013

“I love you.”

Christmas Stamp of Ukraine 2006

Christmas Stamp of Ukraine 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The words were tentative, soft and nervous. They were spoken by a third grader- me.
It was the first time I had ever said them to anyone outside my immediate family.

It was a watershed moment for me.

You see, there was this girl who was amazing. She liked all the things I liked, hated all the things I hated, she was smart and pretty and best of all she liked me. She thought I was funny- and cute.

I was.

But I didn’t know what to do about it- I was eight.

I knew that people you liked were kind of like being part of your family. I felt like I wanted to let her know I thought she was awesome- but then I panicked. We were sitting together on the swings after lunch and I just felt the words rising up inside of me.

The words were out of my mouth before I knew what to do.

“Oh, no!” I thought. “What have I done?”

And then- “What if she doesn’t say it back?”

Have you been there?

Lots of rules about relationships.

Don’t go too fast. Don’t go too slow.

Don’t be insulting. Don’t be demanding.

Don’t say I love you first….

Hmmm.

So. Christmas! I love Christmas. I love the music.

“Joy to The World! ….

“Silent Night….

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing….

“O Little Town of Bethlehem…..

“Angels we have heard on high…..

“O Holy Night…..

“Come, they told me….”

Words and sounds so familiar in this season. I bet as I was saying the words, some of you started singing the tunes.

What’s your favorite Christmas Carol? I have two- My favorite is “O Holy Night”. Mostly because it’s so filled with awe.

“Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices….
O Night- divine- O-o night when Christ was born”.

Gorgeous.

It’s a poignant reminder that wonder and awe need to be a daily part of life.

Christmas is a time for Joy.

It’s why I also love “Joy to the World”.
“Let every heart prepare him room…”

Joy is kind of tricky. I tried to explain it to a kid last week who asked, “What’s the difference between being happy and being joyful?”

Like I said- tricky.

I was kind of proud of my answer.

“Well, it’s a lot like like happiness- only better.”

“How so?” he asked.

“I think happiness is about being satisfied,” I said. “Joy is about being loved.”

Yeah. Still proud of my answer.

Today’s Christmas. Tomorrow it will all be over. And millions of dollars will have been spent and tons of food will be eaten and people will still be dying of hunger and disease and only have filthy water to drink.

Except that it’s not over. We forget- Christmas is a season. It actually goes for twelve days- it doesn’t end until January 6th. That’s because the church recognizes that it’s not just a day- it’s a season- and sometimes it takes a whole season to get it right.

So we have presents and food and trees and lights- but that’s not what it’s really about. Not really.

It’s about a story. A story that still is being written.

St Theodore had some very important words to add to this story- you probably remember him-

You don’t remember St Theodore?  St Theodore Geisel?
The world knows him as Dr Seuss. Remember this?:

He stared down at Who-ville!

The Grinch popped his eyes.

Then he shook!

What he saw was a shocking surprise!

Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,

Was singing! Without any presents at all!

HE HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming!

IT CAME!

Somehow or other it came just the same!

And the Grinch with Grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,

Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?

“It came without ribbons it came without tags!

“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”

And he puzzled three hours till his puzzler was sore-

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!

“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.

“Maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more!”

And what happened then…?

Well, In Who-ville they say that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!

And the minute his heart didn’t feel quite so tight,

He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light.

And he brought back the toys and the food for the feast.

And he- HE HIMSELF…!

The Grinch carved the roast beast.

If those aren’t the words and insight of a saint, I don’t know what is….

Today we are here to celebrate.

We’re celebrating something very special. So with apologies to St Theodore:

We’re not celebrating happiness- although happiness is okay- we’re here

-here as Christians to celebrate JOY.

Joy comes when “I love you” is said and it’s felt,

It comes from the feeling your heart will just melt.

Today is the day that we gather to see

Just how much our God loves us-

Loves you and loves me!

He said it in Bethlehem with a babe in a stall,

He said it real clearly “I love-

love you all!”

But the real trick of Christmas- the thing that we lack

Is the courage all year just to whisper it back.

Sometimes we’re shy and sometimes we’re scared

But the love of this God is just meant to be shared!

He’s saying “I love you” with the birth of this baby

And Jesus still tells us- and he doesn’t say “Maybe.”

It’s true and it’s real- we just have to answer.

It’s not time to dawdle- it’s time to move faster!

Remember that third grade kid at the beginning of this? Me?

Well, she said it back to me. And even though things didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped back in the third grade, we’re still in touch. And I still love her..

In fact, she told me she loved me just last week.

And all I can say is it still brings me joy.

Today, we celebrate God saying “I love you.” And it’s meant with deadly seriousness- and complete joy and selflessness. No games.

Today God says “I love you.” And means it.

Always means it.

Even when we don’t say it back.