Thursday, April 1, 2021
Wednesday, March 17, 2021
The year was 1997. I was completing my practicum for my Master's Degree while living in Hamburg, Germany. I was with The Salvation Army's "Missions Team," which was made up of a group of young people who were trying to either do a year of social work (if they were male to avoid the compulsory military service), or they wanted to do the German equivalent of a Gap year.
When people who know Germany find out you have been to Hamburg, the next question usually is: "Did you go to the Reeperbahn?" The Reeperbahn is the main thoroughfare in Hamburg's St. Pauli district, which is the notorious Red Light District of Hamburg. The Salvation Army was located right in the heart of that district. Appropriate, in my eyes.
The Red Light district was also the poorest neighborhood in town. Not only is prostitution legal (and regulated in Germany), but this area was filled with erotic cinemas, gambling, etc. The stench of urine and feces permeated the area. Our Missions Team would feed the homeless, distribute clothing, and for some odd reason they made me a barber (even though I had NEVER ever had any experience cutting hair).
Once a week we would hold what The Salvation Army called an "open air" meeting. It was like a street church service. We would form a half circle and do skits, sing songs, and give a short message on a Scripture passage.
I recall one time when we were having one of these Open Air meetings, we were being filmed by a local news crew who was doing a report on us. With the added cameras there, this brought about more attention from the local populace. Along came a large bearded man. You could smell the alcohol and body odor on him. While the cameras were rolling, he yelled out in German:
Ich bin der Weg, die Wahrheit und das Leben! Niemand kommt zum Vater dann durch mich!
For those of you who cannot speak German, he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life! No one comes to the Father except through me!"
This man then charged through our circle. He knocked over some of our team members, turned around and shouted again: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life! No one comes to the Father except through me!" Needless to say we were all shocked by this performance.
This, of course, was not my first experience with those words. This sentence, spoken drunkenly by this German, was something that Jesus was recorded as saying to his disciples before he was executed for treason (John 14:6). The disciples were celebrating the Jewish festival of Passover and Jesus was giving them what I would consider his last final instructions. I imagine it as if he was trying cram all of his knowledge and comfort to them before leaving them.
I sometimes think that the disciples here were confused. They were young people who had triumphantly followed Jesus through a whirlwind of miracles, speeches, and a flagrant flaunting of religious authority. I can only think that they might have thought they were invincible. Suddenly Jesus was saying that he wasn't going to be with them. He was going to leave them, but he was also preparing a place for them.
I would be perplexed. Apparently, Thomas was, too. He asked the question I would have asked: "Lord, we don't know where you are going. How can we know the way?" (John 14:5 CEB). Jesus answered him with the answer given by that drunk German.
Jesus was giving comfort to his disciples.
Too often Christians use these words of Jesus as some sort of exclusionary tactic or litmus test for people. They especially use it against non-Christians to make it an "Us versus Them." This type of dualism can lead to unnecessary strife.
When I was a Salvation Army officer, I was invited by some officers in the USA Western Territory to participate in some online Bible Studies. We then started a course for comparative religious studies. The goal of the studies was not to show how Christianity was somehow "better" than other religions, but rather to give people an understanding of other religions and how we might engage with them. We jokingly called it: "Let's Talk About Sects."
Everything was going great until we came to Islam. During our discussion, I was asked by one of the participants (who was a Salvation Army soldier (layperson)) to denounce Islam as a false religion. I refused to do that. To denounce Islam as a false religion would be to say that Christianity is better than other religions. Christianity should be a religion of humility and putting others first, not of denouncing others as being wrong.
This soldier then asked what I did with Jesus' statement that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. My answer is what I gave above. Jesus was attempting to comfort his disciples, knowing that he would be dying soon most likely. He was trying to reassure them that by following his example of living, they would never be apart from Jesus. To follow Jesus is to be with Jesus. To be with Jesus is to be with God. In that sense, Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Well, my answer displeased them. Some others who had listened to my statement started a protest letter which they sent to the Territorial Commander (somewhat like a cardinal). It resulted in OnlineCorps being immediately suspended and then eventually cancelled. It had the also unfortunate effect of an employee being fired and another officer being transferred. Since I was not under their direct supervision, a protest letter was sent to my personnel secretary. When I was terminated as an officer, one of the reasons for my termination (besides being bisexual and advocating for LGBT inclusion in The Salvation Army), was this whole incident.
Wow. To put it mildly, I was flabbergasted.
I still believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. However, I stand by what I said those years ago: Jesus is not a litmus test to see who is a Christian and who is not. He is not the Way to Heaven. By following Jesus, we are building Heaven now, not later, here on Earth.
How is Jesus the Way? How is Jesus the Truth? How is Jesus the Life? In pursuing Jesus, in following Jesus, we can find the meaning we are looking for. It isn't one of exclusion. It isn't one where Christianity is superior to all other religions. In following Jesus, we can experience that life in abundance.
photo credit: txmx 2 Talstrasse8 via photopin (license)
Thursday, December 3, 2020
It’s that time of year again. Decorations are out. In the town I currently live in, Branson, they skip over Thanksgiving and put up Christmas decorations on November 1.
I am slowly starting to be able to celebrate Christmas with joy again.
When I was a Salvation Army officer, I dreaded this time of year. The emphasis was on making money and trying to raise enough money to be able to support ourselves for the next coming year. Any joy that I had was taken away by the need to make money. If we didn’t make enough money, our finances were micromanaged by our headquarters and we were restricted as to how to spend our funds.
Most people do not realize that The Salvation Army is actually a Christian denomination. Their theology is very similar to the Methodist Church. It would fall under the Wesleyan-Arminian (Holiness) tradition. They just use military jargon for all church descriptions. Officers are pastors. Soldiers are laity. A congregation is a corps, etc. They have one general and he or she is like the pope.
As a denomination in and of itself, I could never count on my parishioners’ donations to fund the services that we did. We were always a small congregation and we barely had enough money. There was no way I would even be able to make my wages.
Is The Salvation Army homophobic?
I am always invariably asked whether or not The Salvation Army is anti-LGBTQ.
The answer is a resounding YES.
“How could this be?” You might ask. The Salvation Army has put up numerous websites, trying to refute the evidence that they are anti-LGBTQ. Some of these are very, very effective. Others are less so. You see, The Salvation Army tries to place a distinction between their “practical” services and their “theological” services. In the end, their theology informs their acts of service. Unfortunately, that includes the belief that people involved in “homosexual” relationships are in fact sinning.
My own personal belief is that they are trying to straddle the fence. On one hand, The Salvation Army receives millions of dollars from various governmental services to provide all sorts of assistance to people. There is always the caveat that these funds must be used without discrimination.
At the same time, The Salvation Army‘s actual theological stance is a very conservative one. They believe that being gay in and of itself is not a sin, but acting out on homosexual tendencies is a sin. I am forced to laugh at this. What do they mean? Having sex? Looking at someone of the same gender as attractive? Having rainbows for decorations? As a person in the LGBTQ community, you would only be welcome to attend their services. You would not be allowed to become a member. They certainly would not officiate at any weddings. Any Salvation Army officer (pastor) who attends a gay wedding must do so out of uniform, or else they would be terminated.
The Salvation Army has removed all position statements about LGBT issues from all of their websites, but they still exist. They just refuse to publish them because they are so inflammatory. On the one hand, they want to be true to their policy of discrimination against the LGBT community. On the other hand, they do not wish to lose out on funding from the general public and from government sources.
In the end, it’s all about money. This time of year especially is vital to The Salvation Army. When I was an officer, I was repeatedly informed that we normally receive half of our monetary donations during the holidays.
I view it this way: if you are a member of the LGBTQ community, The Salvation Army is obligated to help you out, especially if they have government funds. However, their theology does not allow them to accept you or to support you. If you just take a cursory glance at the many social media sites, especially those on Facebook, you will notice that there are several groups set up by members of The Salvation Army in direct defiance of anything LGBTQ inclusive. They regularly publish conversion therapy websites and links to “ex-gay” ministries. Technically they are not officially affiliated with The Salvation Army, but they do represent the majority opinion.
I will grant that there are discussions right now in The Salvation Army regarding “conversion therapy” and inclusion. However, because The Salvation Army is a military hierarchy, with a top down structure, any theological change will need to be taken from the top. A grassroots movement has largely been ineffective. I even challenged those who should be allies in The Salvation Army to take a more vocal stand and risk their beliefs for censure and termination. That challenge was met with derision. It is too much for them to risk losing their spiritual home.
And I get that. I didn’t want to leave The Salvation Army. I was made unwelcome there. They were my spiritual foundation. I am who I am because of them. However, because I am a member of the LGBTQ community, I will never truly ever be welcome there again. It really is a type of spiritual abuse.
It goes the same way for The Salvation Army if they were to suddenly become accepting of the LGBTQ community. Many members would leave an already small denomination, leaving them with only social workers and pastors, ill-equipped to handle an already behemoth charity organization.
What would force The Salvation Army to change? In one word: money. If people stop donating to The Salvation Army and let it be known that it was because the Army is anti-LGBTQ, then maybe, just maybe, The Salvation Army will change their stance. It’s sad, but true. This year, especially because of the pandemic, The Salvation Army is already expecting a drop of about 50% in the United States for their donations. As the founder of The Salvation Army, William Booth, once said, "That and better will do."
Instead, donate your money to agencies that don’t discriminate. It would be one thing to stop donating to The Salvation Army. It would be better, though, if you used your funds to donate to causes that do not discriminate whatsoever. Even better, donate to organizations that actively strive to help the LGBTQ Community.
I used to love The Salvation Army. They showed me what it meant to care when no one else would care. They had no problem going to where the need was greatest. It was when they told me I was no longer welcome because of my orientation that I saw them for what they truly are: hypocrites.
photo credit: SchuminWeb Salvation Army bell ringer via photopin (license)
Thursday, November 5, 2020
By the rivers of the Rio Grande, there we sat down and wept when we remembered our homeland.
Upon the sands of the desert we laid down our burdens.
For there are captors demanded of us documentation and our tormentors required proof, saying:
"Prove to me that you fled your homeland because someone was trying to kill you."
How can I show them the terror of my children as guns were pointed to our heads? How can I show them the coercion we faced at the hands of our oppressors?
Oh, America, doomed for destruction! How happy are they who do to you what you did to us! How happy are they who take away your children and lock them in cages!
An interpretation of Psalm 137 from the view of asylum seekers to the United States.
Monday, October 26, 2020
When did I know?
Did I . . . you know?
The College Years
The Marriage Years
I came out . . . as a liberal.
The Progressive Salvationist
What about you, Timothy?
Sunday, October 25, 2020
Mark 2:23-28 (CEB)
Jesus went through the wheat fields on the Sabbath. As the disciples made their way, they were picking the heads of the wheat. The Pharisees said to Jesus, "Look! Why are they breaking the Sabbath law?"
He said to them, "Haven't you ever read what David did when he was in need, when he and those with him were hungry? During the time when Abiathar was high priest, David went into God's house and ate the bread of the presence, which only priests were allowed to eat. He also gave bread to those who were with him."
Then he said, "The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren't created for the Sabbath. This is why the Human One is Lord even over the Sabbath."