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An Open Letter to Mayor of Houston, TX, Annise Parker

Dear Mayor Parker,

Clearly I cannot speak for the five pastors within your jurisdiction whose sermons were recently subpoenaed. Despite the fact that I am not among your constituents I am concerned and I find such legal strategy a bit puzzling. If I understand correctly all this stems from a hotly debated ordinance proposed for your city, Houston, Texas. The goal of said ordinance is to ban anti-gay discrimination among other things including, ironically, religious discrimination.  Those who would overturn this particular ordinance presented a petition with the goal of putting it up for a vote on this November’s ballot in Houston. Much to their dismay the city attorney somehow deemed more than 32,731 of the 50,000 signatures invalid. Consequently the attorney ignored the petition. Predictably a group of Christians who oppose the ordinance filed suit against the city. That is when attorneys representing Houston saw fit to subpoena the sermons of five pastors, none of whom are parties in the lawsuit.

As a result you find yourself in the middle of highly publicized and politically charged national debate. It seems you could have saved yourself some trouble. Most churches have adopted the practice of posting previous weeks’ sermons online. I assume you believe these five pastors to be largely responsible for the garnering of tens of thousands of signatures. If they are indeed as influential as you think then chances are their churches post recordings of their sermons to a website on a regular basis. My hunch is that Google could have achieved much of what your lawyers had hoped for with their subpoenas, and done so without drawing so much negative attention to yourself.

Better yet, you could have just asked. I may be a minister but I’m just as susceptible to vanity as the next guy. Had you asked for a copy of one or several of my sermons I would have gladly surrendered them to you. Given the fact that you are openly lesbian yourself and traveled to California in order to be married earlier this year, it seems clear that you and I have fundamental disagreements in regard to some important life issues. That said I would have received your request for my sermons as a tremendous opportunity to politely reveal the roots of my perspective. You might be disappointed however when you find I rarely if ever refer specifically to homosexuality, gay marriage, or similar matters in any of my sermons. Nor do I refer to public officials by name unless I am praying for them. (Quite frankly you’d probably also be disappointed to know I don’t hold that much influence. But I digress.)

When I craft a sermon I strive to keep it focused upon one thing, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sometimes I do better than others, but that is the goal. Thus whether you asked, subpoenaed, or simply listened online I hope that what would become clear in any one of my sermons is that I believe there is hope in Jesus Christ and in him alone. Legislation is all well and good, but it does not change hearts. I certainly respect your office. My faith and the Scriptures instruct me to do so. But with all due respect, no government official is able to affect the type of change that the forgiveness and grace of the Almighty brings to the contrite soul.

With that said I notice that the ordinance which started all this expressly states that it does not prohibit “Giving preference to persons of the same religion, unless membership in the religion is restricted because of a protected characteristic.”* Membership at my church and thousands of others like it is not restricted because of the “protected characteristics” of being homosexual, bisexual, or transgender. However, membership restrictions do apply to those who are unable or unwilling to concede their inability to meet the demands of a holy God apart from faith in the aforementioned gospel of Jesus Christ.  Therefore being homosexual, bisexual, or transgender is no more or less of an issue for aspiring church members than being heterosexual. What is at issue is the acknowledgment that any sort of sexual behavior (or any sort of behavior) that deviates from that prescribed by the Scriptures’ teaching in regard to marriage (or anything else) requires humble repentance, not acceptance and certainly not brazen defiance.

On this last point I am sure given your recent marriage that we disagree. But the disagreement at least for my part is a respectful one. I understand that not everyone views everything from the perspective that I do and yet we are tasked with maintaining polite company. One of the great things about America is that living together politely typically means that when disagreements like this arise we settle them with a simple vote. Then, even if some choose to continue the discussion while others bow out, we agree to live with the outcome. It does not seem too much to ask.

If you are ever in the Fredericksburg, Virginia area feel free to stop in and visit on a Sunday morning. Bring your wife and kids if you like. You will be warmly welcomed and although I do not drink the stuff I am told we have decent coffee. Of course membership, for now at least, probably is not an option. You understand of course; we would not ask you to accede to something so personal as the above without believing in it yourself. Besides, 1,300 miles is a rather long weekly commute. But should you desire further explanation or want to know more of what I think please save the subpoenas. All you need to do is ask. Better yet, go ahead and subscribe to my blog.

Sincerely,

Timothy A. Habecker

 

*City of Houston, Texas, Ordinance No. 2014-513. Sec. 17-122(a)(2). Accessed October 16, 2014 at http://www.houstontx.gov/equal_rights_ordinance.pdf.

Things I Don't Need to Experience

BillyThere are a lot of things that I am happy to have never had to experience. This occurred to me recently as I and my family were visiting my brother-in-law and his wife. Billy, that's him in the picture) is a career soldier with the United States Army. His wife Ching serves in the United States Navy and conveniently they are both stationed in Hawaii. They rented us a tidy little cottage maintained by the Department of Defense at the edge of Barber's Point, a Coast Guard Air Station on the southwestern corner of Oahu. Our back door opened up to about 15 yards of beach and the Pacific Ocean, a view which I spent plenty of time lazily staring at throughout our visit. As I faced southward in my plastic deck chair, keeping watch over the surfers and anticipating the next seal to swim ashore for a nap in the sun, oil tankers and cruise ships drifted across the horizon. About 25 miles to my left against the backdrop Diamond Head the Honolulu skyline glistened in the sun. The crashing of the waves drowned out almost every other noise, the exception being the occasional military aircraft performing training exercises. Further out over the ocean a steady stream of commercial jetliners flew in and out of the capital city.

While watching the distant planes descending and rising slowly out of the city I realized that closer to Honolulu but almost halfway between my deck chair and the tallest hotel in town, and very close to the airport, there is an inlet known as Pearl Harbor. On a quiet December Sunday in 1941 that inlet was of course the site of a surprise attack upon the United States by the Japanese, meant to draw America into World War II...and it worked. In the space of a few hours the Pacific Fleet was decimated. More importantly 2,403 Americans were killed. So I sat, in my deck chair, trying to imagine what it would have been like to have been in that spot 72 years and 3 and a half months earlier, to witness swarms of enemy aircraft approaching overhead and suddenly realize that the serene ocean served only to disguise other swarms of submarines and torpedoes. I tried to imagine the noise, the sounds, and the feeling of the vibrations from explosion after sickening explosion. I tried to imagine watching helplessly, from that point, as plumes of thick black smoke towered into the air.

I couldn't imagine it. I'm glad that I don't have to.

No doubt the closest thing to Pearl Harbor that I have experienced in my lifetime occurred on September 11, 2001. Five months after our wedding I'd gotten up, sent my wife off to school where she taught, and settled down to do some reading. It was a beautiful day and it never occurred to me to ruin it by turning on the television or radio. Thus it came as quite a shock when I received a call from the office alerting me to the fact that all hell had broken loose just 50 miles north of our apartment. "You need to get to the church now. We're calling people who work in or near the Pentagon to make sure they're okay!"

The point is that as human beings we have the capacity to do horrible stuff to one another. Certainly the United States of America and members of its military have also been proven capable of injustice. None of us, despite all our striving, is above reproach. Yet most of us haven't come face to face with the horrifying circumstances or had to deal directly with the most serious consequences of madness, injustice, and war. While I came a little closer to 9/11 than I would have preferred I still count myself fortunate to not have experienced the loss of any friends or loved ones in that or any other such melee. Billy has come close to being counted in those ranks, but he's managed to make it home from every one of his tours to Iraq and other places, though not without some scratches, broken bones, and a few horrible memories I'm sure he prefers not to talk about in the company of civilians. I'm glad to have never been any closer than 50 miles or my imagination to the sights and sounds of war. The grace of God affords me this luxury and the United States Armed Forces, a group of which I have no desire to be a part, is in large part the means by which God provides this particular grace to me.

If and when you go to church this Sunday, please make no mistake. Worship services are meant to honor God and reflect upon the grace of Jesus Christ, giving thanks for the gift of the Holy Spirit. They are not to be established for the glory of men or women. However, supposing that many ministers (including probably, me) will in some way, shape, or form acknowledge in a special way on Memorial Day Weekend the service of those in uniform, it is altogether appropriate and indeed necessary to express gratitude to them and ultimately to God for the sacrifices that these public servants are willing to make on our behalf. Whether the individual serviceman or servicewoman understands it or not, is there anything more Christ-like than one's willingness to give his or her very life in order to protect most of us from even having to think about such matters as these?

 

The Second Sunday of Every May

Anna Jarvis

From Morgantown US-119 winds south through the mountains, valleys, and "hollers" of West Virginia. After about 25 miles of curves and hairpin turns, just as the nausea is about to become overwhelming, there's a stoplight...and a McDonald's, followed by a series of several stoplights. It's enough to make you believe the promise of urbanization lies within reach, but as you pass through Grafton, West Virginia you realize it is a place that time has mostly forgotten. The town remains much the way it was in the '70's besides the fact that most of the people are gone, having moved north to places like Wheeling or Canton, maybe even Pittsburgh. Nonetheless route 119 continues undaunted, proceeding boldly over the tracks and out the other end of town several more miles through a small hamlet known as Webster.

Though once a whistle stop on the B&O the trains no longer stop in Webster. In fact now it's barely worth a whistle. The rail line, presently dedicated to lumbering freights pulling coal from the mountains to the coast, runs along the western side of the highway. On the east is a tiny cluster of modest homes including one that remains very much the way it appeared in the '70's...the 1870's. No one lives there any longer, but it was once the home of Anna Jarvis.

Anna was born in May of 1864 on the tail end of the American Civil War. She was number ten in a line of thirteen children, seven of which had died prior to her birth in what by local standards is a large wood frame house barely 20 yards off the main thoroughfare. Perhaps the unfortunate survival rate of her siblings had something to do with Anna's family moving up the pike to more established Grafton several years later. Anna dutifully attended Sunday school at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church on Main Street (now US-119) under the tutelage of her mother Ann. Apparently it was during the course of one of those Sunday school lessons that Ann first spoke wistfully of the idea of a day to commemorate the service of mothers to society.

No doubt Anna must have been an attentive student. As most children do she grew up and began charting her own course. Her first stop after Grafton was Staunton, Virginia where she studied for two years at an institution now known as Mary Baldwin College. Following that she took a job as a bank teller in Chattanooga for one year before heading north of the Mason-Dixon line and landing in Philadelphia. Despite all her moves she continued faithfully corresponding with Mom. Anna's father died in 1902 and two years later Ann reluctantly moved from Grafton to Philly in order to be reunited with her daughter. She died a year later on May 9, 1905, but Anna remembered well her lessons from years earlier.

Three years after her mother's death Anna organized a memorial service to be held at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church to honor her and all mothers. Anna herself did not attend, but remained in Philadelphia where apparently she delivered a moving speech on the floor of John Wanamaker's department store. It was May 10, 1908 and Mother's Day was born. It, like Anna had years before, quickly took on a life of its own. The rapid commercialization of the annual event got on Anna Jarvis' nerves, leading her to express her displeasure. Apparently she is remembered to have said, "A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world." Anna never benefited from the profits her commemorative invention would eventually generate for others. She died in 1948 having never married or had any children herself. 

On May 13, 2007, Mother's Day, my wife for all intents and purposes though not officially became a mother. I was on my third trip to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, hanging drywall. There was a phone call that Friday followed by a flurry of phone calls, then twelve hours later she was on a flight to meet a baby girl with no name. The next day, Mother's Day, she assumed temporary custody until the adoption was final. Two weeks later I joined them. Suddenly we were a family slumming off my sister-in-law on the opposite end of the country for the better part of a month.

Just a few days ago, on Mother's Day, we celebrated our daughter's seventh birthday. After seven years observing my wife as a mom I think I may have finally come to some slight understanding of the grief that I put my own mother through, not the least of which was in 1998 when I led her on a long drive west from Mountville, Pennsylvania. Eventually we went down US-119 in West Virginia, past Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church and the birthplace of Anna Jarvis, even deeper into the backwoods of Appalachia. There in front of a ramshackle, insect infested trailer with odorous tap water she and Dad left me, my pickup truck, and a dog to begin figuring out our own way in the world. What was to follow was the most difficult six months of my life. She was so upset by the conditions of the place and it's surroundings. It was the only time to that point that I had ever seen her cry.

Of course last week I sent her a printed card...that my wife had picked up at the store.

In my defense I also called. In any case I'm sure I fell well short of the expectations Anna Jarvis had in mind when she organized the inaugural Mother's Day. Nonetheless my mom is pretty gracious. She has been putting up with my antics for quite some time now, becoming accustomed to some of them. On her last visit I even took to criticizing her reading choice based on the lame theology it represented. I told her that even if she does read The Shack I still love her (just remember it's not an accurate explanation of the Trinity!). More remarkably, she still loves me...mostly I'm convinced because my wife and my kids are so cool. But I'll still take it. In any case if it's true that "a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised" (Prov. 31:30) then Mom is due a lot more than just a printed card and a phone call or even the second Sunday of every May.