Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Creating Hospitable Space

During the season of Lent, our congregation at Mount Vernon Place piloted a program for the Fund for Theological Education. The program, VoCARE, is designed to help congregations notice, name and nurture the gifts of God in each individual. We gathered each Monday night to take time to listen, ask self-awakening questions and reflect theologically.

For our listening, we were guided by a series of "Touchstones for Creating Hospitable Space." These touchstones were adapted by Parker Palmer's Center for Courage and Renewal and offer such grace and guidance.

This morning, in the midst of thinking about how best to create dialogue in our denomination over very contentious issues, these touchstones surfaced again. I wonder how different our conversations would be if we were guided by these touchstones.

1) Be 100% Present, extending and presuming welcome. Set aside the usual distractions of things undone from yesterday, things to do tomorrow. Welcome others into this place and presume you are welcome as well.

2) Listen deeply. Listen intently to what is said, listen to feelings beneath the words. As Quaker Douglas Steere writes, 'To listen another's soul into life, into a condition of disclosure and discovery - may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.'

3) It is never 'share or die.' You will be invited to share in pairs, small groups, and in large circle. The invitation is exactly that. You will determine the extent to which you want to participate.

4) No fixing. We are not here to set someone else straight or to help right another's wrong. We are here to witness to God's movement in the sacred stories we share.

5) Suspend judgment. Set aside your judgments. By creating a space between judgments and reactions, we can listen to another person, and to ourselves, more fully.

6) Identify assumptions. By identifying our assumptions, which are usually transparent, we can set them aside and open the sharing and learning to greater possibilities.

7) Speak your truth. You are invited to say what is in your heart, trusting that your voice will be heard and your contribution respected. A helpful practice is to use 'I' statements.

8) Practice confidentiality care. We create a safe space by respecting the nature and content of stories shared. If anyone asks that a story shared be kept in confidence, the group will honor that request.

9) Turn to wonder. If you find yourself disagreeing with another, becoming judgmental, or shutting down in defense, try turning to wonder: 'I wonder what brought her to this place?' 'I wonder what my reaction teaches me?' 'I wonder what he's feeling right now?'

Monday, March 29, 2010

T-Shirt Sales

If I were in Durham today, I would have been one of the first people in line to buy a new t-shirt. I don't need a new t-shirt. Still, I would have gone to the Duke Store to pick out my favorite NCAA Men's Final Four shirt. I've stood in line at the Duke Store often on Mondays like this - eager to support the Blue Devils in a tangible way. I'm not in Durham, however, and I am still trying to figure out if $6.50 for shipping is too much for a $17.95 t-shirt.

The scene at the Duke Store today will be matched on three other college campuses across the country. Individuals will have lined up in at West Virginia, Butler, and Michigan State. I am willing to bet that all but one of the schools were prepared for the madness associated with a Final Four appearance. Most of the schools have been there before. But, this is an entirely new game for Butler.

I hope the folks at Butler are prepared for the attention that will come their way. Not only will thousands of dollars be pumped into the University in exchange for t-shirts and hats, but the admissions office will see a spike, too. Prospective students who never before considered going to Butler will call or email, requesting an application and more information. The website will get more hits than it has before. People, like myself, will now know that Butler is in Indianapolis, a fact we never knew before.

I spent four years as the Director of Admissions at Duke Divinity School. When I first arrived in this position in 2001, I quickly learned the value of a NCAA National Men's Championship. The statistics prior to my arrival showed that some of the best years in terms of applications and prospective student inquiries were in 1991 and 1992. Coincidence? I think not. These years were the years that Duke first won the NCAA Championship. I was rather fortunate to start this job in 2001, just as the men had won another championship. I came in with interest peaking and people calling the Divinity School from all over.

When I shared these statistics with my father, my dad laughed. He did not really believe me. He could not understand how the Divinity School could benefit from a men's undergraduate tournament championship. I literally had to show him the statistical report for him to believe me. And, I have not forgotten the value of such a victory. A trip to the Final Four is invaluable to a school. Schools could never afford the advertising fees it would take to get as much attention as they get with a trip to the Final Four. A championship is more priceless than Master Card could ever explain.

When a team, a team of a dozen or so students does really well, their school benefits. All it takes is for one of the many teams a university has to do exceeding well and the school sees unbelievable results.

But why am I writing about this?

I'm writing because I think the church can learn a similar lesson.

In Acts 2, we have a beautiful picture of the early church. In this picture, we see Peter preaching a powerful message. In response to his message, people ask what they are to do. Peter responds that they are to repent and live a changed life. And the people keep coming. They keep observing the life of the early believers. They see the early believers take what they have and share it with anyone who has a need. They see the early believers worship, celebrating God's presence in their midst. And, they see countless signs and wonders being done among this group. As a result, thousands of new coverts are added daily to the number of those who are being saved.

It was a small group who lived their faith exceedingly well. It was a small group who took their discipleship seriously. It was a small group that radiated the message of Jesus Christ. And as a result of this small group, countless individuals wanted to be part of the church. All it took was a small group of committed people really living out their faith, and the number of people doing the same grew.

I am convinced that if we as Christians were constantly striving to do the same, then something similar would happen to our churches. If we love like Christ, then people cannot help but to sense the wondrous love of Christ through our lives. If we forgive like Christ, not just once but seventy times seven times, then people cannot help but to be curious about the power that enables us to do this, just as many of us were completely captivated by the Amish community following the school house shooting a few years ago. If we accept others like Christ, then others will be able to see something extraordinary - something remarkable - something that is worth taking a second look at.

There have been days at the Duke Athletic Department that were not all that good. Not long ago, there was a lacrosse scandal that captured the attention of the entire country. At the time, many people looked down on Duke. Many people questioned whether it was the right school for them.

The same thing happens to the church. All it takes is for one person to claim they are a Christian and do something awful in order for ten people to be sent away. For some people, one story of hypocrisy can send a dozen people away. For other people, the way we feel about a particular group of people can send a multitude away. The church's tendency to be judgmental, hypocritical and anti-homosexual have placed a huge dent in the church. If you don't believe me, pick up a copy of the book, "UnChristian: What a New Generation Things about Christianity and Why it Matters."

What we do matters. What we do not do matters. People are watching us all the time. A small group of committed folks can bring in a hundred more. A small group of not so loving folks can send away a thousand.

What does your life say about Christ? What does our discipleship say about our church? Are others coming because of the light radiating from our lives?

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Golden Rule

A few months ago, I was attending a meeting in Columbia, Maryland. When I walked out to find my car in the very crowded parking lot, I noticed a note on it. "Please forgive me. I accidently hit your car and broke the light cover. Here is my insurance information."

I was so stunned to see the note. I suppose my faith in common humanity is not that high - not high enough to expect someone who hit my car to leave a note. The damage was minimal. A tail light cover was cracked. The entire cost of repair was around $150 when the insurance check arrived. It was a small thing. Yet, the gesture was invaluable.

My car has been swiped numerous times. Parking in an underground garage is not always good for a car. In an effort to make money, garage operators typically seek to fill the garage as full as possibly. My bumpers and a few other places on my car show the impact of parking in such a place for several years now. No one else has ever left a note when they have swiped my car or my bumper. But this person did. This person recognized what he did and got out of his car, leaving his entire insurance card on my windshield.

This afternoon, I was running errands. When I finished grocery shopping, I stopped at the Post Office to mail a couple of packages. The parking spot that was available was a parallel parking spot on the driver's side - not always a side I am accustomed to parking on, and the spot was rather tight. While parking my car, I accidently scratched the car in front of me. It is a small scratch - but it is a scratch, nonetheless. My first reaction was to listen to my heart beating. My second reaction was to wonder what to do. I paused for a few moments, and then I remembered what the other person had done for me. I got out of my car and stuck my business card on the windshield with a note explaining how I had bumped the car. I apologized. I then got in my car and drove home. I now wait for the person to call.

What I did today was not easy. It would have been so much easier to look around, conclude that no one saw me bump another car, and then continue on my way. It would have been easier to pretend that nothing happened and to go about my day. Yet, the person who left a note on my car showed me what is right. He went out of his way to demonstrate integrity and honesty by acknowledging his mistake.

I wonder. I wonder how much different this world would be if everyone reacted like the person who hit my car a few months ago. What would be different in this world if we readily admitted our mistakes, our shortcomings, our failures - no matter how costly the mistake? What if we all sought to do what is right - when people are looking and when no one is looking?

I have screwed up so many times and found it easier to seek to move on with my life instead of confronting my shortcomings. And while I can pretend to have buried these shortcomings or failures deep in the ground, they still have a way of resurfacing at times.

Today, I bumped a car. I scratched the bumper of someone's Honda Accord. I hate that I did it, and I don't think many people will even notice it. But, just in case...just in case, I left a note. I admitted my mistake. I asked the person to call so I can apologize and take care of it.

Thank you driver in Columbia, Maryland who hit my car. Thank you for restoring my faith in common humanity. Thank you for teaching me how to respond in similar situations.

It was one of the first things I ever learned in school. Always do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Monday, March 22, 2010

60 Miles to Solitude

I'm back from spending four full days in solitude. Last Monday afternoon, I arrived at Holy Cross Abbey a few minutes after 4:00 in the afternoon. I consumed two chapters of one book before dinner at 6:15 and was in bed by 9:30. A pattern of days centered on rest, prayer, long walks, contemplation, and reading would continue until I left the monastery on Thursday evening. While the abbey is a mere 60 miles from my home, it might as well be a million miles from Washington. Each year, I savor my time there, and each year, I return home having learned many lessons from the monks and the lifestyle they live at Holy Cross.

In a nutshell, this is what I learned:

1) Mountains are one of God's greatest creative works. Time in the valley of the Shenandoah Mountains reminds me often why the Psalmist was led to write, "I lift my eyes to the Hills, from where comes my help. My help comes from the Lord."

2) There is something wonderful about being tucked in by your husband every night at home. At the abbey, there is something wonderful about offering the same prayers each night before being sprinkled with holy water. Each night, the monks offer the same prayer, "God, grant us a restful night and a peaceful death." They are then given a tangible sign of God's presence through the water, a gift of being able to remember their baptism each evening.

3) I read a total of seven books last week. I consumed some of them and pondered others. I read some of them at a snail's pace and devoured others like they were chocolate. After reading these books, I could not help but to start putting sermon ideas down on paper. I am convinced, once again, that reading a lot is one of the best gifts I can give my congregation. Pastors should always make time for reading. We cannot keep our preaching fresh and full and faithful without it.

4) There is something about the sound of monks chanting. I hope and pray that heaven is filled with the sound of Gregorian chant. In the meantime, this part of worship at the abbey is, by far, my favorite part. I'll return again and again just to hear them chant their prayers to God.

5) I can come up with a million excuses for why I do not exercise. But, at the abbey I walked at least an hour each day. The exercise gave me more energy than I have had in a long time. Why do I not spend at least an hour exercising at home?

6) The monks gather for prayer and worship at 3:30 a.m., 7:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m., 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. We should all worship and pray this often.

7) The monks eat their larger meal at noon and then have a simple, often vegetarian meal at dinner. I like this pattern.

8) Solitude is nothing, and solitude is everything. All of us should take time to go away and rest for a while.

Thank you, God, for the gift of last week. I am so grateful and ready now to journey with you and these people through the waving of Palms on Palm Sunday, the remembrance of your last meal on Holy Thursday, the agony of the cross on Good Friday, and the celebration of the resurrection on Easter. Thank you, God, for rest, for renewal, and for a husband who not only allows but also encourages time away for these gifts. Amen.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Return to Me

"Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing." John 2:12 - 13.

Stacks of carefully selected clothing are piled neatly on top of the bed this morning - a couple pair of jeans, several pairs of socks, a pair of sweats, my favorite flannel pajamas, several t-shirts, one sweatshirt and two sweaters. Along with the clothing, there are stacks of books everywhere. A large bag in the car already holds about twenty books that I pulled from my office shelves yesterday afternoon. Sitting in front of me is a stack that includes Thomas Merton's "Book of Hours," Colon and Field's "Singled Out," Escamilla's "Longing for Enough in a Culture of More," Braestrup's "Here if You Need Me," Gawande's "The Checklist Manifesto," Miles "Jesus Freak," Cohen's "My Jesus Year," and Okrant's "Living Oprah." The later two will be read and compared, with the thinking of how differently we can pattern our days. The others will be read for both enjoyment and mental stimulation while always keeping an eye out for the possible sermon series to feed myself and the people who gather for worship at Mount Vernon Place.

After a trip to the gym this morning and lunch with my beloved friend and God-daughter in Reston, I'll continue along the road journeying West until I arrive at what has become my favorite part of Lent - five days at Holy Cross Abbey, a monastery sustained by brothers who make creamed honey and fruitcakes as well as hosting weary disciples longing for rest.

It is at this place that I return to the Lord not with a few moments of the day but with everything that I have for a few days. I allow the noise of a stream to invigorate me instead of the sounds of NPR or the Today Show. I allow my updates to come from the pages of scripture instead of from logging onto Facebook a half-a-dozen times a day. I allow my sustenance to come from simple meals consumed in silence instead of from what is boxed and frozen in my work refrigerator or easy to cook for my husband and me after returning home from a long day. I allow my mind to be filled with good things - with creative thoughts for the sermon series that will happen in the year ahead, with wonder of how the Lord is working in my life, with words of praise and thanksgiving for all God has done, with the prayers of the Psalmists spoken from memory by the brothers who gather for prayer several times a day. I'll long for the end of the day, when the abbot will sprinkle me with holy water once more, bidding goodnight with a tangible reality of God's presence in the darkness. I'll allow my fingertips to touch the holy water each time I walk into the chapel for prayer, remembering my baptism each time.

In the next five days, I'll take long walks with no particular end in sight. I'll go to bed early and rise early on some days and later on other days. I'll read scripture, journal often, and find myself staring at a wooden cross in my room where Jesus is still hanging, pondering the meaning and significance of it all, realizing that the moment on the cross and especially the triumph over the grave are the most amazing acts in all of history. I'll seek guidance and direction from God for how I am called to continue to lead the people I have been called to serve. I'll pray for the needs of others. I'll go to the bookstore and stock up on cards that can be mailed in the months ahead. I'll allow my mind to turn to praise, to wonder, to confession, to gratitude, to direction, to the future.

This week is the week in which I most am able to return to the Lord, allowing God to really search me and me to really search for God.

I'm ready. I'm ready to return to the Lord with not just a part - but with all my heart. Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Preaching for Change

Who, Me?
Exodus 3:1-12 and Luke 10:25-37
March 7, 2010

It was February 1, 1960. I can imagine that the counter at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina had experienced a rather typical day: a few cups of coffee had been spilled, the sugar container had been emptied and refilled three times, and residue from a customer’s bacon and eggs was still on the edge of the counter. It was an ordinary day that became extraordinary when four African American college students studying nearby walked in and sat down. Today, we know that their peaceful demonstration led to change. As a result of their sitting down and countless others following them on the same stools, change came. The counter at Woolworth’s was open to all people six months later. Four people sat down in order to stand up for what they believed was right, paving the ways for thousands of others to have equal rights.

In a piece that aired on NPR, Franklin McCain, one of the four men who first sat down, remembered the many emotions that went through his head on that Monday afternoon. He shared how fifteen seconds after sitting down he "had the most wonderful feeling. I had a feeling of liberation, restored manhood. I had a natural high. And I truly felt almost invincible. Mind you, [I was] just sitting on a dumb stool and not having asked for service yet." McCain continued, "It's a feeling that I don't think that I'll ever be able to have again. It's the kind of thing that people pray for … and wish for all their lives and never experience it. And I felt as though I wouldn't have been cheated out of life had that been the end of my life at that second or that moment."[1]

The person who has had the most profound impact on my life is a former bishop in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa named Peter Storey. I was Dr. Storey’s student for two semesters where I was able to sit at his feet and hear stories of similar resistance. I have heard countless stories about the efforts of clergy and laypeople to fight against the evils of apartheid in South Africa. Dr. Storey was appointed to very large, all-white church at the height of apartheid. It did not take him long to start pushing the boundaries in that church. He started to question why the congregation was going along with the status quo of both the government policies and the church’s Discipline instead of living like Christ. He started to preach the gospel – a gospel without walls. Soon, more than half the congregation left. The worship services that were broadcasted across the nation were yanked from the airwaves. But Dr. Storey kept on preaching.

When it came to marriage, Dr. Storey was strictly forbidden from marrying a white person and a black person. It was something that the government and his church forbid him from doing. It was an offense that was punishable with time in jail. But, Dr. Storey did not listen to the government or to his church’s teaching. He listened instead to the voice of Jesus crying out from the pages of scripture – to the voice of a savior who said that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to proclaim release to the captives.

This week, much of my attention has been captured by the momentous change that happened in our city when 151 couples arrived at the city courthouse to apply for a license to marry. On Wednesday, not only men and women were allowed to sign on the dotted line, getting the paperwork needed to stand and say, “I vow to be with you always,” but on Wednesday, this right to marry was given to all couples who are committed to being together in good times and in bad times, for richer for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do them part.

I’ve wrestled a lot this week because as a United Methodist pastor, I am strictly forbidden from presiding over a same-sex union. But this week, I have wrestled mightily with the words found in the Book of Discipline, the words found in scripture, and my understanding of Jesus Christ. I have also pondered the actions of a colleague and another United Methodist Church in this city who have publicly declared to offer radical hospitality to all people, creating a statement that reads, “Today we affirm that God’s grace is open to all,” and ends with “We will honor and celebrate the wedding of any couple, licensed in the District of Columbia, who seek to commit their lives to one another in marriage.” As I have read this statement and spent hours on the phone this week with other United Methodist Clergy in this city, I have thought about how this colleague is putting it all on the line. And still, there is not a doubt in my mind that God has led her to this place – that she, along with the four people who sat at a counter in Greensboro in 1960, and my colleague Peter Storey who put his very life on the line in order to fight against apartheid, are all following a call of God on their lives.

At the start of Exodus 3, Moses is keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro. Moses and the sheep have wandered far, beyond the wilderness, all the way to the mountain of Horeb. It is here, at the Mountain of God, where Moses sees a burning bush. A voice beckons from this bush, “Moses, Moses.” God then instructs Moses to come no further, to take his sandals off because he is standing on holy ground, and then God names the reality Moses is all too familiar with.

God says, “’I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.’” These words are beautiful words. I can imagine Moses was excited and delighted to hear these words, to know that God had a plan to deliver the people.

But, God does not stop here. God keeps talking.

In verse 10, God says, “’So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’”

Come, Moses.

I am going to send you.

You are going to be the one to lead my people out of Egypt.

I am not sure any of us would welcome these words, and Moses does not either, at least initially.
Moses responds, “’Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’” God then offers the only response that is ever needed, “’I will be with you.’”

God has seen the misery of the people. Moses is familiar with this misery. And God calls Moses by name, appointing him to partner with God, leading the people out of Egypt.

Moses was faced with a challenge. He knew the misery of the people and how they were longing for the Promised Land. Moses was faced with a choice. He could respond to God’s call and do as God said or walk away, remaining a shepherd the rest of his life. But the challenge and the choice presented by God could also have two very different outcomes. The people could, indeed, be led into the land flowing with milk and honey or the people could remain in bondage.

I am convinced that we are surrounded by similar choices today. There are people all around us who have not yet been given access to the land flowing with milk and honey.

I think of individuals who live in this country – immigrants who know no home other than this one – but people who are not able to live fully and freely because they lack the necessary documents required for this freedom.

I think of victims of prostitution who are held under pimp control in a city where the pimp is so often protected from prosecution, rarely arrested, while the victim suffers as she goes from hotel to hotel room and gets arrested while the one holding the keys in his fur coat and sports car with very tinted glass is never arrested.

I think of people who have to choose between food for their children and the prescribed medication for their physical ailment because they lack access to affordable health care.

We who live in this city do not have to go far to discover someone living in bondage – someone yearning for the milk and honey of the Promised Land but faced with the scarcity of the wilderness.

In the story of the Israelites, God knows well the present circumstances of the people, and God is prepared to act decisively. God is prepared to bring the people out of Egypt and into that land of promise. God has a plan, but God cannot execute the plan alone. And this is why humans so often have the precious privilege of being caught up in God’s mighty acts of salvation no matter how scary or daunting or uncertain the act might be.

Walter Brueggemann explains, “In one brief utterance, the grand intention of God has become a specific human responsibility, human obligation, and human vocation. It is Moses who will do what Yahweh said, and Moses who will run the risks that Yahweh seemed ready to take. The connection of God and Moses, of heaven and earth, of great power and dangerous strategy is all carried in the statement ‘I will send you.’ After the massive intrusion of God, the exodus has suddenly become a human enterprise. It is Moses (not God) who will meet with Pharaoh. It is Moses (not God) who will ‘bring out’ ‘my people.’ It is Moses who acts in God’s place to save God’s people. Again, this is the odd joining of God and human history. The joining is done, however, through the vulnerable, risk-taking body of Moses, on whom everything now depends.”[2]

I wonder what would have happened had people in this country not stood up or sat down for an end to racial segregation.

I wonder what would have happened had the church and its leaders, people like Peter Storey, not taken a stance against a nation’s policies in South Africa, decrying time and again that apartheid was wrong.

I wonder what would have happened if pastors like John Rustin had remained silent on the sins of our own denomination – on this church’s policy of standing for slavery instead of saying that all people were and are created equal – that all people are created to be free.

And I wonder. I wonder what will happen when people like my colleague Mary Kay continue to stand up and say that the time has come for the United Methodist Church to stop holding people back from reaching the fullest expression of their humanity, when people like Mary Kay go against the Discipline while others work hard to change the Discipline.

God’s call can be so uncertain at times. And still, I believe we are all called to something. Every single person in this room has a call to do something.

I again quote Walter Brueggemann who writes, “An uncalled life is an autonomous existence in which there is no intrusion, disruption, or redefinition, no appearance or utterance of the Holy. We may imagine in our autonomous existence, moreover, that no one knows our name until we announce it, and no one requires anything of us except that for which we volunteer. The life of Moses in this narrative, as the lives of all people who live in this narrative of faith, is not autonomous. There is this One who knows and calls by name, even while we imagine we are unknown and unsummoned.”[3]

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we have not been called to be autonomous. We are here and our being here is designed to throw us off-kilter. We are here in the presence of God and a fellowship of people who are trying hard to figure out what it really means to be faithful and as a result of our being in such company, we might find our lives being intruded upon or disrupted or redefined. We might experience a change – because this is the kind of God in whose name we worship and in whose presence we stand.

God has come down. God came down and spoke with Moses through a burning bush. And God came down again in the fully incarnate Jesus. Jesus is the one who has called my name. Jesus is the one who has disrupted my life. And Jesus is the one who I believe is still calling us to disrupt the ways of the world and sometimes the ways of our church so that all people can experience the gift of disruption – the gift of seeing chains fall off and bonds loosened.

Who is it that we have left on the side of the road?

Who is it that is not yet free?

What is God saying to us – to you, to me, and to all of us as a congregation – on this day?
[2] Walter Brueggemann, New Interpreters Bible, Volume 1, Nashville: Abingdon, 1994, 713.
[3] Brueggemann, 719

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Amazing Grace

As part of my Lenten discipline, I have been seeking to incorporate different readings into my morning devotional time. As a result, I have discovered new treasures. A book by Ann Weems titled, "Putting the Amazing Back in Grace," has quickly surfaced to the place of favorite. This morning, I was particularly struck by these words:

I was warned years ago that nobody likes
poetry and certainly nobody buys it!
What worried me then, what worries me
still, is how easily we in the church
forget the poetry of God,
how easily we in the church
extract the amazing from grace,
how easily we turn
Hosanna into ho-hum and
belief into bureaucracy and
righteousness into rules.
Addicted to our agendas,
bound to our budgets, we fail to
remember that the Love of God
is written upon our hearts...,
not in the Book of Order.
When we worship process,
we obliterate poetry.
We cover our eyes and our ears
against the beautiful red words,
the amazing words of the Word.
Jesus told the people to love their enemies,
and the people were amazed.
He told them to have compassion for strangers,
and the people were amazed.
He overturned the tables of the moneychangers,
and the people were amazed.
He told them to pray for those who persecuted them,
and the people were amazed.
He told them to set the captives free,
and the people were amazed.
He broke the rules, and healed on the Sabbath,
and the people were amazed.
While we in the church are spending
our energy on arguing,
who will bind the wounds?
And who will free the oppressed?
And who will feed his sheep?

Ann Weems, Putting the Amazing Back in Grace, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999, 9-10.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Heartbroken Between a Rock and a Hard Place

It's a great day to be a resident of the District of Columbia. On this day, countless couples are lining the steps of a courthouse a few blocks from the church with $35 dollars in hand to exchange what once seemed like only a dream for a new reality. On this day, countless individuals are being given the precious privilege of doing exactly what I did nearly two years ago when I went into a room in Durham, North Carolina, clinging to the hand of my fiance, in order to apply for a marriage license. No one looked at me twice on that day. And on this day, many of my dear friends are being given the same opportunity. On this day, the District of Columbia has proudly taken a stand to allow all people in committed relationships to marry - whether they are of the same sex or opposite sexes. It is a great day to be a resident of the District of Columbia. But, it is the most painful day, to date, that I have experienced as a United Methodist pastor.

I am heartbroken between a rock and a hard place.

With all of my heart, I believe that all people should be given the same rights I have been given. I believe that my gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered brothers and sisters should be able to marry, and I believe they should be able to lead a church, to be able to answer and respond to the claim God has placed upon so many of them when God called them, spoke out loud their names, inviting them to enter ordained ministry.

The God who called my name is one I know best as Jesus. When I read the scriptures, the thing I love most about Jesus is his ability to encounter all people - meeting them right where they are. Whether it was a woman at a well who had been married several times and was living with a man who was not her husband or tax collectors or hypocrites, Jesus was able to encounter people exactly where they were, calling them by name, changing and transforming their lives forever. When Jesus had a word of criticism to speak, he spoke more about rich people than anyone else. He was always going to the margins, and he has taken me to the margins so many times. I love Jesus' ability to see - to really see people just as God has created them to be.

I have preached several times on homosexuality and the Bible. You can read one of my sermons here and another one here. I have preached several times about how I feel about people who are gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual. I have preached many times about how I completely disagree with my own church's teaching on this subject. And today - today I cannot be silent. Today I want to shout it from the balcony of my office that the United Methodist Church is behind, wrong, and lagging when it comes to being the prophetic church it once was and the prophetic church I believe Jesus is calling us to be.

You see, the Book of Discipline of my church clearly states that I, as an ordained United Methodist pastor, "can be tried when charged with one or more of the following offenses: (a) immorality including but not limited to, not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in heterosexual marriage, (b) practices incompatible with Christian teachings, including but not limited to: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions; or performing same-sex weddings ceremonies..." Paragraph 2702, 2008 Book of Discipline.

These words make me cringe. These words, along with words that state how homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, make me want to scream, to protest, to go running to another denomination or to an independent church. At times, these words make me want to hang up my ordination altogether and start selling real estate or go into the wedding planning business.

But...I love being a pastor. And...I love being a pastor in the United Methodist Church.

Serving as a pastor in this denomination is the only thing I can imagine doing with my life. This church is the one that baptized me, the one that taught me the stories of Jesus, the one that confirmed me, the one that cultivated my gifts, the one that ordained me, and the one that has enabled me to flourish in ordained ministry. This church, the United Methodist Church, is the church I love. I love our emphasis on grace, our belief that grace is infused in all people whether they believe it or not. I love how our table is open to all people - how the Lord's Supper is a means of grace and can be a converting ordinance. I love our connectional system - our structure of being appointed and guided by bishops while also being in relationship with other churches around the globe. I love the United Methodist Committee on Relief - an organization that was in Haiti long before the earthquake and one that will remain there long after others have packed their bags and returned home. I love the teachings of our founder, John Wesley - his commitment to the poor and those in the margins, his commitment to seeing this church not as something that would be static but as something that would be a movement, his commitment to stand against slavary long before others were standing against it. I love the sense of practical divinity - how our faith is to be lived out in all we do and all we are. I love this church.

But, on this day, I am heartbroken - heartbroken between a rock and a hard place.

Earlier this week, I was meeting with one of our candidates for ordained ministry. She came floating in my office, sharing as if she had just read one of the most amazing novels ever. But, she had not been reading a novel. Rather, she had been reading the Social Principles of our denomination. She had read our church's understanding of countless different issues ranging from crime to military service to slavary to abortion to church and state relations. She shared how she was so surprised to find what she read. She was so surprised to discover how progressive our denomination is - how progressive we are "on everything but homosexuality."

When Jesus first stood in the temple, he unrolled the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and shared how the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to "preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free." I believe Jesus is still in this business. Our church, however, is holding some people captive, pulling them back from being the fullness of who they were created to be. Our church has lost some of its progressive power - its prophetic witness.

God, please continue to grant me your spirit of discernment in knowing what it means to faithfully be a disciple of your son, Jesus Christ. God, please be with our church and all who will next have the power to change our Book of Discipline. God, please enable us all to seek to listen and hear one another. God, please show us what it means to be your body. Please always guide my path, showing me when I should be faithful to you and when I should be faithful to a denomination. Amen.