Monday, June 18, 2012
Bowing to Nebuchadnezzar vs. Dancing with God
My calendar is open for most Saturdays in August this summer. I love making extra money from weddings. Wedding money is what we have used for vacations and time away from the city. But I'm not emotionally available this summer.
The request to officiate their wedding came during a week when I heard God clearly speaking to me. I found it too painful to say "yes" to presiding at a wedding for a couple I don't know - people who want to use our beautiful sanctuary in downtown Washington - when I cannot say "yes" to couples who come to this sanctuary every Sunday - not for its beauty but to encounter and serve a living God.
When God calls me, God tends to speak rather clearly. The first time I heard God's call was in April of 1996 while chaperoning a group of young United Methodists from the Baltimore Washington Conference on a United Nations Seminar in NYC. It was a remarkable four days in Manhattan, and I heard God inviting me to consider going to seminary instead of law school. God used those four days and a prayer at the end of the journey to awaken me to the possibility of a life of ordained ministry instead of a life in the political arena of Washington. I returned to Washington, started looking at seminaries, enrolled in Duke Divinity School in the fall of 1997 and have never looked back.
God's call was not as easy to respond to the second time it reverberated across my ears, heart and mind. It was on a Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope in South Africa in the summer of 2004. We had spent two weeks experiencing places of deep pain caused by apartheid in South Africa from District Six to Soweto to Robben Island and countless places in between. Mixed in with the pain was an abundance of hope - hope born through the church's witness of standing up in the face of evil and injustice. The pilgrimage changed my life. I found myself praying a prayer, "God, please take me out of my place of comfort and success. Please help me to be more prophetic. Please give me a heart for hurting and broken people." I then remember my mentor, Peter Storey, praying for me one night, asking God to give me the courage to accept the new call on my life. I returned home to tell a bewildered seminary dean that it would be my last year on his administrative staff. I would be resigning a position I had excelled in and mastered in order to go back to the local church. I had no idea then that I would end up at Mount Vernon Place UMC. When I got to MVP, it was anything but an easy appointment. It was far from comfortable. It was the first place where people vocally told me they would not mind if I left. It was God's call that came in South Africa that kept me faithfully working when I wanted to quit many times and do anything but be the pastor at Mount Vernon Place. Seven years later, I would not trade where I am for anywhere else in the world.
God's call is getting harder and riskier now.
God's call clearly came to me again when I was on retreat this past Lent. A book I was reading kept referencing the biblical book of Daniel. I could not remember the last time I read the book of Daniel. I was moved to grab my Bible, go outside, and sit in the spring sunlight as I read again the story of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. I was seeking all the while to find inspiration for a sermon series. What I found instead was God telling me that it is time to move - time to act - time to respond.
It's a story we may remember being told as children. We used to sing songs about the fiery furnace. But I did not remember the details.
King Nebuchadnezzar is a powerful man whose power is threatened by a dream that only Daniel can interpret. Nebuchadnezzar hears from Daniel that other kingdoms will arise - kingdoms more powerful than the one over which Nebuchadnezzar rules. These kingdoms will have the power to crush Nebuchadnezzar's kingdom. It's a threatening interpretation - particularly for anyone with insecurities - and Nebuchadnezzar cannot handle it. He builds a huge golden statue and requires all people in the land to bow down before it. But Daniel and his friends refuse to bow down to this false sense of power - to this false god. "...We will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up," they explain to the king.
The king cannot stand the thought of anyone failing to worship the statue and pay homage to him. So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are thrown into a fire that is burning seven times hotter than normal. The fire is so hot that the men who throw them into the fire are consumed. Raging flames kill those who toss the men into the fire designed to consume those who have gone against the king. But nothing happens to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. The fire has no power over them. Even more, the three men are joined in the fire by another figure - an angel. When I read this part, I imagine these three men dancing with God. God shows up, God protects them, and God dances in delight because the men have been faithful to God and not Nebuchadnezzar.
Remember, I have been reading this story while on a spiritual retreat, sitting on a porch with the sunlight kissing my skin. And it is at this point that I start to weep. It is here in the story where God speaks to me. My first thought was to pray - to pray that our denomination's General Conference would have the courage and capacity to change our Book of Discipline when it comes to the language we use to describe LGBT people and the limits placed on a pastor's ability to minister and care for LGBT people. I nearly got down on my knees on the cement patio to pray. And then I kept pondering the passage and the voice I had heard. I'm still pondering this experience now that General Conference is well over, leaving us more hopeless than hopeful when it comes to the church's Discipline.
I believe with my whole heart that the United Methodist Church is feeling threatened. We are spending thousands of dollars trying to discern how to attract new disciples to our churches, particularly young adults. We are about to invest millions of dollars to call and equip a new generation of young clergy. At the same time, we are telling extraordinarily gifted young people that they cannot be ordained if they are gay or lesbian - unless they choose to stay in the closet. We are also telling thousands of United Methodists that they are incompatible. One delegate even used the word "beastiality" to describe homosexuality on the floor of General Conference in Tampa.
Meanwhile, many churches are flourishing. Our church, with an average worship attendance of less than 100 people, was named as an example of a small vital church. We are vital, and we are growing. And, we are welcoming all people. Approximately 25% of our worshipping congregation is LGBT. We are boldly seeking to minister and welcome all people. We take seriously the Discipline's command to change and adapt as your church's community changes. We have changed a lot. God has done great things in our church. But welcoming people is not enough. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Part of my call as a pastor is to love my church members as much as I love myself.
Next week, I'll celebrate my fourth anniversary of marriage. The last four years of marriage have been filled with blessings. I cannot imagine going through life without Craig. Though both of us are far from perfect, we have found a way to share life in such a way that eases one's burden and sprinkles delight onto each day. No matter what a day holds, I always have someone to come home to. No matter how stormy a night might be, there is always someone to cling to in the middle of a night. No matter how challenging the journey might be, there is always a hand I can take as I keep walking. Together, we are more financially stable, more spiritually mature and more of the people who God has created us to be. We are far more together than we could ever be on our own. Notice I wrote nothing about sex. Our marriage is so much more than sex. Our relationship is so much more than what we so often reduce same-sex relationships to.
Why would I deny this gift - this incredible blessing - to anyone? Why would I not want to bless the deep, compassionate, loving and Christ-filled relationships of others in my church? Why would I not want them to experience the greatest blessing I have experienced?
The fire is hot. The institution of the United Methodist Church is as powerful as King Nebuchadnezzar. And, their fire scares me. Their flames could consume me in a way that causes me to weep. My heart aches at the thought of ever being moved from Mount Vernon Place or ever being told that I could no longer pastor in the United Methodist Church.
And in spite of my fear and trembling, there is something in this story that God has used to call me. When God spoke on my Lenten retreat, God showed me how the flames might be hot - but the flames consume those who toss you into the fire. The flames never consume one who is being faithful to God. Rather, those who stick close to God, allowing God to have their first fruits and full devotion, end up getting to dance with God - even in a fiery furnace.
We are starting a conversation at Mount Vernon Place. Our goal is to be as thoughtful and as faithful as possible as we discern what God's call on my life means for all of us. Our task force meets again this Thursday, and we will continue to meet as we develop a wedding policy that is a faithful expression of our commitment to Jesus Christ who lived, died and rose again so that we might have life abundant - on this earth and forevermore - Jesus who says all of the laws boil down to one thing - loving God with all you have and your neighbor as yourself. It's this law of love that we are seeking to have define us - over any other law.
The journey is not easy. It's rather scary. I'm praying for faith and courage to dance with God even when the fiery furnace is a real possibility.
God, help us all to be faithful to you and you alone. Amen.