Thursday, February 1, 2018

my farewell to church message: sunday, january 28, 2018

NOTE: This is a reasonable facsimile of what I shared with my congregation on my departure from local church ministry.  It is, of course, not 100% verbatim but based on my hand-written notes and memory, both of which are open to criticism. Still, I hope it captures the sweet sense of gratitude with which I close this chapter in my life.

There is no recipe or prescription for sharing a final spoken message with a congregation - especially one you love. Nor is there a template for summarizing nearly 40 years of ordained ministry that is coming to a close. So, I will be offering up a vaguely unified series of vignettes that come from my heart today.

You may recall that I sensed a call into local church ministry back in 1968 - just two months after MLK had been assassinated. I was in Washington, DC and it was the time I started to discern something of the holy within and around me in the music of the day. The first time I told anyone about my experience of God calling me into ministry, Aretha Franklin was singing, "You better THINK about what you're trying to do to me... oh freedom, freedom, freedom!" And as affirmation later that year the Edwin Hawkins Singers had a smash Top 40 hit with "O Happy Day" (when Jesus washed my sins away!)

To be sure, after my call I spent the next 15 years trying to run away from it. It scared me - and I did everything I could do before finally honoring that still, small voice that kept speaking to me. Thirty seven years ago I was ordained and I have served in a variety of locales. For a long time I thought God wanted me to be an urban ministry. After all, Dr. King's words of compassion and justice moved my heart. I heard the call in Washington, DC just before the Poor People's March.  So when I finally got on-board, I did my internship in the greatest multi-racial urban church I could find: First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica, NY. Under the tutelage of Ray Swartzback I learned the tools of the trade and set off to apply them in Saginaw, MI and the Cleveland, OH.

In those early days, I was certain that my work in the church was ALL about big and bold acts of social justice.  But what I discovered over and over was that I truly loved the small acts of pastoral care, worship and prayer. We did some BIG things in those days - I took young people and their parents to Soviet Russia on a people-to-people peace vigil and I was active in racial justice as the VP of the Cleveland Board of Education - but what fed my soul was visiting people in the hospital. Or going into homes long forgotten by the movers and shakers and celebrating Eucharist.

+ During my running away phase, while organizing for Cesar Chavez's farm workers boycott, I got hooked up with a Jesuit priest. Fr. John Little had been in Chile when the US overthrew the Allende presidency. He helped smuggle people out of their homeland so that they wouldn't be tortured or killed. I met him in the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis and for some reason - what I call providence now - we hit it off. One night he took me with him to serve Holy Communion to a little, broken down woman in some God forsaken party of that neighborhood. I remember it as dark, cold and rainy. Something that looked like it came right out of Tim Burton's "Batman" movie. After winding through stairways that I was sure held certain death, we stepped into a warm and candle light apartment. And there, we said the Mass and shared the body and blood of Christ.

+ Again, I knew that this touched my heart and impelled me forward, even if it took another 10 years before I was ready to quit running. And now, at the close of all of this, it fascinates me that although we've done BIG things together, what people keep saying over and again is how important those little visits were to them. The prayer beads. The midday Eucharist. The home visits. Or weddings. Or funerals. Same was true in Tucson when we were back there last week: we remembered all the BIG things we did for marriage equality and border safety. But it was the quiet, often unknown time of love and listening that touched our hearts.

For it was when I did those things - the small, loving and quiet acts of mercy - that I felt blessed. So when I started to reflect on the meaning of my retirement I found myself playing two tender little songs. That's often how I know what's going on inside me - I listen to the music I am playing - and when I take the time to feel what is being revealed in the music I hear something of the holy. When I sat down with myself to work on this reflection - something I've written and thrown away 5-6 times already - the first song that I heard myself playing came from St. Bob Dylan.

I don't know if you know this but there was a time early in Dylan's career when he thought he needed to throw it all away. He worked really hard to make it. He wrote some incredible anthems for civil rights and peace. But then those around him kept insisting that he work as "the voice of his generation." They wanted more songs of protest. More social commentary. More radical poetry. And St. Bob hated to be squeezed into their mold. He was changing. He was reading Rimbaud. Ginsberg. He was going inward and resisted the conformity the commissars of culture were pushing on him.  And he was just about to chuck it all when driving back through New Orleans he heard a song that changed his life. Do you know what it was?  The Beatles doing "I Want to Hold Your Hand?" Who would have thought God was speaking through an English rock'n'roll band but clearly St. Bob heard that holy voice.

And it liberated him. He started writing the songs of his heart like "Motorpsycho Nitemare" and "Lay Down Your Weary Tune Lay Down." Two of my favorites from this era include "All I Really Want to Do" and "My Back Pages" with the chorus: "ah but I was so much older than I'm younger than that now." I've known some of Dylan's frustration and confusion about living with the expectations of others, right? At first it made me angry about the church. Then it disoriented my sense of ministry. But finally I heard my reaction to the inevitable expectations of others in ministry as an invitation for me to become free. And when I stepped into God's freedom invitation, I found my heart was at peace. It was as if I was breathing in today's gospel text:  "follow me into the unforced rhythms of grace."  And what I heard in my heart was this song from St. Bob Dylan's liberation period... 

That gentle freedom - that grace - clarified my call into retirement: I wasn't angry or confused. Now, just as I had once been called into ministry, I was being led out of it so that something new might be born.  Something like serving with my friends in L'Arche Ottawa. And writing my spirituality of tenderness. And finding new forums for interfaith music-making. Encounters that felt more like sharing love with those who had been forgotten and shut away in the darkness like that old woman near the Soulard Market with Fr. John.  

So let me be clear with you: I will always love you. And pray for you. And cherish the time we have shared. This has been holy ground for both you and me and I give thanks to God for it all. And, now there is something new being born in me - and in this community, too. And that's where the second song by St. Lou Reed comes into play.  Some of you know I was hit like a ton of bricks when Lou Reed died some four years ago: Lou was an artist who LIVED on the wild side. He took up residence with society's rejected - those who only come out at night - and celebrated their beauty and vulnerability to say nothing of the way this cadre lived a critique of bourgeois consumer society.

St. Paul in his letter to the early church in Rome often encouraged them NOT to be conformed to the status quo of their society, but to be transformed by the renewal of their minds.  They were to take their ordinary, walking around lives and make them full - real - as saturated with love as possible. In a way that often seemed upside down, Lou Reed did this, too. And when he died, a vibrant voice of advocacy for the forgotten and discarded was silenced. So, I started to play with one of his best known songs, "Sweet Jane," to see if I could tease out its deeper meaning. When it is usually performed, it it brash and loud and even jarring. But its heart is about two people who love each other. They might be freaks. They might be ultra normal. But they love one another. They respect one another. And they yearn to be true to that love in every season. 

So, I sweetened this song up.... oh, and one more thing: the reason I have felt called to do this - and share it with you as part of my retirement farewell - is because on the same day St. Lou died I got word that an old friend, Mike Daniels, died, too. Mike died alone. Forgotten. And was buried alone in Cleveland. Mike became a member of my church in Cleveland. His life was a mess when we met and went rapidly down hill. His wife, Cheryl, was bi-polar and would periodically go off her meds. We would then have to search the bus shelters throughout Cleveland to find her. It was a brutal way of existence.

One time, after we found her and got her back on her meds, Mike left the house to get some smokes. And during the 15 minutes he was gone, she swallowed his revolver and took her life. The police were called. Michael was black and poor and it was his gun. So he was arrested. While in jail, his landlord tossed all his earthly belongings out on the street. And 15 hours later when I got him out on bail, the junkies had picked clean everything he owned. So I took him home so he might crash on our living room floor. My wife was not happy. My children were not at ease. But what else could a poor boy do?

Mike was an alcoholic and I eventually got him into a half-way house. But he got himself thrown out two times and number three was the magic number into self-imposed homelessness.  In another cold, dark rainy night I heard myself saying, "Michael, we've run out of options. There is no place left to go. Either I take you to the county rehab hospital right now and you try to get clean. Or, I'll ask you to get out of my car and never come back until you are sober." We sat in silence for a spell before he said, "Ok... let's go to Metro (the hospital.)" And when he came out, he was clean and sober. And he stayed that way for nearly 25 years. He sponsored and helped other drunks. He turned me on to the spirituality of AA. And he took his darkest nightmare and turned it into something beautiful as he worked his way into sobriety.

That's what I've tried to do with St. Lou's song, take something hard and brash and open it up to a deeper beauty, a song of tenderness not harsh isolation. I've listened to different versions of this song, too - by the artist and others - I've added their lyrics and his rarely performed one into my mix because music is a living art form. The same is true for ministry - and faith - it is a living interaction with the source of life. Not merely doctrine or ritual. But like Jewel once said: in the end only kindness matters. 

So this is to kindness: thank you for sharing ten years of love and kindness with me in ministry. Thank you for growing through music no one has ever played before in church - and learning to like it. Thank you for reaching out to those who have never felt like they belonged here and welcoming them home. I pray that the unforced rhythms of grace will continue to grow in each of our hearts.  You have been a blessing to me.

Standing on the corner, suitcase in my hand
Jack’s in his corset, Jane’s in her vest
And me, I'm in a rock'n'roll band
Ridin'a stutz bearcat, Jim you know, those were different times
All the poets, they studied rules of verse
And those ladies, they rolled their eyes
Sweet Jane, sweet Jane, sweet Jane

Some people like to go out dancing 
Other people like us they have to work
And there's some evil mothers who’ll tell you that life is made from dirt
You know, that women never really faint
And that villains always blink their eyes
And that children are the only ones who blush
And that life is just to die

But anyone who ever had a heart
They wouldn't turn around and break it
And anyone who's ever played a part
Oh, they wouldn't turn around and hate it

Anyone who's ever had a dream
Anyone who's ever played a part
Anyone who's ever been lonely
Anyone who's ever split apart

You’re waiting down the alley
Waiting for him to come back home
Waiting down on the corner
When you can be alone....

Sweet Jane...

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