Friday, September 30, 2011

Autumn has finally arrived...

Autumn has finally arrived in the Berkshires:  you can smell it in the air, see it in the trees and feel it as the cool wind washes across your face.  Autumn - beautiful and sad - bright reds and yellows holding the promise of death and darkness.  I visited with a sweet man this morning - once an international corporate leader and now stunned by grief as he says good by to the one he loved for over 50 years - and we all wept.

Autumn and grief are so unpredictable, yes?  One moment it is hot and humid and then... bam! Cool and grey with stunning colors pointing towards emptiness.  Made me think of Mary Oliver's poem:  Heart Poem.

My heart, that used to pump along so pleasantly,
has come now to a different sort of music.

There is someone inside those red walls, irritated
and even, occasionally, irrational.

Years ago I was part of an orchestra; our conductor
was a wild man. He was forever rapping the music-
stand for silence. Then he would call out some
correction and we would begin again.

Now again it is the wild man.

I remember the music shattering and our desperate

Once he flung the baton over our heads and into
the midst of the players.  It flew over the violins
and landed next to a bass fiddle. It flopped to the
floor. What silence! Then someone picked it up
and it was passed forward back to him. He rapped
the stand and raised his arms. Then we all breathed
again, and the music started.

I feel that today: the silence, the wild man. I'm waiting to breathe again and for the music, too.


Thursday, September 29, 2011

Another angle...

Ok, here's yet another angle through which to look at the peculiar calling of pastor: the statement of faith first written for the merger of what became the United Church of Christ.  Over the years I have come to see that my perspective on church - and later my calling as a pastor - has been shaped and informed by these words.  And while I have embraced the wisdom and insights of inclusive language since the 70s - with periodic poetic exceptions to be sure - I still prefer the old 1959 words and the  broadly Trinitarian structure of the first iteration that reads as follows: 

We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit,
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and our Father,
     and to his deeds we testify:

He calls the worlds into being,
     creates man (us) in his own image
     and sets before him (us) the ways of life and death.

He seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.
He judges men (sic) and nations by his righteous will
     declared through prophets and apostles.

In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord,
     he has come to us
     and shared our common lot,
     conquering sin and death
     and reconciling the world to himself.

He bestows upon us his Holy Spirit,
     creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ,
     binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.

He calls us into his church
     to accept the cost and joy of discipleship,
     to be his servants in the service of men (of the world?)      

to proclaim the gospel to all the world
     and resist the powers of evil,
     to share in Christ's baptism and eat at his table,
     to join him in his passion and victory.

He promises to all who trust him
     forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace,
     courage in the struggle for justice and peace,
     his presence in trial and rejoicing,
     and eternal life in his kingdom which has no end.

Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto him.

Of course there is some "memory bank" familiarity at work in my preference - same goes with most Christmas carols and Lenten hymns, too - there are times that the old words bring me comfort and clarity. (NOTE:  I have made some minor changes, too, I realize in moving towards inclusivity; they are noted in red.)  But let me be clear for the un-poetic or those literal minded readers: I do NOT think of God only in masculine terms nor solely as Father. I value the poetic wisdom of the ancient creeds.  I believe that we have lost some of the relational dimensions of the Trinity in our more functional restatements that speak of tasks and roles rather than relationships.  And I claim the full promise of radical inclusivity by praying to God as Father as well as Mother and almost always as Sacred Mystery.  (Not everyone agrees - and I get that, too.)

So why the old words here - and how have they shaped my calling as a pastor?  Well, the obvious answer is the Trinity:  I often see reality in three parts - I break down problems and challenges most often in three parts - and resonate with Hegel and Marx and others who have spoken of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. I also cherish the mysterious wisdom of the Holy Trinity and that is one clear way of getting at truth for me. But it doesn't stop there:

+ First, this statement speaks to me of God's gift of creation and creativity - a gift that sets before ALL people the ways of life and death - not just Christians.  Or not just Roman Catholics.  Or not just Protestants. All people. Then it states that God seeks to save us ALL from aimlessness and sin.  Those words, aimlessness and sin - alienation and turning away from holy love - are not abstract. They have shape and form in every generation and one of the tasks of the church is to articulate what aimlessness and sin look like born of a commitment to holy love.

+ Second, for those who follow Christ, this statement speaks of sin being conquered. This isn't wishful thinking, new age warm fuzzies or I'm ok, you're ok. There is healing and hope shaped in the Cross - the Paschal Mystery - and this statement says that the mission of the church is to offer hope for those trapped in sin.  It is the way God brings grace into the worst realities - and we believe that this most clearly expressed in Christ.  Christ isn't the only expression of God's grace, of course; but we trust that Jesus is the most clear expression of this blessing:  the Word made Flesh.

+ And then third, the statement speaks of being called by the Spirit into the church - and isn't that interesting?  Not to create the church, nor join it; but, rather to enter it.  And here's the deepest truth for me:  entering the church means "accepting the costs and joys of discipleship."  No room for the self-centered, please!  That is for therapy.  No, the work of the pastor isn't as spiritual cruise director but, rather one who helps articulate and train disciples/apprentices in the cost and joy of discipleship.  It is an upside-down way of living. And while there is always grace and refreshment in the community of faith - and deep rest and renewal, too - the whole point is discipleship born of the Spirit and life in community.

A sweet poem by Mark Noll addresses the cost and joy of discipleship - and the healing the Spirit brings - in his "Scots' Form in the Suburbs."

The sedentary Presbyterians
awoke, arose and filed to tables spread
with white to humble bits that showed how God
almighty had decided to embrace
humanity, and why these clean, well-fed,
well-dressed suburbanites might need his grace.

The pious cruel, the petty gossipers
and callous climbers on the make, the wives
with icy tongues and husbands with their hearts
of stone, the ones who battle drink and do
not always win, the power lawyers mute
before this awful bar of mercy, boys
uncertain of themselves and girls not sure
of where they fit, the poor and rich hemmed in
alike by cash, physicians waiting to
be healed, two women side by side - the one
with unrequited longing for a child,
the other terrified by signs within
of life, the saintly weary weary in
pursuit of good, the academics (soft 
and cosseted) who posture over words,
the travelers coming home from chasing wealth
or power or wantonness, the mothers choked
by dual duties, parents nearly crushed
by children died or lost, and some
with cancer-ridden bodies, some with spikes
of pain in chest or back or knee or mind
or heart. They come, O Christ, they come to you.

They came, they sat, they listened to the words,
"for you my body broken." Then they ate
and turned away - the spent unspent, the dead
recalled, a hint of color on the psychic
cheek - from tables groaning under weight
of tiny cups and little crumbs of bread.

Both this poem and the statement speak of God coming to us and meeting us - sharing our common lot - in Jesus the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord. And that is how I experience and shape my work as pastor:  listening, responding, seeking the image of God made flesh in Jesus, speaking a word of reconciliation within the harsh and banal realities of our lives.  And viewing reality through both the Trinity and the Cross.

The Language of God from United Church of Christ on Vimeo.
(ADDITIONAL NOTE:  If there is a poetic and relational reworking of this old statement I would love to see it.  I know the Robert Moss attempt - not bad - and I've tried the newer doxological Statement of Faith but too much is lost in the translation.  Perhaps a modest inclusive language version might be attempted yet again. I hope so...)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Starting to think about Thanksgiving Eve 2011...

A full day today... but my heart and soul is thinking about Thanksgiving Eve 2011.

For over 30 years, I have been doing some type of American music gig during the US Thanksgiving holiday. It started with going to see Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie while in seminary in NYC - taking our small daughters for the fun, too - and has continued through each of four congregations I have served in Saginaw, MI, Cleveland, OH, Tucson, AZ and Pittsfield, MA.

Currently, we try to bring together some of the best musical friends in the area - show case their gifts - and raise some money for the local emergency heating in the Berkshires ministry.

This year I'm starting to groove on a couple of ideas that include...

+ Starting things off with the FULL band and lots of guests doing the Grateful Dead's take on "Know You Rider." There's lots of room for harmonies, instrumental solos and audience participation.

+ I'm also thinking there's a place for ZZ Top's "Jesus Just Left Chicago" along with Booker T and the MGs, "Green Onions" and the Airplane's "Good Shepherd." 

I'm hoping the Jazz Ambassadors might be able to reprise some of our Turkish delights, too.

+ There will be solo slots for each of the local artists, too - and I am thinking I want to give my man Mr. E's song, "My Baby Loves Me" a shot!  Who knows?

If you are in town - or in the area - on Wednesday, November 23rd at 7:30 pm, you have to come by and join the fun. 

This is going to be a blast on so many levels... cuz I'm thinking that if this IS the groove, then we're going end with...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Faithful formation for the 21st century...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, September 25, 2011.  They both deepen my current obsession with talking about the role of the pastor, but also speak to the challenge facing our congregation in this time of uncertainty.  It is a Eucharistic Sunday, too so please know that if you are in the area, we would love for you to join us at 10:30 am.
We are living in fascinating times – trying and challenging, to be sure – but also filled with promise and potential for authentic ministry, too. And let me tell you why I believe this to be true. More than one fifth of all Americans – that is 61 million individuals - identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” That means roughly half of all the people who don’t attend regular worship – 30 million folk who are our neighbors, family and friends – say that they are open to the spiritual quest, but dismayed or disgusted by our religious institutions.

• When pressed to unpack what is really going on in their “spiritual but not religious” distinctions, it becomes clear that most people equate the spiritual with the personal and the religious with the institutional aspects of the Holy.

• They say that they are more interested in a mystical experience and encounter with the sacred than just following the rules, they are frustrated and angry with clergy of all denominations and faith traditions and have experienced more judgment than joy and grace for our churches, synagogues and mosques.

Now, I don’t know about you, but this group sounds a little like old St. Paul to me, as he was trying to find a way beyond what had become oppressive in his old faith tradition.

Steer clear of the barking dogs, those religious busybodies, who are all bark and no bite. All they're interested in is appearances—knife-happy circumcisers, I call them. The real believers are the ones the Spirit of God leads to work away at this ministry, filling the air with Christ's praise as we do it.

And then he really lays it on the line, so listen carefully: 

The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I'm tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I've dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn't want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God's righteousness.

Ouch – it was true then, it is true today and has probably always been true – sometimes religion gets in the way of God’s spiritual blessings. And that is why I am so excited to be doing ministry at this moment in time: if we are in a predicament similar to St. Paul…

• If we are up against a deep and broad rejection of the status quo – and all evidence in the realm of religion, politics and economics suggests that we are – then maybe, just maybe…

• If we are open to the same wisdom and presence of the Lord in Jesus Christ that inspired Paul, then we, too, can be part of spiritual revolution in our generation: the advancement of the kingdom of God in the 21st century rather than simply serving the kingdom of self…

It seems to me that there are three things required to be a part of Christ’s revolution in our generation: embracing the evidence of our era, trusting that God has already gone ahead of us in the risen Lord and strengthening our hearts and minds through faithful Christian formation.

First, embracing the evidence of our era: no less a keen observer of reality than the Dali Lama speaks of the evidence like this:

We have bigger houses but smaller families; more conveniences, but less time.
We have more degrees but less sense; more knowledge but less judgment;
more experts, but more problems; more medicines but less healthiness.
We’ve been all the way to the moon and back,
but have trouble in crossing the street to meet our new neighbor.
We built more computers to hold more copies than ever,
but have less real communication;
We have become long on quantity, but short on quality.
These are times of fast foods but slow digestion; tall men but short characters;
Steep profits but shallow relationships.
It’s a time when there is much in the window but nothing in the room.

I could elaborate – a survey of the popular music, books, films or television programs of this era all point towards a deep and crippling alienation – but why mess with perfection? The Dali Lama gets it right: we have more knowledge and less wisdom, more copies and less communication, steep profits but shallow relationships. Now, typically, when Americans discern or discover a problem, we want to fix it. We are fundamentally a utilitarian people and that is both a blessing and a curse.

There are just some things we cannot fix on our own – and there are other things we best not try to fix on our own – because they require God’s presence and timing. This is where religious institutions get into real trouble – trying to hurry-up and fix things – rather than wait upon the Lord and help our community to wait upon the Lord as well. This morning’s Psalm puts it like this (in Peterson’s reworking):

The revelation of GOD is whole and pulls our lives together.
The signposts of GOD are clear and point out the right road.
The life-maps of GOD are right, showing the way to joy.
The directions of GOD are plain and easy on the eyes.
GOD's reputation is twenty-four-carat gold, with a lifetime guarantee.
The decisions of GOD are accurate down to the nth degree.

But all too often we don’t trust God’s way: we want to fix things and move on to the next problem ; so we exchange a passionate patience “that is courageously committed to… the work of the kingdom of God no matter how long it takes or how much it costs” (Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, p. 47) for busy work. As Pastor Eugene Peterson once said, “People are not comfortable with uncertainties and risks and the travail of creativity because it takes too much time. There is too much obscurity for poetry; people are more comfortable with prose. They prefer explanations of Bible history and information on God.” (p. 45)

• But what is the preferred approach of Jesus? He waits – and prays – he tells opened ended stories and has conversations in community – and then heads out to wait and pray again.

• This morning’s gospel is what? A story – and a rather weird story at that: it takes some time and conversation to figure out what might be at stake and how it matters to us, don’t you think?

Let’s be honest: we don’t know much about vineyards anymore. We’re a mostly urban/suburban people who may do some gardening, but the only time we even think about vineyards is on a wine-tasting tour. So we don’t organically even comprehend the symbolism Jesus is using. What’s more, this parable is filled with violent imagery that doesn’t ring true to our sense of Jesus as the Christ. So who the devil are WE in this weird story – and how does it have anything to do with the Ten Commandments that we heard about as the first lesson? 
Well, making connections takes some time – wandering through the vast wilderness of these poetic symbols takes time – and we’re not too good at resting and waiting on the Lord. But when we do – when we let the words of Jesus take up residency in our hearts and minds and we let the poetry wash over us slowly – then a few things come into focus:

• Mostly those vineyards have something to do with all the places in our lives we are called upon to bear fruit: fruit of repentance, fruit of the Spirit, fruit of God’s kingdom rather than the kingdom of self, ok?

• And this fruit bearing is bigger than just our individual lives. That’s one of the many places the “spiritual but not religious” folk get it wrong. You see, this obsession with self is part of the problem – it is an addiction – that keeps us from living into the counter cultural joy and integrity of God’s kingdom.

For that joy, hope and integrity comes through being connected to Christ’s body – the community – rather than trying to do it all by ourselves. And that is what unites the 10 Commandments with the gospel: the way of the covenant – the commandments and the laws of Torah are the promises made between God and the community – and all relate to living in that vineyard.

• Ours is not a spirituality just for an individual – we’re about being the community of the faithful – so let’s be clear that these promises are not merely moral instruction for a bygone era, ok?

• As Walter Brueggemann made so clear in last year’s Lenten lectures, the Covenant was a counter-cultural commitment that offered a clear alternative to the way of Pharaoh. 

You could live by the rules and obligations of Empire – the way of greed, violence and naked self-interest – or you could abide by the way of the Lord and nourish compassion, justice, patience and community. Are you with me? The commandments and Torah describe a bold and creative alternative to the status quo – and Jesus didn’t abandon either Torah or their counter cultural wisdom – and let me show you what I mean for this is why faithful Christian formation in the 21st century is so important.

The commandments begin: God spoke all these words saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” Do you recall Christ’s paraphrase? "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength."

The commandments continue: You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. How did Jesus restate this for his generation? “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

• The commandments say: You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. And Jesus said: Do not swear, but let your yes be yes and your no be no; anything more than that comes from the evil one.

And we can keep going and going and going, beloved; making it very clear that Jesus neither abandoned nor degraded the way of covenant: he trusted that the Lord our God had gone before him and offered his people the way of life or death – and he did likewise. The way of covenant – the way of God’s kingdom rather than the kingdom of self – is not only the way through the violence of the vineyard, it is the way through the alienation, the anxiety and the fear of our era.

So what we do in Sunday School – or adult formation – or worship should be no less revolutionary and challenging, yes? We offer an alternative – the gift of God’s grace to the world – not programs and quick fixes. As a community of faith, the Lord asks us to train one another – our children and ourselves – to learn to wait upon the Lord – to listen beyond the noise of our culture and nourish a deep quietness and patience in community and our hearts. 

• So let me ask you: what would it be like 50% percent of those who come to worship ALSO committed to some form of study in community this year?

• Do you think we could do that and go beyond our comfort zone and encourage one another to take a deeper step into the NEW covenant?

“The secularized mind,” writes Eugene Peterson “is terrorized by mysteries. Thus it makes lists, labels people, assigns roles and solves problems.”

But a solved life is a reduced life… We live in a cult of experts who explain and solve… when the Lord asks us to wait… to discover the Cross in the paradoxes and chaos (of the vineyard) and call attention to the splendor of the ordinary (as we) nourish a life of prayer with our friends and companions on the pilgrimage. (p. 65)

This moment is as pregnant with possibilities as was the era during which St. Paul spread first the gospel. What might happen if we, too, gave up “all that inferior stuff so we could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering and go all the way with him through eve death itself” in community?

I believe that Christ Jesus has gone on ahead of us in the work and now invites us to join him in the vineyard. Let us sing together our affirmation of faith…

Monday, September 26, 2011

What a hoot...

A great little article about our town showed-up in yesterday's NY TImes.  What a hoot - all true - plus so much more. 

Check it out...

But what do you DO, man?

So I'm on another jag - they come and go, yes? - and this one continues a theme I started last week about being a pastor.  Eugene Peterson shapes today's challenge like this when he writes in The Contemplative Pastor:

Sundays are easy. The sanctuary is clear and orderly, the symbolism clear, the people polite. I know what I am doing: I am going to lead this people in worship, proclaim God's word to them, celebrate the sacraments.... Centuries of tradition converge in this Sunday singing of hymns, exposition of Scripture, commitments of faith, offering of prayers, eating and drinking the life of our Lord.  I love doing this... But after the sun goes down on Sunday, the clarity diffuses. From Monday through Saturday, an unaccountably unruly people track mud through the holy places, leaving a mess. The order of worship gives way to the disorder of argument and doubt, bodies in pain and emotions in confusion, misbehaving children and misdirected parents. I don't know what I am doing half the time.

I am interrupted... asked questions to which I have no answers. I am put in situations for which I am not adequate. I find myself attempting tasks for which I have neither aptitude nor inclination... (So) while Sundays are important... the six days between Sunday are just as important, if not so celebrative, for they are the days to which the resurrection shape is given.

Peterson then goes on to call the days between Sundays "practicing the art of prayer in the middle of traffic."  I think that gets close to what I have learned - and sometimes I am well-grounded in God's presence in the traffic and sometimes I'm just undone.  Most of what happens today in-between Sundays in NOT prayerful.  It is institutional - "running the church" as some call it - church administration in the sanitized language of the market place.  And as William Willimon once said, "Almost nobody went into ministry because they loved administration!" right?  We were caught up and on-fire with a love for Jesus, a vision of community, an encounter with the Spirit - not running a church.

No wonder so many folk burn out.  More than half of new ordinands leave local church ministry after three years either because they violated boundaries and got into some type of trouble or another; or their expectations were so different from the realities that their soul shriveled up and died.  And those who hang on are often wounded and confused and aching for retirement.  So, what do you do, man?

Two things have helped me - they aren't fool proof and I don't always live into them either - but they have helped me stay grounded and aware of God's presence even in the bullshit.

+ First, I learned to hire to my weakness.  This is simple administrative sanity - and I need all the help I can get with the nitty gritty side of church life. I hire secretaries who help me schedule and protect my time.  I hire custodians who love the building and the people. I hire musicians who want to explore creativity in community - not prima donnas - and who also love worship. 

Doing this means I have helpers and colleagues and don't have to do it all myself.  Not only does this lighten the load, it means a shared sense of ownership.  Sure, it takes a while to train a congregation to know that I don't make any appointments until I speak with my secretary. And I don't commitment through emails either until I consult with her. And yes, it takes some time to show my secretary how not to over schedule me, too.  But time spent in this type of training has paid off in spades as it helps me keep my sanity, find time for prayer and study and quietness as well as sort out what is most important in any given day, week or season.

+ Second, I have to trust that my ministry isn't all about me.  Peterson calls this knowing that the risen Christ has gone ahead of me to the hospital, the church counsel and all the rest.  It is the "conviction that God has been working diligently, redemptively and strategically before I appeared on the scene, before I was aware there was something for me to do... Running the church questions are: what do we do and how can we get things going again? Cure of the souls questions are: what has God been doing here? What traces of grace can I discern in this life? What history of love can I read in this group? What has God set in motion that I can get in on?"

Recently, for example, I thought we were going to have a meeting about how to deepen our visitation ministry.  I was only partially right - apparently the Spirit had something very different in mind - because at the end of our conversation we had planned four small groups rather than a training schedule for home visitation.  I listened carefully to what people were really saying. I waited and pushed to go deeper. I gave up my previous agenda to see what might really be happening.  And the result was MUCH better and satisfying for us all.  My moderator said afterwards, "It was helpful for me to watch you at work.  You didn't push through anything.  You asked a lot of questions and kept reframing the conversation until it took some shape that had real energy.  Very interesting."

Now, let's get real:  I don't always get this right, ok?  Like I've written before, some times you're the windshield and some times you're the bug. And there are some situations where you either need to bring the conversation to a close and move on, or at the very least, challenge and awakened the folk when they are unresponsive.  But I've found that those times are rare.

Mostly, this is a very different way of operating. I think these closing words from Peterson say it best:  We have, of course, much to teach and must to get done, but our primary task is to be. The primary language of the cure of souls, therefore, is conversation and prayer. Being a pastor means learning to use language in which personal uniqueness is enhanced and individual sanctity recognized and respected. It is a language that is unhurried, unforced, unexcited - the leisurely language of friends and lovers, which is also the language of prayer.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Thanks be to God...

This morning, after a careful and insightful conversation, we unanomously "affirmed" an Open and Affirming statement. (We will finish up the legalities for by-laws at another date and set a time re: for an all-church retreat to discuss ways to implement this commitment later this fall, too.) Our commitment is as follows: 

As an Open and Affirming community, following the spirit of Jesus, we embrace the diversity of God’s creation. We welcome people of any sexual orientation, gender identity, family structure, race, ethnic or cultural back ground and ability.  Everyone is invited to participate fully in the worship and ministry of First Church.  

There will be more conversations in the days to come. We must explore how to best express that we are allies and that our physical plant is safe space, too.  But for now, we rejoice and give thanks to God.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A GREAT idea for going deeper...

Ok, so I recently posted about my perspective on being a pastor.  I received a few notes and emails about my observations.  And then my dear friend, Black Pete from Canada, replied that wouldn't it be sweet if there was another post about what someone in the pews is looking for, too?  I think he is right... with two qualifications:

+ One, I'm not really interested in deepening the "consummerist" approach to contemporary church, ok?  So if you choose to response, it would help me if you kept these words from Eugene Peterson in mind. He notes that we've now created a huge list of necessary ingredients and/or activities that we want/need from our churches - and expect the pastor to perform. 

(often)... the working environment of pastors erodes patience and rewards impatience. People are uncomfortable with mystery (God) and mess (themselves). They avoid both mystery and mess by devising programs and hiring pastors to manage them. Mystery and mess are thus eliminated at a stroke. This is appealing. In the midst of the mysteries of grace and the complexities of human sin, it is nice to have something that you can evaluate every month or so and find out where you stand.  (In this) you don't have to deal with God, but can use the vocabulary of religion and the work in an environment that acknowledges God and so be assured that we are doing something significant.

That is very important to me - it may be a place of resonance or conflict with those in the pew - but very valuable as a pastor.  So is this conclusion: 

"Impatience, the refusal to endure, is to pastoral character what strip mining is to the land - a greedy rape of what can be gotten at the least cost - and then abandonment in search of another place to loot. Something like fidelity comes out of apocalyptic: fidelity to God, to be sure, but also to people and to parish and to place... American religion is conspicuous for its messianically pretensions energy, its embarrassingly banal prose and its impatiently hustling ambition... and all of them are thoroughly documented diseases of the spirit."

I'm not saying I am GOOD at such revolutionary and faithful endurance or patience -  and I know that I get it wrong more times than I get it right - and still I sense it is essential and moving ministry in the right direction.  So, first please keep these words in mind.

+ And two, please speak from your personal experience, ok?  Sometimes I hear critiques of the church - or pastors - that are vague diatribes against organized religion.  Ok... but that doesn't really apply to me or my congregation.  Other times, I hear rants about the church of some one's youth; and while this is possibly cathartic for the ranter, because it isn't based in contemporary experience it isn't helpful.  So, let me hear about what you are looking for based upon a real and living commitment to the church.  If you don't go - if you haven't been in 30 years - if your only experience came when you were a child... your insights probably won't help, ok? (For another pastor's take on this caveat, check out what Lillian Daniels wrote @

Rather than a list of things you want your - or any pastor - to do, let's talk about the qualities and insights you are looking for from the pastor.  Writer, Craig Barnes, writes, "You cannot determine who you are by what you do.  Few people believe this any more... because we assume we can make our own lives by the way we construct them for ourselves."  Barnes goes on to say this, too:

Complaining is usually a veiled lament about deeper issues of the soul. Since most people are unaccustomed to exploring the mystery of their own souls, they will often work out their spiritual anxieties by attempting to rearrange something external - like a church's music program. But it doesn't matter how many changes they make to the environment around them. They will never succeed in finding peace for the angst of their soul until they attend directly to it... (That is why) to be of service to the Holy Spirit, who is at work in human lives, the pastor can never reduce ministry to servicing parishioners' complaints about the church.

So, any takers?  Any one want to share? You can post here or send me an email.  Any one want to help deepen this conversation with faith, compassion and wisdom?  I hope so...

Friday, September 23, 2011

A thought about being the pastor...

Here's an "odd" thought about being a pastor: most people have NO idea what is involved, yes? I suspect this is true for every calling, but I don't know - I just know it is true for those of us who serve the local church as pastor. And in the 21st century, a time when fewer and fewer people are connected to a local church, the confusion cuts deeper, too. Over the years, writers far wiser than I have written some helpful descriptive works about what it means to be a pastor of authenticity, but they are not geared for the everyday, working person. 

I have, for example, cherished the insights articulated by William Willimon, Fredrick Buechner, Howard Rice, Nora Gallagher and Eugene Peterson:  these are faithful, sensitive and wise people who have actually served as a pastor. So the truths they share - about our highest aspirations as well as our more often wounded realities - ring true to me and have brought me encouragement and clarity during the 30 years of my ordained ministry. "Pastors are a battered breed these days," notes Peterson. "Images and impressions range from cheap to glittering to dogged... (but only some know that it is a calling) of dignity, but a dignity without a trace of pomposity... (only by remaining grounded in our) "baptismal, biblical, and theological foundations can we trump a demeaning culture and a trivializing church and restore honor to this vocation."

Small wonder I love Paul Simon's musical masterpiece - when I am weary and feeling small - these old and seasoned pros are a source of comfort. "Ordained ministry," says Willimon, "is a gift of God to the church, but that doesn't mean that it is easy. Always a difficult vocation, changes in society and the church in recent years have made the ordained life all the more complex and challenging. Is the pastor primarily a preacher, a professional caregiver, an administrator? Given the call of all Christians to be ministers to the world, what is the distinctive ministry of the ordained? When does one's ministry take on the character of prophet, and when does it become that of priest? What are the special ethical obligations and disciplines of the ordained?"

It is a good thing to have public resources like these that acknowledge and embrace the pastoral challenge. But the words of these prophets are mostly preaching to the choir: what to do about the ignorance, confusion, love and sometimes hostility that exists in every church?  I have come up with a few ideas - they are not original - but have helped me.  As one counselor said to me a while back when my life was coming apart at the seams, "Well, now we identified all the WRONG reasons for doing ministry; let's see if we can name the RIGHT ones."

+ First, I have come to think of my calling as a pastor through the words Peterson coined in his book, The Contemplative Pastor:  a pastor is unbusy, subversive and apocalyptic.  Not only do I need time for quiet and reflection for my own soul, I need to time to be present and available to my people when they show up.  In the 21st century, most people have neither time nor interest in the pastor popping into their homes for a spontaneous visit; today it makes most sense to make appointments. But that isn't where most of the listening and prayer happens. No, more often than not that happens when a person just shows up at church and wants to talk. Or wants "just a minute of your time" after choir practice. Or when unexpected tears come in the middle of a phone call. 

I know what it is like to be too busy to listen - or too frantic to have time to hang out and wait - so being unbusy in heart and mind is vital. It takes practice and time and a commitment to being counter-cultural to remain unbusy. It takes clear and effective professional boundaries, too so that time isn't devoured by those who may be emotionally stressed but are not really willing or able to grow in the Spirit. As Jesus told his first apprentices, "Sometimes you have to know when to shake the dust off our sandals and move on. Not everyone who cries, 'Lord, Lord" have any real interest in the kingdom of God."

Same too with the invitation to be subversive and apocalyptic. The subversive pastor doesn't pontificate - doesn't lecture - doesnt' even initiate connections. Rather, we wait until God's moment opens a door for us. And then, "with truth-telling and love-making (that is) prayer and parable" we meet a person with a word of God's grace. Waiting isn't something that our culture honors or understands, so this aspect of ministry is also a daily exercise in prayer. I could get strokes for running around, trying to be useful and helpful and all the rest. But I've been there and done that; it is not only exhausting, it destroys any space for the Lord. So, I try to wait.

I try to use ordinary words, too - not religious mumbo-jumbo - speaking clearly without the need to impress or win friends. In fact, it is essential for the pastor to remember that the people of any given congregation are NOT friends in the traditional sense. There is love and respect and trust, to be sure; but this is always a public relationship - a spiritual relationship - with clear boundaries.  Too many pastors get into trouble - and too many congregations get hurt feelings - when this is violated or misunderstood. I find Peterson's clarification helpful when he writes:

Pastor is a comforting word: a person who confidently quotes the 23rd Psalm when your shivering in the dark shadows. Pastors gather us in quiet adoration before God... Pastors build bridges over troubled waters and guide wandering feet back to the main road.  But I have a biblical reason for bringing the two words - apocalyptic and pastor - together. The last book of the Bible was written by a pastor - an apocalyptic pastor... who understood his job and St. John is the kind of pastor I would like to be... Pastors are the person in the church communities who repeat and insist on the kingdom realities against the world appearances - they must be apocalyptic... Sin-habits dulls our faith into stodgy moralism and respectable boredom... Apocalypse is arson - it secretly sets fire in the imagination and boils the fat out of an obese culture-religion and renders a clear gospel love, a pure gospel hope, a purged gospel faith.

+ Second, I have come to treasure Craig Barnes' rethinking of the pastoral role as one living as "a minor poet" in a spiritually illiterate culture.  His book, Pastor as Minor Poet, offers these important insights.  First, the work of ministry is more like poetry than science. "The ability to see below the surface, below the "text" of a given situation or even the biblical text to the deeper "meaning" buried between the lines, within, above, or under a given situation, is hugely important. It is important not just for survival (important in its own right), but to minister the Gospel in such a way that it meets the person's real need, not simply the presenting issue." (Sean Michael Lucas)

Second, Barnes reminds us that this ministry is NOT ours: it belongs to Christ. He quotes the curmudgeon, Stanley Hauerwas, saying the only way we will be delivered from being "a quivering mass of availability" to a broken but available person of depth and grace is to know and trust that all ministry begins and ends with the Lord. "The pastor lives by the belief that Jesus Christ holds all things together, and it is for this Savior that the harried souls in the pews truly yearn...So there they sit, frantic and frazzled, but daring to hope that there really is a sacred Word that can fill their deep yearning. The name of that word is Jesus Christ, and the minor poet gets to reveal his mysterious presence every Sunday."

I have reread Barnes' book twice - and look forward to rereading yet again this fall.  Same with Peterson's The Contemplative Pastor. They both speak to the challenges of this time - especially noting that the work of the pastor is NOT to run a church: it is the cure of souls.

+ And third I have discovered that I embrace the calling to be Christ's agent for the cure of souls best if I share my gifts and acknowledge my blind spots.  I can't do everything. I can't help everyone.  Not everyone will like me and I won't like everyone either. Some people will regularly find fault with my gifts and commitments and use of time - and will share that with me in ways that hurt.  So, I need a small cadre of pastor friends who will talk with me - and one another - about accountability to Christ.  I used to think I could do it all by myself - with prayer - but I can't.  I can never see my shadow.  I don't always hear what is being said in either compliment or complaint.  I need the wisdom and love of colleagues who will share honestly and with compassion. I give thanks to God that I have that group for it helps keep me grounded. It offers perspective and tenderness without ever "putting whipped cream on bullshit" (as a former spiritual director used to say!)

It is good to enter the Sabbath today at rest... I steadfastly DON'T read church emails on the Sabbath and make sure to spend time just being in my own skin.


Today was a gift:  it was a hassle and a blessing, a time of encouragement as well as confusion, a series of pastoral encounters that are pregnant with great potential as well as a number of all too ordinary moments that seem disconnected and random - in a word, it was a day of slipping in and out of sacred consciousness. Literally, there was both rain and sunshine in the Berkshires today - sometimes at the same time - and that gets at the truth, yes? It was neither frustration nor exuberance; it was, rather, both/and - and sometimes at the same time, too.

+ The day began with quiet reflection and prayer only to discover that more time had evaporated than I thought. So, rushing out the basement door to the car I found myself unexpectedly covered in a spider's web. Ugh!  So on the drive to church I was certain I was being bitten repeatedly (I wasn't) as I tried to pull the stands off my face, eye glasses and hair.

+ I interviewed a person for our Christian Education position who holds great potential and then randomly visited with 3 different folk from the congregation all of whom just happened to stop by for some unplanned and unexpected pastoral conversations. All these conversations - planned and serendipitous - were times of connecting with love and respect. 

+ As I was getting ready to leave for a lunch meeting, my wife reminded me she needed a ride (our second car needs repair) so... I rushed to get her sine lunch and off to work with my lunch appointment tenderly riding in the back seat of the Subaru. THEN, after the rushing, we had a great visit and did some planning for a new intergenerational worship time on each 5th Sunday of the month.  As the father of two small boys - two of my favorite children in the world - this, too was a rich time.

+ But then there were stewardship details to work on, bulletins to review, liturgies to write, phone calls to return, emails to read and newsletters to construct: the work of administration drives some pastors nuts, but I have come to see it as times to listen and visit with folks from my church.  In fact, often the "work" is just a way to spend time listening - and that happened in spades today as I heard about children and worries, economic uncertainty and taking care of aging parents and a whole lot more.  Small wonder that by late afternoon I found myself falling asleep only to be awakened 20 minutes later by the phone with an unknown name on the caller ID. But it turned out to be my buddy, Andy, asking if I wanted to join he and his spouse for Indian food - yet another unexpected blessing.

+ Finally it was off to choir practice - our new Music Director started today and I want to support him and sing in the new choir - so it was back into the fold when I really wanted to retreat. One of the things I have come to love about choir practice is just hanging with the folks - making jokes in the men section, encouraging and listening to the sopranos and altos, being a part of the whole - and tonight was 2 hours of great practice and serious music making.  It did my soul good to share in all of this and we even practiced the up-coming Sunday hymns in parts!

I am careful these days not to get too busy - trapped in the trappings as my old mentor, Ray Swartzback, used to say - because ministry for me at this stage in life is about relationships: my connection with the congregation, my connection with God and the places where they overlap.  As I began noting, often this intersection is paradoxical:  unplanned encounters, mundane tasks to keep the community going, times of quiet reflection or shared suppers and choir practice.

The poet, Mary Oliver, often captures this truth with beauty and grace. In the poem, "The Uses of Sorrow," she writes:

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)Someone I loved once gave me
A box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
That this, too, was a gift.

Tomorrow the kids from Brooklyn come for a visit - and daughter number two from just over the mountain will visit, too.  It makes my heart sing to just hand with them all and I look forward to this soul food, too.  And then worship on Sunday...

All of this makes sense to me as today comes to a close...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Once again, thanks Eugene...

When I was a feisty young man testing ALL the limits I could think of, there was a song by Pink Floyd - "Be Careful with That Ax, Eugene" - that would crop up from time to time when the spirit of Dionysus was rampant.  Do you know it...?

Today, however, it is likely to be Eugene Peterson who grabs my attention.  He is such an advocate for the unique, misunderstood, quiet, sweet but demanding vocation of a pastor.  In one observation he notes that it is so easy to get "trapped in the trappings" (as my mentor, Ray Swartzback used to say) of ministry.  People want us to be "spiritual cruise directors" who are always available to soothe their wounds, hold their hands and listen to their complaints - often in their most self-absorbed states.  And contemporary pastors, "before we realize what has happened, find that the mystery and love and majesty of God has been obliterated by the noise and frenzy of the religious marketplace."

Well, I made a commitment to avoid that dead-end - again. "Been there, done that" and I came to the Berkshires to be a pastor in the fullness of that word. And mostly I've found that what I think others want from me is often the hardest dragon to slay; sure, there are those who want to over-organize my time.  But mostly, it is me who is my worst enemy - so I find that I need to spend regular time in quiet reflection and study in order to stay grounded in my pastoral calling. I give thanks to Eugene over and again for all the ways he helps me stand up to my own shadows in love as well as counter the sometimes self-absorbed and frivolous demands of others.:

...who is there who will say the name of GOD in such a way that the community can see him for who he is, our towering Lord and Savior, not the packaged and priced version that meets our consumer needs? And who is there with the time to stand with men and women, adults and children in the places of confusion and blessing, darkness and light, hurt and healing long enough to discern the glory and salvation being worked out behind the scenes, under the surface. If we all get caught up in running the store, who will be the pastor?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How I have changed my mind...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for Sunday, September 25, 2011. This week we will consider a simple but moving call to humbly become an Open and Affirming congregation in the United Church of Christ.  These are my pastoral reflections before we move into a congregational meeting. If have decided to simply share my written text and one of the songs we will use this week in the spirit of simplicity. If you are in town, please join us at 10:30 am.

Most mornings I find myself starting the day with a human/holy ritual: it is very earthy – but also celestial – in that it includes brewing a pot of tea, opening my computer to an Ignatian English prayer site and then reading a devotional word from the Eugene Peterson and/or Fredrick Buechner catalogue. Today, Peterson’s words touched my heart:

We who are made in the “image” of God have, as a consequence, imag-ination. Imagination is the capacity to make connections between the visible and the invisible, between heaven and earth, between present and past, between present and future. For Christians, whose largest invest is in the invisible, the imagination in indispensable, for it is only by means of the imagination that we can see reality whole and in context.

Today I’m go to ask you to use your head and your heart imaginatively – to consider the very image of the Lord our God made flesh within and among us in Jesus Christ – while I share with you something personal and theological: how I came to change my mind about homosexuality. As you may know, we will be discussing a simply crafted Open and Affirming statement for our congregation after worship this morning – something I fully endorse – so it seemed wise to share with you my take on this commitment. After all, the working definition of a “pastor” is clear: one who directs the spiritual care and nurture of a congregation through preaching, teaching and healing.

So this morning, in a quiet and careful way, I want to share with you something faithfully imaginative in my message. Something born of tradition, prayer, study and experience in the 21st century that encourages us to “make a connection between the visible and invisible” grace of God and move closer to the promise of the Lord’s extravagant welcome for everyone. In that spirit, let me ask your prayers as we begin:

Dear Father always near us: may your name be treasured and loved, may your rule be completed in us- may your will be done here on earth in just the way it is done in heaven. Give us today the things we need today, and forgive us our sins and impositions on you as we are forgiving all who in any way offend us. Please don’t put us through trials, but deliver us from everything bad. Because you are the one is charge, you have all the power, and the glory too is all yours-forever- which is just the way we want it! Dallas Willard

Over the years, our worship tradition has come up with periodic slogans that attempt to synthesize the essence of our spiritual practices in relationship to God’s love made flesh in Jesus Christ:

• Five hundred years ago, in the early days of Luther and Calvin, the rallying cry was – ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda – meaning the Church was always being reformed and always reforming. We were never to let the Word of God in scripture, practice or tradition become calcified, but rather we were called to seek the ever shining light of Christ in new ways. As one Congregational hymn writer put it: time makes ancient truth uncouth – hence “always reformed and always reforming.”

• In the early 1800s, another important Reformed slogan was: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; and in all things, charity.” What humble and revolutionary wisdom – even for our generation – are found in those old words, yes? Unity, diversity and charity – simply brilliant.

Mission statements are slogans, too: a type of theological product branding, if you will, that tries to give distinct shape and form to God’s presence within and among a congregation in a sea of competing information. Nearly 250 years ago, we did this when we called this place FIRST Church; not only was this a statement of historical fact, it was also a way of telling the world how we understood our mission.

• Later, in the 1950s, when the United Church of Christ was born, our slogan became: THAT THEY MAY ALL BE ONE. Here were the ancient words of Jesus found in the gospel of St. John applied to the modern reality of post WWII America and our quest for building a world of ecumenism, cooperation and peace.

• And in the late 1990s, our slogan – and mission statement – in the United Church changed again to better capture the reality of our world: NO MATTER WHO YOU ARE – OR WHERE YOU ARE – ON LIFE’S JOURNEY, YOU ARE WELCOME HERE.

Do you see what I’m trying to say? The way we speak and think about doing church changes – imaginatively – over time. Today we’re being asked to add another clarifying layer of wisdom and truth to our identity by choosing to become an Open and Affirming congregation within the United Church of Christ. And what that means is simultaneously simple and profound:

• To the larger the public we are saying that we consciously seek to welcome ALL of God’s children into the life and ministry of this faith community – especially those who have historically been pushed away, shunned or denied the blessings of God’s grace in community.

• To ourselves we are saying that not only do we want to practice radical Christian hospitality for all people – especially welcoming those in the gay and lesbian world who have often been locked out of God’s love – but also that we want to do a better job at embracing all those who have been marginalized, forgotten or neglected by the status quo.

• And to the Lord our God we are saying that we shall continue to be reformed as we learn more and more about your grace, forgiveness and promise made flesh to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

To become an Open and Affirming congregation, therefore, is a confession of humility and hope not something trendy or politically correct. It is a way of making flesh in our generation our commitment to unity in essentials, diversity in non-essentials and in all things charity. And that brings me to a consideration of what the Scriptures really say about homosexuality – so let me share a precise summary – because the Bible is something we look to as an essential.

But let’s be clear, however, that what I am going to share is only a summary, ok? Last fall, we spent 7 weeks in study on this theme – and over the past 10 years you have explored it in a variety of ways, too – so I won’t be offering an exhaustive, graduate level discussion of what the Bible tells us about homosexuality. If you need that, I can provide for you bibliographies and suggestions as well as a host of other helpful resources and interpretive material. 

Today I’m simply going to cut to the chase as I understand it – and here is how I will proceed: First, some biblical texts that have been used in the past that are simply irrelevant and ambiguous, so I’ll say a few words about them. Second, I will look at three key scriptures that are fiercely unambiguous. And third carefully tell you what I have come to do with all of this.

The irrelevant and ambiguous Biblical references are as follows:

• Genesis 19: 1-29 which tells the story of the “attempted gang rape of Sodom… (Where) ostensibly heterosexual males were intent on humiliating strangers by treating them ‘like women’ and emasculating them by rape.” This, of course, has nothing to do with love as expressed by “consenting adults of the same sex” and is all about the horrors of war, fear, sin and the corruption of power and greed. (Walter Wink, Homosexuality and the Bible, p. 1)

• In fact, the Sodom and Gomorrah story is much more about the unwillingness to welcome God’s messengers into community – a look at the consequences of greed and hospitality denied – than anything else. So let’s let this straw man go, ok?

• Scholar Walter Wink of Auburn Theological Seminary in NYC also suggests that the story of a “heterosexual prostitute involved in Canaanite fertility rites in Deuteronomy 23: 17-18 – and inaccurately referred to as a sodomite in the King James Version of the Bible” – is as unhelpful to this conversation as are the words of the apostle Paul in I Corinthians 6:9 and I Timothy 1:10 for what they condemn are the actions of strong male prostitutes preying upon the weak and inexperienced.

These texts do not advance our understanding of homosexuality and only muddy the water, so let them go. There are, however, three clear and unambiguous references in our Bible to same sex relationships; and we should not only be clear about them, but also consider what they mean within the totality of God’s revelation to us in Scripture. They are as follows:

• Leviticus 18: 22: A man shall not lie with a male as with a woman – it is an abomination.

• Leviticus 20: 13 adds clarity concerning the punishment for such an abomination against the Lord: they shall be put to death.

Not a lot of ambiguity here, is there? But what is missing from a simple literalism is a grasp of context:

The Hebrew prescientific understanding (operative here) was that male semen alone contained the whole of nascent life. With no knowledge of eggs and ovulation, it was assumed that the woman provided only the incubating space; hence the spilling of semen for any non-creative purpose – coitus interuptus, masturbation, etc – were ALL considered tantamount to abortion or murder in the ancient world of the Hebrew people… What’s more, in a world of honor, male dignity and power was compromised if a man acted like a woman. (Wink, p. 2)

These two biblical texts are unambiguous: homosexual activity is not only an affront to the Lord, it is to be punished with execution. Now add this, the one unambiguous New Testament teaching about homosexuality, from Romans 1: 22-27.

Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever… For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.

If you read this passage with childlike simplicity, there is no ambiguity and Paul clearly condemns same sex activity. On one level, this rings true. But if you read this passage with some imagination and wisdom – if, as St. Paul himself once said that when I was a child I thought and saw as a child, but now that I have matured I have put childish things away – then… then something more nuanced emerges.

• Namely, that St. Paul believed everyone was straight – with no knowledge of modern sexual orientation to say nothing of the breadth of gender realities – so he saw heterosexual people being caught up in drunkenness and lust.

• What’s more, he observed that often drunkenness and lust can cause some to behave like animals – not homosexuality and affection between consenting adults as we know it – but rather a downward spiral of bestial lust.

And that, beloved, is a careful and honest summary of what our scriptures unambiguously teach about homosexuality: it is slim pickin’ – and Jesus says nothing at all on the matter.
Yes, there are two ancient Hebrew texts and one from the New Testament that “take a negative view of homosexual activity” (Wink) but let’s not stop here, because there is more clarity to be brought to light by recalling the bigger picture, ok? For example, the Bible is filled with prohibitions of all types – not simply sexual prohibitions – but a host of forbidden activities that 21st century people no longer embrace nor consider normative. Let me offer this far from exhaustive list for your consideration:

• The ancient punishment for adultery was death by stoning. What’s more, adultery was defined as a violation of a man’s property – his wife or bride – so that men could not be convicted of adultery unless they had sexual intercourse with another man’s wife.

• Sexual intercourse during the seven days of the menstrual cycle was strictly prohibited. Polygamy, however, was practiced and encouraged – as was concubinage (women living with men to whom they were not married) and neither are explicitly condemned in the New Testament.

There are also a host of conflicting insights when it comes to incest, rape and prostitution in the Old Testament that arise mostly because women were considered to be the property of men. Prostitution, for example, was considered normal “as a safeguard to the virginity of the unmarried and the property rights of husbands.” What’s more, a man who went to a prostitute committed no sin, but the woman was labeled a whore.

You see what I’m getting at here, right? Time makes ancient truth not only uncouth, as the hymnist wrote, but also oppressive and morally offensive. If we live under the Old Covenant, St. Paul taught, then we don’t get to pick and choose: this is an all or nothing ethic and by virtue of our baptism, we have clearly chosen another path. Most of us favor the path Paul described in Philippians:

Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others…. And work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

That is, seek what is healing and holy with imagination and faithfulness to Jesus. And it is just that, dear people of God, seeking out faithfulness to Jesus with imagination that has changed my heart and mind about what the Bible really teaches about homosexuality – and here’s my take:

First, I no longer see any consistent Biblical ethic about sex in our Scriptures. I do see sexual mores conditioned by culture and context. I also see sexual practices that make sense in one world but not in another, sexual acts that are morally repugnant to me and some things that are just bewildering. But I don’t see anything that even vaguely resembles a consistent sexual ethic in the Bible.

Second, I do see an ever-evolving movement towards compassion in the Bible: Once the rule was an eye for an eye; then it became love your neighbor but stand firm against your enemy; and now we are wrestling with what it might look like to try to love our enemies and neighbors as ourselves.

And third, I sense that these two truths call for us to make a choice between a love ethic and a preference for the status quo: both the Old and the New Testaments speak of both realities, but it seems to me that we have a choice to make. Are we children of the Exodus or slavery? Do we render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and God what is God’s or do we try and serve two masters? Do we say we follow the Lord but shut out grace or do we seek compassion in all things?

I have come to cast my lot with grace and joy, compassion and liberation as well as the love ethic of the Bible. This wasn’t always the case, you know? There were two times in my life – as a young believer and later when I tried to live into a more fundamentalist spirituality – when I looked at life in black and white terms. It was the whole Bible – or the Bible in holes – the letter of the law rather than the sloppy agape of moral relativism and all the rest: it is very appealing, you know, to have all the rules and hold other people accountable?

But… I know longer see that way as bringing me closer to the Lord. I no longer see a condemnation of homosexuality as a litmus test of Biblical integrity nor do I believe that any loving same-sex relationship is an abomination. Why? Partially because my study of the Word has gone deeper as I’ve tried to summarize that for you today.

But also because there have been a few times in my life – personally and professionally – when I ached for grace and only found the judgment of God’s people. I was hungry – and wouldn’t be fed; I was alone – and was shut out of community myself – I was afraid and there was no one to comfort me.

And this changed me – it opened my heart by breaking it. So since that time, I’ve explored the road less travelled: a way that challenges the judgment system of my faith with the more tender and satisfying grace of Christ Jesus – and try always to err on the side of grace. A few years ago, I heard former UN Ambassador, Andy Young, who is a United Church of Christ minster put it something like this:

• He was talking to a gathering of the United Church in Atlanta about his early days in ministry. He was a bright and articulate young Black preacher who was angry: angry about racism, angry about poverty, angry about war and discrimination.

• And before he worked with Dr. King, he worked with the National Council of Churches in NYC. And at the National Council he came into contact with a lot of gay clergy who were still in the closet – they were afraid – and very, very careful. But they befriended Andy and told him: “Man, you have to chill – let go of some of that anger – and let it move you towards loving and hope or else it will kill you.”

• They said, “Let us take some of the heat for you in the fight for equal and civil rights because if you go up against the Man with all that anger, he will beat you black and blue.” So they did – they went to the lunch counters and the sit-ins, they went to the demonstrations and all the rest and helped Andy Young live into his dream of equal rights.

And when he was moving on to do bigger and better things, these gay clergy folk – who were still in the closet – said: Thank you for listening and thank you for letting some of your anger be transformed – and thank you, too for letting us do some of your lifting. Just, please remember: there will come a time when we’re going to need you to do some lifting for us, ok? Please, remember…

That time is today for me: so let those have ears to hear, hear.

playing for our lives: a concert to combat local homelessness June 15 @ 7 pm

In an interview with Krista Tippett a few years ago, the late Jean Vanier gave contemporary people of compassion his antidote for despair:...