I’m in the strange-for-me position of being out of the pulpit for the foreseeable future, and at least for now, I am attending my wife’s church as a worshipper.
Yesterday, in the first session of a wonderful and thoughtful Sunday School on Peace, Reconciliation, and Forgiveness that includes all ages from 6th grade to Senior citizens, we were asked to share in small groups the names of people we thought of as truly good. I was proud of The Boy when he named Martin Luther King, Jr., then saddened to hear a trusted adult respond, “He was good, but he was not perfect.”
Now, this was going to be the further point of the discussion – we are all in need of God’s grace, as the Presbyterian Confession of 1967 was used to illustrate – but I felt frustrated that an adult would administer that kind of corrective to the one student in our group. No one questioned any other suggestions.
When the full class shared answers, The Boy whispered to me, “Don’t say it. Don’t say it.” My heart hurt.
Later, as we sat in our pew before worship, he picked up the bulletin and saw the quote on the cover. He pointed out the words and the name to me and said, “I wasn’t wrong!”
No, son, you were not wrong.
We went on to read portions of the Letter From Birmingham Jail as the Confession and the Statement of Faith, alongside a text from Luke reminding us that the hometown crowd tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.
Thus it has ever been with prophets, even the 6th-graders.
You are Father and Mother to all Creation.
You planted us and you nourish us.
You exist beyond our comprehension and
transcend the labels we use to describe you.
But we are label-makers,
and this Sunday we face one
we just can’t get right.
Too much, and it hurts people.
Too little, and it hurts others.
Also, and you know this, we have our own stories.
Our mothers have died
or are still too close
or were never close enough
or never quite meshed
or smacked us too hard
or nurtured us enough
or lived life with panache
or served you with whole hearts
or loved us unconditionally
or all these things, in unequal measure,
over a lifetime.
That’s just to get started.
Some of your servants are mothers,
and some have lost children,
and some wanted them but never did have,
and some never wanted to,
and some had more than they expected,
and some gave theirs to other mothers,
and some feel it goes by too fast,
and some wish it went by faster,
and some worry what their kids think of them
and whether they will remember this awful card holiday
and sort of wish they would
even though it shouldn’t matter.
Bearing all of this in mind and prayer,
we ask, Holy One, with your heart for all people,
give us a measure of grace with one another,
an instinct for the places where some hurt and others chafe.
Give us a measure of mercy and a big dose of patience where our mercy is strained and a sense of humor when people get on our nerves and a heart full of the unconditional love you give so freely to us, ready to share with those who need it most. Amen.
The two preachers at my house have a disagreement in principle about church attendance. Oh, we’re both for it under ordinary circumstances! We grew up in families where everybody went to church. We loved Sunday School and Youth Group and special choirs. Really, seriously, most of the time we are eager to get up and go on a Sunday morning, to lead worship in our respective congregations.
But on vacation? There we disagree. I love to visit other churches on vacation. My spouse does not. And she may have a point. Church is our workplace, and maybe the occasional Sabbath spent on a beach or walking in the woods is a good thing. (Although we spent the last joint Sunday off on the road returning from vacation.)
Perhaps when I visit other churches I do it with the keen, appraising eye of a professional, taking notes for my own worship leadership. In fact, I’ve been guilty of preaching at one church while taking vacation from another, a kind of busman’s holiday.
Why do you go to church?
Some do it out of obligation, and others to see their friends. Some do it because they always have; it’s a habit. Some do it out of fear they will end up on God’s bad side. I’ve heard people say they went to church every week when they were younger because in the day of the Blue Laws, there was nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. I find I wonder this about the people who come and listen to me on Sundays, particularly when they look unenthused about the experience. Believe me, I bring that home to ponder.
Why *do* you go to church?
In October we heard the Ten Commandments in worship and received the reminder to keep the Sabbath holy. Christians worship on Sunday to mark the Resurrection. It’s our less elaborate adaptation of the Jewish Sabbath. Most people feel no cultural pressure to attend, and some have no experience with church, and others have made other choices for legitimate reasons of their own including past hurts.
Why do you go to church?
In February I visited my childhood church in Virginia, where, yes, I preached on a vacation Sunday. It’s the place I first heard the words “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord.” (Psalm 122:1, King James Version) And I think that’s the reason I keep going to church on Sundays, the reason I responded to God’s call to local church ministry: I go because I am glad, week in and week out, to go into the house of the Lord.
When I first heard they forgave him, I flinched. Why should they have to do that? So quickly?
My visceral response gave way to self-examination. Maybe, like the Amish families who lost their children to a shooter a few years ago, these families are better Christians than I am, with a deeper faith, a less questioning theology, a more profound relationship with God.
I’ve been linking on Facebook to these essays and blog posts by African-Americans on the subject of shame and forgiveness and the trap created for the Black church simply by the attempt to survive in a majority white world. Wherever I read the ensuing conversations, the majority white participants, and particularly the Christian ones, resist the idea that there is anything multi-layered about the forgiveness offered by the families of the victims of the massacre in Charleston last week. They remind me that forgiveness is about letting go of things so you won’t be burdened by them, a psycho-spiritual approach popularized by Lewis Smedes in his book “Forgive and Forget,” a book I have recommended and handed along to many people.
One of the things on my mind is how disconnected our experiences as white people can be from those of others. I think it’s harder to ask people to apply that to massive, longstanding cultural wrongs.
And for white liberals of a certain age, this is a horrible time of reckoning as they – well, honestly, we – realize the dreams we had for a better more equal world, and the work they or their parents did in the 1950s and 60s was a drop in the bucket. I’m a little younger and better in tune with wider conversations about race, yet I am still having to tell the voice in my head that says “But really, things are better!” to shut up.
It’s not just that there is still a ways to go. It’s that we congratulated ourselves for making the three-point turn to get out of the driveway and never went further, and now we’ve backed down the street into eroding the Voting Rights Act and allowing police brutality instead of putting the car in Drive and actually making a difference.
We have been in denial, and especially for those of us who came up through religious communities, and maybe even had relationships with churches of not primarily the same racial makeup, or glad-handed or even genuinely welcomed the non-white visitors who stopped into our churches, we’re finally looking at how much more needs to be done. It’s uncomfortable, and we resist it, and we can’t figure out how to be allies and thought we already were. No excuses, just noting that there is a lot of reckoning occurring here.
I hate like hell that it took a shooting in a church to bring us to this moment – both because I hate that it happened in a church, and because I hate that putting the spotlight on “respectable” victims makes it more likely that white people will have to face the truth. It seems like we have had plenty of chances already.
And this is not the problem of our friends in the Black church or in the more secular anti-racism movement. This is *our* problem. We need to listen and hear the truth and figure out how we are going to help make the change. We are complicit in it, and we need to suck up our disappointment, listen to other people’s stories, and stop telling them they are wrong about the White church simply because we’ve never seen anyone be discriminatory or spoken or heard anything terrible from our own pulpits.
I don’t want to hear that I am forgiven for these things; I flinch at the notion, although I need forgiveness for the ways I am part of the problem.
Let me, let us, sort that out with God. And Lord, my Lord, help me to see the ways I can make a difference.
At our house, the cat population recently went from 2 to 3. A friend in Harrisburg posted a picture on Facebook of an orange boy kitty, age 2, whose owner could not keep him. A response from my spouse caught my attention, and I thought, “Hmm. This might be the one.” Our little guy still grieves for the big orange cat he knew his whole life long until last year, and we had tentatively discussed adding another cat or a kitten to the family. This seemed like it might be the right one. Besides, he needed a home quickly, or he was going to the Humane Society, and no matter how much they may care about surrendered animals, there are 400 cats there. The odds are not great for any of them to find the right loving home.
The next day, we went to get him, and since then, we’ve been going through that process you do when you take in an animal whose habits are already formed and try to integrate him with other pets who think they are the boss of the territory. In our case that means my Old Lady Cat, who is 17+ and goes by the nickname “Six Pounds of Fury.” It hasn’t been long since she went through her own resettlement program, moving to Mechanicsburg from the only home I had with her in Maine. She came to me as a 2-year-old rescue herself, long ago in 1998.
The trouble with a rescue cat is you can’t know what really happened to them before they came into your home. They can’t tell you. You can only try to read their actions and their moods and hope they will settle down eventually.
Bryce Harper, as our little guy named the new orange cat (and be assured I, at least, call him by both names), arrived and hid for a few days after the Old Lady Cat gave him a piece of her mind and possibly her claws. When he surfaced again, he only came out at night. Even then, we could see he had pulled the ceiling insulation down in the cellar, looking for either escape or safety. We’re not sure if he got upside down because he stayed awake for a long time out of fear, or if his nocturnal habits are the reason he ended up in rescue in the first place. We will never know, but just like his elderly cat housemate, he brings with him the experiences and the traumas (if any) he suffered in his past life. We are committed to live with him and with those behaviors even when they are not convenient for us. So in those first weeks, we sat on the floor and scratched on the cushion he seemed to like, reassuring him it was safe to approach us. We closed the door to the room where the Old Lady Cat sleeps so he could roam free in the night. We waited patiently for him to feel at home.
People can be like rescue cats, too. When we have suffered, we may respond out of that pain and trauma, even to people who aren’t really hurting us. When people come to a new church after a bad experience elsewhere, they may carry the wounds and scars with them. When we hear a story of hurt or rejection, we need to be ready to be more than nice to that person, more than the usual amount of hospitable. We need to stretch ourselves farther and show by our actions that we are committed to being the people of God and showing welcome to all who seek a safe and welcoming community of faith.
kzj and I often say we want to be treated as ordinary, in church and in the world, but that may be the privileged thinking of two people who came out later in life. We haven’t lived with the external prejudices our LGBT sisters and brothers knew if they came out younger and longer ago. A lay leader said to me recently that churches need to do more than treat LGBT people like the rest of the congregation; churches need to be ready to listen compassionately to stories of harm done.
I’ve known my own hurts; I’m a little like a rescue cat myself, constantly calculating the margin between danger and sanctuary, even though the truth is now I’m loved and safe.
God, of course, already knows what the troubles are, where the injuries have occurred and what might help remedy the situation. God knows that people need time to heal and safe places to recuperate. Whether we’re licking our wounds in the rafters or trying to figure out how someone else got hurt, that is good news for all of us. However we may have been harmed, and no matter how inclined we are to hide from the world, God is with us.
“O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever.” (Psalm 136:1)
Our patience here is paying off. Last night I woke to find the Old Lady Cat on one side of my feet and Bryce Harper on the other. May God show us all how to be present to one another, whatever the hurt may be, whatever the rescue required.
The earliest document preserved in the New Testament is 1 Thessalonians, a letter written by Paul in 51 C.E. to the church at Thessalonika. It is our first impression of what the newly born Christian faith and practice might have been like, decades before the gospels were written. In this letter, Paul writes to a beloved community, saying: How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? (1 Thessalonians 3:9)
Paul wondered whether he would ever see the people at Thessalonika again, and he cared deeply about their faith. Soon I will be far away, and although I will not see you, this family of faith will always hold a place in my heart. We have shared in both personal trials and celebrations in the past several years. You have shown a deep kindness to me and to my dear ones, the two-legged and the four-legged.
Saying goodbye is never easy. My last service of worship will be at 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve. There we will gather around Christ’s table, as Christians have done since before Paul wrote his letter to the Thessalonians. For almost 2000 years, faithful people have been parting from one another with words of Christ’s peace, and we will do the same. At my last Sunday service, on December 23, we will take the time to say good-byes and to release each other from our covenant in ministry. You will always have a place in my heart, but after I leave here for the last time on December 26, I will not be able to baptize or officiate at funerals or weddings for members of this church; that is the practice in our faith tradition.
We read this passage from Thessalonians in Advent, the beginning of the church year, a time when we anticipate the unpredictable future. Paul writes, And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. (1 Thessalonians 3:12) Like Paul, I wonder how things will develop for the people I can no longer see. I have hopes for your future together. I pray that God will be with you in all that you do and that you will share your abounding love with the hungry and hurting in this community and in the world. I pray that you will be spiritually nourished by your work on Christ’s behalf.
Your next chapter will unfold without me, as mine will without you. Whatever comes next, know that you do not face it alone, for the God who made you and the Christ who redeemed you and the Holy Spirit who comforts you will always be with you. As God has blessed you, may you be a blessing to others.
We do a lot of waiting at this time of year: in traffic, in lines to pay for purchases, at the Post Office mailing packages, to hear whether we will plunge off the fiscal cliff. We wait with anxiety, wondering how things can possibly come out right.
We also possibly spend a lot of time waiting to be faked out. After several months of watching the news avidly, I’ve mostly turned it off. I know what’s going to happen. No Republican will want to be the one who drove the family car of the United States over the fiscal cliff. No Democrat will want to be remembered that way either. They will reach an agreement, I predict, and it will be ugly and ungracious. I refuse to let them drive me off the anxiety cliff in the process, in service of a conspiracy — one I hope is unplanned, but who knows? — a conspiracy to keep us turning on the TV and buying the newspaper. What next? What next?
More of the same, I fear.
I grew up in a political family, wearing my father’s campaign buttons. (You can read more about him on Wikipedia.) Here’s a thing he understood and passed along to me: people have to work together to accomplish anything good for anyone. They may not agree on the specifics, but somewhere in the magnificent middle, they can figure out what’s best and what will work. When he had a problem with someone, he didn’t go on the news and say that person was a liar or a cheat or an idiot. He looked for another way around the disagreement.
In recent years, we’ve seen absolute brutality in national politics, with people publicly imputing the worst possible motives to their opponents. It’s a direct ticket to the edge of every kind of cliff, where a crowd gathers, waiting to see who will be pushed off first.
It’s as if we can no longer afford to give “the other side” the benefit of the doubt.
We’re seeing this in the hearings about Benghazi. One side assumes the worst about the other, and everyone is happy to go on TV and say so.
So what happens when we’ve been listening to discussions of inhumane tone, and then we need to have a conversation at church? I’ve watched it happen in churches I serve. In the United Church of Christ, my denomination, we have a designation for churches who declare their welcome to LGBT people. To become Open and Affirming, a church needs to have a study process first. I’ve seen it happen that a church can’t get to the process because the loudest voice “wins” by shutting down a conversation about talking about becoming Open and Affirming. Yes, I built in the apparent redundancy on purpose. The loudest voice shut down the possibility of talking about talking about doing the process.
We don’t know how to disagree without getting into a fight, because that’s all we see portrayed before us. We shut down to avoid the conflict. We tell ourselves there will be a better time later, sometime in the future.
What are we waiting for?
How long, O Lord, how long?
I want to tell you I’ve been willing to show courage and take on tough issues, but I’m not good at it. I get wound up. My heart beats uncomfortably hard and fast. It’s one thing to disagree where there is trust and love. It’s another thing to do it in the face of hostility. How sad is it that the place I’m afraid to face disagreement is the church, a place where we expect to have love and trust?
We end up waiting things out, clinging to the edges of community where the like-minded people also situate themselves. It’s true for most of us, at either end of the spectrum.
Somewhere in the middle is a place, maybe, where that same most of us, maybe, can muddle through the differences of belief and understanding together. I don’t mean doing it the way the politicians will to avoid the famous cliff; I’m not speaking of expediency followed by diatribes. Making our way to that muddled middle requires tuning out the extreme voices, the ones spewing anger as a weapon. In politics, turn them off. Don’t vote for them. Easy enough. On the internet, on your blog, on mine, ignore the comments.
But in church it’s harder. The same voice that was loudest, closing off discussion, may be the voice of the person who needs you to visit a dying mother in the hospital. The same voice that was loudest, raising the blood pressure of everyone else in the room, may be the voice of the person who works all day to cook a meal for the hungry. That same voice that was the loudest, making you wonder if you might lose your job if the conversation didn’t stop right there, may be the voice of the person saying “Thanks be to God” when you offer the bread and the cup.
You can’t change that channel.
You can only change yourself.
(Yes, that means me, too.)
I’ve been waiting for it to be easy, but I can’t wait anymore. In the muddled middle, I’m trying to practice saying what I believe matter-of-factly, kindly and openly. I’m trying not to be apologetic or aggressive. I’m trying not to wait anymore and speak the words God is calling out of me, the words God is calling me to say.