Thursday, March 28, 2013

Becoming an Ally

This week being Holy Week, Christians have certain themes on their minds: palms, hosannas, last suppers, the cross, Easter eggs and lilies, special services to attend (or plan), and so on and so forth.

It may also be that during this particular Holy Week, Christians are thinking about other themes as well, in light of what the United States Supreme Court has been deliberating over the past few days. It should be noted, however, that people of faith in particular do not think universally about this subject: we aren't a unified voting bloc on this. That may come as a surprise to Christians and non-Christians alike, not to mention no small amount of anger and indignation.

Certain corners (again, both Christian and non-Christian, believe it or not) pointedly say to Christians who support marriage equality: "You either believe it all or you don't believe any of it!" It's incredibly simplistic, leaving no room for nuance. Such a statement doesn't allow for theological or experiential complexity, threatening more conservative understandings of faith for some Christians and burning down favorite straw men for non-Christians, to the frustration of both.

The purpose of this post is not to give an exhaustive theological and Biblical treatise for marriage equality or for why I don't think homosexuality is a sin. I thought instead that I would just tell you the story of how I came to such an understanding. This is probably the plainest I've ever written about this subject here, but I figured it was time to be more candid and up front about certain things.

Even though I grew up a pastor's kid, I didn't really get serious about my faith until high school. That's when I really started to wrestle with what all this Jesus stuff meant to me. Such wrestling came chiefly in two waves. First, the persistence of my girlfriend at the time wanting to talk about such things, which eventually got me past the initial eye-rolling into eventual real questioning, and a Christian concert I attended the summer before my senior year, where it all really started to click.

At frequent points during this concert, the lead singer would stop to talk to us about different faith-related subjects. The context of it is lost on me now, but there was one point where he threw out the, "I believe it was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" line, the first time I had ever heard it. And I thought at the time that it was so clever and in-your-face that I laughed and clapped right along with others.

In those days, simple, clever, and in-your-face worked for me, faith-wise. Part of it was that I was still figuring things out, but I also enjoyed being a part of something and being clear about what being part of that something entailed, belief-wise. It's common in the early stages of faith development to enjoy that, to want answers and, once you think you've found them, to cling to them unquestioningly in order to maintain that sense of belonging and clarity about how the world works.

This sense of belonging eventually involved actually being pointed to the scriptures that purportedly condemn homosexuality. It started simply enough: a Christian friend and I were working together at the local library and, as we were shelving books, she said, "Did you know the Bible says being gay is a sin?"

"Really?"

"Yeah. Let me show you..."

She ushered me over to the religion section, grabbed one of the Bibles, and pointed a few of them out to me, Leviticus mostly. In my as-yet still infancy phase regarding taking my faith seriously, I didn't question this too much. I do recall getting in an argument with each of my parents--that is, two separate arguments, one with each of them--about what the Bible says on this topic. Okay, with my father it was more of a discussion, during which he said, "Some people take the Bible to be God." I've always remembered that. And it put enough doubt in my mind about what I was arguing for to make me wonder.

College is a time of transition and exploration, and my faith was privy to this as much as anything else. I've referenced this part of my journey many, many times on the blog over the years. The short version of this part of the story is that I discovered new ways to read the Bible and to consider what it says, accounting for context, the nuance of word translation, and modern scientific and historical methods and discoveries, among so much else. I knew several GLBT people at that time, who were...get this...normal. Or as normal as one could be in the circles I ran with back then. All of this cast further doubt on what I'd believed earlier, causing me to rethink whether such a blanket statement could be issued for a group of people, removed from context of both the Biblical passages used and the stories of those so many rush to condemn.

It was my trip to my first General Synod of the United Church of Christ that really brought things home for me. I was a delegate that year, and ended up getting off the plane in Kansas City with a fellow Ohioan. He wasn't a delegate, but was there to help out with some of the youth activities. We rode the shuttle from the airport, chatting about common acquaintances. It was the summer after I graduated college, so I told him a little about my plans to go to seminary and enter ministry.

We eventually ended up at the car rental place, where he offered to give me a ride to the hotel and then to the convention center. At some point during all this driving around, he disclosed to me that he was gay, and I was privileged to hear a little of his story. As is often the case, such a story involved a lot of personal struggle in discovering and admitting this about himself, including some heartbreaking ends to relationships that he'd held dear. There of course was no language of "choice," of deciding that he liked one "lifestyle" better than another. Instead, I recall language of identity: "I figured out that this is who I am, and I had to be honest about that."

This was the biggest turning point for me. And really, it didn't come with a grand "Aha!" sort of realization, a light from heaven, a lightning bolt to the brain, or anything else. It was more subtle than that: I simply allowed this story to sink in, to confront all that I had thought and said about homosexuality before then. It was a moment that drove home the truth that I'd already known: that one cannot approach such an issue, let alone real live flesh-and-blood human beings, simplistically or hide behind what is usually fear of what is unfamiliar or strange to us.

Putting a human face on something that I earlier only knew by way of a handful of Bible verses and an "Adam and Steve" joke made a big difference. In fact, it made all the difference. I'd have the privilege of hearing more of these sorts of stories in subsequent years, and being able to call many GLBT people good friends. And as I enjoy such friendship; as I work or laugh or simply be alongside them I can tell you that they are fearfully and wonderfully made by God. But the thing is that I don't have to tell you, because our faith makes such a claim apart from my having to say it.

So here I stand. I call myself their ally. And I believe in their equal right to love whom they're meant to love, as they have first been divinely loved.

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Dream

I was in a school. Perhaps a high school or a college building. There were clearly classrooms. The hallways were long and winding, lined with trophy cases or bulletin boards.

There was also a lot of activity. People around every corner, moving this way and that, chattering about  an unintelligible range of subjects while attempting to find whatever destination they were seeking.

And me? I was getting ready to perform.

I had a classroom assigned to me, and I wanted to make sure that I was on time. My guitar was already set up in the room, and I wanted to impress the judges. What was I going to play for them? Which song would I pick?

As it happened, I decided to play the song I've been working on during Lent. That seemed to be the clearest option; my best shot at winning whatever prize was at stake.

I was wearing my old navy blue United Church of Christ shirt. I needed to find another one. Sure, it was vintage, but was I really going to wear a church shirt for this performance, especially one with a mysterious eggshell-colored stain on it that had never come out in the wash over the years?

I roamed the halls wondering where I could find another shirt to wear, conscious of how much time I had left. I'd pass other classrooms and catch glimpses of others setting up or tearing down, never actually playing.

As I walked, I found myself wondering what would happen if I won. Would I get the ability to record, or to tour? It's one song. I play music as a hobby and don't know nearly as much about theory as I should for something like this. I just like to play.

I just like to play.

I woke up before I could find another shirt, let alone play my song.

But I think I found something anyway.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Vintage CC: I Don't Write Polite Church Stories

I wrote this post in May 2011 for reasons that become clear as you read. This blog isn't really a secret to anyone these days, not that I've ever taken great pains to hide it. But it seemed timely to repost this, as with a new call has come some new readers, and this is the type of post that I think serves as a good primer for what one can expect to find here.

Sometime last year, I picked up on the fact that a couple church members had found my blog. I have never really advertised it to them, for a reason that will sound very selfish to some: in the fishbowl life of a pastor, this blog was pretty much the only thing that was mine. It's not that I didn't want to share it or was afraid of their reaction. I just...didn't. Nevertheless, the cat is out of the bag, and now I have a couple church members--the few interested enough--who read.

Having quickly achieved peace with that, I decided to actively advertise my blog for the first time in a place where I knew church members would see it and possibly click: that ever-expansive blessing and burden out of Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard brain, Facebook. And the entry that I advertised was the one right before this: A Post-Easter Conversation. I won't lie: I was especially proud of that one. I loved how it turned out, so it seemed like a good one to link. And so, the hits came. I got two comments on the link, one thanking me and one wondering if it had been her high schooler whom I had referenced playing tic-tac-toe.

And then the red flag went up. Suddenly, the full ramifications of publicizing this entry became clear. People might be wondering if I'm writing about them. He used the word "damn." Twice. Some may read it and think, "I never knew he could get so frustrated with us." And thus a can of worms could be opened that I hadn't intended. The piece, taken as a whole, is about a pastor learning something about ministry. I am not the hero. I say things out of frustration in the story which, yeah, it happens. But I didn't write it as a direct rant about my church. Still, there was potential for the forest to be missed for the trees. And so I started to rethink my linking the blog in that other online space.

I've read many a pastor's blog that is clearly meant to be his or her "work blog." They're designated as The Official Church Blog of Pastor So-and-So, meant for pastors to share reflections with church members and any guests who wander onto the church website and see the link. These frequently consist of reflections on the weekly passages suggested by the lectionary, or other anecdotes shared followed by ruminations on some aspect of faith. But there's a tone to these blogs, most definitely influenced by the primary audience. There's a broadness, a politeness, a tameness to it that perhaps works, but it's not what this blog started as, and I don't really feel like changing even now that I know that a few church people read it. There's a reason why the people who found it last year have kept reading; there's a reason why somebody thanked me for Monday's post. And those are the people that I mostly want to read this anyway.

For everyone else, there may come complaints about the edginess that frequently displays itself here. This is not a typical church-sponsored polite pastor's blog. I don't want it to be that. If it were that, I would become bored with writing here very quickly. My newsletter articles are pretty tame, this is not. That's pretty much how it is.

Of course, the objection will come that I'm an ambassador for my church, and won't I be worried about perception and whatever? I have a couple answers for that, the first being to point out the little boilerplate paragraph over to the left clearly stating that this is my own personal hobby, not to be considered part of my pastoral work. This means a couple things:1) my audience is not present or future church members, it's whomever wanders by, and 2) I post when I want, not on some work-determined schedule.

There are at least three other reasons why I don't want to write about polite things:

1. Our faith is not polite. Have you read the Bible lately? The entire world is wiped out by a flood, God chooses an old barren couple, drunks, and murderers to carry out God's work, Job openly questions the world's (and God's) logic, Ecclesiastes mourns how pointless life is, Song of Solomon is Biblical erotica, the prophets demand that Israel and Judah care for the poor, Jesus proclaims that prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the kingdom of God before the wealthy, privileged & learned and then dies brutally on a cross, Paul and others meet similar fates, and great beasts are battled by angels. People have been martyred, voices suppressed, heretics burned, the poor have been fed, people take vows of poverty, chastity, or silence, spiritual disciplines practiced, wars fought. Congregationalists threw the original Tea Party, Bonhoeffer plotted to kill Hitler, Martin Luther King gave his life while battling for civil and workers' rights, and Mother Teresa fed and clothed countless children in poverty.

And yet so many churches and Christians in America seek, maintain, or market a polite, easy faith with clear answers and devoid of questions or expressed doubt. We're "in" and they're "out" and I'm not listening to the dozen holes in that logic. When a child dies "God just needed another angel," and if you're wrestling with a hard question "just put it in God's hands and it'll work out." Jesus' teachings are some nice things that he said to pass the time until the real reason he came to Earth: to die for me and everybody like me. And this life is all about anticipating the next one.

There needs to be a place for lament, anguish, and questioning. It wasn't beyond many of our faith ancestors, so why should we abolish it? Jesus' teachings, based on his upbringing in and knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, echo God's agenda to serve the poor. There's meant to be a riskiness to our faith that goes ignored so often. Our faith was never meant to be that polite, that easy.

2. The church is not polite. I already covered a lot of this above. Besides that, I've experienced the church's non-polite side several times. Usually that non-polite side comes out when one's sense of politeness is threatened. The system gets threatened in some way, and in efforts to pull things back to status quo, people can get ugly. Anything between a minor change in worship all the way up to a denominational body voting to expand rights to minority groups, these sorts of things can cause splits, dissention, or the dissolution of relationships.

At the same time, churches have been able to move forward and do wonderful things when eschewing politeness and having difficult conversations about changes in philosophy, about who to welcome, about hard or embarrassing moments in church history and about doctrines that seem strange or ambiguous once one gets past the surface. These things can cause some to lash out, but it can also deepen relationships, faith, or the church's calling that were unimaginable before that conversation happened.

3. Life is not polite. People with 30+ years experience in one company suddenly get laid off. Cancer, diabetes, mental illness, and countless other afflictions can interrupt the lives of individuals and entire families. New forms of technology and media can alienate as much as it can unite. People suffer from forms of physical, emotional, sexual, and spiritual abuse at the hands of trusted figures, let alone strangers with their own unspoken issues. We can only insulate ourselves from life's harsher features so much. Sometimes people seem to use faith and church as part of that insulation, but it may not help considering everything written above.

The solution to any of these is not insulation, but acknowledgement and active wrestling; owning up to what is happening, calling it for what it is, and seeking true help where it can be found: relationships, assistance, people willing to wrestle alongside the one in pain, and faith if it seems helpful (not all forms will be).

This is why I don't write polite stories on this blog. Politeness just isn't a big part of many people's life experience. I'd rather deal with that experience instead of trying to create a view of the world that isn't true. I'd rather acknowledge pain while celebrating joy, deal with questions and express silliness, be honest about doubts but also encourage faith. Faith, church, and life are both/ands. That's why this blog is, too.

Monday, March 11, 2013

"The Crumbs of Our Cooperation"

I probably don't write about my spiritual direction program on here enough. This is me attempting to change that.

This past Saturday, my class had an all-day workshop with Rev. Brian McDermott of Georgetown University. It was our second workshop with him, and I've found him very enjoyable both times. He's very personable and has a great sense of humor, in addition to being incredibly knowledgable about the subject matter.

This weekend, McDermott went over Ignatius' thoughts on "election." To someone like me with a Reformed background, we may jump to a certain definition of the term having more to do with who God chooses to save. But the way Ignatius uses the term is more about the choices that we make after discerning God's will for us.

For Ignatius, this process of election has a double edge. First, election is for we ourselves; we cannot discern what is right for another person. For example, one may decide that he or she is called to a particular church. But there is more than one agent that has to discern that to be the best option; one cannot simply wander into a church and say, "God has called me to be your pastor." The congregation has to do its own discernment and come to a likewise conclusion.

At the same time, however, one is not meant to discern by oneself. For Ignatius, election is meant to be a matter of "we," that is, me and God discerning together. It is not me discerning and then asking God to chip in or approve what I've already decided. God, McDermott shared, is not like a flashlight that we take off the shelf when we think we need it only to be placed back on the shelf again later. Rather, God is meant to be ever-present in our decision-making.

One of my favorite parts of the day was when McDermott described how God uses whatever we offer God. At times (or always) we want to withhold parts of ourselves from God, going into self-preservation mode at the risk of discerning something we don't want. Regardless, McDermott shared, "God works with the crumbs of our cooperation." I loved that line; it's going in a sermon at some point.

One of my other favorite parts of the day was when McDermott described the two images of the process of election and discernment. One common view is that God has a fixed plan for each of us and we go along with what God has already mapped out. On the other hand, God may work with us more the way jazz musicians work with one another: there's a general framework, but room for improvisation, new ideas, and responding to one another in a much more dynamic system. This latter view played to my process sensibilities, and recalled for me a book that I read years ago using this same metaphor.

If I had one qualm about the workshop, and/or about the way Ignatius approaches discernment, it's that I didn't hear much of anything about communal discernment. It's been my experience time and time again that one can't do the work of discernment in isolation. Instead, one must look to others who know us best or who are in trusted positions to help us discern; who will point out our blind spots and offer support and pushback. The example given of pastor and church approached this, but doesn't fully address it. I did ask about this and was referred to an article, which I've yet to read. I hope that it will provide clarification.

All in all, there was so much about this workshop and there has been so much about this program that has been edifying and renewing, and the first year isn't over yet. There were so many great quotes and pieces of information shared over the course of one day that I'm tempted to share them in bullet points, but 1) this would get pretty lengthy, and 2) I might not be able to capture the context of them well enough for them to make sense.

However, I can share video where McDermott shares some of this material, including the jazz band metaphor that I mentioned. This isn't from Saturday, but it gets at the same points:


Friday, March 08, 2013

Pop Culture Roundup

My church is looking into revamping its constitution and bylaws--and possibly its governance/committee structure--so I thought I'd pick up Dan Hotchkiss' Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership in preparation. It came highly recommended by multiple colleagues, and I'm a bit of a church administration nerd (I know...weird), so I started reading. I'm about halfway through, and it's been quite interesting. Hotchkiss first summarizes the structures that churches of different sizes may be used to, the most prominent being variations on the "governing board and committees" model. Hotchkiss then analyzes the two main functions of any of these structures: governance (setting and maintaining policy) and ministry (anything practical: worship, mission, education, etc.), and suggests that the traditional committee structure is no longer necessary or most effective to address them. It's very informative and thought-provoking so far.

Coffeewife got the DVD of Breaking Dawn Part 2 pretty much right when it came out, and as happens every time one of these comes out, I end up watching it with her. As Twilight movies go, this was probably one of the better-directed, more action-filled ones, which helped make it more tolerable for me. Coffeewife had already filled me in on everything that happens, including the big scene that apparently caused a bunch of people to walk out of the theater before they realized what was going on (LOL Twilight fans got trolled by their own movie). So everybody lives happily ever after, the movie and book series are both over, amen and amen.

This past Sunday on The Walking Dead, we caught up with Morgan, the father from the earliest episodes. Things...have not gone well for him. It was kind of a standalone episode where Rick, Carl, and Michonne go on a mission apart from the conflict with Woodbury, which I thought served to do two things: resolve what happened to Morgan and his son, and make Michonne more a part of the group. In the case of the latter, she showed a lot more personality which I really liked. As fun as her sitting around scowling at everybody when not cutting zombies' heads off has been, she seemed more human this past Sunday. So I guess it's back to the Woodbury stuff this week.

Here's Serena Ryder's video for "Stompa." See below for more:



Albumwatch!

Beats Antique, Beauty Beats - What do you get when you combine Eastern music, electronica, bellydancing, and steampunk? You get...this. I happened upon the title track to this album on Youtube while watching something else, and figured I'd give the whole thing a listen. It's a very mellow sort of album, good for slowly waking up to while sipping coffee.

Serena Ryder, Is It O.K. - I recently watched a video of Ryder performing her latest single "Stompa" (see above), and had one of those HOLY CRAP I HAVE TO LISTEN TO EVERYTHING THIS PERSON HAS EVER WRITTEN moments. I've since calmed down, in part because the album that that song appears on hasn't been released in the U.S. yet (she's Canadian). So I had to settle for this album from 2008 on Spotify instead. While "Stompa" is more of an Adele-rocks-out sort of sound, this album recalls Melissa Etheridge: more gritty and straightforward rock. I liked it just as much, but I'm gonna keep looking for opportunities to hear Harmony, too.

Ellie Goulding, Halcyon - I heard one of Goulding's songs, "Hanging On," during a video game commercial, and out of curiosity looked her up on Spotify. First off, I hadn't realized I'd already heard her song "Anything Could Happen." Overall, her sound is ethereal, electronic pop, and it's the ethereal part that caused me to like it. If it was the dance-y stuff that Coffeewife likes, probably not so much.

Weezer, Pinkerton - I've been on a bit of a Weezer kick lately, so I figured I'd go back and listen to some of their stuff that--to my shame--I've never heard. So we start with this harder-edged follow up to their breakthrough self-titled "blue album." As I recall, not a lot of people liked this one. But this is the harder, crunchier kind of Weezer that I like, so I took to this one pretty quickly. On top of that, there's an emotional depth to this album that the band hasn't seemed to have attempted since. So, crunchier/deeper Weezer doesn't play well to the masses, eh? It'll be our little secret, then.

Weezer, "the red album" - I haven't made up my mind about this one yet. It doesn't seem like all the parts fit together. I know they were trying to get away from formulaic songwriting on this one, but doing so is not always a good or needed thing. This'll take a few more listens, methinks.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

40 Day Creativity Check-In

As my Lenten discipline this year, I chose to take part in the 40-Day Creativity Experiment, where you're encouraged to work a little on the same art project every day for 40 days. You may recall that I chose to work on writing a song.

To be honest, I've been surprised at how well this has gone so far. I thought I'd get tripped up just on finding the melody for the first few weeks, but I came up with a nice little chord progression and the whole thing has just kind of flowed from there. I seriously am planning to share it here after Easter, whether that entails figuring out how to use Garageband on my Mac or doing something with Youtube.

Really, this song has ended up being part of a larger Lenten happening. A big part of it is musical: making it a point to strum my guitar for even just a few minutes each day has helped me rediscover a love of playing that I think I lost for a while. I approached it more as an obligation as part of ministry and didn't play a whole lot outside of a single quick weekly practice before worship. I've been breaking out my binders of chord charts again; feeling the kind of excitement that I recall having back when I was still teaching myself how to play in my seminary apartment.

I've been working on a second song. I've had the chord progression in my head for years but never figured out what the song should be about. I have it figured out now.

The other part of the larger Lenten happening has been my transition from one ministry to another. As it turns out, eight years in one place brings with it a need to decompress, process, and come to terms with not being there for a group of people any more, especially when something sudden, unforeseen, and tragic happens to them, which was the case this past week. Boundaries are a complicated, sometimes frustrating, ultimately needed, but still difficult thing.

Don't misunderstand: I'm very excited about where I am now, but I'm also working through some natural and inevitable feelings of loss. Perfect for Lent, right?

So. These songs. The first is about moving on from one place to another; reflections on a life that really features a lot of such transitions and what may ground us in the midst of it. The second song is about the experience of watching something or someone you love from afar.

I didn't plan for this. It just happened. That's what this creativity experiment is about: just letting stuff happen. And for me, it's been an unexpected blessing.