Monday, September 21, 2015

Where All May Gather - A More Perfect Witness

A word from the outset--

I'm an advocate for The United Methodist Church to change its current position on human sexuality. If you are as well, I invite you to join me and sign on with our sister church in the Tennessee Conference, Belmont, who has been working to formulate petitions to the 2016 General Conference to amend all prohibitive and discriminatory language around LGBTQ matters.  If you are of that mind and heart, you may do that here:   If by some miracle I'm on the floor of General Conference and eligible to vote when it comes up, I will be casting my vote that way.

To sign on doesn't mean anything will change.  It does mean that as a part of your particular witness of what you believe to be the most faithful witness of The United Methodist Church and the Realm of God coming into being, these codified exclusions must fall away so that a deeper and I believe more faithful witness may emerge.

This is my witness on this.
I recognize it is not everyone's. It can't be.
Some may be supportive for very different reasons than I am.  And that's to be expected.  I cannot nor will not puppet polarizing talking points so as to convince some constituencies that I'm a "true believer" about this or any other issue.

Anyone who knows me at all will know what my response to such litmus test expectations are.

Some are not supportive of this change at all and hold deep convictions for why it is so for them, even as I am confounded as to how we can be of any heart and mind but to change.  

Thus is the tension of the Church.  It is not the first time the Church has struggled, it will not be the last.

Many, I believe, are not sure where they are on this question.  They have heard what the Church has said on this, and yet inwardly they know something seems disconnected between what is said and what they believe about the heart of God.

There are many issues occupying the Church's attention, and this is surely one.  And while there are some who would want to lump this issue in with our struggles around discipleship, evangelism, generating leaders, and the rigors of an unwieldy system, to do so is to dilute this issue's import. Placed among the many we can hide from the particular.  I contend that how we deal with the fundamental question of true inclusion will define how we deal with the others.

One thing is certain, we are better than what we've been showing.  We are better than the anger, judgement, fear, condescension and bloviating we've been doing at each other.  Because while that's happening people are hurting.

Is not our first rule "Do no harm?"

Lord, have mercy.  Christ, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.

I love and hold deeply my commitment to The United Methodist Church.  In addition to being a member of an annual conference, in my current work I serve as an officer of the conference where I am bound to uphold and honor the Church's rule.  I have.  And I will.  And I want that rule to change.

Without equivocation, I do not want to see schism.  I'm convinced that we are better, more faithful--together.  There are days when I believe it's hopeful that there will be a way made out of no way in which the circle will be drawn ever wider with glad and joyful hearts.  And there are days I know for certain that the inevitability of impasse leads only to one conclusion.  All I have to do is look at the name of the church I serve that's engraved atop the sanctuary exterior to be reminded of that:  ST.JOHN'S M.E. CHURCH SOUTH

About convictions...I preached on those recently:
"Convictions are conducted from the innermost place in the heart toward outward expression. They always are. The compelling question is not whether any of us have convictions. We all do. It’s being honest about the source within us that gives our convictions life. We may decorate our convictions with language that appears theological and biblical….boy, can we hide our true intent in that. But unless what is being conducted from our hearts into action is the love of God through Jesus expressed through love of neighbor, I don’t care what you say your convictions are based on, what people see outwardly is the truest expression of what exists within."
"If the courage of your convictions doesn't move you to live your love for God that confronts your bias, it's not a conviction, it's an idol."
We've got idolatry aplenty at work in the guise of convictions on both sides of this issue--even on the side of the issue I hold.  This is not about theological treatise.  Some darned good ones are out there. Knock yourself out.  This is not about grandstanding in a sermon.

The whole biblical obedience thing is a ruse.  It doesn't wash.  Why does Aaron Sorkin have a better handle on biblical interpretation than most of us who claim to live with the Bible daily?  If that's where we're going to go it will always end up with winners and losers, and the Bible would have been weaponized yet again.

Lord, help me.   If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times, Jesus does not need anyone to defend him.  Jesus is just fine.  What Jesus expects of us is something else...something that comes from the heart.

Herein lies the rub for me.

No matter what we say about sacred worth, The United Methodist Church is not drawing the circle wider.  We are robbing the Holy Spirit from bringing about a new day in us and in our witness.  We are robbing ourselves from being blessed and ministered by that of God in those who are gay.

Our witness is weakened because it is incomplete.

This isn't about nature vs. nurture.  

This isn't about "how" sexual identity is determined or "why," or "what" to do about it if it falls within certain "acceptable" parameters and especially if it doesn't.  My understanding of how our sexual identities are determined is not what guides me.  I don't have to understand it.  Which is a good thing, because I don't.

This is about "who."

This is about people, about children of God upon whom the waters of baptism have splashed being told that they cannot engage the Church like others. They cannot serve the God they've given their lives to through the pursuit of ordination.  While they can marry elsewhere they cannot here and the ones appointed to be their pastors cannot solemnize their covenant.

These people, whom God loves, calls to ministry, and calls into sacred relationships are not welcomed within the rule of the Church, our Church, my Church like I am.  There is something inherently wrong about that.  

This isn't about the prior practices of the Church and frontiers never crossed.  We've crossed into new frontiers before in our history.  It's an easy survey of our history see that.  Ultimately we discover there are moments when to let go of something long held so as to make room for something new defines our character regardless of how loving our rhetoric may sound.

This isn't about orthodoxy.  I have deep respect for orthodoxy.  And yet even it can made an idol.

This is about orthopraxy - about right practice of faith not as agents of the Church (which is always a fallen system in need of redemption), but as companions of Jesus, disciples.

Without fail, Jesus associated with those who caused great consternation and challenge to the previously held understandings of who God is, what God does and how God does it.   If he had a mantra found in Gospels, surely it is "You have heard it said, but I tell you..."  The very nature of Jesus' ministry was/is to confound previously held understandings for a newer way, a different path.

Why?  To What End?  Invariably, Jesus' teachings yield very specific fruit.  That is, as we live out the "royal rule of love" through love of God expressed through love of neighbor, the product of that equation brings us all to Table, together.  It welcomes us, each of us.  And all of us are made worthy to be present only by God's grace.  Whether I think you belong is not relevant.  It's plenty enough to realize that I belong, that I'm invited.

This place is safe.
This place is sanctuary.
It is the place where all may gather.
And we've got to make some changes in the Church so that we may be made ever more perfect in love, where ours is a more perfect witness.

Veni, Sancte Spiritus.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Here's to the Ties that Bind

Every January for the past 5 years or so, I've made a pilgrimage, together with my brother, Sky, to Manasota Key, Florida.  My old friend, Ed lives there.  We sail.  We might cuss a little.  We might have a beverage.  We talk about the problems of the Church and how we'd fix them.  We talk about our lives and what we need to do to find peace.  We live in the transcendent place of a friendship that spans decades (like over 40 years), and of a trust in each other that is unmistakably a means of grace.

Of all the things Ed has been for me over the years:  someone whose craft I admired if not envied;  someone who came into my life every few years seemingly interested in who I was and who I was becoming; someone who after a time sought my counsel and earnestly wanted to know what I thought - the greatest gift Ed has given me in recent years is simply this - Sanctuary.

I love this man.  He's my friend.  His journeys into my life often intersect significant moments in my own.  He was at St. John's only days after Jimmy died. We'd booked him months in advance.  Who would ever know or expect that this man who's been a part of every church in my life since First United Methodist Church, Mayfield, would on this occasion be chaplain, a real pastor to my family who made pilgrimage to Memphis to be together in the days following the most traumatic experience we'd ever encountered.

This man--singer, storyteller, artist.  Of all the things he is, he's my friend.

And I get to share my friend with the people of St. John's again this weekend.  He loves St. John's. In fact, in my first visit with him at his place I remember him asking me, "What did you leave St. John's and is there any way you can go back?"  I told him it was complicated and that I did promise I'd go where sent, and I can't imagine how going back was an option.

Who knew?

He's coming Friday to The Way.  He's not doing anything but being there.  So captured is he by John and the recovery ministry at St. John's, that he's coming a day early to experience it.  He'll lead us in worship on Sunday, and he'll be in concert at 3 p.m. in the sanctuary.

You should'll be worth your time.

I'm excited to see him...that he's coming.

But I'm even more excited about being with him, pulling out my calendar and booking my next time to be with him at his place.  The thing about sanctuary - once you know where it is, you'll do whatever you can to return to it whenever you can.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

I Think David Letterman Is My Big Brother

During the life of this blog, I've written much about David Letterman. Feel free to search.

As his retirement from the show has drawn ever closer I've thought about what I might say.  Now that the day of his signing off is on us, it feels a bit like now or never.

I've tried to figure out from where my affinity for this quirky, Midwestern born, system cynical, often self tortured guy comes.  It's finally hit me.  I think he serves the role of my big brother.  Some of those traits live in me.

I loved watching Johnny Carson.  His own talent aside, I think what I loved about him was that during my childhood days, on the occasions I was able to sit up late and watch at least the monologue, it was what he said that made my parents and grandparents laugh.  This guy in the TV could make the grown ups in my life any guy who could do that was a friend of mine.  Full on laughter was not a hallmark in the normalcy of my life.  It's not that my childhood was sad, hardly. Far too much of our living, then and now, is so much about just getting through the day, rarely is there time for laughter. Life is neither happy nor sad, it just is.  The truth of that may be sad in retrospect, but it's not anything you'd recognize in the moment.  

So, when the "eh" of daily existence is broken by the sound of laughter, you take notice.  I did.

If Johnny Carson belonged to my parents and grandparents, Dave belonged to me and my generation. I remember him on The Tonight Show.  I remember him guest hosting.  I remember the Morning Show, although I only saw it once when I was sick.  But most of all, I remember Late Night.  It debuted in February of 1982, in the final months of my senior year in high school.  

This guy didn't so much make my parents laugh, in part because they were long gone to bed by the time he came on, but he made me howl.  I could not believe the irreverence for the very medium through which he was broadcasting.  Loved it.  

To this day, my mother could tell you of the times they were awoken between 11:30-12:30 by my laughter during my college days. 

This was my "big brother" telling jokes, pulling pranks on the network big shots, with a glint in his eye that said, "do something about it, I dare ya."

Like him, across the years, some of the acerbic has given way to humility.  Lessons learned, failures of varying kinds, the new thing in life you never thought you'd know or see, it changes a person.

As he signs off tonight, I'm thankful that I was able to see the show in person, twice.  Once was as a regular audience member.  The other was seated at the top of the balcony with a member of the crew who gave Kristy and me all access to everything before and especially after the taping, including standing on the stage where music icons performed for Ed Sullivan, and where Dave held court every night.  I also sat at his desk.  We absconded with a few Late Show pencils that Dave would either throw though the window or make notes.

I have some Late Show swag...tshirts, sweatshirts and hat.  What I most covet is what isn't for sale, one of the crew's Worldwide Pants jackets.

I'm thankful that even though his leaving will be a huge transition for him, he does so a man happier than ever.  I get that.  I want my big brother to be happy.

And I want to see him again.  Truth is, he's a helluva broadcaster.

So I'll be watching tonight.  Watching a 33+ year figure in my life move on as all of us who have appreciated his work do the same.

Good night, Dave.  Drive safely.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

For the Love of God....No, Seriously, for the Love of God

A simple look across the news landscape today and one could conclude that the world is indeed on fire.  And if you're watching the news today most likely it is from a conduit designed to fan the flames of the lesser angels of your nature.  Have you ever wondered how much of your anger about a thing is in direct proportion to how much of it has been stoked by talking heads? the way, they're laughing all the way to the bank as they do that.

There are real issues of justice and mercy afoot around questions of race, the role of government, equality in marriage, income disparity, immigration, a Church claiming the desire to be relevant but not willing see itself as part of the problem about why it isn't...

Meanwhile, Baltimore burns.  Baltimore, the place where Methodism became a Church in 1784, needs our prayers for its leaders who can lead well through chaos.  And as a country we need to be honest about what drives people to such reactions.  MLK called rioting "the language of the unheard."  I suspect that's right.

For faith leaders in the midst of it all...especially our sister and brother United Methodists, Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

As I heard of what was transpiring in Baltimore through the postings of a childhood friend who lives there, I kept asking myself, "what would it take for that to happen in Memphis."  My answer came swiftly, "not much, I suspect."

Yeah, we need leaders who can lead through chaos in all sorts of avenues of our lives.  I look at those elected to office under the auspices of representing people, and I want to puke.

And while there's much to complain about in Washington, I don't need to leave The Volunteer State to see ineptitude and ignorance at the highest level.

What's that quote about "we get the government we deserve?"  Lord, have mercy.
Here's a clue, if you're more interested in making the Bible your "state" book than you are living into the instructions contained therein about tending to the least among us, you're an idiot at best or an idolater at worst.

And then there's the Church.

Some claim the Church and its institutions are under attack and must be protected at all costs.
I keep looking for Jesus in that notion, and I'm not finding him.  In fact, I think I'm more likely to find him keeping company with those who cause the Church to grumble and conspire all kinds of things to justify why we can't/mustn't change the ways we do things.

Thurgood Marshall said, "What we owe to ourselves and everyone around is to examine the reasons for our true intent.  My intent will be evident in the results."

And it is here I find myself returning to words that have become mantra for my ministry, my journey:
Jesus doesn't need you to defend him.  He's just fine.  You know that whole rose on the third day thing?  Rather, he needs you to follow him and his words, most notable among them are "Love God with all you have and are, and love what God loves."

Our true intent here is evidenced in whether our love for God's people is greater than the institutions invoking God's name.  Do we love our position on an issue, any issue/any side of it, more than the One we claim to follow?

If we love God and all God loves first and most, seems to me we hear the cries of the weary and downcast over the bloviating "shout fire in a crowded theater" opinion makers.  By the way, you know what opinions are like, right?  Everybody has one, and some of these folks are.

If we love God and all God loves first and most then in the face of systemic injustice (be it religious or governmental, but especially religious) our voices begin to sound a helluva lot like Jeremiah's:

"For from the least to the greatest of them,
everyone is greedy for unjust gain; 
and from prophet to priest, 
everyone deals falsely. 
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, 
saying, “Peace, peace,” 
when there is no peace.  
They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; 
yet they were not ashamed, 
they did not know how to blush."

And while I have no answer to the complexities of all the problems of this world, the life of Jesus points me in the direction where I need to advocate, agitate, embrace and empower.  My greatest struggle in moments such as these is not whether I take a position, it's being clear about my intent in doing so.   My prayer is that in every moment, especially the hard ones, it is "for the love of, seriously, for the love of God."

Friday, April 17, 2015


Today's a hard day for my family.

All of us suffer loss. It is among the things humanity has in common. Sometimes loss is sudden, tragic. 

Sometimes it's gradual. 

The memories of all that occurred the day Jimmy died are seared. Can't be undone nor can a recitation of the pain be unfelt. 

This year it feels different. Maybe it's because most of my family was together with our new family only days ago celebrating the love of God alive in Mia. 

Maybe it's because I see Jimmy's son becoming such an impressive young man.

Maybe it's that I'm different. I'm told I am. Self awareness is a gift to be sure--I'm aware enough to know it's true. 

Whatever it is, while today I may not be on top of the mountain, I do know that I am "Closer to Fine."

Love you, brother. 

"I'm trying to tell you something about my life
Maybe give me insight between black and white
The best thing you've ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously, it's only life after all
Well darkness has a hunger that's insatiable
And lightness has a call that's hard to hear
I wrap my fear around me like a blanket
I sailed my ship of safety till I sank it, I'm crawling on your shore.
I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain
There's more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine."

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Lent 2015 - The Paradox of Praxis

Lent begins with Matthew 6 - "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven."  That verse serves as prelude for a litany of otherwise holy behaviors in which the Gospel writer elucidates that doing something, even something good or holy, has a prerequisite of proper intent if it is to be efficacious.

That Ash Wednesday's Gospel lesson for today is always this reading is no accident.  Like me, perhaps today is the mark in time on your calendar to begin doing something or to refrain from doing something.  In this age of persistent self disclosure at least, and full on TMI at most - fueled by the ease social media, the caution of Gospel today places us in a bind.

For heaven's sake--we want to share everything we do and where we do it.  

To be sure, some of our Lenten "disciplines" make mockery of what the season is about.  Chances are if you're giving up something for Lent it is likely something you do disproportionately anyway.  Let's say you're fasting from something for Lent.  That's all well and good.  How much of what you're giving up for 40 days has such hold during the normalcy of life that it rises to the top of your list when considering what to give up? And, how quickly will that from which you fasted rush back in come Easter?  Or if for Lent you're not fasting from something but taking on what end, and why only now, if it's something good, did you wait until today to start?And then there's the biggest question:  Will having fasted from it or taken it on clarify who Jesus is and who you are as his disciple?

Historically, Lent leads catechumens to the waters of baptism on Easter.  It leads them not only to the water but into the community of Christ.  It is here, in Christian community, that we begin to take on the practices of faith, stand with and for those pushed to the margins.  And why?  If Lent's purpose is to draw us closer to Christ in community, then rest assured that to find him, that's where we've got to go.

John Wesley ministered among the poor in no small part because he experienced Christ among them.

Who's on the margins in the places where your Christian community exists?  Want to find Jesus this Lent?  Go there and you'll discover a depth of presence that will overwhelm. Make those otherwise excluded a part of your Christian community.  Bring their context into your own not because they need you, but because you need them.

Or, you could just give up chocolate, Diet Coke, cussing, and to decide to exercise and eat right for 40 days and show us all how you're doing.  As Jesus says in Matthew "truly I tell you, they have received their reward."

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Sacrum Facere"-- Marcus Borg

As the words of acknowledgement and remembrances for the life and witness of Marcus Borg come pouring in, I'm prompted now to bring my own. 

I heard he'd died  yesterday but sat with it awhile. The temptation to rush and post something like "breaking news" is not fitting the style of the man being remembered. 

A few thoughts this morning as I reflect on him:
     1. To my colleagues and friends, if you have to preface your acknowledgment of his death with how much you didn't agree with him, then own up that such an acknowledgment through this medium is more about your perceived need to cover your own backside than to earnestly pray God's peace to someone in their dying. 
     2.  I met Marcus on a couple of occasions during what was a very regular stop at Calvary Episcopal's Lenten Speaker Series. The benefit of those brief encounters brought together with reading his words and observing through video his very professorial and deliberate approach to teaching provided a conduit through which I felt as if when I was reading him I was in his classroom. 

     3. The question of my believing what he wrote is irrelevant. I do know this. On several matters about the faith, about my faith, it was he (often in partnership with Dom Crossan) who gave language and form to what I long felt but had not words to express. Or at least they did it in such a way that I could hear it.   

So when I preach repentance as announced in Gospel, among the other things ascribed to it's meaning, I hear "to go beyond the mind you have."  The Church will never fulfill its truest call to bring everyone round the Table until it can do that. I can't be all I'm called to be until I do that, too. 

Holy Week, sacrifice and atonement are the places where most he made his mark on me. At last, words that resonate in my spirit with the God who Is.  Is life made sacred because it just is or by what one does with it?  

    4. Marcus' body of work is significant and it will endure. I am made better by his contribution to the conversation. I am challenged and confronted by questions he raises. And maybe that's the point. Lord knows we've got far too many talking heads content to cash in and validate what we already think, believe.   But to those like Marcus who turn the prevailing view on its side for insight at a different angle, even and especially if what it reveals distrurbs as it enlightens, they are truly blessed to be a blessing. 

Marcus would be quick to say "Life is short. And we haven't much time to gladden the hearts of those on the way with be swift to love...make haste to be kind."

And if that's his last lesson to us, it may well be his best.