25 May 2009

Eye on the Goal

Rev. Anna Taylor-Sweringen

I'm not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don't get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I've got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I'm off and running, and I'm not turning back. So let's keep focused on that goal, those of us who want everything God has for us. If any of you have something else in mind, something less than total commitment, God will clear your blurred vision—you'll see it yet! Now that we're on the right track, let's stay on it. (Philippians 3:12-16, The Message)

These words to the Philippians put me in mind of the persistence of the SCLC in the early days of the Civil Rights movement. Ever mindful that what lay behind them were all manner of intimidation, from loss of jobs to loss of life, those early protesters and freedom riders pressed on. I watch the newsreels of their being beaten, being jailed, having fire hoses and police dogs turned on them. In awe I realize they pressed on.

They had to have a vision, a sense of purpose, larger, greater, more powerful than past, present and future suffering that enabled them to take it. They had to have a plan, a strategy, a discipline that, when engaged, kept that vision from turning into wishful thinking or fantasy, that redefined victory so there was no such thing as defeat. There also had to be an acknowledgment that victory might not come their lifetime, yet they marched and protested and endured as if it would.

I read Philippians 3:12-16 and see it in the persistence of those protesters, know it undergirds the testimonies shared by black Presbyterians like Katie Canon, Oscar McLeod, Bob Washington in the Black Legacy DVD, hear it in the closing words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last address in Memphis:

“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

So when I get weary or disgusted, I recall Philippians 3:12-16 to memory to keep me focused, clear my vision, remind me I’m on the right track. I just have to stay on it.

19 May 2009

A Trip to Church

By Matthew Beams

I do some volunteering with an organization called Soulforce NYC, http://www.sfnyc.org/, which desires reconciliation between LGBT folks and anti-gay and anti-transgender religious traditions. For the past few months we have been visiting a church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn where the pastor has a history of making anti-gay remarks and writing anti-gay tracts. We contacted the church and let them know we’d be coming to worship and fellowship with them and hoped to open a dialogue with them. Preparing for these visits, we train using the principles of non-violence as outlined by Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We support each other and pray together. We discuss openness and reconciliation. We go in a small group. And we believe that it is God’s Will that we should reconcile. And yet, on the day it was my turn to visit the church, I was nervous to go.

Micah, Peter, and I met on Sunday morning and traveled to Brooklyn together, arriving at the church shortly before the service started. We stood out as visitors to the church, as most church-folk know who are the regulars and who are the visitors. We were greeted warmly and welcomed. We chose where to sit and entered our row, and my heart was pounding.

The opening music started, and it sounded great. The band played worship and praise songs and we all started singing and worshiping together. As we stood there, a young teenager took a seat in the row ahead of us, and Micah, Peter, and I all looked at each other. Surely this boy was queer! I didn’t know him, nor did I speak with him, but he just reminded me of myself at that age, struggling with the intersection of faith and my own beginning understanding of myself as a gay person. Micah and Peter had a similar impression. I felt strengthened. Maybe God had seated us all here in proximity to be a witness to each other. As the music continued on for some time I felt at ease. The Holy Spirit was moving through this sanctuary, and I felt God’s presence all around me. I wasn’t surprised, because of course God is everywhere, but I was relieved of some of the anxiety I brought with me.

Then the sermon started. One of the bishop’s associates preached that Sunday and the theme of his sermon was “Deception leads to Disobedience, which leads to Disease, and then to Despair.” Wow! As he picked and chose verses from the Bible to support his claims, my relief dissipated. Where was God’s Grace? Where was Love? Where was Mercy? It was not in this sermon. As a 37-year-old man I can look back at my life and see where I have deceived myself, or allowed myself to be deceived by the trappings of life or the lure of the quick-fix. I can see how that deception lead me to disobey my own personal morals and even to fail to be the man God called me to be in those instances. I can see how that led to physical, mental, and spiritual “dis-ease.” And often that led me to feel despair. As a 37-year-old man, who has found God’s Grace and Mercy, I can look at that without judgment for myself and see how that did not fit into God’s plan for me. But as I looked at the teenager sitting in front of me, knowing the message of exclusion that is preached at this church, I couldn’t help but be sad for what message he was hearing. Was he hearing that being gay was the Deception? Did he believe that “the Deceiver” was tempting him into this “homosexual death-style” (as the Bishop of the church has called it)? How would he reconcile Jesus’ command to “Love one another,” Jesus’ acceptance of all those who had not been welcomed, with this message of condemnation and judgment?

When the sermon was over, the music began again, but I could not find the peace and relief in it that I found at the beginning of the service. I tried to lose myself in the music, to let the Holy Spirit enter my heart and relieve me of the bondage of self that this sermon had cast upon me. Eventually I relaxed and gave thanks to God for all that is good and for the opportunity to be here and be a witness of God’s love for all people.

As the music slowed down, the Bishop started asking questions of the congregation. He asked who wanted Jesus to enter into their hearts in a new way today, and I raised my hand. Now I grew up Catholic, and I currently attend Marble Collegiate Church http://www.marblechurch.org/, so I didn’t realize that raising my hand to this meant they were going to ask me up to the altar call! The Bishop said, I see a hand back there and called me up to the altar. I quickly put my hand down and kept singing, hoping no one had noticed. A few minutes later, a woman from the church came to my aisle and invited me up front. I politely declined, and she let me be. As the Bishop kept calling people to the altar, I thought of all the ways the Holy Spirit has worked in me, ways too many to name in this post. The Bishop kept speaking, and I kept praying. The Bishop spoke of the healing available to all of us through Jesus Christ. I can’t know what the Bishop was referring too, or if he had any agenda, but I believe, regardless of his platform, agenda, or theology, that his intentions are true, that he is a man of God who wants to bring people closer to God. And so, before I knew what was happening, my feet were walking down the row of chairs and up the center to the aisle to the altar. There was a flurry of cheers and applause from the people behind me who had seen me raise my hand and then put it down. As I approached the altar, I felt fear coming back into me. What am I doing up here? Who do I think I am? What if they …? What if …? What if …? But I trusted in the Lord and stood my ground. As I listened to the people around me I heard real pain, real joy, real love, real faith. Finally, the Bishop, himself, approached me and asked me if anyone had prayed with me yet. I told him no. He asked my name and how did I want Jesus to heal me. I told him who I was and what was on my heart, and he asked if he could hug me. In that embrace I felt a man deeply committed to Christ, a human being filled with all the same feelings as any other human being. He laid hands on my forehead and we prayed. His prayers were gracious and generous and without any judgment. I believe that both the Bishop and I were healed that day.

After the service, Peter, Micah and I broke bread (delicious baked ziti and salad) in the church basement with members of the congregation, just as was being done in churches all across the world. People thanked us for attending and invited us back. We thanked them for their hospitality and promised we’d return. I know that I was changed by my visit to this church, and I believe that the church was changed by our visit as well.

As we left, we passed a group of boys standing on the steps outside the church; among them was the boy who sat in front of us during the service. We said goodbye and as we walked away, he turned and quickly waved at us before going back to his friends. Who knows what kind of impact we made that day?

11 May 2009

After the Betrayal

Katy Moore

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”
John 21:15–19

Remember Eliot Spitzer? You know, our former governor. He’s been out of the public eye for a little while now, but it seems like he’s back. He’s been writing a regular column for the news website Slate, recently he did an interview on the Brian Lehrer Show, and then just a few weeks ago he was the focus of an in-depth cover story in Newsweek. It doesn’t seem like there’s any real news to report, but he’s been cited as a qualified voice on the economic situation, especially considering his previous experience challenging fraud at AIG and elsewhere.

No, the real thrust of the Newsweek story was about Spitzer’s recovery from the prostitution scandal that undermined his career-long fight against corruption and cost him his office. He has mainly been seen, since his resignation, with his family, walking his dogs, trying to have a semblance of normal life. But after a year out of the spotlight, it seems like he can’t stay away for long. So now he’s back to his strengths as a political and economic commentator, but after such a spectacular betrayal of everything he had stood for, how can he possibly regain New York’s trust—the country’s trust—and reenter public life?

In the passage I just read from the Gospel of John, we get a little snapshot of Peter and Jesus together at the very end of the story. According to John, Peter has been in this since the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He is one of the very first followers in chapter 1. Now flash forward to chapter 21, only a few verses from the end of John’s long and wordy gospel, and Jesus says to Peter, “Follow me.” As if he hasn’t been following for the last three years!

Well, that’s not the whole story. Peter’s relationship with Jesus has not been an easy one. In all the gospels, Peter is one of the most vocal and enthusiastic disciples, the first to ask questions, the first to step out onto the water and follow, the first to proclaim the depths of his devotion to Jesus. When Jesus takes only a few disciples with him, it is almost always Peter and James and John. Peter is part of the inner circle, Jesus’ closest followers, his most beloved friends. And yet it is Peter who, as soon as Jesus is arrested, three times denies that he is a disciple. This has been a passionate friendship, and the intensity of Peter’s devotion is matched by the intensity of his betrayal.

John gives us a postscript to this story of Peter’s betrayal. Three times Peter denied his love for Jesus, and now Jesus gives him three chances to reaffirm his love. The trust has been broken—shattered, really—but Jesus offers Peter the opportunity to come back. If Peter can accept it, Jesus has a charge for him: “Tend my sheep.” This is not an easy charge—John tells us that Jesus went on to predict Peter’s crucifixion for his faith—but Peter takes it, and goes on to be affirmed by centuries of Christian tradition as the first head of the church. Peter has quite a story: he started out as a fisherman named Simon; dropped his nets and left everything behind to follow Jesus, becoming one of his most trusted intimates; but as soon as things got tough he denied even knowing Jesus; and then, somehow, Jesus gives him another chance to follow, and gives him leadership over his whole flock, the church.

Our particular corner of this flock, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has been experiencing some fractured relationships and broken trust of its own. Our constitution includes a provision that everyone ordained into service, whether Ministers or Elders or Deacons, must live in “fidelity in the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” The original purpose of this language, and the way it has overwhelmingly been used, is to exclude gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and queer people from ministry. As it is written, our constitution claims that this language is sufficient to describe the only ways of living faithfully in relationship with one another. And yet, as our divorce rates continue to climb, and people, especially women, begin to speak out about abuse and distrust and sexist assumptions in their own relationships, it is becoming clearer every day that this language is not enough to tell us how to live faithfully in any of our intimate relationships. In recognition of this fact, and of the God-given calls to ministry of many LGBT and queer people, the General Assembly (our national governing body) this past summer passed an amendment to this standard, calling for “lives obedient to Jesus Christ ... through the witness of the Scriptures, ... [and] fidelity to the standards of the Church,” and sent it to be voted on by the presbyteries.

Less than two weeks ago, on Saturday, April 25, Boise Presbytery and Northern Plains Presbytery became the 86th and 87th to vote against the amendment, meaning that although the voting is not over, the amendment has now, definitely, failed. The vote has been closer than ever before: already, over 30 presbyteries (out of 173 nationally) which had previously voted to keep this inadequate language have voted to change it, and a huge majority of presbyteries have seen shifts towards the inclusive and Christ-centered new language. And yet, the breach of trust between the PC(USA) and its non-heterosexual children has not been healed. If anything, this vote has exposed, again, how very deep are the divisions in our church. On all sides of the issue, beliefs and opinions are incredibly strongly and passionately held. We are not simply debating semantics, we are debating bodies and lives and faith and convictions. A simple vote will not heal these wounds, no matter how it comes out.

As these debates continue, our body splits and the wounds deepen. We are losing whole congregations to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and almost daily we lose my talented and Spirit-filled colleagues in ministry to the United Church of Christ, or to academia, or often they are discouraged from even acknowledging their call in the first place. And yet, many of us stay. Our denomination is not yet divided. We stay and continue these conversations. My friend Lisa Larges has been pursuing her call for 23 years now, and she has still not been certified for ministry.

It is not easy to heal the wounds of broken relationships. Broken trust can take a lifetime to repair—just ask Governor Spitzer! And yet, somehow, Jesus has given us an example of betrayed trust restored. Even then, it does not seem to be easy, and yet they do it. After all that Peter and Jesus have been through together, Jesus does not let betrayal have the last word. Jesus takes this dear friend aside and says, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” It won’t be easy, but this is a good start. Talking to one another, and affirming our love for one another and for Jesus Christ is a good way to begin.

04 May 2009

How to discern the ending of night from the coming of day

Jacqui Van Vliet

Last Sunday during the noisy coffee hour, I had a conversation with a church member who related the “defeat” of 08-b and her sense of mourning at this latest setback to full inclusiveness for all God’s children. It was one of those experiences where time stood still and the only thing in focus was that shadow moment, shrouded as it was in sadness and grief, as we each remembered those who continue to struggle for acceptance within the prejudices of our denomination. Once again this defeat would ask GLBT sisters and brothers called by the voice of God and community to wait for ordination, to wait for respect, to wait to be heard, to wait as it were in the shadows of others’ fears. I thought about the inability for some in our denomination to see the light of truth in this ongoing struggle. In biblical language, the shadow of night is often a metaphor for fear, for the fear of uncertainty in our lives. Equally so, the coming of day signals a growing confidence as an encounter with the light illuminates the beginnings of awareness on what was previously hidden.

There’s a story the rabbis’ tell about a teacher and his students who were trying to discern the ending of the night from the coming of the day. It goes like this: Long ago, an ancient rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day was on its way back. “Could it be,” asked one student, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?” “No”, answered the Rabbi. “Could it be,” asked another, “when you look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” said the Rabbi. “Well, then what is it?” his young pupils demanded. “The coming of day is when you look on the face of any woman or man and see that she or he is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot do this, then no matter what time it is, it is always night.” I love the truth of this story and believe it speaks to the shadows of fear that those who cannot accept human differences as God-given gifts live with everyday.

I decided to read the text of Isaiah 2:2-6, one of my favorites. This passage of Isaiah paints a moving portrait of a coming day where peace and diversity will exist in the presence of God and one another. It’s a vision that signals the end of a time of fear and uncertainty when the shadows of judgment, found in the surrounding chapters, have ceased. Isaiah tells us of this coming day when “the Lord’s house will be built on the highest mountain” and “all the peoples of the nations will climb that mountain” just to be in the presence of the One who lives and teaches from that place. It envisions a pilgrimage of seekers climbing together up the mountain. I imagine it’s a riotous parade of many different peoples, a noisy gathering of pilgrim travelers, engaged in conversation, in laughter and in community, recognizing each other in the light of day as sisters and brothers on the similar journey. All of them eagerly coming together to be in the presence of God, who will teach a new way of living – a radical way of peace and love.

In that coming day, God will sit at table as an arbitrator, reconciling dreams, hopes and fears with justice, love and grace. We’ll no longer have a taste for destruction, violence and war as oppression and hatred will have no place among the nations of our sisters and brothers. Isaiah’s prophetic vision is the divine peace of shalom, a peace of inclusiveness and wholeness without fear of one another’s differences. In that day, the fear that drives the prejudices that defeat changes such as 08-b will end as God’s instruction for living in love and peace is learned and well witnessed in the world. This vision is the desire of God who embraces all creation and invites us to hold this same desire within us as the genesis of hope. This is hope that can ignite the beating of every heart, the place where peace and love is either made or tabled.