Thursday, December 10, 2009

Keeping Chist out of the Holiday Sales

To follow my last post, briefly . . .

I'm not hearing much in the way of people picketing and threatening boycotts because this or that store is calling something a Holiday Sale instead of a Christmas Sale. I suppose we've finally hit a tipping point of real problems that has such complainers busy elsewhere.

But while I'm musing, this Advent season, on my complicated relationship with capitalism (and hence, my job), I'd just like to say:

I'm perfectly fine with "Holiday Sales." And this isn't so much about being all warm and fuzzy about respecting other religions' winter holidays (although I do try to respect other religions' winter holidays).

It's really about using Christ as a marketing tool. And I'm against it.

If, as the above-referenced complainers might say, we want to keep Christ in Christmas, then let's do something about the crushing poverty that puts babes in modern-day mangers. Let's see about fulfilling the angel's song about peace and good will to all. Let's see about coming to adore him, Christ the king.

But making sure Christ is on a storefront's sale sign? I'm sorry, but that feels like pushing blasphemy.

Just saying.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Jesus Came to Save Retail

I have a complicated relationship with capitalism.

My day job is in retail and it appears no one has gotten word out to all the consumers that the recession is over. (It must be over---I heard it on NPR!) Sales are terrible and so there is no little hand-wringing over how to increase them.

Christmas to the rescue!

Suggest Christmas gifts to people, push certain product that is supposedly "hot" this year (which is to say, convince a customer that a product is hot and therefore must be bought).

I love my job. I really do. If I didn't, I wouldn't be there for 6 years at a wage suitable for part-time college students. I love helping customers find what they're looking for, I love making suggestions if they have some ideas but nothing in particular. I even love trying to figure out what it is they're looking for when they have only partial information. I actually use a lot of my pastoral care training from seminary. I ask questions, rephrasing what they've said to help jog their memory, tease out information they didn't realize they had, that sort of thing. I've even told a few customers along the way (when they've asked for something that's a little embarrassing), "don't worry, talking to me is like talking to your therapist. Nothing goes beyond this transaction." It's good for a laugh and it seems to put them at ease.

I think I'm really pretty good at this. Judging from the repeat customers who have told me, "you're always so helpful," I think I can back that up with testimonials.

But I'm a terrible salesman. I don't really believe in convincing people of things that are not their idea. I don't really believe, in fact, in consumerism for the sake of consuming, which is what a lot of selling is. "You don't realize you need this, but here's why you do."

This year, perhaps more than any recent year, Christmas is going to make or break some retail establishments. Every year, it's the Christmas gift-buying that shores up businesses, keeps them in business for another year.

And here is my complicated relationship. I don't want to see anyone's livelihood disappear. I also don't really believe in buying gifts just to sooth guilty consciences or otherwise puff up false attitudes of generosity. I don't believe in the expectation of Christmas gifts. I need to keep my job. I don't like taking advantage of people's paranoia about needing one more gift for someone.

On Thanksgiving Day, I saw A Charlie Brown Christmas with some friends. I couldn't help thinking about how many people have seen this cartoon over the last four-plus decades and how little difference it's message of anti-commercialism has made.

I really just want to tell people, "you know, if you don't know what they like or what they want, maybe you don't know them well enough to buy them a gift." Maybe the money is better spent on a charitable donation to something everyone can get behind. Cancer research, for example.

I am not against Christmas gifts. I enjoy buying a handful for a few dear people in my life. I enjoy getting a few from people who know me well enough to make it a real show of care for me (even if it is a frivolous gift but still shows they know my particular tastes in frivolity).

But I'm still disturbed by how much our economy depends upon Christmas. It's an economy built upon false desires, false obligations.

Jesus didn't come to save retail stores. It just looks that way.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Saints and Saints and Saints

All Saints Day. Remembering the faithful who have gone before us . . .

November 1st, I always remember Mama and Daddy. Lucille and Alfred. I was born late into their lives. Mama was 42, Daddy was 46, and they had 6 kids before me. I always say this doesn't look like "planned parenthood." At the same time, I never felt unwanted or in the way. Maybe I was just unexpected. Well, for all I know, I was expected, too. I shouldn't judge by appearances. But when your first daughter is about to have her first child and you find out you're expecting your 7th . . .

We were a "churched" family. I was baptized as an infant, St. John's Lutheran Church, Paige, TX, at the age of 17 days. We weren't necessarily an every Sunday family, but most Sundays we went to church. When child #6 became the age for confirmation class, we transferred to the "town" church, Martin Luther Lutheran Church, Giddings. There weren't any other kids Gary's age in Paige with which to be confirmed and we went to the Giddings schools, etc.

I don't always know how to talk about my parents, to give a good idea of who they were to the people who never met them. Daddy was annoyed by the 1970s fashions of longer hair and jeans without a belt. Looked "sloppy" to him. We, in turn, were annoyed with him. I believe he also had a sly sense of humor, which I was only getting to appreciate when he died in 1988. I have memories of him saying things like he was fussing at us, and then looking up at him and seeing a faint smile. I find myself doing the same thing with kids, saying things that sound like reprimands, but are really just that "picking on" sort of humor that we grew up with in our rural German community. It may be that, as in my case, the things we were doing were nonsense to him, but I wonder if he sometimes also knew that it was just a generational thing. Maybe by the time I came along, he'd already raised a generation and saw how it went. Maybe for my older siblings, the reprimands were more real.

Mama was probably the stability of the family in many ways. I used to not believe it, but I've come to realize that maybe she and I had a slightly different relationship than my siblings had with her. (Some of them had told me for years this was so.) I do know I have little objectivity when it comes to her. I was completely devoted to her. She was fighting her cancer---and appearing to beat it---when I went on my seminary internship to Nebraska. I cut my internship short when it became apparent she was not beating it and I have often regretted losing so much of the last year of her life to a vocation I never really felt (professional ministry). She died in 1994.

Speaking of, that reminds me of when I told our pastor that I would not be pursuing ordination when I finished seminary. He asked me if I felt free to not go into ministry now that my mother was dead. I laughed. Of all the people encouraging (if not pushing) me to be a pastor, she was the only one who looked at me and said, "I don't know, I don't quite see you as a parish pastor." (Well, there was one other person, my best friend growing up, Dean, whose grandfather was our pastor.) She knew I was always active in church, she even said once, "Neil got his degree in theater, but he majored in Campus Ministry," but she somehow felt with me that I was not called to ordained ministry.

Today would have been Mama and Daddy's 70th wedding anniversary. All Saints Day. This was something I realized in seminary. Mama and Daddy never said anything, that I remember, about the connection. But then, we weren't a family to celebrate every day on the calendar. We barely acknowledged birthdays, so it's no wonder that we didn't make a big deal of them getting married on All Saints Day, 1939.

I remember now, though. Every November 1, it is the feast day of my parents, who raised seven children in the church, who made sure we had food, clothes, and a roof, all on a farmer's budget.

I dream about them at least once a month. Usually more often.

+ + +

This week, another saint enters my list of faithful who have gone before. Patricia Blaze Clark. Those of you who are Episcopalian can find her name in the index in the back of the Episcopal Hymnal Supplement of a few years ago. She was a classmate at seminary, although on the Episcopal side of the street.

Here is my earliest memory of Pat: As new seminarians, we were sent to a retreat center (a convent, actually) for a few days. It was a formation thing, I guess. Also, an intensive way to meet and get to know new people. I guess. I'm not sure exactly the reasoning behind it, now that I stop to think of it. Anyway, all of us new seminarians were at this convent . . .

We met in one room regularly, chairs arranged in a big circle. We barely fit in the room, so the circle was a bit irregular here and there, which is to say, a jumble, with a few sitting on the floor. As we were gathering, I sat next to Pat, more by accident than by design. As I watched people slowly fill in, I leaned over to her and said quietly, "I wonder what would happen if we started removing one chair at each break."

Pat had these wonderfully large, expressive eyes and they grew wide with mischief. "Like a big game of musical chairs!" she said. We laughed and wondered how long it would take before people started noticing that more were sitting on the floor.

We didn't do it, of course. But the twinkle in her eye, the glint of mischief told me, this one will be my friend in this place.

Pat once told me her story, that she'd spent time in a convent as a nun (she had since married). She said that growing up Roman Catholic, she always felt a call to be a priest, but all her church had to offer her was nun. I looked at her and said, "wow, I always felt the call to be a monk, but all my church has to offer me is pastor." She never became a priest and I'm not likely to become a monk, so we also shared this life of replacement activities, trying to find ways to serve that made sense despite not quite scratching the itch.

She became a hymn text writer. Google Patricia Blaze Clark and you'll find two collections of them. Some she wrote to existing tunes, others she wrote for composers to set to new tunes. She gained some reputation in church music circles and I know this gave her great satisfaction.

Pat also had multiple health issues, chief among them, lupus. She seemed to manage it pretty well, but it was the lupus that was the main reason no bishop ordained her. A few years ago, when she was diagnosed with cancer, it was the lupus that prevented aggressive treatment. Like her lupus, her doctors had to be content with managing her cancer with a hormone treatment and occasional bouts of radiation. This went on for so long, I think many of us just assumed it was under control. The tumor never grew or if it did, some treatment would shrink it again. Chemotherapy was out of the question, though. Chemo would have killed Pat faster than the cancer.

Except the cancer did kill her. It suddenly got aggressive and grew quickly. A month ago, she was still teaching a class at St Edward's University in Austin. This past Wednesday, she died at Christopher House, a hospice.

And so I remember Pat. The hymnal index will remember her as Patricia Blaze Clark, but to those of us who loved her, she will always be Pat. Funny, occasionally fiery, always a friend.

O blest communion, fellowship divine,
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Water that Runs Deeper than Blood

When [Cardinal Roger Etchegaray] visited Rwanda on behalf of the Pope in 1994, he asked the assembled church leaders, "Are you saying that the blood of tribalism is deeper than the waters of baptism?" One leader answered, "Yes, it is."
Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith
after Genocide in Rwanda
by Emmanuel Katongole
with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
(page 22)

I first read these words a few months ago, and they continue to echo and rebound in my brain. Much of Father Katongole's book does so, but this brief passage does especially. It summarizes so much of the world.

I live in the USA. I've never been to any part of Africa, much less Rwanda, and don't really imagine that it's on my itinerary. Father Katongole, however, gave me a picture of what happened in the Rwandan genocide that does, indeed, seem to be a mirror for the church, at least here in the USA. I recognize myself in that reflection.

When I describe myself, I often say "I am a German Lutheran farm boy." I therefore identify with Germans, with the theological descendants of Martin Luther, and with a rural upbringing that is more often at odds with my adult urban life than I may let on. These are the "tribes" that I belong to, the ones I claim.

Given a certain circumstance, I might also say I am a Christian, which may be implied by "Lutheran," but is a larger tribe. The larger tribe, admittedly, I do not always claim, certainly not certain sub-tribes of Christianity.

I'm loath to describe myself as Democrat or Republican, as I find neither sides really represent me as I would like to be seen. I struggle with words like "liberal" or "progressive" because I find different people hear wildly different things when those words are spoken. So I suppose I don't identify too clearly with a political tribe, but I'm quite aware that by most people's standards, I fall into the liberal side of the spectrum. I suppose I do (except when I'm pushed on specific topics).

The point of all this tribe-identifying is this: When push comes to shove, with which tribe will I align?

Father Katongole suggests that to claim baptism as the marker on our soul, we cannot claim any tribe, or else being Christian does not matter. He points out that Rwanda was one of the most successful missionary stories of all Africa. Nowhere else in Africa did the population embrace Christianity as Rwanda did. And when the machetes and guns came out in the name of tribalism, that success story mattered not at all. Neighbors who once sat in the same congregation to worship the same God were suddenly washed, not in the blood of Jesus, but of each other, at each other's hands.

Is the blood of tribalism deeper than the waters of baptism?

This is a mirror to me because I fear for the current mood of the USA. The talk of some groups, found in places ranging from fringe internet groups to nationally broadcast radio and TV shows and nationally distributed magazines found at your local Barnes & Nobel, is turning violent and threatening. A Facebook poll asks if the president should die. Newsmax, a fast growing periodical, had an opinion piece on its website (I don't know if it was in the print edition) stating that a military coup might be appropriate in the current political situation. Talk show personalities who basically get paid to rile up people with outrageous remarks (with specious factual foundation) are hoping this presidential administration will fail and calling the president a racist.

And I begin to wonder what statement will it take (and who will make it) to bring the machetes out in these United States?

And where does the church stand (or fall) in the middle of all of it.

There are many arguments about whether or not the USA is a "Christian nation." That's beside the point. I don't know if everyone in these arguments identify as Christian, but I believe it's safe to say that many do. And the point then becomes, what difference does being a Christian make if we let political powers draw lines between us?

Are the waters of baptism deeper than the blood of Republican and Democrat and liberal and conservative? And if so, what does that look like? How can being a Christian make a difference in a powder keg nation?

I have no answers, only some fear and trembling. I believe that being a Christian does, indeed, transcend all the divisions among us. And yet we see in Rwanda how little that transcendence is embraced.

Am I merely being paranoid? Or do you look in the mirror of Rwanda and see yourself, too?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Sign of Jonah

Who would I like to see reject the Good News?

Jonah came to mind recently. And shortly thereafter, Jesus' somewhat cryptic reference to "the sign of Jonah." Before I consulted the texts, I thought, "what? prophets make giant fish vomit? What kind of sign is that?"

Of course, that's not the sign.

There are only three references to the Sign of Jonah, two in the Gospel according to Matthew (first in chapter 12, later again in chapter 16) and then a parallel saying in the Gospel according to Luke (chapter 11). (Mark 8 has a parallel, except Jesus leaves out the Jonah bit: "The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.’ And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side." [NRSV] Mark had a less loquacious Jesus.)

(In case you don't know, there are a couple of handy websites for looking up Bible passages on line. For the widest number of translations, go to Bible Gateway but if you want the NRSV, you have to go to Oremus.)

The Matthew passage says the three days in the big fish prefigures the three days in the grave, but then it goes on to agree with the Luke passage that the sign has something to do with the preaching Jonah did in Nineveh.

Let's review briefly. The story of Jonah isn't about a whale, even if that's what you remember most from Sunday school. It's about a prophet who doesn't want to go and preach the word of God in Nineveh. In fact, Jonah doesn't want to preach to the Ninevites so badly that he runs from God, which lands him in the belly of a big fish for 3 days. Then the fish finds prophets hard to digest, and so Jonah ends up on a beach. God again sends Jonah to Nineveh and this time, Jonah goes. It's a message of destruction, but also a call to turn from their wicked ways. The Ninevites receive the word and repent, turn away from their wickedness. God then has compassion on them and does not destroy them. This ticks off Jonah, who apparently didn't much like Ninevites. He apparently would have preferred to see fire rain down on Nineveh. So he goes into the wilderness, pouts about the goodness of God, and almost dies for his trouble. (That'll do for now. Look up the whole book of Jonah. It's kind of fun and really pretty short.)

So, anyway, the Sign of Jonah. Jesus tells some of the Pharisees that while the Ninevites heard Jonah's message and believed, the Pharisees are being dumb by not receiving Jesus' word. They are being so dumb that the Ninevites will rise up and condemn the Pharisees on the last day, because all they had was Jonah. The Pharisees had something greater than Jonah.

Now, we don't know how Jesus would have reacted had the Pharisees repented from their ways, but we might assume, since Jesus was greater than Jonah, that he would not have gone out in the wilderness and pouted about it.

Still, I wonder if there isn't one more layer of this Sign of Jonah thing. It seems that we Christians spend a lot of time preaching to people (let's call them Ninevites), but really don't expect or want them to turn to God. After all, who wants the Ninevites in the church anyway? But then when the Ninevites hear the word of God, repent, make an effort to live godly lives, we can't quite be happy. We were kind of looking forward to seeing the Ninevites "get theirs." Even worse, while they repent and try to live godly lives, they have the gall to remain Ninevites. And we just don't like Ninevites very much. So we sit out in the wilderness, under the scorching sun, and pout and complain about God's reckless and rampant mercy.

So I ask the question again. Who would I (or you) like to see reject the Good News? Who are my (or your) Ninevites?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Post Assembly

Surprisingly, I've cried much less than I thought I would, although I haven't been tear-free.

The church of my entire life (via the predecessor body, the American Lutheran Church), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has voted to make a way for same-sex couples to enter into publicly accountable, monogamous relationships. Or something like that. I'm not getting the language exactly right. Basically, we can now have "commitment ceremonies" in the church. We can stand before our church families publicly and without fear of censure for the couple or for the pastor officiating or the church hosting the ceremony. There will be a process to this. There are rites to develop and what not. But the door is open.

Which opens the door for the ordination of men and women in monogamous, lifelong, publicly accountable same-sex relationships. This, too, will be a process. I don't expect things to change on Monday down at the Lutheran recruitment centers.

But it's all set in motion.

Today, I wore a red shirt to work. It is the same red shirt I bought to wear for Pentecost last year. I intended the connection, if only for my own quiet celebration. I intend to remember August 21, 2009 like a birthday, anniversary, or holiday (holy day).

Tomorrow morning, when I go to church to see how my home congregation is taking all this, I will wear more subdued clothes. I honestly don't know what will happen at church tomorrow morning. My pastor has sent out a call to meet during the Sunday school hour and talk about the Assembly. This is good and important. I suppose there will be some there who are upset. I will wear more subdued clothes because it is insensitive to celebrate when others are hurting over the same thing.

The presiding bishop of our church, Mark Hanson (who has proven himself to be a rock star of a bishop and I could not be more happy with his handling of the assembly), has asked that we hold each other, not gloating, not celebrating in the face of others' discouragement (I'm paraphrasing, of course). I hear his wisdom and will try to keep my happiness at bay when others are hurting. We must remain in conversation about these and other important issues facing the church. Some actually have to do with things like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick.

I just ended a big of vigorous debate with someone on the ELCA page of Facebook. Well, I didn't end it, it just got to late to continue and he's a pastor and has his hands full for tomorrow as well. Blessings on his ministry and the people he pastors. What I think that conversation really highlights for me, however, is that this is truly about how we read scripture, what pieces of scripture we hold more important than others. Despite endless scholarship discussing how the few passages in scripture that might be refering to homosexual practices have little to nothing to do with how we understand and experience monogamous, committed homosexual relationships today, we still have a tendency to grasp at them as somehow inviolable, while we are able to squirm our way around such harder passages about divorce or usury. (Do you know that some churches actually have credit cards in their names?!?!?)

This discussion will ultimately not be about gay and lesbian couples. It will finally be about how we as a church read and use the Bible to guide our lives. We, as a church, as never used words like "infallible" or "inerrent." We refer to the Bible as "inspired." This allows for the many culturally bound elements of the Bible we no longer hold as true. The writers did not have the science to know the earth revolves around the sun. They did not understand that women provide half the genetic material to make a baby (men planted a seed, which held all of the child's life while the woman was either a fertile or barren field for the planting). They did not hold the same kind of regard for reportage that we expect today of our newspapers, or else we wouldn't have the conflicting stories of Judas's death (even if we may find something true in each account for our edification). Our tradition has always approached the collection of writings we call the Bible with a critical eye. Martin Luther spoke of a "canon within the canon" and condemned the Letter of James as an "epistle of straw." Still, no one would accuse father Martin of not taking the scriptures seriously.

I do believe this needs to be the site of our discussion, how we speak of, refer to, regard the Holy Scriptures. The scholarship on homosexuality has been done. I know of no credible scientific body that regards homsexuality as a chosen orientation. There are copious amounts of biblical studies done on how the biblical writers didn't understand homosexuality as we do and how their references were about idol worship, pederasty, or other abusive or unequal relationships. This sways too few people.

What has to happen is that we have to address how we read the Bible, hold each other accountable when we read it capriciously to support our comforts and prejudices.

If I may expose my canon with the canon, I would propose we start this process with these two pieces of biblical advice.

1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself.

2. Let us put on the mind of Christ who, though found in the form of God did not count equality with God as something to be grasped at, but emptied himself, putting on the form of a slave.

In joy and sorrow, let us move forward with the work of God.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Methodists and Gays and the Holy Spirit

Years ago, especially when I was in seminary, the workings of the ecumenical dialogs were of great interest to me. As a very small child, I didn't understand why there were so many churches in our small community and as a young adult, I was very much enamored of the idea of working towards "full communion" with other denominations.

Today, I smile at the vote at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly to approve entering into full communion with the United Methodist Church. To be honest, I've lost count of how many full communion agreements this makes for the ELCA. I'm thinking at least half a dozen. Anyway, the Methodists had approved the agreement at their last national gathering (I don't know exactly what they call their gatherings).

This comes at a time when the ELCA is making apparent strides toward accepting GLBT folk into the full ministry of the church. The UMC, by all accounts, is taking steps away.

I'm reminded, once again, that my existence as a gay man who believes in the Good News of Jesus, is a part of the problem of church disunity.

This hurts me more than I may show.

If only I could denounce my faith, go back on the baptismal promise, and just be a godless queer like so many want to believe I am! (I guess there are days when I do all the above. I'm guessing at about the same rate as your average Christian, gay or straight. But perhaps that's another discussion for another time.)

Well, who knows? We're still 24 hours (give or take) away from knowing what the ELCA will be doing with GLBT clergy and commitment rites for same-sex couples. Maybe this will not be a hindrance to our relationship the Methodists for the immediate future .

What amuses me at these gatherings is how different groups are claiming the movement (or lack thereof) of the Holy Spirit. Yes, I would like to think that the passing of the social statement on human sexuality (which is more of a teaching document than a legislative one) is attributible to the Holy Spirit, but I will try to have the humility to say I can't be sure of that. I would like to think all the full communion agreements are signs of the Holy Spirit regathering us scattered sheep into one fold. Again, I can't be sure of that. Therefore, I will make no claim of knowledge as to how the Holy Spirit is moving.

I'll simply rest in the sure knowledge that the Spirit moves and groans with us creatures as we strive to be a people of Good News. Or try to rest. I do have restless moments, too.

There are some interesting conversations going on in the Facebook community. Somone brought up the "inerrant and infallible" word of God. There were more than one responses pointing out that the ELCA has never used those words to describe the Bible. We refer to the Bible as "inspired." Not quite the same thing. For one thing, the Bible is clearly just wrong about some things. Hares do not chew their cud. Men are not the sole bearers of new life (the seed) and women are not merely fertile or barren ground (this passed for sex ed in the Bible). And I don't care what narrative gymnastics you want to perform, the two stories of the death of Judas cannot be harmonized in any way that makes sense. The attempts I've seen require a lot adding of detail and if you're going to be literalist, that should make you pretty anxious given the last few lines in Revelation.

Honoring the Bible as the inspired word of God lets us be a part of the ongoing inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We share in the same Spirit at the biblical writers, we share in the same baptism as the writers of the New Testament. Trusting in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to always move the church, we are better able to understand how Jesus and his first followers were able to re-interpret the inspired words they inherited. Inspiration---the breathing in---continues. We are not a people of a stone God. Our God is made of wind!

So, is all this activity of the Churchwide Assembly part of the movement of the Holy Spirit? Well, in my congregation's Faith of Book Bible readings, we recently read in Acts, chapter 5, the story of the pharisee Gamaliel. When speaking of the new Christian movement, he said, "if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them---in that case you may even be found fighting against God!" (NRSV)

In other words, we may have to wait a few generations to know how that plays out.

But right now, I say yes to Methodists and I say yes to the ordination of GLBT pastors, sinning boldly and trusting more boldly still in the grace of God.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Day two of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly. I'm less anxious today. I have nothing to which to attribute that. Maybe when it comes to anxiety, I just can't do a marathon.

I have been thinking about schism. Mostly, I think that's a poor word choice. It suggests that another church body could form, that the ELCA will be like an amoeba splitting by the end of the week. For one thing, as my pastor pointed out to me some months ago, forming a new denomination is no simple task. Ask any of the independent Catholic groups that sprung up during the 1990s. I don't know if any of them are still in existence. I do know that, tiny as they were, they were splitting into factions within 5 years of forming.

I think the more likely scenario is a migration to other church bodies. Episcopal or United Church of Christ seems likely for one group, maybe the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, Presbyterians, Methodists are more likely for another group. Maybe some will go to independent churches, maybe some will become unchurched. But the formation of another church body? It would take a body of well-organized and focused individuals with significant resources to pull it off.

I've said before that someone has to choose to leave and if they make that choice, they are the cause of the schism, not the ones who stay.

But of course, the desire is that none leave, that we manage to remain a united church body that is able to agree to disagree. This maybe an impossible goal. And maybe the best we can do is strive to keep the unity, let those who chose to leave go with blessings and prayers.

That's easy to say on the second day of the assembly. What if things don't go "my way" by the end of the week?


Two weeks ago, I would have said I would be disappointed, deeply so, but I couldn't imagine leaving my lifelong church home. Then, this past weekend, as my anxiety ramped up, I started imagining leaving.

I'm not saying I will, not saying I won't. Being Lutheran, I'll probably make a decision after some study, prayerful reflection, and maybe some committee meetings. All I'm saying is that I could, that I think there are reasons to do so. I think I'd rather have a leg ripped slowly from my body for all the pain it would cause me, but I think I could leave. I think there are options.

Which made me more compassionate for anyone who might find that a reasonable option for them.

If things go "my way" by the end of this week, I would like to ask those who consider leaving to consider this as well.

Ask yourself if this issue is enough to leave your church home. Ask yourself what it costs you if a Lutheran church somewhere else has a gay pastor (because I can tell you that's already happening, and in some places, it's more open than you might imagine). Ask yourself if a local option for gay clergy is such an awful thing, ask yourself, given how we go about assigning clergy, if it's a real possibility that your congregation will call a gay clergy person within your lifetime. I'm quite certain that there are places that will go decades before they even consider it---just as there are congregations that have gone 4 decades without ever considering a woman pastor. Really, the local option is nothing new. Congregations have been exercising it ever since the ordination of women became a reality. (If you don't believe me, ask some women clergy where they get to interview for calls.)

If after all that, you still feel you must leave the ELCA, I'll ask you to find another church home. Don't let this issue keep you from Jesus altogether. There are options and if we cannot stay within the same denomination, then let us stay within the larger body of Christ. Find a place that still preaches Christ crucified and risen and the grace of God and forgiveness of sins. Find a place that still will feed you with word and sacrament. Do so with as little anger and with as much sadness as you can muster. That last part is important for your own soul. I know. I have angry days and it is rough.

And if I decide I must leave the ELCA, I promise to do the same. I will find a place to receive word and sacrament, a place to remain in the larger body of Christ. I will do so with as little anger as possible (some will be inevitable, but pray for me that it doesn't consume me) and the sadness will be like a brick I'll carry with me all the days of my life. I also know that tears are good for the soul, the grieving over our brokeness and our irreconcilable differences this side of eternity.

I'm less anxious tonight. I'm still overwhelmed with what this week might mean for many, many people. Let us keep praying.

(a small postscript: today, I was telling a young lesbian friend about our Churchwide Assembly and the measure to be voted upon this Friday. She asked me if she could come to my church, that she and her girlfriend needed to find a church. I tell you, I truly believe allowing for GLBT clergy is going to turn out to grow the church . . . )

Monday, August 17, 2009

Churchwide Is On

Tonight, there are even more Lutherans than usual in Minneapolis. The 2009 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA has opened. Reports of a lively opening service and productive first plenary session are flowing over the internet. even has live video of the sessions as they're happening, although I doubt I'll follow those. I'm glad they're there, but for me, it's enough to catch reports from Facebook friends who are there. I'm obsessing over the Assembly enough as it is.

Honestly, over this past weekend, I've been surprising myself with how obsessed, and I mean anxious I am over this assembly. Two weeks ago, I would have said it is an important gathering, and I've been saying for weeks that whatever happens, I imagine I'll be in tears before the weeks over---whether joy or disappointment remains to be seen. But this past weekend, this feeling has ramped up and I'm full fledge anxious and a little moody about it. I'm daydreaming about what I will do one way or another. I hadn't consciously thought about it much, how much this Assembly might create paths for me. Sort of, a little, but I hadn't let myself dwell on it. This week, I'm dwelling on it. This assembly has some life-changing potential for me. And I'm in knots. Tears by the end of the week? I've had to find a private space once or twice to dab my eyes already.

I'm being vague. Well, I swim in the sea of ambiguity (as my campus pastor once told me). Let it suffice for now that I'm finding an even more personal stake in this assembly than I've allowed myself to acknowledge.

But of course, this assembly isn't all about me. (Shocking, but true.) I'm gay, I have an M.Div., and I admit I've been hearing God knock on my metaphorical door for about 3 years now. But there is much more at stake than what path lies before me.

What's at stake is the next generation, the kids who don't even know yet if they're gay or straight. What's at stake are the kids who were picked on by their teachers, as reported last week, because they were perceived to be gay. It's about the 11-year-old boy who killed himself last spring because he was bullied at school, because the kids at school perceived him to be gay. It's about endless incidents like the above that go unreported but happen because there are not enough places standing up for these kids. Whether they are gay or not is beside the point. I can't find the reference, but in at least one incident, a suicide left a note saying he wasn't even sure if he was gay or not, he just couldn't take the bullying anymore. It's the way "gay" is used to demean and bully and destroy kids. That's what this is about.

We need another church body to openly say, "you are fully welcome here, not just tolerated but fully allowed to explore the full range of vocational options in this church." As long as bullies see the church denying us full inclusion and participation, the bullies find a loophole to justify their cruelty.

And that's what this Assembly is about. It's about saving kids lives, literally and figuratively.

That is what is at stake.

Lord have mercy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Reconciling Lutherans

For those who followed my lenten blog about GLBT experience in the ELCA, you will know that I am anxiously awaiting the Churchwide Assembly to see if GLBT folk (like me) will be affirmed and welcomed fully into the life and ministry of this church.

If you, also, would like to see this come to pass, I entreat you to go to this link to add your name to the Reconciling Lutherans roster, a public list of individuals who support full inclusion of GLBT in the life and ministry of the church.

As noted in the previous post, the passage of the statement on human sexuality and the recommendation for ministry policies are two of the items before the Assembly.

I've said about all I know to say about the issue during my 40 day discipline of blogging this past lent. If you want to see (or revisit) those thoughts (some more serious than others, I admit), the blog is still up.

From all angles, whatever your opinions on any of the issues before the assembly, remember to keep all the voting members in your prayers in these final days of preparation.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

ELCA Churchwide Assembly---Next Week

I've made no secret of it: I'm Lutheran. Next week, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will be holding it's Churchwide Assembly. Like every organization these days, money will be discussed. Budgets and the like (but then, that's always up for discussion at Assembly). Also on the floor:

---A malaria initiative to combat the disease with other organizations.

---A proposal for full communion with the United Methodist Church.

---Consideration for a social statement about justice for women.

---Funding an HIV and AIDS strategy.

---A statement on human sexuality.

---A report and recommendation on Ministry Policies (mostly having to do with GLBT clergy)

All this an more will be discussed in Minneapolis. The ELCA webpage has a pretty easy-to-navigate page for learning all about these things. Click here to look around.

I have little to say about these things just now, except to raise up the Assembly in thought and prayer. Prayers for the voting members and other participants are important as they prepare to travel.

This is going to be an emotional one for me. I know I will be weeping no matter what happens.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Bread Thoughts

Today marked the beginning of a series of readings from the Gospel According to John about Jesus and bread. "I am the bread of life."

For those who do not know, nearly 3 years ago, I spent 6 nights in the hospital, due to a clogged artery. Long story short, no surgery was required, but I have a stint in a vessel on my heart. And my GP has me on a diet to help keep my body from producing cholesterol. In short, low-carb. In his words, "You need to treat bread as toxic."

It was the first thing I thought of today as we're hearing the story of the multiplication of the bread loaves (and fishes---good for the heart, so maybe it balances out).

I wish I had something deep and meaningful to say about that. Seems like there's some theological comment to be made, some way to say, "Yes, but Jesus is the Bread of Life. Not toxic like your dinner roll." Sort of how people insist that God is absolutely Father, even if people had terrible abusive fathers. "But God is the Good Father."

I guess mostly, it's a reminder that not all analogies work for everyone. And I've never been a huge fan of bread anyway.

+ + +

Alarmingly, at least to me, it's not all about me.

My pastor had a good sermon on the text, pointing out that the multiplication of loaves is the only story in each of the 4 canonical gospels (makes you think this story really caught the first century imagination) and that explanations for the miracle (such as people started sharing what they had and revealed that among them, they had more than enough even though it first looked like they had nothing) are irrelevent because in the end, there were still plenty of leftovers.

Abundance is there. A small gift is multiplied and abundance, to paraphrase a common phrase, happens.

It was a good reminder for me today. Ever since my trip to Durham, I've been in a funk, feeling rather discouraged. I heard stories from people at the top of their field eking out an existence and people who have given their lives to art looking at their twilight years with less security than most people who lost millions on Wall Street last year. Even though all of these people spoke of not trading their lives for anything, I've been angry and depressed (seldom at the same time because it's a little difficult to pull off) that this is how our culture treats people who sacrifice their lives to create beauty and/or mirrors to the world though their art.

More to the point (because even though it's not all about me, I'm shockingly gifted at making it all about me), I felt like there was little point to the effort. I've been writing for years, doing some performing, and (outside a few people who seem to have been truly affected by a couple of things I've done) it all seems like useless energy. Millions of dollars are going to be spent on making another explosion movie and millions of dollars are going to be spent going to see it, and people with deeper, more subtle messages are going to be ignored.

Why bother with my meager gifts? Why pretend all the energy expended is worth it?

Because, I'm reminded today, God takes the outrageous scarcity of our lives and multiplies. In the illogical arithmetic of grace, the scarcity, the poverty of our lives becomes abundant life.
I've experienced it over and over. So why do I let these things get me down? Call it my personal sin. My sin of discouragement. Which in turn becomes a sin of stinginess. My loaf of bread isn't appreciated anyway, so why give it? What I have to give isn't appreciated anyway, why offer it?
I'm reminded that however poorly my loaf is received, I still need to present it, put it out there, let it go. God does the multiplication. God holds the calculator here, and I don't know how the miracle happens, but the knowing how is irrelevent. To mix metaphors (and parables), I can only sow the seed I have, however poor. I won't know or maybe even see who gets to reap the harvest.

Sisters and brothers, let us re-dedicate ourselves to putting in our loaves. Let us re-dedicate ourselves to planting.

+ + +

Silliness: Sometime ago, and I believe this was a true story although I can't footnote it, I read a story about a group of Bible translators working with some culture that didn't have a grain-based diet and hence, no bread. Without bread a staple, phrases like "I am the bread of life" make little sense. Turns out that this culture did have a starchy staple, however: the sweet potato. So the translators translated Jesus' words into: "I am the sweet potato of life."

It kind of sheds new light (here comes the silliness) on all of the "I Yam" sayings . . .

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Network and Community

Still in Durham and pondering a question. Maybe someone here has some ideas. Ponder with me, if you will.

I've been here two weeks and meeting wonderful people, people I hope will remain in my circle for years to come. They're from all across the U.S. and all have really interesting lives.

I'm also meeting people who travel so much for their work that they are only home for maybe 3 months of the year. One even spoke of having a home in one city, but his life wasn't really there anymore. He made it sound exciting and enviable.

It hit upon something I've been wondering about myself lately. Now, I'm an introvert and I can be content to sit in my apartment alone for a fairly extended amount of time. No one has ever used the word "gregarious" to describe me (so far as I know). So maybe this is idiosyncratic to me and my personality and more extroverted people feel differently.

But I wonder . . . sometimes, as little as I travel, I have still felt like I have more of a network than a community. I'm not entirely sure what I mean by that, at least insofar as I don't know that how I'd define the two words with great precision. I simply throw it out there, wondering if anyone else feels that way, especially in this world where we have a million ways to be connected but are so seldom present to one another.

Anyone else feel this way? What are you doing about it---that is, if you feel like there's something to be done.

Just thinking at the keyboard tonight . . .

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Theology and the Body

I'm writing this from the campus of Duke University, where I am participating in the Institute for Dance Criticism as an NEA fellow at the American Dance Festival.

Watching all these moving bodies (I've so far seen 4 different dance companies and will see 2 more before I leave) leads me to some contemplation on Christian language. Jesus is the incarnation of God. We believe in the resurrection of the body. Collectively, we are the Body of Christ. The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. And at the risk of taking some literal liberties, we also speak of being made in the image of God. This might mean many things to many people, but is often illustrated with human faces (not, I'm quick to point out, human feet or hands or torsos---and I wonder if only our eyes are made in the image of God or could possibly our knees tell us something of God's image, or, for that matter our large intestines as well as our hearts).

In the room full of dance critics, there was a brief discussion of the dominant western performance dance form---ballet---and how it reflected the rigid and restrictive philosophy of the west, i.e. Christian theology. There was some contrasting discussion about, say, African dance forms, which are considered more "earthy," perhaps in part because there is a belief that the gods are in the earth, not up in heaven. Ballet is all about lifting the body upward in space, the torso rigid and all expression taking place in perfectly placed arms and legs. Beautiful, perhaps, but hardly earthy.

I listened carefully to the conversation, not really knowing what to say. I could theologically counter most of the assertions about Christianity, but I also couldn't deny the history of ballet. I simply said that this was, in part, why I preferred the 20th Century invention of Modern Dance. I love the weight of the body. I love how gravity can be played with in physical expression. Any further discussion would have led to a discussion about theology in particular and I recognized this as a slight diversion from our more focused discussion on dance, so I left it at that.

Talking about dance leads to talking about bodies. One woman reveals she wanted to be a ballerina, but was too tall. Someone mentions how beautiful another woman looked on stage, but appeared frighteningly thin close up. I don't need to detail the discussions of men in tights. None of these things have anything to do with the art of dancing and yet it is all inescapable. These are the bodies that incarnate the ideas of choreographers. These ideas, however abstract or literal, are expressed with these masses of muscle, blood, bone, and nerve. These are the bodies that entertain, challenge, entice, and repulse us.

We are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, dancers remind us of the beauty we embody. At other times, we are reminded that our beautiful bodies expectorate, defecate, copulate, ejaculate . . . stop me before I rhyme again, but you get the idea. Some of the work I've seen here in Durham has reminded me of the beauty and the disgust of the body, nearly all at once. What a mixed up piece of work we are! And yet, we hold the image of God. We are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Maybe this says something more about God than we usually like to think about.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (I amused myself by scribbling on my notebook the other day: "The dance critics motto: And the flesh became word.") I think a lot about dance in relation to incarnation. More and more, I think this has less to do with extreme flexibility and highly developed virtuosity (I appreciate both), and more to do with the deep expression of the spirit moving the muscle, blood, bone, and nerve. Spirit moves a body, taking pleasure in the moving---moving itself and moving others, in all the ways we can be moved. We find physical ways to express the inexpressible, from exuberant alleluias to groans too deep for understanding and every shade of life in between.

And that's as close to a conclusion as I can come to tonight. More fervently than usual, I invite ruminations on this topic.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Why I Go to Worship

Last week, my church's worship and music committee discussed worship attendance. If talk from the recent Gulf Coast Synod Assembly was any indication, it's a synod-wide problem. Church members are skipping out on church services.

After some discussion, through which I sat silently, I asked the other committee members, "Why do you go to church?" The chair asked if that was a rhetorical question and I said, "No, I really want to know, because I'm not sure I can articulate why I go to church. I've tried to stop a couple of times but I keep coming back, but I'm not sure why."

There was some discussion after that, but none of it really helped my inarticulateness. Being a writer, inarticulate moments frustrate me, so I've been pondering this ever since.

Here's what I have so far.

It's largely a relationship thing. What do I mean by that? Are my best friends at church? Not necessarily, although I am quite fond of many people there and would name them among my friends. Some of my closest friends don't even go to church, aren't even Christian, so it's not as if church is the sole or even primary source of my friendships.

I often think, however, where else will I sing with other people? Having grown up in the church, I have a list of hymns that hold a number of associations for me. "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" is one that I really enjoy singing, and I wouldn't care to do it as a solo. Where else will I sing "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" with a group of people? I think there is a nearly religious dimension to singing anything together. I've heard people who have come back from the Kerrville Folk Festival and talk about singing songs around a campfire long after all the performances have ended. They speak of it in quasi-religious terms. So it's not as if I couldn't find groups of people with whom to sing. I'm not hugely fond of "Just As I Am," a hymn with to much emphasis on the first person singular for my theological tastes, but when I'm singing it with a congregation, well, it's okay. And where else will I do that?

There are people at church I wouldn't know any other way than because we go to the same church. Engineers, lawyers, school teachers . . . I might run into these categories of people in my job as a retail bookseller, but where else will I have breakfast with them? Left to my own devices, all I'd know would be artists, performers, and writers. Going to worships exposes me to people from walks of life I wouldn't normally hang out with. And my life is made richer.

But it's not only a relationship with people thing, although that's an inescapable dimension of it. We gather as people of God, as followers of Jesus. And one thing that is true, even when I've tried to avoid the church, is that I'm a little in love with Jesus. There I said it. Sounds sentimental and mooshy, doesn't it? Well, it's not some box of candies, flower arrangement kind of love. Jesus doesn't really work all that hard at being consistently loveable. But I find Jesus compelling. I'll allow that it may be because I grew up in a Christian family and in church, but even though there are Buddhist or Taoist teachings that I find very interesting, even edifying, it's Jesus that I want to follow. It's the God that Jesus pointed to that interests me. That I love.

And seeing as how the church is the body of Christ, I suppose that means I'm a little in love with the people with whom I sing and pray on a Sunday morning. Sometimes we sing to God, but it seems we more often sing to each other. "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" isn't addressed to God or Jesus. The liturgical hymn of praise "This is the Feast" is not addressed to God. "Lift High the Cross," a hymn with strong memories attached, is not addressed to God. So we must be singing to each other. And there's where something remarkable, even mystical happens. Singing together, we may be praising God, but we may also be singing to one another, as the body of Christ. It is as if Christ is singing to each of us. Exhortation, comfort, encouragement---where else will I hear dozens of people singing these words to me as from Christ? Where else can I, with dozens of people, sing these words to someone among us, someone who is needing that hymn sung to them by the body of Christ?

So this relationship thing, this love thing . . . I don't always feel it, not every Sunday. I do trust it's there, regardless. I do trust that there is something bigger than my feelings happening among us. I live in hope that because we gathered together, someone is leaving edified, renewed, hopeful, loved, even if that someone isn't me.

I'm not sure this explains it all, at least not to my complete satisfaction. I don't know that it's comprehensive enough. The sacraments are very much a part of my need for church, and I haven't even mentioned them here. Maybe another post. I'll have to see if I can find the words to talk about the sacraments in ways that express why I need them. This inarticulateness is frustrating. I hope my muddling through these thoughts might stimulate some thoughts of your own. I welcome responses.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Thought on Worship

A book that I'm likely to reference frequently here is Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda. It is by a Ugandan Roman Catholic priest and scholar, Emmanuel Katongole, who teaches at the Duke Divinity School. It is a book that fell into my hands somewhat accidentally, not something I would have normally sought out, but seems to have animated my imagination in ways that few books on religion have. His main hypothesis is that what happened in Rwanda in 1994 is reflective of how the church in many societies, in the West as well as in Africa, operates. That is, the church as it currently exists simply doesn't matter. It didn't matter that Rwanda has been considered one of the most successfully evangelized African nations. Christians killed Christians and often in direct, hand-to-hand combat (which, for some reason, strikes me as even more atrocious than if the genocide had been accomplished by long-range missiles or even simply pulling a trigger on a gun---hacking people to death with a machete is much more . . . personal).

Katongole asks, what difference does being a Christian make? If we call ourselves Christian but then can kill our fellow church members simply because the government says they're the enemy, what good is saying we follow Christ?

As I say, there is much in this relatively short book (it's under 200 pages) that I will likely bring up in weeks and maybe months to come, but I want to put out there one short quote from him (in part because I was at a worship and music committee meeting today):

"I do not think it is any accident that the civil rights movement in the United States grew out of black churches where people were used to worshiping Jesus for two, three, even four hours at a time. Christians who cannot imagine worshiping God that long may want to reconsider their cost/benefit analysis of discipleship."

This strikes me as terribly indicting of the church when I hear complaints that a worship service goes more than 10 minutes over an hour or that a hymn was too long or there simply were too many hymns.

I'm not sure I'm advocating 3 hour worship services, but I am pondering the cost of being a church member. That is, I'm wondering if we even think there is a cost to being a church member. What are we willing to "pay" for the right to call ourselves disciples?

(Obviously, this is a question applicable to countless other areas of a Christian life, not just worship. Spin it where the Spirit leads.)

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Come Holy Spirit

I had intended to start this blog with some musing on the traditional prayer of Pentecost. "Come Holy Spirit and renew the face of the earth."

Maybe another time.

Tonight I'm a bit heartsick at the news of a shooting in Wichita, Kansas, at Reformation Lutheran Church, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the church body to which I belong. Somehow, when these sorts of things happen in an ELCA congregation, I take it to heart more than if it happens in another denomination. This betrays my sin of tribalism---something I think I'll be blogging about in the coming weeks.

This sort of violence is also something that I'll be blogging about in the weeks to come. It's something that has been on my mind for some time, increasingly so in the last three or four months. I'll blog about it because I don't know what to do about my feeling of helplessness in the face of violence. Writing about it feels like doing something, small though it may be.

Of course, what happened in Wichita is muddied by the victim's profession. He was a doctor who performed abortions. Most of the news stories I've read have been quick to point out he performed "late-term abortions." I'm not sure what that means, exactly. I have a friend who used to live in Wichita who told me he performed late term abortions on extensively deformed fetuses. I don't know what that means, either.

And how I feel about all that is difficult to sort through just now, too. Maybe someday, I'll write about my feelings around abortion. Not tonight.

I'm increasingly disturbed by these attempts to take the law into one's own hand, and a very "frontier-style" of law at that. I'm disturbed that this took place in a church building. I'm unsettled that an usher at a church was gunned down while his wife was in the choir. I grieve that there are children in that congregation who will know that a church building is not a guarantee of safety.

What I do know is that the God I worship is not the same God that encourages people to make comments on news stories that revel in the violent death of this man.

Just last night, I put wrote the introductory note on the side of this blog, and I ended it with a paraphrase of Tertullian. "Let us show the world how we love one another."

Today, I feel we only show the world how we judge on another, how we condemn one another, how we hate one another.

Come, Holy Spirit.

Lord, have mercy.