dry spell

Sometimes the words don't flow. Like a sewer grate clogged with leaves, the words just trickle through at the moment. They back up in my head, becoming stagnant pools where mosquitoes grow and pollen swirls. I look into the pools of my mind and fear dipping my hand in the water to clear out the crud, to make things better, to keep the flow going. A good storm is what I need, something powerful enough to clear away the gunk and muck; something to wash away the trash that has accumulated.

But this is not a stormy time. It certainly rains in here, but that serves the purpose of washing more leaves onto this blockage. I will be away for a few days coming up, and then I will return, maybe the words will flow then...

I may post once more before I leave, or maybe not...

grace and peace

Cake, giants, and the meaning of life

I am a singer and a dancer; at least I am in my car. I am Pavarotti, I am John Mayer, I am Liz Phair and Ben Harper. In my car, I dance like a regular from Bandstand or Soul Train. I am a white middle class male J.Lo. From the waist up, I have more rhythm and moves than anyone I know. And when I travel alone, I perform a concert that puts Britney Spears to shame.

In my imagination, my movements coincide with the rhythmic bass of Linkin Park and the Beastie Boys; my singing is like the gravelly tones of Pearl Jam or the smooth silky song-styling of Jack Johnson. People drive by and stare into my car, enjoying the show I put on for each and every person on the road.

But what people don’t see is my internal tango, the blues and jazz and heavy metal of my mind. They don’t know that I am simultaneously processing the beats of the drums, the words of the songs, and the meaning of life. They see what they want in my car dancing, the hurky jerky movements of a crazy man, the guy who is talking to himself, what they don’t see is who I am…

As I gyrate under the comfort of my seatbelt, I think about the idea of being truly present with who I am. I am pondering what life would be like if I always lived in the moment. I am lamenting about the times where I have forsaken myself out of fear; grieving over my lack of initiative and my inability to speak words of love and care; crying out in frustration over my lack of action and the incongruence of what I think and how I act.

Belting out the songs on my radio, I also find hope in those moments. I hear the words of others and I think about the joy of sharing love and really meaning it. I soak up memories of where I shrugged off doubt and truly displayed the me I know I can be. I relish in my successes at the enterprise of life, and count each of them as blessings and moments of a life of congruence.

Today, I grooved along to Cake’s remake of “I Will Survive.” All the while I thought about the words of a supervisor who quoted a Tim McGraw song that went something like “you never start living until you die.” Not sure if those are the exact words but the existential truth of it is amazingly deep for country music. It is a shame that some people never take life by the horns until they are reminded of their finitude.

I admire those people who put themselves out there constantly, riding the waves of support and derision as they practice the art of life. I am amazed by those who are unfazed by the idea of their own death, and instead choose to live lives based on the present moment, unencumbered by past mistakes or regrets. These are the people who “will survive” best and look back at the end of their lives and smile. These are the people who lived in the highs and lows of life and were better for it.

Then, as Cake wound down, the CD player shuffled to They Might Be Giants. The sun is a mass of incandescent gas…” is forever etched into the playlist of my mind. Suddenly, the seriousness of existential thought gave way to its sister, play. I think play is the notion that life is about living. Sure, we will all die, and no amount of nutrition, exercise, or surgery – plastic or otherwise – can stave off the inevitable decay of our bodies. But you know what, life is here, life is now, life is real. Sometimes it sucks and we can’t explain why, but I believe we are rarely alone when we live in the moment, and that can mediate “suckiness.” No life is lived in a vacuum, and no life is lived without the hope of play.

So, I think I want to dance, and I think I want to sing like tomorrow may never come. I want to gyrate and groove and belt out the songs of my life. Whatever the radio throws me, I want to be present with its melodies and movements. No matter the content, I want to feel the life of music coarse through my body and show me the depths of emotion and connection. Whether loss, grief, joy, hope, anger or happiness I want to feel them in the moment; share them with those around me; live as though life were real, and I am real, and they are real. It is not enough for me to wait until death is imminent and my finitude realized; instead I must accept that they are real so that I can live a life of meaning, so that I can be present to the moment. All songs must have a beginning and an end, it is what we do while the music plays that matters.

Now if I can only get this damn car door open…

grace and peace

"I wonders" and "what ifs"

What if there was no purpose to it all? What would happen if we were to awake from the slumber that night brings and realize that there were no answers, no reasons, no divine mandates…

What if, suddenly, we were ripped out of our lives of meetings and deadlines and rituals and all we had left was each other? What would happen to us if the only “things” left in our lives were the people…

If you awoke one day and suddenly you realized that God just loves – absent of anything we do to prove our worth, absent of any ulterior motive on God’s part, absent of any deviously created divine plan for us – what would happen to us if we internalized this idea that God just loves us and them as well…

What if, in the blink of an eye, there was no more religion, only God, only creation, only each other? What would happen to the world if people were people and life was life, and good things and struggles and hopes and failures were laid bare for all to see…

I wonder if life would suddenly become too real. I wonder if we could handle the authenticity of our createdness and our sinfulness. I wonder if we could handle living together absent of purpose and power and hierarchies.

I wonder if I can eschew purpose for authenticity. I think purpose is overrated; it gets in the way of living faithfully; it creates conflict and kills relationships; it is a shallow attempt to manipulate God and justify our behaviors.

What if life just happens and we can’t explain why? What if children just get sick and die? What if alcoholics just get drunk and plow into innocent cars? What if God has nothing to do with it, and yet everything to do with it? What if it is our fault, not the devil’s, not “God calling an angel home”? What if we cut the crap, take responsibility for our screw-ups, and believe in a God that loves us because of WHO we are and not HOW we worship or work?

What if we were obedient to the life of Christ and not the words in the Bible? What if it was nothing more than a living human document of God’s relationship with the world? What if it is not a set of rules, a moral code, or an historical document? What if its intention is nothing more than a shout of “hey, you, yeah you, the one who is depressed, lonely, grieving, hurt; you know what, I love you. No really, I do, I love you, do me a favor and pass that along okay?”

What if…

I wonder if our heart of hearts could handle this kind of world. I wonder then…

Who would we be? How would we live?

grace and peace

frozen saffron goodness

Before I even begin, let me explain something. I am from the south, not the deep south like Mississippi or Texas, but deep enough. My blood is thin; winter, for me, is a couple days of sunshine around 35 degrees. In Charleston, South Carolina, winter was the one day we broke out our sweaters and shorts.

Here in Richmond, winter is a little bit more harsh. Instead of one cold day, we get a day or two of ice, and then everyone runs out to the grocery store and buys milk and toilet paper because they are afraid they will never be able to leave the house again. Now I know this is not a real winter, it is not like Buffalo or Chicago, and it sure doesn't help your blood thicken any more. So, when I tell you that it was cold up in New York this past Friday, I realize my own bias.

We drove from Richmond to Manhattan over the span of 15 hours, breaking it up with a sleepover just north of Baltimore. Arriving in the Big City at about 11:45, we proceeded to drive around for about 45 minutes seeking a parking space in the general area of my brother-in-law's apartment. This, if you have ever driven into NYC, is no easy task. The thermometer in our car told us that the temperature outside was 29 degrees, the sun was shining, but there was one hitch... the wind.

With the wind, the chill creeps down into your bones. The cold cuts through denim and Polartec fleeces and leather gloves. The wind plasters cold fabric against your skin so that there is no escape from its bitterness. We parked on West Side Drive and we were still five long New York City blocks from Central Park. Those five blocks were a torturous march through a frozen wind tunnel. Even most New Yorkers stayed off the street this day. It is hard to believe that a city of millions upon millions was so vacant. I half expected a frozen tumbleweed to cross our path at any moment.

We had seen Cristo and Jeanne-Claude's exhibit on the morning news shows the weekend before. We were "live" when they began the unfurling. We watched as the metal structures awakened and took on life with the zip of a zipper. We were fascinated to say the least. So, we decided to go, there were ulterior motives of course, our four-week old niece lived a few scant blocks from Central Park, but we also wanted to see "The Gates." We wanted to be a part of history, a part of art, to wander through a living sculpture.

On this day, where the wind chill whipped into the teens, you could hear the gates as much as you could see them. As we crossed the street, around 96th street, we could see them begin to line up before our eyes. A neverending parade of saffron colored soldiers standing tall in the wind and cold. We took our first pictures the moment we saw them. Bundled up in our winter gear we posed beneath the backlit saffron fabric and smiled frozen smiles for the camera.

Then we took to wandering. We found ourselves walking up a hill. My goal was a glimpse into the scope of the project. To find out the immensity of what stood stoically before me. I found myself taking surreal pictures of layer upon layer of flapping fabric. Even now, as I look back at the pictures, I can see that we captured only a fraction of the art, a subjective piece of the places we found interesting and important.

My wife and I wandered south, weaving in and out of the gates. We snapped pictures of them as they waved to us in the frozen wind. At times, we would wander away from them and we would suddenly feel naked and stripped before the world. We would see and hear the frozen saffron goodness call out to us, begging us to return to the paths laid before. Hypnotic and welcoming the gates would beckon us to return and spend time beneath them. And so we continued to wander, past the reservoir, past the great lawn, on to Belvedere Castle, and through the brambles, we wandered and wondered beneath gate after gate.

In the end, we found ourselves about 25 blocks from our beginning point. The cold was miserable, but we found warmth walking together, snapping pictures that would remind us of this time in history, our time in history together. Looking back, these gates bring a number of images to mind.

First, they remind me of open windows, where sheer fabric hangs down blowing softly in the breeze. These are the bright lazy summer days in the south. Times before air conditioners where people knew people and salty sweet breezes cooled ancient homes and their occupants.

Second, the gates were, for me, an open door. The fabric impedes nothing and merely waves to all who wander before them. They are indiscriminate occupants thrust upon the land. They see no color, no race, no religion, no handicap, no sexual orientation or gender, they are ambassadors to all. Their welcoming words are carried along by the wind for all who pass near enough to hear. The gates are nothing without the people that they welcome. They hold little significance without the men, women, and children who wander beneath them, marveling at their appearance on the land.

We spent a scant three hours wandering in the frozen tundra, sharing space with these magnificent windows of the world. At this moment in my life, I have never spent a more meaningful time with art, not at the Louvre, not in museums in D.C., New York, or Atlanta. Art, in this form, was malleable and moving and it made us want to be near it, to touch the cold metal and slap the fabric as it beckoned us. I know that this was time well spent, because when I was there, time no longer mattered.

grace and peace

quick post

Sorry about the lapse in posting. My wife and I headed to New York to see "the Gates" in Central Park and visit our four week old niece. It was a wonderful, albeit cold, trip and I will write about it later...

For now, I am too tired to write.

grace and peace

What's the deal with preaching

Sunday was one of those days. I stood in the pulpit, looked out over the congregation, began my sermon, and promptly forgot what I was going to say. Anguish crept across the blank fields of my mind as I frantically, but calmly, looked through the outline before me.

Then, when I found my place, I got so off track that all I could do was skip a few lines and hope that I didn't lose anyone. It was both a liberating and frightening experience, and all I can see is the blank stares of those awaiting to hear "a good word."

The sermon, in my estimation, sucked. It felt disjointed, poorly executed, and for someone who likes to leave some loose ends, this one felt incomplete. Of course, during the obligatory handshaking and back slapping following the service, people who don't normally talk to me came up and told me what a wonderful message it was. It felt like most of them were genuine, but in my world of harsh internal criticism they're all liars.

I am grateful for their words; I let some of them in, and they did soothe the wounds of my weary soul. But others felt fake, like the people felt sorry for the poor preacher who couldn't pull it off; like I'd somehow dropped the game winning pass in the end-zone during the Super Bowl. No one who wishes to feel effective in the pulpit should carry this kind of weight on their shoulders.

Dave at The Grace Pages got me thinking about the role of preaching in communities of faith. After posting a comment there, I wanted to reiterate some of the things I shared about preaching and how I think it should be re-defined.

My understanding of preaching is more formalized than some of the other conversations that I have read recently. I do not believe that street evangelism (Brandon at Bad Christian has a post on this) is preaching at all. Standing on a street corner "proclaiming" the word of God is not preaching, it is more like a pop-up ad for God. That is more an annoying nuisance than an authentic encounter with the living God. Therefore, I limit my definition of preaching to that which is done before a community of faith, whereby the preacher has a relationship with, a genuine concern for, and a sense of accountability to those who gather with him or her each week.

Therefore, the question that concerns me is, what is preaching? When I prepare each week, I do several things. A simplified version is: I read the text (usually a lectionary passage so that I am not just doing "topical" stuff) and then I let it simmer in my brain for a day or two. I think about how this text plays out in our world today. (ie - this most recent sermon was on the temptations of Christ, I saw a common thread in the temptations as being the arrogance to live a life where we are in power and control over others, versus the life of love and healing and hospitality that we are called to live). I start at the end, and then work my way forward. I see things in newspaper (this past week I stated that I believed the new social security plans were nothing more than rhetoric that furthers us down a path of self-involvement rather than care for our community), I hear things on the radio, in songs, and in my own life and in the lives of others. I try and find a variety of ways of connecting with the experiences behind the faces that stare at me each Sunday. But it all comes down to authenticity and transparency, the ability to be genuine about my encounter with scripture without the sermon being about me.

Ultimately, I see preaching as a narrative tool used to connect the various experiences of a community of faith to an experience of the "word of God" (not always comfortable with that phrase). My role is as facilitator and mediator of my experiences and journeys with the text and how it might connect with others in the congregation.

At times that has moved me to enter the congregation and ask questions, sometimes I tell stories about messy failures or successes, mostly I try help people connect around one key word or phrase that can be translated into their personal language of experience. I don't believe in flashy presentations, smoke, mirrors, and bullet points on an overhead. I believe in being honest and authentic about the struggles that I face, that we face, that we create when we irresponsibly head off into the world and practice our faith.

I don't like to tie things up in neat packages and simplistic rules of faith. Since when has life been about following 7 steps to salvation? For me, preaching is at its best when it presents an open ended idea or question and then allows communities of faith do the work of connecting scripture to their experiences. Then people get the idea that faith is a messy proposition that is not to be undertaken lightly. There are no easy answers in this world, and there shouldn't be any easy ones in sermons either.

Finally, I believe that people learn differently, and sometimes the greatest sermons are not heard but instead register deep within our hearts through a different sort of communication. Preaching is not just standing in a puplit. Preaching is also serving, volunteering, listening, caring, and loving our way through our relationships with one another. At its best, preaching is what happens when life connects with that concept God we hold within us. At its worst, preaching comes from a disembodied, disconnected voice that gives simple answers to difficult questions, or becomes abusive and corrupt through rigidity and lack of forward thinking.

grace and peace

rockin' the suburbs...

I know I said I would finish this particular article, but the final piece is too long and I want time to edit it.

In other news...

**On Tuesday, friends of ours welcomed a new son into the world. Elijah Theodore was born at 3AM Tuesday. The mother, father, and son are doing well, despite the joyful shock of coming to Richmond a two-some and leaving a three-some.

The misses and I are extremely happy for both of them, and we know that Elijah has a wonderful life ahead of him, despite the fact that he will be a preacher's kid two times over.

**After my anxiety attack on Wednesday night, I feel much better. It is as though all of the stress of our impending move, the previous and forthcoming sermons, and general stresses of work and life have faded a bit.

Anxiety is a wonderfully powerful thing, and I liken this first of my attacks as pushing through a thick wall of jello. After pushing through, the world is a much brighter place and easier to handle. I think I would take anxiety over depression any day of the week.

**I am preaching on the lectionary text from Matthew this week (4:1-11). It is a difficult text because (1) I don't believe in the devil, (2) I don't believe that this story happened in real life, and (3) I believe that is very important to our faith and how we interact in God's world.

I stuck to an approach that is fairly current but a little less experiential than normal. It was important for me to attempt to have the congregation think a little less personally about this text and more along the lines social and cultural temptations.

We Presbyterians have no problems talking about sin, but there is some disconnect with the ideas of what gets us there in the first place. I decided to stick to the premise that these temptations have a common thread of arrogance. This is in the hopes that they can do some parallel processing to how our communities and our country acts on the local and global stages. We'll see if I am too obtuse or not.

**We booked our flights to Denver for a preliminary house hunt. It is both exciting and frightening to know that we will be leaving our home soon. The move is a good one in the long run, it is the toll that it takes on us in the short term that makes things so hard sometimes.

**Finally, I am beginning to shape a focus for this forum; something that will be helpful to me and hopefully to others. I still like having the opportunity to air the experiences of my life. I also want to begin to formulate ideas of what a community of faith is meant to be. This will be ultimately important to the doctoral work I will undertake and any opportunity to write about it will be helpful.

To that end, I have one question: when you encounter a meaningful and depthful community (religious or other-wise) what is it that let's you know that you have found a comfortable place to grow?

anxious moments

My chest heaved as pain filled the left side of my ribcage. Doctors floated above me trying to figure out what was wrong, until they could do no more. Finally, I saw them reach out and tug at my chest. Ribs snapped like twigs underneath a heavy boot as they separated from my breastbone. My skin tore and my muscles were exposed to the cool air. Pain washed down the sides of my body like a shower of ice. My voice crackled with fear and I begged them to stop. But it had already started and I was laid bare before them. My heart exposed, beating rapidly as they stared. Fear drew close like a black cloud over my head as I struggled to close my chest. My breath came in quick staccato bursts. It was hard to get air and my body trembled at the thought of my exposure and the pain that came with it…

I am in my house and it is time to go, to move. This time there is only a small trailer outside. My parents are here and there is a sadness behind their eyes. I wander through the house with my wife and point at chairs and tables. These are my things, my grandfather’s leather chair, the la-z-boy given to me by my parents for Christmas, as I point they are taken to the trailer attached to my parents’ car. My books are loaded alongside the bookcases my dad and I built. I can’t help but feel overwhelmed at the task before me. I finally realize why it hurts so deeply to pack, she is not coming. She can’t come, this home is her home and I have to go. My legs tremble uncontrollably as I find myself in the car. We drive away and I am alone, but I don’t want to be…

I have a terrible imagination, vivid, detailed, distressing. It is what makes me a good counselor; it is also what haunts me when my fears win. The pictures of my mind become all too real, and the situations are inescapable. I lay in bed trembling last night as my fears turned the pruning hooks and plowshares of my heart into spears and swords that cut and pierced my soul. Fears of loneliness and sorrow, fears of pain and regret set up shop in my mind and would not leave. Like teenagers when their parents leave town, my fears leapt and danced and trashed the rooms of my mind and heart; they rampaged through my carefully ordered self, paying no heed to my vain attempts to calm them. It was spring break in the core of my being and I was not invited.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!” I know these words well now. The attacks of my anxieties have left me wounded. My fears have pierced my flesh and scarred my mind. Even now my feet tremble and my heart races as I remember. The pictures were so real, the loneliness so great, how did I get here? How is it that I am alone, when I know that I am not? Is there no one that can save me from the stabs and wounds of fear? I try and fail to find God in this fearful place, there is no God that I can seek, no God that can save me from myself.

She lies there with me as I stare frightfully into the night. Her words are soft and her touch is gentle. She brushes away my tears, and tries to soothe my soul. I find some solace in her words, her invitations to enter the pictures with me. Mostly, it is the quietness of her presence that grounds me; it is the gentle reminders that I am not alone. I do not confuse her with God, but through her presence I know that I am remembered, that I am loved and valued. She could not give me that on her own, and the peace she offers is greater than she can know. She is not perfect, but she is enough, enough to know that I am not forgotten or forsaken; enough to sense that I can be still and know again…

tolerance revisited

Yesterday I preached about the ills of tolerance. It was a long time coming. I had held on to the sermon for four weeks before uttering a word in public. All the while listening to the speculation on what I was going to say. You see, I only use one-word titles for my sermons, and this has been the title in the bulletins for one cancelled and one stripped down worship service. So people had a lot of time to reflect on what I was going to say.

I have a reputation of being a bit confrontational when I preach. So I can get away with saying, tolerance enables us to have a conversation with different people, but it is just not the same as valuing one another as unique creations of God.

I don’t think they could have imagined that I would say that tolerance is nothing more than politically correct hostility; or that racists can be tolerant if they stand to make a buck in the working world; or tolerance is what we do when we buy into the cultural phenomenon that there is too little time to get to know one another.

I even got away with saying that our world is full of what I would call tolerant people, and look at where it has gotten us. Religions tear one another apart, people hate or worse ignore others who are different, and save for the times when major disasters strike we are all fairly self-involved. It is as though we wake up each day with the goal to be tolerant of all the other idiots out there, forgetting the fact that we may be one of the idiots ourselves.

I don’t believe they heard what they were expecting. I can’t believe I said what I said. I can’t believe I stood in a pulpit and told people that toleration is a problem, but I do think it is a problem. It can keep us from really getting to know someone and valuing his or her beliefs and experiences; and toleration stems from a belief system that is inherently defensive rather than grounded in our value to God.

I was trying to make the point, a point I hope they heard, that being tolerant is not enough. I want to live in a world where we value one another rather than tolerate someone’s presence. That was what I heard Paul saying (I Corinthians 1:10-18) when he called us to be unified. That was the beginning point for me, that we are valuable, as we have been created, and that our lifestyles, indeed our lives are not twisted or vile.

By the end of the sermon, I was exhausted and emotional, my voice cracked as I asked them to repeat after me, “I am a child of God;” “You are a child of God;” “We are all children of God;” “Everyone I meet is a child of God.” The problem with sermons like these is that I have very little left emotionally, mentally, and physically.

I stood outside church to shake hands as people left. There are two young girls in our church who do not shake hands with me instead they like to hug. No matter where I am they will find me and give me a hug. The youngest, I think she is three, was about as tired as I was yesterday. She wandered out of the nursery, head hung low, not saying a word. If she were an adult I would have said she was depressed, but she is too young for the labels adults affix to one another.

I saw her and held out my arms and she returned the favor. I picked her up and felt her head come to rest on my shoulder, arms no more than dead weight flopping across my back. She said nothing and let her body tell the story of her morning. We just stood there, amidst the line of well-wishers and other folks who want to tell me what a fine job I did with a difficult subject. She was the comforting presence I needed following worship yesterday. Our time together was a few moments of living in the world I want so desperately to see. My world faded away to a place where she and I inhabited the same space, where we accepted what the other had to offer, and valued being present together. It was warm there, and nice, and I didn’t care about shaking peoples’ hands or smiling like the world was full of roses and fluffy bunnies; In that space I could let my guard down and be tired and weary and drained, and be okay with it. In that space, I was valuable to God. I was a child of God. I was going to be okay…

Thanks Martina…

Grace and peace

I flew into Long Beach and caught a cab to my hotel. I entered the room and my roommate was already there, or at least his stuff was scattered about the room. When I finally met Robert, he was the epitome of a southern lawyer that one might see in a John Grisham movie. His receding blond hair was quaffed with a little too much gel. Dressed in loafers, a button-down, and khakis, his belly generously hung over his belt. He greeted me with a resounding “hey” that bounced off of the sterile walls of our hotel, while he pumped my hand vigorously. He was charming in a way that puts you at ease almost immediately; he will be a good minister and maybe even a good pastor.

The hallways at this General Assembly resembled a beehive. The constant buzz of wheeled suitcases droned throughout the hallways as commissioners hauled their documents from meeting to meeting. People gathered together to participate in the rituals of conversations; I passed by as arms flailed to the rhythms of conversational tones. People have collapsed into chairs and their suitcases have exploded scattering papers wildly about them. Robert shepherded me through the hallways, showing me the ropes, leading me to the posse he has begun to form.

“…all alone in my white boy pain…”

It was a terrible thing to feel alone, or at least it was a terrible thing to me. I flew from one end of the country to the other, not knowing a soul. But Robert found me, and as we navigated those busy hallways I felt strangely dependant and empowered. We talked about seminaries, professors, and student bodies. We then met and shared a meal with other students from across the country. When I see the fuzzy visions of that memory, I see myself as quiet and discerning, listening for keywords that would bring about connection for me. There are several students that speak my language, and all of them have gravitated to Robert. We talked until late, and made plans to meet for breakfast at Starbucks, I don’t drink coffee.

My indoctrination into the gang began that morning. Starbucks was a brisk 6 or 7 blocks from the hotel, and inevitably we ended up talking theology and politics. We both believed (and still do) that gays and lesbians should have full inclusion in the Presbyterian Church. So we talked about the amendments that would allow that to happen. Our posse picked up two more students on the way, one is a very attractive female, but I would never tell her that, she’s a feminist and I am na├»ve. All of us are straight, white, liberal theologians, which in the grand scheme of things means very little, but it was important to us. We talked about, actually they talked about, groups in the church that were working for full inclusion. I listened, afraid to show my ignorance, and nodded occasionally. I felt like I belonged, sipping my Starbucks hot chocolate, laughing at the appropriate moments.

We approached our committees with vigor, tearing into the reports and talking about our brand of theology to the groups. There were others like us, but they were older, wiser in many ways, but lacking creativity and energy. We were the young future of the church, and doggone it we were going to change the itty-bitty world that we theologically inhabited. It’s kind of funny when I look back at that time, I knew one gay person in seminary and only knew him through friends. But at the General Assembly, it didn’t matter, I had a cause, a posse, and I felt like I belonged. The pain had subsided for the time being and I found a voice for my “heretical” theology.

This is the time, if this were a movie, where I would turn and face the camera and tell you a little about what is going on with me. This event is a longer experience to write about than I could have imagined. I hope to wrap this up with one additionally entry, and if you read through this far I appreciate it. I am beginning to see this experience as a formative time in my life. One where I was able to find a voice for my theology and take something home with me. It is exhausting calling up the memories of my theological past, but it is also necessary because there are lessons to be learned by digging around in it. Ultimately, I see this time as one where I was influenced by another, but not coerced. It was a time where I was able to lead and be led by something greater than myself (not just Robert). I hope to conclude this by the end of the week, as well as, do some additional posting along the way. Thanks for taking this journey with me…

grace and peace

rockin' the suburbs, pt I

“Let me tell y’all what it’s like, being male middle class and white; it’s a bitch if you don’t believe, listen up to my new cd…”

It could have been the theme song for our new revolution. Or at least the background music for the gang I belonged to one summer week in Long Beach, California. Little did we know that Ben Folds Five had created an anthem to describe our suburban bravado.

We were sent to California to serve the same purpose as those cartoon devils and angels that light upon the shoulders of people with great decisions to make. We were sent as Theological Student Advisory Delegates to the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly. They paid us to come all the way across the country to speak our minds and then not listen to a word we said. The “real” commissioners would gasp when our votes would come out overwhelmingly progressive, and then let out great sighs of relief when they were reminded that it didn’t count.

This kind of limited significance was the breeding ground for our white male middle-class gang. We were kind of folks who untucked our button-down shirts, and hogged the sidewalks on our way to Starbucks. We would say please and thank you with a hint of contempt in our voice; we would talk progressive theology loudly through coffee stained lips; we were a dangerous band of brothers and sisters, full of liberal white angst.

I was the strategist, the one who offered a pastorally charged political perspective; Robert, my roommate, was the parliamentarian; the guy who would disrupt the proceedings with the power of the Good Book, Robert’s Rules of Order. We developed a swagger over that week together, and we even had a couple of groupies that would follow our gang and make us feel good about what we were doing. All that we were missing were the ubiquitous color coordinated bandanas to signify our allegiance to the cause…

“…I’m pissed off but I’m too polite, when people break in the McDonald’s line; mom and dad you made me so uptight, gonna cuss on the mic tonight…”

Most often, seminary was a place to be polite about what I believed. There was no formal class where students could walk in and say, “if we are so damn accepting, why the hell are there churches out there who don’t ordain women, gays, or lesbians?” or “why are there so few large churches that have female heads of staff?” or “do you really believe all of this Satan crap, or do people just not want to take responsibility for being idiots sometimes?” There was no class that allowed an outlet for the anger that a seminary education can produce. Instead, I politely learned what my professors told me and secretly hoped that my classmates were struggling with the same questions.

“…all alone in my white boy pain…”

So I went off to California with every intention of being polite, until I met Robert. I am not sure how Robert could sense my dissatisfaction with the way things were, but he pounced on the possibility that there was a budding theological liberal inside of me. He made me believe that I could make a difference in how we treat one another in this world, or at least how we treat one another in the church. I knew little of the trouble brewing on the immaculate sidewalks of Long Beach. I never knew that there were others like me, disgruntled at being ignored, ignorant enough to be disgruntled. My white boy pain had reached a crescendo, and I was ripe for the picking…


i am no minister

I was right smack in the middle of my seminary career when my grandfather died. It was at the most inopportune time, ordination exams were right around the corner, and my January term class had just ended. I had two and a half years of education behind me and a year a half to go, but for the most part I could have sworn that I was a minister.

I don’t remember a lot about the call that told me he was gone. My mom was the one who told me; and I remember feeling relieved that his time had come to an end. I also remember thinking, “I’m a minister I guess I need to do something.” So I decided rather quickly that I would pay my respect with a prayer at his funeral, and relayed that thought to my mom.

Comer was the first of my immediate family to die, but we knew him as “Whitey.” He was my father’s father, and he was the only person I knew who had a brick grill inside his home, where he would cook steaks for us, and then give us the evil eye if we dared ask for any condiment except salt or pepper. He was the person who would give our family a whole side of salt-cured country ham for Christmas; even to this day, when I open a package of sliced country ham, I become a ten-year-old brat sneaking into the refrigerator and tugging off a hunk of salty hammy goodness.

I never really knew him much beyond those memories. You see, these were the prim and proper grandparents; the kind of grandparents that had parlor furniture that was unsuitable for children; the kind of grandparents who put multiple forks and spoons on the table and expected us to use every one; the kind of grandparents that were more comfortable with adults than with children.

A few years before he died, he had a stroke. This cooker of steaks and giver of hams became a fixture in his recliner. I remembered Christmas visits when he would struggle with walking from his chair to the table. Usually, my wife and I would enter the house and proceed to the bedroom where my parents would encourage us to tell him about our lives. We would sit on the edge of his bed and ask superficial questions like: How’s that radio working, or where’d you get that sweater? As the years progressed he became less communicative. Finally, at Christmas dinner one year he just didn’t come, and his incapacitation was complete.

I barely remember my last visit with him. It was unremarkable because I was unremarkable; actually, I was frightened more than anything else. I sat on the edge of bed, in plain sight, but just out of reach and told him stories of my life. He barely moved, barely acknowledged my presence, except for his eyes. I have no idea if he knew me, but his eyes were alive, and they told the stories of his pain; the progressive denial of the use of his body, the perpetual silence that haunted his mouth, the exhaustion of fighting to remain alive. Of course, I didn’t see these things then, I couldn’t. I was afraid to touch him, physically or otherwise. But, I’m not afraid to touch him now; if he were here I would no longer be afraid of his pain and silence.

But of course, he was gone with one swift phone call. His broken and immobile shell no longer held the spirit that lay within. All I could think of was my duty as a minister. So I set about writing a prayer for a man I feared. I drove to Athens, Georgia, and on a rainy day in January I stood before the assembled masses, the people who knew him, and I exhorted the mighty God for this man, this father, this lifeless shell that I was afraid to touch…

A few weeks later the shit hit the fan, what had I done? I was no minister or grandson to him. His life and death became nothing more than a call to duty for me. And so I sat in bed and I wept. I wept for not knowing him. I wept for my fear of him. I wept for not touching him and allowing him to touch me. I lay in bed and my wife cradled me as I wept. She gently rocked me, and held her words to herself. She allowed silence and tears and anger and fear to do its work on me. She just held on as his death became real.

I learned more about being pastoral from her in that moment, than in a lifetime of classes. Her gentle touch and strong arms held me through the pain and regret, and her silence brushed away my tears. I am not sure that I am a minister anymore, nor do I believe I want to be. But I am son now, and a grandson, and a husband, and a friend, and sometimes I stand in a pulpit and tell people about how I experience God in this world, but I’m pretty sure that I am no minister…

grace and peace

 

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