29 06 2014

I spend a lot of time thinking –  too much time, some would say.  I’m constantly trying to anticipate the future, process what is, and naturally, evaluate the past.  And the past is where I spend a lot of time – remembering meaningful events, places and people, and recalling experiences had, and insights gained.  This is no doubt the case because my life has been touched by so much in its 53-year span.  I have a pretty good history when it comes to family, friendships, school, work and church; and for that history I am most grateful.

History is important to me not just because of what it was, but because of what it IS; for our history never remains in the past.  Often, perhaps always, history touches, informs, shapes, and in my case, blesses, the present!

As I write these words, I’m at the beach in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, with a small group from the very first church I served as Associate Pastor from 1986-1992.  And those were crazy years in my life!  My wife and I had been married just over a year when I arrived and we were still trying to figure out the whole ‘two shall become one’ thing; our two boys were born in ’87 and ’89 and I was extremely slow figuring out the ‘parenting thing’; and life in a large, inner city congregation often overwhelmed me.  People, personalities, and church politics took their toll, and it was a tough time.  I thought about leaving ministry on more than one occasion, and it was only due the people that God placed in my life that I kept going. 

Thank God for those people! 

Many of them were kids, because I was the Associate Pastor for Youth and Family Ministries and they were the ones with whom I spent most of my time.  But there were countless ‘adults’ as well – people I now know were really my peers — who touched me and my family, and whose friendship I still treasure 22 years later.  Somehow, these people got to know me, even though we really spent very little time together.  And so today, when I’m with them, I feel like our history blankets me with grace, and peace, and love.  They’ve seen me grow, and change, and age, and mature (a little bit?!), and they continue to embrace and accept me for who I am, and for who God is calling me to be.  So when I’m with them, I feel the presence of God. 

As I listen to them joke with one another, and make fun of each others little quirks, I know it is the Holy Spirit behind the smiles and the laughter.  When they share the struggles of their children, struggles that every parent knows hurt more than our own, I see the love of Jesus at work, bringing compassion and comfort.  And in moments of silence, when words need not be spoken, there is an ease that I can only attribute to a holy presence, and a profound experience of ‘thin space.’  

All of this is because history is being made manifest in the present.  The past is kissing our sunburned skin, and the cool waves of days gone by are refreshing our souls.  What would we do without times with people who know everything about us, and love us anyway?  What would we do without friends we only see only on occasion, but whenever we’re together we are able to pick up right where we left off?  What would we do without brothers and sisters who give us glimpses of God, and reveal the powerful and transforming love of Jesus?

For me, history is less about the past, and more about the present; for it is always shaping who I am becoming, and constantly teaching me more about God than any sermon, Sunday School class, or book ever could.  And while my past is far from perfect, I wouldn’t change a thing about anything that was!  

This week, may each of us take a moment to reflect on the people who touched us in the past, and who thus continue to mold and shape the people we are today.  Let’s be grateful for each of them — friends, family members, teachers, colleagues, neighbors, and pastors — and may we never fail to thank them for the rich and beautiful ways that they continue to be present in our lives today, through memories that have the powerful ability to transform us, again, and again, and again!       


22 06 2014

In 2012, I served as a commissioner to the 220th meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), in Pittsburgh, PA. The most disheartening action taken, by a vote of 338 to 308, was the assembly’s refusal to redefine marriage — making it a covenant relationship between “two people” and not just “a man and a woman.” I voted in the minority, and yet for the past two years, have graciously accepted the assembly’s decision, and abided by the wisdom of the majority. I did this, even though I was told again and again that my position was unBiblical, that I was compromising my faith, and that I had caved in to my culture.

This year however, history was made! The Presbyterian portion of the American Church has declared that God’s gift of marriage is not just for those within the heterosexual community, but for all! This time around, after more passionate discussion and discernment, the vote was 429 to 175, and as a result, the PC(USA) is now in accord with what much of the rest of America already knows — that God’s love and acceptance is not withheld from the gay and lesbian community, and that committed same-sex relationships are no different in the eyes of the Divine than traditional marriage relationships.

In light of this action, I am now being called to show tolerance towards those who disagree with it. I’m being asked to move slowly, to display patience, and to recognize that that people of good faith always have and always will disagree on important matters of faith and practice. And being a strong “feeling” person, this is what I WANT to do.

I’ve been in the pastorate for 29 years, and listening to others is one of my greatest gifts. While I have strong opinions on many things, I have always been eager to listen to people who disagree with me, and only speak up on issues after much thought and prayer.

I’m also a people-pleaser! Like most pastors, I don’t want the church to be a place of rancor and division. I want people to be happy, and at peace. When I look at what is going on in the halls of Congress I cringe, wondering why people can’t . . . “just get along.” I preach regularly on Jesus’ call to display forbearance toward all, and seek to live according to the words of Micah by “seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.”

Most importantly, I embrace with my whole being the words of Jesus that we will be judged by our love for one another. I believe that to be created in the image of God means that the Spirit of God abides in all humanity; and thus as children of God, all people are deserving of my love.

Tolerance should come easy to me. Grace and acceptance should flow naturally from this heart that truly wants to seek after the things of God. And normally it does. But what does that look like in the face of this decision to redefine marriage?

Do I look at the racist with tolerance? When the Ku Klux Klan seeks to start a so-called “neighborhood watch” in a southern Pennsylvania township in order to deal with a rash of car break-ins, do I not speak up and name the hate for what it is?

Do we look at the extremists from Westboro Baptist Church with tolerance? When they protest at the funeral of Maya Angelou, one of our nation’s most most gifted and gracious proponents of human worth and dignity, do we not stand up and name ignorance for what it is?

And does the world look at radical terrorist organizations with tolerance? When Boco Haram kidnaps 200 young girls because they believe that women do not need an education, does the world not speak up and name injustice for what it is?

I certainly do NOT want to put all people who do not embrace my views of same-gender marriage in the same category as the Klu Klux Klan, religious extremists, or groups like Boco Haram — let me be clear about that! But where does one draw the line?

I can work with people who disagree with me on the authorship of the letter to the Ephesians; and the churches I’ve served over the years have had people who took all kinds of differing positions on membership requirements, capital punishment, and most recently, divestment from companies doing business in Israel. I know the difference between unity, and uniformity; and I can preach a great sermon on the diversity of the body, where there are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit giving them to each. I know all this, and really believe it to be part of my DNA.

But sometimes, don’t we need to say enough is enough? Are there not some things that God does NOT tolerate? And if so, where is that line to be drawn, and when?

To my brothers and sisters who are so hurt over the changing nature of marriage, I’m so very sorry! But consider the hurt you have inflicted on those people you’ve labeled unforgiven sinners for the past . . . how many centuries? Your narrow and unbending view of the Bible has not allowed me room to disagree with you, nor to perform marriage services for those whose relationships I believe God has called me to bless. And while I’ve maintained union with you throughout this time, now that the tables are turning, many of you want to pick up your marbles and go home!

Today, at least in the Presbyterian Church, we’ve all got the freedom to remain faithful to our own conscience when it comes to gay marriage. And it’s no easier for me to grant you the freedom to deny that gift to people whose lifestyle you believe to be an affront to God, than it is for you to allow me to read and interpret Scripture as I believe the Spirit leads me.

So this morning, as the people in my church come together for worship, I will not be apologizing for anything that happened in Detroit. I will offer a class in a couple of weeks to help people understand what happened, and why; and I will gently and pastorally listen to those who disagree with the decisions that were made. I will welcome anyone and everyone to worship with us, and to become part of the faith community that I call home. And where we disagree on the tough issues of faith and practice, I will show all respect and grace. But I cannot apologize or show remorse for the prophetic decisions made by the church I love, nor can I hide my passion for our continual movement toward the reign of God in this world.

This morning when we sing “Breathe on me breath of God,” I will give thanks for the winds of the Spirit that blew through Detroit this past week, and I will invite all to be refreshed and renewed by that Spirit.

This is the day that the Lord has made! So yes, let’s rejoice and be glad in it. Let’s never apologize for being boldly faithful to the God we love. And may we never regret being advocates for justice, even when it’s hard.