“Born again, again” by Bob Melone – Introduction, part 3 of 3

22 12 2015


In the late 90s, I read Marcus Borg’s “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,” which planted the seeds to many of my questions.  But the urge to ask was squashed, and I refused to allow myself to venture out into the waters of doubt.  Tillich believed it ventilated faith; but in my worldview, doubt only destroyed faith!  So I would not go there.  The church wouldn’t allow it.  The church wouldn’t stand for it.  And so I pushed everything down, deep inside, and continued doing what I had always done, pretending that the faith of my childhood was perfectly logical, intellectually credible, and without any inconsistencies!

Looking back through Borg’s book today, I’m intrigued at my markings – and how those at the beginning attempt to refute Borg’s assertions, while those at the end are starred, as if to say “Hey, this is good stuff!”  Questions marks are everywhere . . . until chapter 4.  That’s where I apparently began to understand a little bit about how the compassion of Jesus was at the heart of his life and ministry; and how Jesus-like life-styles unite and include others, while an emphasis on belief and doctrine only serves to divide and exclude.  And that is not to say that beliefs are unimportant.  But just as we’ve all known people who believe the right things and yet to do not behave in God-like ways, so too have we all known people who believe differently than we do, and yet still DO manage to behave in God-like ways.

For a long time, I was convinced that it was the beliefs that were most important.  Behavior was critical; but because we embrace the Protestant doctrine of justification by FAITH, as opposed to WORKS, there has to be more to a life of faith that how we behave . . . doesn’t there?  Faith without works is indeed dead, but works are simply not enough, right?  We need faith!  And faith is about believing . . . facts, statements, propositions!  Our creeds make this pretty clear.  For our ‘statements of FAITH,’ used week after week in most Presbyterian worship gatherings, begin with the words, “I believe . . .”  So that’s what we’re taught, consciously and unconsciously: faith is believing!

But what if our “Faith Alone” theology has gone too far in reacting to Roman extremes?  What if we in the evangelical church have now become so consumed with preaching ‘right doctrine’ and getting everyone to believe all the ‘right things’, that we have now actually gone to the other extreme and are missing out on the transformative life-change that is at the heart of Jesus’ message?  What if when Jesus is quoted as having said that he is the way, the truth, and the life – what if his point was less about some intellectual truth that people needed to accept and more about a way of life that people are called practice?

The “I believe” statements in the great creeds of our church are about giving our hearts to certain tenets, not just our minds.  Mental ascent to a set of truths is indeed an important part of our journeys, for if our faith is not intellectually credible then it is not worth hanging onto!  But knowing and living are two different things.  And faith should be more like a verb than a noun.  It something we DO, not just something we possess!

All of these thoughts were spinning around in my head, and before I knew it, questions were popping up all over the place.  Borg says, “the notion that our life on earth (being) primarily about meeting God’s requirements so that we may have a blessed next life . . . (was) foreign to Jesus”  (p. 85); and all of a sudden, that made perfect sense to me.  What if faith really is less about getting to heaven, and more about the way we live here on earth?  What if Jesus’ own words, about being known, NOT BY OUR BELIEFS, but by our fruit, really was true?

These kinds of ‘what if’ questions were slowly deconstructing a faith that was at the heart of my life and ministry, and for several years they sat simmering, and percolating.  In addition to Borg, McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christian” gave me not just permission, but encouragement to ask all of my questions, so that I might deal with all the ‘forbidden’ thoughts and ideas and perhaps even begin to find new life in them.  I discovered that such wrestling was vital to any authentic spiritual journey, and critical to the development of any faith worth embracing.

McLaren’s story brought me to tears over and over again – as page after page I found his story (or “Pastor Dan’s” Story!) to be my story!  I too was questioning “the stock answers to questions I was supposed to be convincing others of!” (p. 12) and one by one the bricks in my solid, sturdy, and strong Christian wall were being chiseled out of place.

Ironically, much to my surprise, through all of this, God seemed to be getting closer than ever!  My walk with Jesus seemed to be expanding.  My heart for the world around me was growing.  My appreciation of Scripture was deepening.  And my love for others – particularly those with life-styles and beliefs that were different from my own – was broadening my horizons and revealing all kinds of fresh vistas.  It was in fact nurturing within me an evangelical zeal that I had not felt for a long time.  My life truly had become new, and only now am I able to look back on the experience and realize what was taking place.

In John’s Gospel, attempting to answer a question from Nicodemus about obtaining ‘eternal life,’  Jesus says that one must be born again.  I thought that had happened to me when I was a teenager.  But now I know that it is something that must happen to us, and in us, over and over again.  It is not something that occurs in our lives but once.  The power of the Spirit’s presence within each one of us involves the realization that God is always working and moving, calling and wooing, leading us on and guiding us forward.

Upon reflection, I know without a doubt that something new was taking place within me – something holy, and from God.  Things were shifting and changing, morphing and growing.  I was being born again, again; and my life, my faith, and my ministry were never going to be the same.

I once heard someone say that ‘shift happens.’  And thank God it does; for I’m afraid of what my life would be without it!  This ‘shift’ was all over the place at Stone House Presbyterian Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, and I was loving it!  My faith was growing wings, and my commitment to the Body and its mission was developing in ways that I never thought possible.

Now . . . I tell you all of this not because I think that my journey is somehow unique, or any more special or important than your own.  Rather, I tell you all this because I’ve discovered that I am not alone on this journey.  Many people have similar stories, and yet too often we keep them to ourselves.  We’re afraid to ‘come out of the closet,’ fearful that we’ll be chastised for backsliding.  In too many places, people with stories like mine are being thrown out of the Body, and condemned to some place in the afterlife where is supposedly weeping and gnashing of teeth.  We told that we’re watering down the Gospel, being too politically correct, abandoning the Bible, or worst of all, thinking too much!

But friends, none of that is true . . . at least not for most of us on this journey toward a new kind of Christianity.  We are eager to grow not just a new kind of Christian, but a new kind of Church!  And my simple hope is that in reading my story, you will begin to own your story, and not be afraid to share it with anyone who will listen.  In the words of Doug Pagitt, don’t be afraid of your ‘flip,’ for there is more than one way to talk about matters of God, and faith, resurrection, and new life!

Further, my hope is that in the telling of our stories, we really will be able to create a new kind of Church, one that, borrowing the words from President John F. Kennedy, “looks ahead and not behind, that welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, and that cares about everyone.”

Following Jesus is a great adventure, and our journeys need to be told.  So for what it’s worth, here’s mine.  I hope and pray that hearing about my being born again, and again, and again, will help you to experience a similar rebirth . . . again, and again, and again!

“Born again, again” by Bob Melone – Introduction, part 2 of 3

17 12 2015

BobThe progressively liberal leg of my journey actually began more than a decade ago, in 2002!

It was a beautiful Monday morning when I got the call. Virginia’s hot and humid summer days were slowly giving way to the cooler and colorful days of autumn, and after a wonderful Church Retreat I was excited about all that was happening in the New Church Development project I had undertaken two years earlier. Convinced that God was growing and blessing the ministry that my family and I had so willingly embraced, I was full of renewed passion and vision for the church’s third program year under my leadership.

I didn’t recognize the voice on the other end of the line, and when he gave his name, that didn’t help much. Phone calls early in the morning, like those in the middle of the night, always startle me and send shock waves of panic through my bones. Never the less, I always try to answer with a ‘hello’ that makes it sound as though I’ve been wide awake for hours, sitting around doing nothing but waiting for the person’s call. Sadly, regardless of my cherry disposition when I answer at that hour of the morning, the news that follows is never good.

On this morning, my groggy consciousness was quickly able to discern this reality. Something had happened. Something tragic. Something that was going to break my heart. Something that was going to make me want to stay in bed . . . all day . . . and not have to face the mean, unfair, and cruel world anytime soon.

Seventeen months earlier, our church had hired a wonderful woman to develop and expand the worship and music life of our growing congregation. She was a single mom, with three wonderful children between the ages of 9 and 15, and with a vibrant faith and a contagiously energetic spirit. Together we were designing Sunday morning corporate worship gatherings that offered people something fresh and different . . . something relevant and engaging . . . something full of life and brimming with joy. Gone was rigid adherence to a worship order that lacked energy and vitality; and in its place were all kinds of creative and contemporary expressions of faith. Tradition was being explained and reinterpreted, and a style that had become little more than the breeding ground of apathy, had been replaced with one full of new life.

It had not been easy, but in 17 months, our new worship leader had become more than another staff member – she had become a friend, part of the family, and an integral part of our growing band of disciples seeking to change the image of the church – if even in just a small way.

“Is this Bob Melone?” came the voice on the phonr.

“Yes it is,” I said.

“Bob, there’s been an accident. Do you think you could get over to the hospital?”

Within minutes, I would learn that our beloved worship leader had been hit by a drunk driver. She was half a mile from her house, returning home with her youngest daughter after taking her son to a friend’s house to spend the night. The little girl was fine, but my new friend was on life support and probably not going to survive.

Almost a year to the day earlier, my world had been similarly shaken, on September 11, 2001. I was in a staff meeting when my wife called to tell me that a terrible tragedy was unfolding in New York City. She would call again, only a few minutes later, to tell me of similar horrors in DC. I quickly closed the church office and headed home, walking into the house as the second tower collapsed. Within minutes I was weeping, as evil manifested itself before my very eyes.

Had I ever been confronted with such evils before? Of course. I had studied apartheid in college. I knew all about the famine in Ethiopia in the mid-80s. I had been on several mission trips to Mexico, Jamaica, and in various parts of Appalachia. And I had seen all kinds of racism, sexism, and homophobia, in various segments of our culture and society. Furthermore, like most everyone else, I had dealt with my share of tragic deaths. I had led a memorial service for a two year old killed in another car accident with a drunk driver in Erie, PA; as well as for a kind, elderly, small business owner who was shot and killed when someone broke into his convenience store in York, PA. I had officiated at close to 100 memorial services in my second church alone, and had lost a great grand-mother, four grandparents, and several great aunts and uncles.

Had I seen the brokenness and malevolence of our world? Of course I had. But I wasn’t prepared for the shaking that these two pivotal events would bring to my life. The tragic death of our worship leader, and the horrific events of 9/11 had left me angry and confused, and brought to the surface all of the doubts and questions that I had buried deep within my soul.

Trite and simplistic reasonings rang in my head: We live in a broken world and sometimes God allows bad things to happen to good people; God’s ways are not our ways, and His plans are not always our plans; we just can’t see the bigger picture – and we’ll never understand the mind of God!

I had heard them all. Worse yet, I had even used many of them. But this time, they simply didn’t work. They didn’t make sense and they didn’t offer me any comfort. If this was the way in which God worked – or failed to work – then this god was not one I wanted to worship. In fact such a god was not worthy of worship! This god was certainly not one to whom I wanted to give my life.

It was around this same time that I began attending the National Pastors Conference, sponsored by Youth Specialties and Zondervan Publishing. There, I was exposed to a Maryland pastor by the name of Brian McLaren, and to a conversation about what many were referring to as the “Emerging Church.” Evidently, I wasn’t the only evangelical wrestling with teachings that didn’t make sense; others too were questioning the traditional understanding of prayer, the sovereignty of God, and much, much more.

I was not alone. And I was not going crazy. Now, finally, I had people to talk with and journey with — people who loved God and who were committed to following Jesus, but who were not so rigid in their understanding of faith that there was no room for mystery or uncertainty, diversity or inclusivity. So the doubts began pouring forth, and I was finally given permission to ask the questions that for so long I had been afraid to ask!

“Born again, again” by Bob Melone – Introduction, part 1 of 3

10 12 2015

I stood at the mic, heart pounding and mind racing, anticipating the look of the Moderator that would indicate his preparing to call upon me for my comments. I was at the 220th meeting of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Church US, ready to ‘come out of closet.’

The Assembly’s Committee on Civil Unions and Marriage Issues was making its report, recommending that the Church’s constitution be changed. The current reading referred to marriage as being between “one man and one woman,” and the proposal was to alter the reading to “two people.” Tension at the assembly was at its peak – two minority reports had already been defeated, and fear that this reformed body was about to make yet another radical statement about one of the most divisive issues of our day had taken over. No one wanted to destroy the church, but everyone knew that this proposed change certainly had the potential to have just such an effect.

People who knew me well knew how my theology had developed over the past 10 years, but I certainly had not made any publicly statements directly addressing an issue as controversial as same-gender relationships. But that was about to change as I stood before mic number 8, green paddle in my hand, preparing to speak ‘in favor’ of the motion before us.

Interestingly, I couldn’t help but notice the ‘paddle.’ It really wasn’t a paddle at all; just a badminton racket with two green pieces of construction paper stapled together, and like a glove placed over the head. How appropriate that something so ‘home-made’ was being used to bring about an historic change in this segment of the Church. Average people like me had come to the realization that the traditional teachings of the church were simply wrong – and it didn’t require anything even remotely akin to some kind of Papal Decree to change the course of human history. All that was required was a simple majority of this assembly’s 688 commissioners voting to make the change, and the recommendation would go out to the local church for approval. This was Protestantism at its best – lay and clergy, coming together for conversation and dialogue, all in an attempt to discern the will and the way of the Spirit.

I’m not normally nervous when I speak in public, but comments had been limited to one minute because so many wanted to speak, and I was concerned I had mis-timed my statement and that I’d be cut off before I had finished. There was so much I wanted to say about there being different ways to understand Biblical authority, reformed orthodoxy, and sexual orientation, that I was concerned I would not be able to squeeze it all in.

Neal Pressa had been elected Moderator of the 220th Assembly six days earlier, and was working hard to keep everyone in order. Finally, after over two hours in line, enduring all kinds of amendments and substitutions, his eyes came my way and “the person at mic 8 speaking in favor of the motion” was called on to address the assembly.

And I did. And now everyone would know. Bob Melone had come ‘out of the closet,’ and was . . . a liberal!

“Born again, again” by Bob Melone – Preface

4 12 2015


I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have questions – about everything! I have always been inquisitive, and when it comes to matters of God and faith my questions have only led me into a deeper understanding of what it means to be human and part of God’s great plan for creation. I’m convinced that good questions do this – they grow us, making our lives richer and stronger, and setting our hearts in tune with the harmonies of creation.

I first began putting my spiritual questions down on paper in August of 1983 – prior to my first year in seminary. A child of the Church, I was becoming more frequently disturbed by the divisions I witnessed within the Body, and was convinced that someone needed to write about those divisions. Believers, all of whom claimed to love God, were always arguing about their beliefs; and I frequently found myself in the middle of conflict between Roman Catholics and Protestants, Charismatics and Pentecostals, Conservatives and Liberals. And the more my world grew, the louder the arguments became and the more my frustrations grew.

During my middle and high school years, the homilies of the Monsignor in our local parish were more about the importance of sending your kids to Catholic Schools, than on the Gospel readings that were supposed to grow my walk with God. At a cousin’s wedding, watching my grandmother remain in her seat during communion because she was Protestant, while the rest of our family went forward to ‘commune’ with God, only served to drive home the absurdity of believing that there was only one way to know and experience God. And when I began dating a girl from a local Baptist Church, while her family was glad I knew the importance of being ‘born again’, there was never the less a great deal of concern over my family’s speaking in tongues and there heresy of such beliefs.

The ‘problems’ all began when my Great-Aunt become involved with the Charismatic movement. Loud discussions and arguments about what we believed became commonplace at our dinner table, and conversations about God, faith, Church, and ‘having a personal relationship with Jesus’ dominated the life of my nuclear, and eventually extended family. And when a family member’s leg supposedly grew an inch at a local healing service – well, that was when the questions began exploding all over my world.

In college, my world became even larger, and what I have come to label as nothing short of brain-washing by religious fundamentalists, led me into a period of militant evangelism. My penance for being president of a Jewish fraternity was the call to convert the entire campus of American University; and my zealousness led me to a way of living out my faith that was nothing short of obnoxious. Fortunately, a semester abroad during my senior year began pushing me towards a more intellectually credible faith; and upon returning to Washington, DC to finish up my college career, I became a member of National Presbyterian Church. There, my faith continued to grow and expand, and by April I had been admitted to Princeton Theological Seminary.

PTC challenged me in ways I have only now come to appreciate. Back then, however, while I was being exposed to all kinds of approaches to Scripture, and to theologies that I didn’t even know existed for the first 22 years of my life, I clung tightly to the traditional evangelical approach to God, and simply ‘endured’ what I was all too quick to declare to be heretical views of Christianity. My active involvement with Young Life and Presbyterians For Renewal only further entrenched me in a way of thinking that was Biblically inconsistent at best, and arrogant and manipulative at their worst. I dearly love the people who were part of my life during those formative years, particularly those from both of those organizations, and I am grateful for that ‘leg’ of my journey, but . . . but what? I guess all I will say is that at times the theology undergirding their ministry was a little too exclusive and narrow for the life I believe God is calling me to live.

Upon graduation from PTS in 1986, church life completely distracted me from the critical thinking that was then and is still today so lacking in so many segments of the church. I was consumed by what seminaries often refer to as “practical theology,” as the day to day issues of ministry absorbed my every waking moment. My first call to First Presbyterian Church of York was full of joys that I still celebrate thirty years after my formal ministry there ended. As the Associate Pastor for Youth and Family Ministries, I had the great privilege of working with a wonderful group of youth leaders, teens, and parents – people who I deeply loved, and whose company I still enjoy today. I have officiated at countless marriages of old ‘youth-groupers’ and have watched them grow and mature and become adults their parents should be proud of. But as a young, 20-some year old pastor, church politics sapped my strength, and seeds of disillusion with the church took root in my soul.

After six years in York I was called to First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Erie, PA to serve as Pastor/Head of Staff; and there, the tasks of leading the largest Church in Lake Erie Presbytery only drove me further and further from the one I had given my life to in my teens. I was completely swallowed up by the life of the large church; and as a result, I neglected my wife, missed out on some of the most important parts of my childrens’ early years, and allowed the demands of professional ministry to smother the Spirit that was living and moving within me. Doctoral work at Gordon-Conwell pushed me to think harder about my walk, but once again, it was more about call to pastor, and less about my call to follow!

In an attempt to flee what I could only describe as the suffocating nature of traditional, institutional Christianity, my wife and I decided to consider New Church Development in the Presbyterian Church, and within a year we moved to Williamsburg, VA to begin a leg of our journey that brought us more joy than we ever ‘hoped, dreamed, or even dared to imagine.’ The people, groups, and communities that were part of our lives have left indelible marks upon our souls and will never be forgotten.

After thirteen wonderful years in one of the most beautiful places we have ever lived, I responded to a call to and from the people of Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church, in Alexandria, Virginia. So in June of 2013 we moved back to the DC area, and here my journey continues. I am surrounded by people who remain continually open to the proddings and pushings, musings and meddling of the Spirit, and who are eager to embrace a participatory eschatology, where the church is more about behavior than belief, deed than creed. (And yes, we still love Jesus, too!)

Have I struggled over the past 30 years? Of course! Life in general, and ministry in specific, are never without struggles. But today, I find myself closer to the things of God than ever before; and the Spirit continues to deepen my understanding of and walk with Jesus, the Christ. Every person, in every church I’ve served, has had a role in the faith that I am living into and enjoying today, and I’m grateful to you all. You’ve grown me and my ministry, and in many ways done for me what seminary did not do. So thank you. And thank God for the progressive movements of Christianity that exist today, constantly pushing the rigid boundaries of so much of Christianity, and inviting people into a faith that truly is . . . reformed and always being reformed, according the Living Word and the call the Beloved Spirit.

Perhaps, this is what it means to be born again . . . again, and again, and again!