(February 2, 2014) When we read the list of blessings in the Gospels (“beatitudes,” as they are often called), we can read them both as reminders of whom God loves, and as soothing balm for the parts of ourselves most in need of blessing. What blessings do you need to hear? (Matthew 5:1-12)
It was the second full day of classes in the fall 2001 semester at Boston University School of Theology. The basement lecture hall was filled with first year graduate students, cut off from the sunlight and the outside world for the duration of the 9 am church history class. These were the days before smartphones and wifi, and only the students in the last row could see the rest of us playing solitaire games on our laptops or palm pilots, but no one was checking Facebook or Twitter, or receiving push notifications. One student came in late, and we thought nothing of it.
At the break before the next class, the student who had come in late described what she’d heard on the radio during her drive: that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers in New York City. Only when we took our break, and some of us ran to the mailroom to huddle around the radio, and others to the Student Union to find a TV, did the unfolding story begin to emerge.
Shell-shocked and horrified, we gathered again for Intro to Hebrew Bible. Dr. Kathe Darr walked in, her black binder and stack of papers clutched in her thin arms. She placed her burden down on the table at the front of the room, just next to the table-top podium, and walked out in front of the assembled class.
“I won’t wish you good morning,” she said in a voice that sounded angry, “because it’s not.”
We shuffled in our seats.
“This,” she said, lifting a stack of printed pages up into our view, “is my lecture for today. Yes, it is important. Yes, the material will be on the midterm. No, I will not rearrange my syllabus to deliver it at another time. My TAs will have copies for you before the next class. I expect that you will all read them. Thoroughly.”
She walked back behind the table, placed the pages on top of the podium, and gripped its sides in her long-nailed fingers.
“Now,” she said. “Let’s pray.”
And pray we did. She prayed, we prayed, whoever wanted to prayed. Then we talked and expressed fear, and tried to help one another contact loved ones in New York and Washington. And we prayed some more.
Together with my undergraduate professor, Fr. Joe McCaffrey, Kathe would go on to teach me the large majority of what I know about the Hebrew Bible, about the visceral and strange Book of Ezekiel, about the Hebrew language, and no small amount about biblical interpretation, history, and hermeneutics.
But that day, she taught me in word and deed how to lead in the midst of fear and sorrow and impossible turmoil. She taught me to be kind and firm, flexible and disciplined, to assess my own gifts and shortcomings and the needs of my congregants, and respond quickly, decisively, and always compassionately. And to pray.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
‘Tis the season to celebrate love, it seems. Last week was Valentine’s Day, and today’s RethinkChurch Lenten Photo-a-Day reflection word is love.
Love is central to my theological and spiritual understanding of the world. I’m not talking about hearts and cupids, schmoopy puppy love here. I’m talking soul-shaking, boundary-shattering, grace-soaked, all-infusing love that is synonymous with the name of the Holy. That stuff. The reason for living. Love between God and creature, between an individual and the world, between two people: lovers, parents, children, siblings, friends, lived out in a myriad of ways as unique as snowflakes. Love. Love Divine. Love that makes us human and whole.
But when we talk about love, when we use and over-use the word, when we say it so often it starts to sound small and fathomable and domestic– like a word rather than like The Word— I’ve found a painful dissonance. Lately, I’ve felt excluded from conversations about love. Felt excluded when it comes to the most inclusive thing in the world. Felt silenced when it comes to the most powerful force I know.
And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling excluded in conversations about love, nor is divorce the only instance where reflecting on love can be painful. What does it mean to speak of love if love has been removed, has withered or faded, was never there? How does a child learn love if one’s parents were not loving? How does a friend trust in love if one’s trust has been violated? How does someone risk loving if love has been a place of pain and loss? How does one claim and celebrate love if that love is silenced or shamed?
What if we have not love?
Our love is our human way of living in love with God, the world, and one another. As such, it is an imperfect reflection of Love Itself. I can accept that there are times and places where we glimpse the Holy, and there are times and places where the word love comes with brokenness and pain and fragile, fearful hope for healing. For people walking that latter road, just starting the conversation– or knowing it’s not a conversation in which they want to participate at this time– can be painful enough.
So today, here’s to love that is wrapped in pain. Here’s to love that has been silenced and closeted. Here’s to love that stretches tender shoots out of the bitter destruction of broken hearts and lives and relationships. Here’s to love that is re-framed following abuse and neglect and betrayal. Here’s to love that is flawed and incomplete and imperfect. Here’s to love we aren’t ready to talk about. Here’s to love that’s too complex to grasp or name. Here’s to love that’s so big we can’t get our hearts, let alone our words, around it. Here’s to love that is a tiny portion of God’s own self.
Even if it hurts, even if we’re afraid, even if we have to whisper when we’d rather shout– or rather be safe and silent: Here’s to Love.
Sisters and brothers, I don’t even know what day it is.
I think about 3 days of legislation have passed since last I posted. They weren’t good days for me and the people I care about. It seems that progressives make up about 40% of the voting body on just about anything. Other people have been reporting votes and issues. I’ve titled this a diary because it’s really about the experience.
The experience has sucked.
I’ve been exhausted, discouraged, and wrung out dry. We’ve lost votes on everything so far– actually not true.
Let me share my one victory: my subcommittee’s paragraph on abortion, which is an improvement over the current Book of Discipline, and which we hashed out in a respectful, holy way, passed the full body without incident. As the recording secretary for that subcommittee, I have officially written a section of the Book of Discipline.
The rest is a mess. A day ago, clergy lost guaranteed appointment, a policy that has provided for and protected the fair appointment of clergy without respect to gender or ethnicity or theological stance, but has also, it can be argued, prevented cabinets from removing ineffective clergy. The result was not actually the tough part– what was worse was that there was a glitch and then an attempt to correct the glitch. The full body would have to vote to even allow discussion on this very important matter for clergy and churches. They did not. So lots of people lost their job security if not yet their jobs, and their pastor’s confidence in her or his prophetic voice if not their pastor, without even a blink.
Today it’s been conversations about restructuring the church– I’m not even sure what we passed on to the finance committee, but I’m pretty sure it’s out of order, and I said so. That’s right. I came here to advocate for justice and instead I stood and the mic and read from the rule book. Yikes.
Even advocating for justice has been hard. We are not all of one mind as to what that justice might look like and how it is best accomplished (surprising, right?), and so those of us “on the same team” are sometimes disagreeing with one another. It gets messy. That’s relationship. Today I was speaking passionately with 3 other people, and realized that I was disagreeing with Mark Miller. The Mark Miller. I said that, in fact. “I’m yelling at Mark Freaking Miller!”
We’re all just in shock. What is clear is that this is not the UMC we all thought we knew. Yesterday, we debated the preamble to our social principles, a seemingly benign paragraph of the Discipline that some felt needed a greater expression of grace. There was a proposal that we add “We affirm that nothing can separate us from the love of God,” a direct quote from Romans 8. We debated whether or not we would affirm this statement of prevenient grace, *the* essential Wesleyan/Methodist tenant. 53% of delegates believed in God’s unconditional love. Only 53%.
This is not my church.
My fellow progressives and my delegation from New England (powerhouse people!) are all walking around like zombies, shocky and stunned and confused. What happened to the denomination that taught hope? love? grace? compassion? Gone. Copoted. Outvoted.
We’ve got a hail mary pass tomorrow, but mostly it will probably be another day of voting on things that matter deeply– how much we are willing to wound our GLBTQ members of the body. I expect the votes will go 60/40. I expect it will hurt like hell.
There aren’t words for the feeling tonight. It’s prayerful, but there aren’t words. Sighs too deep for words. I ache.
I had a very strange experience last night. I preached a sermon on Twitter. It had been a very hard day (more on that another time) and I had left the voting area (called the bar– not a social establishment for beverage!), and sat for a time with some friends, members of the GLBTQ and ally community. The music began, and a joyful liturgical dance that moved me deeply, but I felt such a disconnect because my friends and loved ones were cut off from the worship, both by the voting area, and by some of the votes we had taken.
Members of the Common Witness Coalition, as I was writing, the “church”– the broken, internally and externally wounded, frightened church– I was thinking of was not the UMC. It was the Coalition. My word is for us in our pain.
I wavered on the edge, and I began to write:
(we sang the wonderful song “You Are Mine,” which includes the lyric “I will call your name, embracing all your pain, stand up, now walk and live.” and the refrain “I love you and you are mine.”)
(we heard the story of Jesus asleep in the boat as the disciples cried out in fear at the wind and waves, until Jesus awoke– Lord, save us! We are perishing!– and rebuked the storm)
(I’m having a Pentecost moment. There’s another sermon in this room, and I hear it too) #twittersermon #GC12love #gc2012 (The preacher in the room was preaching a sermon that was sort of in conversation with what I was writing, sort of source material, and sort of separate)
Yes, I know. Technically, I could subtitle any day at General Conference, or anywhere else for that matter, with that word.
I’m a crier. It’s me.
But Thursday there were more tears than usual.
I’ll give a shout out to Adam Hamilton, who after a lot of critique of the proposal he helped present, agreed to meet with the young people who had raised concerns. That was very gracious of him.
We had a long day in our committees and subcommittees, where, it must be noted, there is spotty wifi and very little cell reception (and so I’m not able to blog, facebook, or tweet).
As I had planned, I self-selected onto the subcommittee on reproductive rights, because that subcommittee was in need of progressive voices– and it still is. We’re pretty outnumbered, including by some who believe abortion is wrong in all– and I mean all– cases, including rape and incest, birth defects incompatible with the life of the child, and threats to the life of the mother.
But what our chairperson did was really wonderful. Before we discussed any legislation, she invited us to share where our hearts were on the subject of abortion. What followed was a truly holy conversation, with deep sharing of personal stories. There were tears and hugs and similar experiences shared from around the world and across the theological perspective. I shared my story, and wept.
In the evening, as our legislation was wrapping up, Mark Miller, a delegate to this General Conference and often our music leader in times past, stood for a point of personal privilege. Mark was joined at the microphone by a number of other delegates who were willing to identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender voting members of the conference. As they stood together at the mic, Mark shared that many people (certainly not all– some had experienced wonderful conversation) felt bullied, abused, or wounded by the attempt at holy conversation the day before around human sexuality. Mark invited other delegates on the floor and visitors around the room to stand in solidarity as well. Although the presiding Bishop ruled the act of courage and solidarity out of order, he agreed to say a prayer on behalf of a wounded and broken church community.
As the room emptied later, delegates, volunteers, and guests lines the hallway, holding hands and standing in silence, or crying quietly, or later singing. So much pain. We gathered in the Coalition Tabernacle and debriefed and hugged and cried some more.
I shed one more round of tears last night and into the early hours of this morning. After all was said and done, I spent several hours sharing refreshments and conversation with some friends from my conference (and former conference). We laughed until we couldn’t breathe and I wept tears of mirth.
It is hard for me to get inspired to lead worship on Easter.
I face this every year. In part, I think the expectations I place on myself are too high– I want to do something “cool” or “relevant” to get the attention of the visitors; I want to lift up a different part of the story to appeal to the questioning; I want to go deeper to inspire the regulars; I am confronted with the centerpiece and cornerstone of our faith.
On the other hand, I just don’t know what to say. Retelling the story doesn’t seem to be enough (it is for me on Thursday and Friday– the messages of servanthood, connection, commitment to ones principles, courage, loss, violence– these speak for themselves). I personally don’t get enough out of Easter if it’s just a line-by-line reading of the Gospels. Does this make me a bad pastor? A bad believer? I hope not. But it’s not enough for me to read about the empty tomb. So what? What do we do now? How does this change us?
This may be the best thing I have read all season, all year, in all of my ministry when it comes to Easter inspiration. I won’t just preach that, but at least I have a place to start. Thank you, Carl Gregg. That was what I needed to hear, to find what I need to say.