Wednesday, March 19, 2014

About Last Night

I had the distinct honor and personal privilege of officiating at the wedding of friends last night. While I number myself among the many clergy who are not big fans of weddings because so often there’s nothing particularly holy about the matrimonial rites we’re asked to clerk for, I love being able to participate in services for friends. Especially for friends who are people of deep faith, and for whom the service is about the worship of God instead of the worship of style.
I’ve done lots of weddings over the years, and certainly some have been more about style than substance. Fortunately, I don’t have as many of those because the church I serve has a marriage equality commitment. Until quite recently that commitment included a restriction on signing legal documents for any couple. As a result of imposing the added step of going to the justice of the peace to take care of the civil marriage piece we don’t get as much “drive-by” wedding business as many churches. That’s just fine by me, because one great benefit of the policy has been that we get to be a whole lot more focused on the Jesus business than on the wedding business.
Still, even in the context of services that get to focus more on the love of God than on the romance of lovers, last night’s service stood out as a powerful Christian witness to faith in a loving God.
Last night here’s a little bit of what I got to say:
“As the teacher declared in Ecclesiastes, two are better than one … they help each other up … they keep each other warm. Two are better than one. But what really caught my ear in that reading is the final line: ‘a threefold cord is not quickly broken.’
“Two cords are great, but the third cord binds the braid. The third cord, so clear in the witness of your lives, is the love of the One who created us all, and who gives us the gift of love to share.
“The God who created us all, and who loves us all, also calls us all. Indeed, that God will not be mocked. If all we do, in all of our incredible privilege in this place, is have a nice party and make of love the private possession of the privileged and safe, then we make a mockery of the promises of God. With our privilege comes a great deal of power, and the responsibility to use it well.
“The threefold cord is strong because the work of binding up the brokenhearted, of bearing one another’s burdens, of loving one another always, ‘ain’t no crystal stair.’
“It is, nevertheless, the work to which we are called. It is the work to which you are called. The beloved community of two – which you have built over these decades, and which you here, tonight, promise to hold onto until death do you part – the beloved community of two also informs and invites and calls into being the beloved community of all.
“This charge is what most decidedly separates the Christian marriage we declare here from the civil marriage we will solemnize a little bit later this evening.
“Love belongs to God. But not a simple, sentimental love – a love that is intimately bound up with the pursuit of justice. That intimate binding is what the third cord does.
“The work of the third cord reminds us that, as Martin Luther King put it, ‘power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.’
“So, your charge this evening is simple: love each other well. Love each other with tenderness and kindness. Love each other with silly notes in lunch bags. Love each other with gifts, and journeys, and good food. Love each other with a love that overflows the bounds of your own lives and flows out broadly and powerfully – washing over and transforming everything that stands against love. Let your love shape, inform and become your ultimate work in the world.”
The couple exchanged vows, and in heartfelt words that they crafted, each spoke of how important the church and their faith has been to their lives and their relationship. Each of them is an elder in the Presbyterian church. It was a remarkable testimony. It was holy and profound.
Oh, and I reckon I should mention that this service was on the 26th anniversary of the couple’s first date. So it’s about damn time they got married. Well, of course, until the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning DOMA they could not. They still cannot be legally married in the state they’ve called home for a quarter century.
So after the service of Christian marriage, in which I pronounced them “married in the eyes of God,” we loaded into the party bus, drove into the District of Columbia, climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and conducted a brief civil service under the steadfast gaze of the Great Emancipator.
As we stood there, just a few steps from the spot where two score and ten years ago Dr. King cast a vision of a future otherwise, I noted that King’s dream was deeply rooted in the founding dream of America: that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights – among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Surely the pursuit of happiness includes the right to marry the one you love.
With the stroke of a pen, by the power vested in me by the District of Columbia, I proudly pronounced Ron and James legally married.

When they kissed the great hall of the memorial filled with applause. I think I may have even seen a hint of a smile crease old Abe’s chiseled face.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Praise Poem

I'm taking a songwriting class, and we were given a prompt this week for a praise poem. It's a pattern that comes from an African "coming-of-age" tradition. I enjoyed the exercise, and loved what some others offered. Thought I'd share my bit here. It's called Fiddle Songs.

Fiddle songs echo somewhere in the distant past,
and maybe the Harrigans brought one from the old sod
or the Ensigns had a fiddle on the boat from the Highlands …
or was it the Lowlands.
Some Scotland or another in any case is where my roots sink
but so deeply in the past that, like most Americans, I am rootless now
roaming the countryside like a poor lost mongrel.
I am not a single animal, though. Emerson contained multiples,
and if it was good enough for Ralph, well then …
In the morning, when the sun forms a warm circle, I am a cat stretched and lazy.
By mid-afternoon, I may morph into a goofy Irish Setter chasing that cat away.
I’d like to be a wise, old owl, but mostly I’m just old now, and enjoy hooting.
My mother probably knew best, all those years ago, when she called me “silly ol’ bear.”
I am mostly a Teddy Bear.
Stuffed with cotton batting, especially just now with a headcold.
But that head is hard as any old oak, just ask my family.
We are a long line of stubborn, disputatious Scots-Irish hard heads.
I hope the heart, though, is made of something softer.
Perhaps like Bobbie Burns’ red, red rose.
Truth be told, though, this heart may be a thistle,
kept in prickly safeness … or brokenness
in this frame as tall as the grave
I keep outrunning as I dance across the earth

To that ancient fiddle tune.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Coffee culture

You've probably seen that video making the rounds: what if Starbucks Marketed Like the Church. I was thinking about it today as I sat in a DC coffee shop waiting for a friend to arrive. The friend walked in, saw me sitting there with Macbook open and mocha at hand, and said, "well I see you've made yourself right at home."
You've heard of "digital natives"? I'm a coffee-shop native. I do not need a coffee-shop orientation, a users manual, or a new-coffee-drinkers class. I've sat in dozens of coffee shops, consumed countless cups of coffee, dipped into the ever-flowing stream of wifi (and, seriously, if your wifi is not like grace -- free -- then I'm definitely not joining), and solved almost all the problems of the world several times over with a variety of friends, colleagues and church members.
I'm sure that the church does have a lot to learn from coffee shop culture -- first and foremost, we should all strive to have better coffee! Almost as important as the good coffee, we should strive to make the experience of walking into a church building for a worship service as welcoming and easy to navigate as possible for every single person who shows up at the door.
OK, maybe that's even more important than the coffee.
Oh, and it's also the point at which the learnings from coffee shop culture should begin to end. Not everybody is welcome in coffee shops because not everybody can afford what they sell. If that is true in a church -- if people do not feel welcome because they don't have enough money -- it's because the church missed the memo when Jesus said, "you will have the poor with you always."
I love coffee shops. I spend a lot of time in them. I have often joked that the coffee shop around the corner from church is my office annex. But the coffee shop is not the church.
The coffee shop makes no demands on us. It offers only the comfort of a cup of coffee, at a price many of us are perfectly willing to pay.
The community of the church should be a community of comfort, to be sure. But it should also be a community of agitation that makes demands on itself. We should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as they say, and we should recognize that each of us will, at various stages along the way, be the afflicted and be the comfortable. So each of us should, also, offer comfort and be willing to offer affliction (or, at least, agitation).
I suspect that's where coffee culture feels so much better to most of us than authentic church culture. We really don't want to offer affliction, even when we discern clearly that it is needed. I can't quite imagine a marketing campaign that addresses that, but I am pretty sure it won't come from Starbucks.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Our Several Callings

Plunge the toilet. Take out the trash.
Drive the school route. Pick up the groceries.
The world will little note nor long remember
what I do here.
I find not great joy.
This is not the world’s deep need.
But to this surely I am called
by responsibility
and love.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Happy Valentines Day

Sister and brothers, we have prayed, sung, marched, worked and witnessed  as we have longed for this day. We have walked through some difficult days in the valley of despair, trusting always that though the justice arc is mighty long it bends toward holy ground. When we do the work of love, we come to a time such as this one, when a U.S. District judge declares that Virginia has “arrived upon another moment in history when We the People becomes more inclusive, and our freedom more perfect.”
With gratitude for the sweeping opinion issued yesterday by U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen striking down Virginia’s constitution prohibition on same-sex marriage, we celebrate on this lovers holiday that Virginia is for lovers – no strings attached!
As I read the news this morning, I thought of all the strong and beautiful gay and lesbian folks in whose circles I am privileged to move. I recall weeping together in the aftermath of setbacks along the way as votes on marriage or ordination to church office went against us. None of those defeats was more disheartening than when, in 2006, the voters in the commonwealth added the hateful language of the Marshall-Newman amendment to a constitution grounded in the charters of liberty drafted by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Mason.
That original language, from the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, insists that “all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
The restrictive language of the 2006 amendment was offensive to the spirit of liberty upon which the commonwealth was founded. Of course, Virginia’s history includes a great many offenses to its own foundation, and thus, as Judge Allen’s ruling suggests, our history has been a long struggle between principles of freedom and realities that are far from perfect.
Judge Allen’s ruling opens with a lengthy quotation from another Virginia declaration concerning rights: the statement by Mildred Loving on the 40th anniversary of the 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia that struck down bans on interracial marriage. Speaking in 2007, Mildred Loving said, “I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. […] I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”
I have said often that the simple phrase from 1 John – God is love – is enough theology for me most days. If God is about love, about relationships of passion and compassion, of justice and righteousness, of creativity and concern, then every decision that advances the cause of love advances the cause of God.

Yesterday’s ruling does just that, and so today – Valentines Day – is truly a day for celebration of the gift of love and the cause of justice. Happy Valentines Day!

Monday, February 03, 2014

Simple and Sacramental

Modernist architect Mies van der Rohe famously observed that "God is in the details." The IBM building in Chicago, considered one of his late masterpieces, always leaves me wondering about the nature of the god revealed in its details.
At a glance, the black steel and glass box gives up no details. Rather, I should say, to my glance it gave up no details because I didn't know what I was looking at or what I was looking for.
If details are architecture on its smallest, most intimate scale, then you have to know something about architecture before it reveals its details, much less before it reveals its god.
To me, the IBM building is just a big black box, but to fans of modernist buildings it is an exquisite balance of form, function and material, or so I've heard tell.
I got to thinking about this today as I was placing dedication stickers on the inside front covers of dozens of hymnals. This is one of those tasks that I probably shouldn't pick up, but that in a week when I do not have to write a sermon, I find some odd joy in doing. It's mindless, hands-on work that I can measure and complete with a satisfying ending.
It is not, however, the kind of task in which I expect to encounter God.
I don't know anything about the spiritual life of Mies van der Rohe, and what little I've read about his "biography" is almost entirely work related. So I don't know if he would have been surprised or confirmed or something else altogether by encountering God in the details of a simple task.
But a hymnal is like an architectural detail. It is the faith of the church on a small, intimate scale. From the songs and psalms of the faith, to the litanies of its rituals, the hymnal reveals the God of the church. So perhaps I should not have been at all surprised that my simple work was also sacramental.
In placing inscribed nameplates in the fronts of dozens of hymnals, I found myself running my hands across the names of people I know and love -- members of the community of faith at Clarendon. More than that, I was running my hands also across the names of people they know and love and either honor or remember in dedicated books of hymns of praise and longing, of lament and gratitude, of glory to God.
I know God only in and through relationships, and touching the names of those with whom I enjoy some of the most important relationships of my life was touching something holy.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Bending the Arc

Tonight National Capital Presbytery considered two overtures to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) related to marriage. One would amend the directory of worship’s statement on marriage to make it inclusive of same-gender couples. The other would allow pastors to perform same-gender weddings in civil jurisdictions where such marriages are legal without fear of sanction in church judicial proceedings.
The session at Clarendon unanimously endorsed both of the overtures. The following is the brief statement that I prepared in support of the overtures.
As many of you recall, eight years ago our session decided to no longer authorize the pastor to sign marriage licenses for any couple – same-gender or straight. We changed that policy recently responding to changes in civil law in Maryland and the District, and following the Biblical call to do justice.
In March I will perform the wedding of two men who, last year, celebrated 25 years together. On the 26th anniversary of their first date we’ll hold a service of Christian marriage in the sanctuary at Clarendon, and then adjourn to the Lincoln Memorial to conduct the civil rite.
Ron and James have been members at Clarendon for more than 20 years. James grew up in a Presbyterian church in West Virginia. Each is an elder. James currently serves on session, and Ron is serving as a deacon. The Presbyterian Church has blessed their ordinations; now they seek the blessing of the church on their marriage. They are my brothers in Christ, and I am honored to marry them.
I long for the day when the whole church celebrates with us. These overtures will bring that day closer.

Both overtures passed National Capital Presbytery on voice votes. The question was called while I was standing in line at the mic.