Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Soup Mugs and Bell Laps

I pulled a mug out of the cabinet today to fill with some soup for lunch on this chill, grey, April afternoon. The mug has our oldest child’s name on it. We bought it when he was in kindergarten in Kentucky. He’s in his second year of graduate school now in California.
We experience and mark the passing of time through changes small and large, and struggle to give sense and meaning to our journeys through the mysteries of time. I picked up that mug, and thought back to the cute and curious little boy who has grown into a fine young man. There is so much to love and celebrate in this, but there is also undeniable loss.
When I think back to our time in Kentucky, when our boys were so young, I recall one particular indelible moment of watching parents drop off their kids on move-in day at the University of Kentucky. I remember watching them and thinking, “we’ll be there before we know it.”
So we were, and now both boys are well into their higher educations, and our youngest is pondering the college choices she’ll be making soon.
She’ll be running in a track meet this afternoon, and, barring a late-afternoon rain, we’ll pull on some warm clothes to go cheer her on.
Track is fascinating sport: elemental in its focus on basic human movement over distance, as circular as the orbit of the planets, and demarcated uniformly in its careful divisions of time.
We all travel in circles as we run with perseverance the race that is set before us. Most of the time we don’t even notice the markings. The curves and stretches look pretty much the same unless someone calls out to get our attention: “hey, two laps to go; keep it up!” Or, in the run of ordinary time, “Hey, I’m going to kindergarten today! Hey, I’m going to college! Hey, I’m getting married!”
These markers along the way make meaning of the race we run.
This morning I checked the e-mail and discovered news of the untimely death of a friend in Florida, who left this mortal coil last night following a six-month struggle with cancer. He was roughly my age; a remarkable man who taught and inspired many along the way, as he ran well the race he was given. I was lucky enough to engage in some peacemaking work with him, and hanging in my office at church I have a ribbon of buttons from a Christian Peace Witness for Iraq event we helped plan together a half dozen years ago. Knowing of his illness, lately I have thought of him often when my eyes fall upon the buttons.
“Hey, I’m dying,” is not the call we wish to hear, but it will ring out for each of us more surely than the proverbial bell that reminds runners they’re on the final lap.
So much of the time we run these races with blinders, seeing only the patch of track upon which our next footfall will land. There’s nothing wrong with attending to the next step – indeed, it’s crucial that we do so lest we overlook the cracks in the surface of things. But when we can lift our eyes, even if just for a moment, to take in the fuller picture, we might catch glimpses of eternity in our midst in things as simple as a soup mug or a ribbon of peace-movement buttons.
Rest in peace, Tim Simpson. (Go ahead and click that link and learn a bit about Tim.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What I Would Have Said ...

This is what I was going to say at NCP tonight, but the question was called as I stood in line at the mic.
Fifteen years ago I was asked to resign from a pastoral position after I preached a sermon suggesting that the rights of same-gender couples were worthy of our compassion, and their holy unions worthy of God’s blessings through the church. So I stand in awe and wonder at the transformed landscape of church and culture.
More than that, though, I stand humbled and honored by the pastoral relationships I have today with the same-gender couples whose Christian marriages I have celebrated over the years. We stand together on the rock of God’s love that shines forth in and through their lives as a witness to the new thing that God is doing in the church and in the world.
I had lunch today with a long-time CPC member – a recently retired federal government worker who is pretty far along the Asperger’s/autism scale. John’s mother was an alcoholic who escaped her pain through suicide when John was a teenager. His father was a distant man. John was saved – his word – when his mother’s sister brought John to Arlington to live with her and her life partner. Together they created a loving family of choice.
I asked John to share a few words during worship on a Sunday in the Easter season about his own experience of resurrection. I know his story will focus on love and family and will include the incredibly deep and supportive friendship he has with a couple of men I was privileged to marry last spring – on the 25th anniversary of their first date.
Who would have imagined – who could have imagined – 65 years ago when John was born in rural central Virginia that such families would form, that such friendships could be possible. God’s imagination is so much richer than ours, and so less confined to straight lines and square boxes.
It’s not a straight line from where I stood 15 years ago to where we stand today to what’s next. Sometimes the road is rough and rocky. But we worship a God who is inherently relational – Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer – and it is through our relationships as sisters and brothers in Christ that we will walk this new path together in joy, in hope, and in love.
Let us walk together, sisters and brothers, by adding our endorsement to what God is doing in and through our denomination.
So, the question was called by a conservative colleague when the only two people on his side of the issue had spoken. He said something to the effect that everyone pretty much knew how they’d vote when they got here. I suspect he was right about that. I didn’t much mind not speaking, but something rubs me the wrong way about the discussion begin cut off so quickly. I guess it’s that in all the years of being on the losing end of these votes I don’t recall conservatives being so eager to call the question so soon. I can’t help thinking that it may have something to do with the dwindling number of folks willing to stand up and articulate their point of view.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

So, This Happened …

Yesterday the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) formally adopted a change to its constitution, the Book of Order, clearing the way for same-gender couples to celebrate their Christian marriages in the context of worship in a Presbyterian church.
That’s a wordy way of saying that my church just embraced marriage equality.
I was baptized in a Presbyterian congregation in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, more than a half century ago, and was ordained as a minister of word and sacrament (in the term of art of the day) more than 15 years ago. I’ve been connected to this little part of the body of Christ for a long, long time.
Today I am proud of my church, and even more so proud of my small congregation which has been out front on full equality, inclusion, empowerment – that is to say, radical welcome – for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer folk for decades. Clarendon opened its doors to support groups for people with AIDS in the mid-1980s, while the Reagan Administration twiddled its thumbs and the band played on. Faithful women and men at Clarendon have been engaged in this struggle far longer than my time here.
I’m smiling today, in particular, because this decision comes on the eve of the anniversary of the first state-sanctioned same-gender wedding I had the privilege of conducting, last March, when Ron and James finally tied the knot after 26 years of living in sin!
Even as I smile, though, there is an ache in my heart for those friends who did not live long enough to see this day. Doubtless, many of the people in those early AIDS support groups are held in sacred memory – names stitched on swatches in the quilt. More personally, I am thinking of friends and colleagues in ministry who lived their professional lives in the closet or who did not serve the church professionally because they were forced to choose between love and vocation.
The arc of the moral universe is long. I have lived and worked this far with the strong conviction that it bends toward justice. Doing the work of love bends it a bit further, but I know that many hearts are broken along the way. So while I celebrate the bending that I have been so richly privileged to participate in, I also hold a space of mourning in my heart for those grievously wounded by justice denied.

It is possible to dance with joy and with sorrow, and to trust in the lord of the dance.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Have You Not Heard?

In the summer of 1971, when the Jackson 5’s I’llBe There was in heavy rotation on the AM station that blared from the transistor radio slung over the handlebars of my banana-seat bicycle, I spent a lot of time at the swimming pool at the Booker T. Washington State Park in Chattanooga.
As you might begin to surmise from the name of the park, Booker T. was originally created, under Jim Crow segregation laws, for black folks – one of the two state parks in the entire state of Tennessee that was built for blacks. With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all of the state’s parks had become integrated, but, to the best of my memory, I was the only white kid in the pool most of the time that summer.
Truth be told, from a look at photographs on the park’s web site, that story might still be told this summer. Which is to say, this is not history and, as Faulkner might have put it, it’s barely even past.
In any case, I wound up spending so much time there that summer because my dad was working with a man named Dorsey Sims to run a program to teach inner-city kids how to swim. All of those kids were black. Dorsey Sims headed up one of the most successful high school basketball programs in the state and had an in with those kids that my dad didn’t have. I’m still not sure how my father knew coach Sims, but they were about the same age, and coach Sims had a son my age. More than 40 years on, I cannot recall the son's name, but I remember that he spent that summer educating me about black pop music of the time. That was the summer I fell in love with Motown.
Last week, I looked up I’ll Be There to try to figure out which summer I was remembering, and, naturally, I listened to it again. I can promise you that I didn’t notice this in the summer of 1971, but I’ll Be There is a spiritual. Oh, sure, it’s a pop ballad love song on the surface, but beneath the surface there’s a subtle but clear allusion to faith. The first line of the song says, “we must bring salvation back – where there is love, I’ll be there.” That’s gospel – in substance as well as in style.
The prophet Isaiah asks, “have you not heard?” I hear in the question an invitation – indeed, a demand – to listen with more care, to listen deeper, to attend to deeper rhythms and meanings even when the writer of a song or story doesn’t intend them. You see, I’m not suggesting that the 13-year-old Michael Jackson had deeper intentions or even that Barry Gordy, Hal Davis, and Willie Hutch – the grownups who wrote the song – had any such intentions. I’m simply saying that gospel truth is often woven into human expression because the One who knit us together in the first place, knit us with particular attention to the presence and deeper meanings and movements of the divine spirit of love.
It’s not surprising, though, that gospel truth often finds its most compelling expression in human song, nor should it be surprising that such truth-in-song finds its most moving expression in the songs of people living on the margins of societies.
At about the same time I was discovering Motown, James Cone, who had published his groundbreaking A Black Theology of Liberation the previous year, was at work on small classic called The Spirituals and the Blues.
In it, he wrote, “the spirituals are black freedom songs which emphasize black liberation as consistent with divine revelation.”[1] Cone hears the blues as “secular spirituals … about black life and sheer earth and gut capacity to survive in an extreme situation of oppression.”[2]
These are the songs of Job. These are the songs of those diseased, oppressed, possessed people who sought out a healing touch from Jesus.
Job sings about “months of futility, and nights of misery,” and laments that his “eyes will never see happiness again.” The sorrow songs, as W.E.B. DuBois called the spirituals, affirm the same experience: “nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen / Nobody knows my sorrow.” In neither instance does the song offer an answer to the abstract philosophical question of evil. Rather, both address the concrete existential question of living on in a world where evil is real, of remaining faithful in a world of sorrow, of experiencing the presence of the divine in a world from which God seems to have withdrawn.
Thus, while the spiritual repeats that nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, it concludes, “Glory, Hallelujah!” As Cone put it, “The ‘Glory, Hallelujah!’ was not a denial of trouble; it was an affirmation of faith: God is the companion of sufferers, and trouble is not the last word on human existence.”[3]
Cone was building on thoughts first expressed by DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk, where he wrote, “Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope – a faith in the ultimate justice of things.”[4]
There are, according to some sources, more than 6,000 Negro spirituals. Think about that for a moment: more than 6,000 songs of human faith and hope arising out of the most inhumane and hopeless conditions imaginable. You can hear that hope and faith in the song Cone recalls his mother singing around their house in the small southern Arkansas town of Bearden:
O Mary don’t you weep don’t you mourn
O Mary don’t you weep don’t you mourn
Pharoah’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep.
(You really should click these music links, and the one below; they take you to awesome recordings of the songs!)

If God delivered the captive Israelites from the bondage of Pharoah’s Egypt, then God would do the same for captive slaves in America. That’s why the song was sung. As the first sentence of Cone’s introduction puts it: “The power of song in the struggle for black survival – that is what the spirituals and blues are about.”[5]
Why does any of this matter for us today? For the pretty much Anglo community with whom I work whose lived experience is just about the furthest thing imaginable from that of slaves?
To begin with, this matters for the simple fact remains that our only honest answer to Isaiah must be, “no.” “No, we have not heard, and thus, we do not know.”
We have not heard my own denomination’s plaintive cry, uttered most clearly in the majestic words of the Confession of 1967, where we proclaimed in one voice:
God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. […] Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess. (Confession of 1967, 9.44a)
More broadly, we remain deaf to voices proclaiming truths that, however subtly, make us uncomfortable. To begin with, the spirituals proclaim in song the theological truth that black lives matter, and that they matter, first, to God. That has to have a claim on our lives, and that claim ought to make us uncomfortable if not with our own individual thoughts and actions, then, certainly, with the ways that white-dominated economic and political systems continue to marginalize and oppress people of color in our own town, across our own country, and around the world.
Moreover, listening again to Isaiah’s insistent question – have you not heard – the spirituals allow us to hear, if we have ears to listen, to a faith experience that is both not our own but that also makes a great claim on our own.
Because, finally, the spirituals voice an urgent demand for justice. In that demand, given voice in this powerful expression of black culture, God calls to us – we folk of such unquestioned privilege that we somehow don’t even understand that there is such a thing as white culture – God calls to us.
As Dr. King reminded the moderate white religious leaders to whom he addressed the Letter from the Birmingham Jail, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”[6]
The One who wove us together in that garment, wove us with love and calls us to follow the way of Jesus – a way of love and of justice.
My pre-teen self of all those years ago certainly didn’t think in such terms, but I think that, as my ears began to be opened to the songs of folks not just like me, I began to have my heart opened to other voices, as well, and to the Voice that calls us to walk a way of love and justice. Along that way, Jesus promises that wherever there is such love expressed and such justice practiced, he’ll be there to walk with us.
One of the spirituals puts it this way,
I want Jesus to walk with me.
All along my pilgrim journey,
Lord, I want Jesus, to walk with me.
When I’m in trouble, walk with me.
When I’m in trouble, walk with me.
When my heart is almost breaking,
Lord, I want Jesus, to walk with me.
In my trials, walk with me.
In my trials, walk with me.
When my head is bent in sorrow
Lord, I want Jesus, to walk with me.

[1] James H. Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1972), 35.
[2] Ibid. 97
[3] Ibid. 58
[4] quoted in Cone, 13.
[5] Ibid. 1.
[6] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” in A Testament of Hope (San Francisco: Harper, 1986) 290.