Back in North Carolina, fresh out of seminary, still listening to Rush Limbaugh daily, I got into an interesting conversation with a southern Baptist preacher.
“Would you marry a gay couple?” he asked me.
This was not something I was expecting to hear; we were in rural North Carolina and the only gay person I knew was the funeral home director in the even more rural town where my other congregation was. To be honest, it was not something that had even crossed my mind. In fact, my initial question back was “why would they want to?”
As he explained the dilemma, it was apparent that this was something eating away at him as his once mainline denomination was starting to change. He noted that marriage was much more than procreation and if that were taken out, why would not gay marriage be accepted. As for his argument, it would be like marrying a woman who was past child bearing years. An interesting argument, and something I have thought about a lot over the years.
The discussion of sexuality and especially homosexuality has been very difficult in our society. Even with the sexual revolution of the sixties, the discussions have often never moved out of emotion into reality and moral superiority often took over, squashing any real debate or discussion. For my Baptist friend, he was seeking understanding where his church wanted to take a stance, a moral high ground. Interestingly, for my friend, who has now left the Baptist Church, the question was not how we judge them but how we as a church and as Christian leaders help facilitate their relationship with Jesus Christ.
It was interesting many years ago when I spent a couple weeks with my uncle. My uncle at 17 joined the Marines with my Grandmother’s signature and left for Korea. When he got back and the boat unloaded onto Treasure Island, he knew he found a new home and after a very short time met his partner Ronnie. They were together from their youth until Ronnie died of lung cancer. They were committed to each other, as my uncle says in a loving relationship that lasted longer than most marriages in this country. The thing is, when I went with my uncle one afternoon to visit where Ronnie’s ashes were and I saw the way he looked at his name, there was no mistake in his eyes either the genuineness of his love or the fact that they had a depth to their love that even many straight couples do not achieve.
What made it even more apparent that their relationship was a marriage was the way they impacted those around them. In our marriage service we always talk about how two individuals come together to create a better couple than individuals joining their gifts together for the betterment of their community and family. When I met Ken’s friend I recognized that they were not friends, rather they were family. He had those who he looked out for when they had just come out in San Francisco, and those who he had cared for through the AIDS epidemic. I could go on, but it is hard to say how his relationship and what he did with Ronnie was any less than what my parents are in their relationship.
It is interesting; I have now gotten to the point where I cannot remember the number of marriages I have done. Now most of the marriages I have officiated were straight, but I have done a couple gay ones, I have also done a few relationship blessings, for those who cannot get married for financial or familial reasons and a couples civil unions. Through all of those I have witnessed to the fact that no two couple get married for exactly the same reasons, but close to the top of every list is always Love, and, believe it or not, close in many is the recognition that they are better together than apart.
Actually, my hope and prayers go to allowing pastors to marry couples. To be honest, when asked, I will do more gay marriages regardless of what comes out of this meeting. Actually, I also think that most gay marriages are traditional marriages with the one difference of procreation. This is funny, since I would say that of the straight marriages I have done about a quarter have explicitly said that they did not want to have kids and one of the homosexual marriages was for the expressed purpose of having a child.
Something to think about.
When we think of the times in our lives when major changes have occurred we recognize that there tends to be a very disorienting feeling that happens. Often the emotions are mixed and sometimes, we do not like the changes at all and want to go back to the time before the change even happened, fighting our new reality. I remember that feeling when I graduated from seminary. Since I was still finishing up my requirements for ordination I was in what I called Presbyterian Limbo. Still living on campus finishing my chaplaincy program, I began to wonder why I had been so quick to graduate, even to the point of wanting to hand back my diploma and do another year. I realized that as frustrating as it was, my continuous 20 years (not including preschool) of schooling were over and now I would have to learn how to live, plus how to be a pastor!
As I look back at that time the interesting thing was that throughout my schooling I had to deal with incredibly difficult things. I had to find ways to overcome my learning disabilities, I had to learn and struggle through medical issues, and making it all the more difficult I had to deal with what everyone else did, just growing up. But through all of those changes and growth, I had a community around me to hold my hand, walk with me and guide me. But now, for the first time in my life I no longer had that, and it was scary!
Before leaving campus, as I was finishing up my statement of faith for the ordination process, I told the professor I was working with about my fear. He read me this passage; looking back it was probably because it had just been in the lectionary. Regardless, his point was that the world and ministry was not going to be easy. In fact, it was going to be incredibly hard, but God had called me and I had to learn to trust God and roll with whatever came my way. It was good advice!
The reality of life as a Christian is that the acceptance of Christ and the Christ-life is not a transition from a difficult life to the perfect one. Rather, it is a transition from a difficult life to an even more difficult one with a few very important exceptions. The most important being found in 1 Peter 13 and 14: “But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.”
This past Sunday, in the Gathering service, we heard how one person views brokenness as a blessing. This was profound in many ways, but is very grounded in our understanding of the Christian Life. For it is in our brokenness where we recognize our solidarity with Christ. Moreover, we know that we are living our lives for something much more than ourselves.
The saddest thing that I think about when I look back on that 20 years is how the pain and suffering I went through was lessened so much by the people that were around me, giving me hugs, pep talks, love, and so much more. I take that as a witness and an example of how God lessens my suffering today, especially when I stop and look around at all the people God continues to put in my path to lessen my burden.
Starting this week and for the next month my brain is slowly going to be moving to the mindset of the denomination. As Presbyterians, contrary to some people’s thoughts, we are a connectional body, meaning that none of our churches are independent; rather, we are connected to the whole church.
Locally we are part of the San Jose Presbytery, which include 4 counties: Santa Clara, San Benito, Santa Cruz and Monterey. Though we make most of the decisions about the daily operation, worship, and congregational activities, the presbytery gives us guidance and has some oversight. For instance, our session records were just checked by the presbytery (BTW they came back with a great report! Thanks Dave). Importantly, as a connectional body, we are part of the presbytery, so we have a say in what happens at presbytery. As I have told elders before, if you do not like what is happening at presbytery go to a meeting.
The same thing goes for general assembly. As small as we are as a church we are part of that body through our presbytery, and the General Assembly often deals with issues that impact the local congregation. This year at the General Assembly they will be spending a great deal of time working on issues from environment to the Middle East and even the definition of marriage for Presbyterians. In addition, they will be looking at proposals that may impact the way our presbytery and church operate.
What most people don’t know (or they forget) about General Assembly is that all the issues that come before it in the form of an overture start their life in a congregation. A Session somewhere felt that this particular issue was so important that we needed to change or redirect our denomination. From the session, it goes to a presbytery and they have to approve it as well. But even with the Presbyteries approval, it still needs another Presbytery to concur and then the action is brought before the committee and deliberations happen. Like congress, what comes out of committee may and very likely will, look different. It may also be combined with other overtures.
Whenever it looks like when it comes out of committee is brought to the floor of the General Assembly, debated, and either passed or not. If it is passed, it still has to go back to all of the Presbyteries to be ratified. It is a long process! But this process works in that it gives time for the spirit and understanding.
In this General Assembly the two issues that will garner the most media attention will be the Middle East issues and the Definition of Marriage. I will write about Marriage this week in my Friday Article and the Middle East issues next week. However, in short, the Middle East committee, which I have been assigned, will be looking at the Israeli-Palestine conflict to ask how we can best witness. The Marriage debate has to do with whether or not we will officially allow Presbyterian Clergy to officiate Gay marriages; for the record, in New Jersey I did performed legal gay civil unions. For more on that, read my Friday Letter.
But beyond the two topics that will garner the most attention, there is a lot that will impact us as a congregation in terms of how we do things from mission to Christian education to how the pension program for clergy is set up and, most importantly, how we be the church of Jesus Christ. While I am in Detroit I will try to add a daily blog post to my blog http://www.yatt.org/blog.html. And look for my letter in July where I will review and analyze all that happened.
One of the great aspects of the Gathering is the fact that we see ourselves as a worshipping community. Not that there is anything wrong with the traditional concept of church or worship, but as a “New Worshipping Community” we have a intentionality to what it means to be a community. This is not just in the fellowship, but how we go about worship in general.
Our concept, from the birth of the service, is that all who worship the Lord have an equal place within worship; however, to that end we all have been given different gifts that when those gifts are brought out enlivens our worship and deepens our experience of God.
Personally, I think clergy are good, not because it is my job, but because it is an important role in the church. I often think of Ken, my pastor growing up. Ken was the organizing pastor of the church and stayed for over 30 years; actually I think he still worships there. Ken was a special pastor who had many great skills, though preaching was not one of them! As kids we always looked forward to when the associate preached; the services were usually shorter and more entertaining.
Ken, however, had a knack for being present. No matter what was going on at the church, you could always find Ken, and he cared. Ken also had a great number of other strengths, which is why he was able to grow the church so much. However, what Ken was best at was helping people to find their true gifts and follow them.
I remember Ken’s advice when I told him I wanted to be a pastor; he said “Celebrate your member’s gifts, but don’t let them get bigger than they are, and the same goes for yourself!” It took me a long time to really understand what that meant, including working through Romans 12:1-8 many times. The thing is that often as Christians we take our gifts and give importance one of over the other. We learn this early in life.
Think about school. Often music and arts are seen as less important than reading and math. I won’t get into the school curriculum debate, but when you think about it because of this later in life if a child tells their parents they want to be a concert musician, often the response (and I know this from friends of mine) is “so what is going to be your real job?”
The reality of our community is that we need artists of all kinds and not just for entertainment, but they tell the stories and strengthen the community. The problem is that we place a value on people, not a value of importance, but a value of worth, saying that a person of one standing should be respected more than another. This is about the most anti-Christian way of living, because what God lays out for us is that there is a two-tier hierarchy in this world. At the top tier is God and on the second tier is everyone else!
This means that everyone has a valid and valuable role in the community. Thus, as a community we must both recognize that everyone has gifts and skills and learn how we can use those gifts and skills to lift up the community, so that we can all live fully with Christ.
I graduated from High School on a Memorial Day Sunday. The weekend, like most of my graduations, was a blur of activities. Strangely, what I remember most was the dogs running away. Smokey Joe and Lucy Patty decided that they needed some alone time and took off. So in between parties and other activities we were searching for the two.
It was one of those things that could have ruined what would have otherwise been a really nice time. But Smokey had this tendency, and since he was joined by Lucy these trips got longer, and they always turned up. And eventually they did. I could not help but laugh when I sat down to write this week’s letter and that was the first thing that popped into my mind!
But I think when I think of Memorial Day I think there is something iconic that is connected to the fear of something bad happening to the family dogs and trying to continue to live. In 2011 I bid farewell to my dog Calvin. Calvin had been with me since I had started in the ministry; well, technically beforehand. She was not just a companion and a friend, she had a very important job: to keep me alert while driving. At the time I got her, I was serving a yoked parish in North Carolina where the churches were an hour apart.
She did her job and then some. She also never ran away! Though she played me often running just so far that I could not catch her but not far enough that I could not see her. She loved that game, I did not. When Calvin died it was at a streak of a lot of people who passed that I dearly loved. As a pastor, when people allow, you can get very close to members and over the year-and-a-half prior to Calvin dying, I had lost the largest number of members I ever had to death, many times while sitting at their bedsides or consoling their families.
Every time someone died I felt the pain and that gut-wrenching feeling that overwhelmed me. Thankfully, I had a role and a job, and I dutifully followed and most of the time even made it through services without crying, a skill that, for the record gets harder, not easier with age. When Calvin died, I was numb, more than any surgery or anything that I had ever felt before.
I called up a counselor friend and asked what I should make of the fact that I was grieving so much for my dog, and this is what he said: “You are grieving for Calvin, but you’re also grieving for a lot of other things including everything and everyone you have lost before, and because we’re not taught to grieve we really don’t deal with it well.” He went on, but I immediately understood what he was saying. Often we are taught to grieve and move on. Unfortunately, that means that often we are left hollow inside and sometimes even afraid of accepting the loss and death itself.
This brings us back to Memorial Day. Originally it was a day to remember the lives lost in the Civil War (then called Decoration Day). Its purpose was to allow people to remember the lives of those who were lost at war. Later becoming Memorial Day, it is set aside to remember all of the military who have died while serving. However, today while many have forgotten any connection to the loss of life, others, especially in the the Christian community, make it to be a day like All Saints Day when we are called to remember all who we have lost, remembering the meaning of their lives.
I think this is a good thing, because it is important for us to remember those who have come before us. Especially the sacrifices they have made so that we can have the lives we have. But more than that it is important to remember the important people in our lives, because they are all a part of who we are, both good and bad.
Thinking back to that Memorial Day, I feared the loss of my dogs, but I was well into college by the time they actually passed. I miss them, granted, but not in the way that I miss Calvin, and definitely not in the way that I miss all of the saints who have touched my life. When my Grandmother died last year it was hard for me to adjust, made more difficult in many ways by various situations. What was easy was the attempts to block it out, but that only served to cause other problems. Since the beginning of this year I have spent time thinking and continually giving prayer of thanksgiving as I remember her life, and the lives of all who I have lost.
Interestingly, as I have brought these people back into my life I find that I am not as sad, but I am joyful for the role and witness they all played, especially the ones I was closest to. This Memorial Day I will ask that you take a moment for yourself and remember the important lives of those you’ve lost. Let yourself cry, let yourself laugh, and most importantly remember the importance of their lives by accepting them back into yours.
One of the first things I learned in Biology when I was in second or third grade was that the body was mostly water. I remember the teacher filing a clear glass with water and saying, “do you believe that over half of your body is this?” We giggled at the idea, and thought she was being silly. But then she did her lesson and we began to accept the fact, though we were too young to do much experimentation. Though we learned that researchers had calculated that over half of the human body is water; in some (specifically infants) it could be in excess of 75% with an average for all humans hovering around 55%-60%.
All of this is to come back to the main point of the lesson my teacher was making that water is essential to life. In fact, most people can live roughly 3 weeks without food, but only 3 days without water. Though, not understood in the way we understand it today, people in biblical times understood the central importance of water for life.
The passage that we have this Sunday invokes the water imagery in a couple distinct ways. While neither has to do with the body in particular, both images have to do with life.
The first invocation of the water imagery is when Peter brings forward a teaching about Noah. Peter uses water here to symbolize life, but in a strangely backhanded way, in that the lives that are saved by the waters are the same waters that kill many others.
This is important because the second image of water that Peter uses is the water of baptism, which in the same way is both a symbol of salvation and a symbol of death. The aspect of baptism being a symbol of death is often lost in the liturgy and teachings of baptism. But when one is baptized, they are letting the waters that give life also kill that which is bad.
By the time I was in High School, I was taking AP bio and starting to do the fun experimentation. We saw how the intake of water into the body’s system allowed the cells to excrete the toxins that had built up from other biological systems. That was a cool experiment; though as I watched through my microscope the cells do their work I was amazed at how it all worked. Too little water and the cell would die, too much and the cell would die, just enough and things moved as they were meant.
The thing about water is that the water as life is a gift from God. When we are baptized, it is not just about washing away the bad, but being cleansed and made more whole. There is a saying in the reformed tradition that the sacraments are merely an outward expression of inward grace.
Here the imagery holds in that our Body that is mostly water accepts more water that continually cleanses it, just as we are continually cleansed through our baptism and acceptance of the Lord’s Supper.
It is interesting this week during the traditional worship the focus that the lectionary gives is the second half to the passage that I am going to use for the Gathering this week. In 1 Peter 3:13-22, it basically states that life is hard, but we are with God, and though the seas may get choppy and life may be difficult, through our baptism we are brought beyond this life so we need not worry about our temporary afflictions. Now if you want to hear more about that, come in the morning!
When I was reading that, what I thought was far more interesting was 1 Peter 3:8-12. Much in the same vein as Micah 6:8, this passage has that reflexive point of view that has one finger pointing at others with four pointing back at yourself. In other words, this passage is setting forward the paradigm which questions how you are living.
We have talked a lot over the last few months about what it means to be a Christian. But there are also times where the better question may not be what it means, but why it is important. I remember a dialog I had with a humanist chaplain at a large university a couple years ago. He cited everything our group was doing and then he listed everything his group was doing and asked, so what is different?
Of course I was backed into a corner and I knew the line “Because we are doing it for Christ” was not going to work in this argument. So I thought pretty hard and the first thing that popped into my mind was Micah 6:8 and the second was this passage because it helps us to remember that the reason we do good and care for others is not about ourselves, or even our desire to feel good; it is a celebration of the blessings which God has given us and continues to give us.
He called me out on that line, so I turned back and asked what does it mean for your life if everything is about you? That did seem to throw him, which surprised me a bit. But it is understandable, since one of the great aspects of faith is knowing that we do not live exclusively to ourselves.
That makes 1 Peter 3:8-12 even more interesting since the behaviors that it highlights are the most corrosive, divisive issues that come up in communities. As the Message translates “Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions. No retaliation. No sharp-tongued sarcasm.” Though the NRSV translates the same section as “Evil for Evil.” I think about how often we begin to see people as less than worthy when we let retaliation and criticism overtake care and compassion, or as the scripture writes, blessing.
It is good for us to think about the Why, and to struggle with what that means. When we find the answer, we also find that we are more whole and we can begin to understand what it truly means to be blessed.
During the Gathering we are spending time looking into the question of: “who am I?” Logic tells us that this should be one of the easiest questions to answer, but in our practical lives for most of us the answer to this question eludes us. As kids we are taught that we are our name, and when we get our first job, our social security number. Often we do go a bit deeper to describe ourselves based on the things we enjoy or hate. But even there, many are stuck with that visceral question of identity.
As faith goes, we are taught that we are children of God, but as we get older, often people begin to question this and with some fateful twists of life, many feel less Child of God, and more lost soul.
In faith and in life, this quest for understanding ourselves is a very complicated one. It is further complicated when we get a glimpse of who we might be and society says it is wrong. Even worse, there are times when we plain don’t like ourselves that much.
Often this causes us to compensate and try and create an identity that we deem more acceptable both to society and ourselves. The problem, as you may guess, is that this compensation often drives us further away from the real understanding of who we are. This can and often does have horrid repercussions, and can drive people into a multitude of problems.
Some say that this search for self-identity is a western problem or an issue since we are in a country, in a time and place that allows such conversation. The reality is that it is human nature to seek identity, and if anything, our society is so packed with images of good and bad, it makes it all the harder to get a basic understanding of who we are.
I remember talking with a church once about church growth. After an hour-long conversation they told me what they were like in the past and they told me what they were not. They lamented the fact that they did not have the membership “they should have.” What was interesting was that through everything, they did not make a statement about who they are; in fact, they did not even go around the room and introduce themselves.
It was both sad and funny when they asked me how they can grow, and all I said was recognize who and what you are today and be authentic to it. Sounds easy, but it was anything but for that congregation since they had seen themselves as failures. They had been running so long from what they were, they could not even accept themselves.
Interestingly, after a while, they recognized and were able to admit to their identity, not shunning the past nor trying to become what they thought they should be, but accepting who they were. Amazingly, though they did not grow by leaps and bounds, they grew and once again became a healthy congregation. When I followed up a few years ago there was a joy that filled them as they spoke of the work that the congregation was doing and the witness that they had. They recognized that they were spending so much time trying to be what they were not that they never had the chance to be who they were.
Think about that in our own lives; how much energy is spent when we try and be something we are not and avoid being who we are? So whether you come to the Gathering or not, I encourage you to try to spend time over the next month and peel back the layers of who you think you are and find that person who you really are, accept it and find out how to live into it, and you’ll probably find the joy and fulfillment you look for.
A few years back a group of pastors and myself went on a pilgrimage of sorts to Spain. We had planned our trip to the extent that we had agreed on the day we would arrive, the day we would leave and where we would spend the first night. For a two-week trip to Spain, never having been to that country before, this was a bit out of my comfort zone, but the others convinced me that it would be fun. It was fun, but each time we looked for reservations in the next port there was always the trepidation of whether we would find a place to stay or not, including the most obscure. Surprisingly to me we were never left to want for a place. Moreover, with the exception of the last night, the accommodations were spectacular and cheap!
There was a lot that I learned on that journey, but one of the most important things I learned was to trust. I had to learn to trust someone I barely knew that he had a good idea of how things were going to work out, and I had to let go of my desire to be in control and be flexible to what was before us.
This week we encounter in the scripture one of the more popular funeral passages; John 14:1–14. There are many reasons why people pick this passage as a tribute. However, it is often that people make a choice of which focus they take. Sometimes people will focus on the salvific promise to faithfulness, while others focus on the dwelling places. Both are very important, but for me I think one of the most crucial aspects that undergird the whole pericope is the trust that we must have that our adventure will come out as it has been promised.
The pericope, interestingly, has very little to do with death and the afterlife. If you read it closely what you see is that Jesus is saying that Heaven has a place specially designed for you, so don’t worry about it, know and trust that this place will be there. Moreover, because we can have confidence in this “afterlife” we are called to live fully into the life we are currently in, uninhibited by those concerns so that we can do the necessary works of Christ in this world.
It was interesting on that journey to Spain that I took, by not planning the details or where we would stay, we focused on what we wanted to take away from this experience. Our theme being Transformation through baptismal renewal, we were able to visit and connect with people and God in very unique ways, having the flexibility to ask and discern what we needed and not be locked into an itinerary.
This worked well for our group, as we were able to experience God and each other in really exciting ways being transformed though trust and faith. While not everything was peaches and cream, it never is when you are with a diverse group, that trip taught me to let go and trust that things will work out for the best. In a very real way, it gave me a glimpse of the ultimate pilgrimage of life and to not worry about what my place in heaven is going to be like, but to live to the best that I can in this world thinking of how I can honor Christ with my life now.
A friend of mine is a public defender. While he never spoke specifically of the cases he manages, he often spoke of the difficulty of his job. He is an incredible soul. While his is not the most honored or prestigious in the legal profession, he tries to do his best. Obviously, what makes his job so difficult is that the people he represents are most often guilty, and the judgments in the cases reflect that. For many people that would weigh heavily and make the job all the more difficult.
But he approached his job differently, noting that he is not the judge, but he has the responsibility to trust his clients and do the best that he can, even though the reality is that he would lose; as he said, “there is only so much someone can do.”
I asked him once why he did that and he joked “Good money” (BTW, it’s not). Then he got more serious and said, “Because there are those few cases where I can really help someone, not always to get them off, but to change their lives.” While he knew that evil and bad existed, he noted that nobody should be denied a second chance, even sometimes a third or fourth chance. Mostly it comes from the baseline belief that nobody should be seen as a throwaway.
Unfortunately, this is how we view much of the legal system. Once someone enters, we judge them and often create circumstances so that they can never recover and crime is the only way.
What the bible teaches us is that everyone is capable of finding success in life. No, this does not have anything to do with financial wealth or power. Rather, it has everything to do with being saved. That no matter what we have done, we have the possibility of being saved, if we accept a faith in Jesus Christ.
This is where the trial of our life comes in, because if we genuinely believe, then we are given the ultimate defender who is also the judge who despite anything that may cloud the goodness of our hearts can see through that to know who we are as a blessed child of God.
Two weeks ago in the Gathering we spoke about the question of “Who am I?” and recognized that we may never know ourselves but to the knowledge that we belong to God. Thus, what is important is the fact that we are God’s and God will use us as he sees fit.
The interesting thing with my friend was that he did not always believe in his clients, but he always believes that if he does his best for them that God will do what is right. This both kept him sane and gave him a way to understand his professional life along with his Christian one. For him, he knew that he could only do so much and God would have to do the rest. In other words, he tries to give his clients a portion of the Grace, which he feels God will give him.
When you know that God sits on all sides of the trial we can only have hope. We know that God will lift us up for “If God is for us, who is against us?”
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen