Thank You, Tammy Faye

“Jimmy Hoffa has been found, and he has chosen to come back as Tammy Faye Bakker.”

That was a somewhat morbid and disrespectful joke that circulated in the late 1970s and 80s, as one public figure permanently disappeared and another came to prominence.  I used to tell it fairly often, probably because both of them fascinated me (and maybe because I just couldn’t really believe her makeup). 

Of course, Bakker re-created herself after her first husband, televangelist Jim Bakker, disgraced himself and the PTL movement, even becoming a gay icon for her advocacy of LGBT equality. She died in 2007, after a long battle against cancer. Their son, Jay, is a noted evangelical Christian speaker for LGBT rights (see my post, “A Preacher’s Son Comes Out,” April 29, 2009)

Hoffa most likely was simply “bumped off” by some part of the criminal element that had infiltrated the Teamsters Union that he led for many years.

Why write about this today? It is 35 years to the day since Hoffa disappeared, last seen outside a fancy restaurant in suburban Detroit (not far from my hometown). After convictions for extortion and other crimes, he had been freed from prison by President Nixon but restricted from engaging in union work. He was trying a comeback, after Nixon’s disgrace.

Tammy Faye had been the butt of many jokes. And she did seem to careen from one sad episode to another.

Yet, today, of the three–Bakker, Hoffa, and Nixon–I would choose to sit and talk with her. The life of faith can be bumpy, but it is meant to be lived as honestly as we can.

Thank you, Tammy Faye, for doing your best.

An Exercise in Body-Building, Part 2

In my previous post I discussed my decision to stop wearing long, dangly earrings–in the belief that it will help MCC Richmond retain more people who visit our faith community.

Of course, my ears and their decoration are not so powerful that now we will enjoy unparalleled growth. Nor am I  solely responsible for people not returning after their first or second visit to MCC Richmond!

However, I am responsible for seeking ways to advance the kin-dom of God through Jesus Christ. This includes looking in the mirror to see what I may be doing that is getting in the way of that goal.

For a long time, I have wanted our church to grow–in spiritual health, in vision and sense of mission, in infrastructure, in financial stability, in commitment to justice–but, despite my desires, I often stood in the way. I did not mean to, but by going along with a system that required all things to be approved, or at least touched in some way, by the pastor, I limited our growth to what I could reach. I am a tall guy, with long arms, but my reach is still limited.

Today, I am doing more to empower and equip leaders, and teams of leaders, knowing that multiple power centers, working together, produce far more growth than one power center (who can easily be a bottle-neck).

Change, especially personal change, is often difficult, but the rewards can be phenomenal (even divine).

An Exercise in Body-Building, Part 1

I had an epiphany the other day–a piece of wisdom struck me with great force–and I decided to make a change in my life.

The epiphany: it is more important to me to attract new people to our community of faith gathered in the name of Jesus Christ than that I wear long, dangly earrings.

Wearing these ear decorations represents a choice I made years ago about how to be myself in the world. And were I not a pastor of a church that seeks to grow and become all God calls us to be, I would probably still be wearing then.

But it is clear to me that my personal style proves to be too high a hurdle for many visitors to get over when deciding whether to become part of the community in faith known as MCC Richmond. It’s hard enough for some folks just to walk in the door without immediately asking them to deal with the pastor’s uncommon appearance.

So, I have chosen to stop wearing earrings at church or on other occasions when I am representing the church.

Same pastor, different look

No one asked me to do this. And not everyone agrees (I certainly appreciate the personal support, and also recognize that some fear we may become too homogenized).

The apostle Paul wrote,  “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” (1 Corinthians 10)

I am here to build up the Body of Christ. For me, as pastor, fashion statements, even personal identity statements, pale in comparison.

You Go, Mary!

Today, July 22, is the day the ancient church observes a feast day in honor of Saint Mary Magdalen.

I do not ordinarily observe such days, but this one is an exception. Those of us who participate in Christian community without regard to whether the organized church accepts us or not have a “matron saint” in Mary.

And as pastor of Metropolitan Community Church of Richmond–whose congregation describes our mission as one to “Live Out Loud”–I identify with Mary. She lived out loud for her Lord.

The history of church attitudes toward Mary is not always pretty. Much tradition claims she was the “woman taken in adultery,” and as such she has been shunned (despite Jesus’ forcing her accusers to engage in self-examination). And her role as the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet has caused some, who are embarrassed by any focus on the human body, to turn away.

However, both of those situations cause queer folks who also have felt shunned by the church, to cherish her.

Add that to the clear fact, as denied by no one, that she was at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother and other women as well as that she was the first to witness the resurrected Christ, and I have my favorite saint, the Apostle to the Apostles.

You go, Mary!

A Nation Is Judged . . .

Chronically unemployed Americans have waited for months for Congress to extend unemployment benefits–at a time when the economy is simply not vibrant enough to create new jobs at the rate we need. Every week, tens of thousands of workers are losing their benefits, as they look, and look, and look, for work.

The causes of the sluggish economy are undoubtedly many, and open to debate among people on all sides. What seems to me to be less open to debate is whether or not we should, as a society, help our neighbors survive.

It seems that shortly Congress will act. But in the meantime, so many workers–looking night and day for work–have either lost benefits (which only help them survive, not get ahead) or have lived in excruciating anxiety that they will lose them before they find employment.

I am grateful Congress is acting, because a nation is judged, in Gospel terms I believe, by how it treats the most vulnerable of its citizens.

Of course, we need to control spending. But why so often do we seem to do so at the cost of the well-being of those who can least afford it rather than those who have plenty to spare?

A Fine and Artful Life

The great Jewish teacher and ethicist, Abraham Joshua Heschel, observed that “the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art.”

I thought of that wisdom when I read that today Rembrandt would be 404 years old (born 1606). I am not sure whether Rembrandt’s life was a work of art, but the art he left of us is incomparable. He took gifts God gave him and created masterpieces.

Rembrandt, self-portrait in 1629 (age 23)

I’m no Rembrandt (I can do sort of decent stick figures if I really concentrate), but I do have gifts God gives me to create my life. My life is what I have to offer the world. If I listen to and work with God, it can be a work of art–unique and in its own way a masterpiece.

Whether anyone remembers me or my life 400 years from now is not for me to say (it seems doubtful), but if my life contributes to the beauty of the present time–perhaps offering a counterpoint to any ugliness around me–then it could be said at my passing, “He lived a good and artful life.”

That would be a fine epitaph.

Making It Real

A collage of signs held by homeless people

The other day, as I was sitting in a line of cars waiting for the signal to change, I noticed a young woman standing at a corner with a sign, “Homeless Woman with 2 Children Need Help.” It was a very busy intersection, and I was fourth in line from the corner where she stood.

My first thought was to ignore her. Too far away. What if the light changes while I’m trying to get her attention and give her a dollar?

My second thought was, “That dress she has on is pretty skimpy and tight. Is this is for real?”

Then, I remembered the priest. And the Levite–the ones in Jesus’s story about the man left in the ditch by robbers (Luke 10:25-37).  And my sermon this past Sunday on that text, the one where I said, “GADL (Go And Do Likewise),” just as Jesus did.

I dug in my pocket, pulled out a bill, waved it a couple of times, rolled down the passenger-side window, and she came running. As the light changed, I handed her the money, and she blurted out, “Bless you, Sir!” I saw tears on her face. “Bless you, my sister,” I said in return.

There are all sorts of logical reasons not to give money to strangers. And they are all trumped by this one: love my neighbor as myself.

Never Again.

I went to a fundraising reception last night at a private home. It was an interesting mix of people–LGBT activists, philanthropists and community leaders, religious folks, and State Senator Don McEachin. There was lots of laughter. I enjoyed seeing community friends I see too rarely.  The wine  and the hors d’oeuvres were excellent.

Pink triangle (signifying "homosexual") on shirt of concentration camp inmate

But our reason for being together was serious. We were raising funds to support the local showing of an exhibition from the United States Holocaust Museum focused on the experience of “homosexuals” in Nazi Germany. The exhibit will be displayed at the Gay Community Center of Richmond (GCCR) for about two months, beginning September 19.

We can all be grateful to Jim Schuyler of Congregation Beth Ahabah and Jay Squires and Greg Johnson from GCCR for their leadership in bringing this gift to Richmond.

Never again. That is the cry of people everywhere in the face of genocide. Yet it goes on–in Darfur, e.g. Has there been a time in modern world history when some group is not trying to eliminate another?

It is hard to accept such depravity, and painful to look at it. Yet, we must not look away. 

Instead, we must be witnesses, and call others to witness, too. It is the best way to claim our common humanity.

Never Too Old . . .

So, after more than three months on Renewal, I am back at work (almost full-time this week). Already I am behind!?<#$%

The three months were so restorative and overall very restful, and already I am tired. What gives?

I think it is like a rubber band that, when stretched, expands, and then, when the stretching ends, returns more or less to its original shape. I am still overcoming old habits of placing undue stress on myself, and freaking myself out with the list of things I “have” to do.

So, today, I pray to return to my Renewal pattern and goals: prayer, not only in the morning, but during the day, and at night–not to mention, focusing only a couple of major things in a day, not all of them!

Renewal is not over, renewal is continuing. This old guy can learn new tricks.

My New Best Friend

My last day in Acapulco–and I am spending much of it in my hotel room.

Yes, it happened to me. Late yesterday afternoon, I began to feel woozy, and my stomach was churning, and by evening I needed to be close to the toilet.

I’m better today–I may even go to a workshop in a little while–but Gatorade is still my best friend for the time being.

Of course, after several days of overcast skies and rain, today is gloriously sunny. The perfect day to sit by the pool–but naps in bed have felt better.

It has been wonderful to be here–to be with Emily last week, to see so many friends this week, and to be inspired by workshops and worship–but I was already feeling that I wanted to go home, even before this bout of traveler’s disorder.

Travel is delightful, but I am homebody at heart. I miss Jonathan, and Cocoa, and our yard (oh, the grass and weeds must be out of control!), and church (I hope I can hear Rev. Dr. Bill Willard–even after 14 hours of travel on Saturday). Maybe this illness is a gift–to help me slow down and begin to taste the gift of home.

Keep the Gatorade coming, and get me to the plane on time!