Like a Ripening Peach

I am going to church today–not to preach as I often do at congregations across Virginia, but for myself, to worship. And I am going twice.

Actually, this is a pretty big worship weekend for me. Friday night, I joined Jonathan at Congregation Or Ami for shabbat. We sang, we prayed, we heard Rabbi Ahuba Zaches share a thoughtful message about fear (an appropriate topic on Halloween!).

This morning, I am going to MCC Richmond–Metropolitan Community Church of Richmond, where I used to serve as Pastor. Now, my dear friend and colleague, Rev. Carolyn Mobley, is serving as the Interim Pastor. I so look forward to hearing her and sharing in the All Saints’ Day remembrances.

This afternoon, Jonathan will join me as we drive to the Gayton Kirk, a Presbyterian Church in Richmond’s West End, for Jazz Vespers. There, another dear friend and colleague, Rev. Janet James, and good friends Jill and Andrew Isola, will lead us in worship–as we listen to the wonderful jazz trio of Ross Riddell, Tommy Witten and Joe Sarver.

ripening peachesI am spiritually among the most blessed of people. I am fed through each of these spiritual communities. MCC Richmond is my spiritual home, but I am also part of these other communities, Christian and Jewish. In fact, although I am not Jewish, I am a full member of Congregation Or Ami because of my marriage to Jonathan, who is Jewish and a member.

And I have a fourth community–it is more of an online community most of the time, but it is nonetheless important and vital for me. It is called Wakan, the word that means “sacred” in the Lakotah language and “heart of the sky” in Mayan. It is led by an amazing shaman, Dr. Tom Pinkson, a psychologist by trade but more importantly, a man who has been in training with the Huichol Indians of Mexico and other native peoples for more than 40 years.

He led the Vision Quest on which I journeyed in September in Yosemite National Park, as he has done every year for 42 years. It has changed my life. Now, I can stay in touch with friends I made there, as well as others who support Tom’s work, by being part of the Wakan online community.

I have learned, and am learning, so much about the wisdom of wilderness and native peoples through Wakan. My prayer life, and all of my life, is much richer today than before I went on the Vision Quest.

It is the interweaving of all these gifts that is making this time the ripest of my life. I feel like I imagine a luscious peach must feel in the warm sun of summer, every day increasing in beautiful color, juiciness, and sweetness.

Richard Rohr, the Franciscan monk whose writings are another source of wisdom and joy for me, speaks of the “slow ripening” that leads to maturity. I think I know what he means. I am not done yet, actually will never be, but I am increasingly aware of how all my life is the foundation for this time of ripening, and that it will only grow more full–provided I stay open and participate as fully as possible.

And I am realizing how this ripening is helping me see new ways to give back, to pay forward, all that I have received, and am receiving. That is part of the ripening process–like that peach being picked and feeding another being.

It is one of my primary intentions to continue to share more about this rewarding spiritual journey. I hope you will stay tuned.

A Pilgrim’s Progress–2

So today is this tenth anniversary of Jonathan and I arriving in Richmond. It has been an amazing ten years. We came so I could pastor a community gathered in faith (he gave up his good career in New York and came with me to start a new life, even learning to drive).

I came not knowing very much about pastoring a church, but thinking because I had a seminary degree (and indeed a Ph.D. in theology in addition) and had been deeply involved in church most of my life and had been ordained by Metropolitan Community Churches–well . . .  thinking because of all that I knew a lot. And lots of folks, because of those same credentials, thought so, too.

It took me longer than it should to get on my knees, admitting how little I knew, and beg for mercy. But eventually, after a couple of years of troubles and failures and way too many stupid mistakes, I did.

praying on kneesThat’s when life got really interesting. And even good. There were still troubles and failures and stupid mistakes, of course–I did not become the perfect pastor even by the time I left the pastorate (there is no such a thing anyway)–but getting on my knees and paying more attention to what God was saying made a huge difference in how I dealt with all that, and indeed how I dealt with the successes and joys and brilliant moves that also happened.

Trusting God is the best antidote to whatever ails us. I am still learning this, day by day.

As I wrote recently, I am a pilgrim. And what a pilgrim must know, as Richard Rohr writes, is that “as long as we think happiness is around the corner, we have not grasped happiness. Happiness is given in this moment.”

The pilgrimage is here, wherever you are. I came to Richmond to learn that. I could have learned it in New York, but God had other plans. God called me home to Richmond. To Virginia.

So now I continue learning in Richmond, my hometown. Oh, I was not born here, so some natives would deny my use of the word “hometown.”

richmond VA on mapBut if home is where your heart is, I am home.

And as Rohr also says, ” . . .  if you can’t find Jesus in your hometown, you probably aren’t going to find him in Jerusalem” either.

Thanks, Lord, I’m grateful to be home, and to share it with You, and Jonathan, and Cocoa, and a whole host of really fine folks (and more every day).

A Pilgrim’s Progress

I am a great fan of Fr. Richard Rohr, Franciscan monk and teacher of holy truths. Someday, I hope to visit his Center for Action & Contemplation in New Mexico. But in the meantime, I read him regularly.

Fr. Richard Rohr

As I come up on the tenth anniversary of Jonathan and I arriving in Richmond, for me to take up my new duties as pastor at MCC Richmond, I have been letting the gifts of the years wash over me. I am grateful for so much–the church work, yes, and the sense that this place is truly home, and also all the personal growth that grew out of that work and God’s continuing shaping of me, here.

So it was a special joy to read, on July 2 while I was in Chicago at the UFMCC triennial General Conference, the following excerpt from an audio recording, “On Pilgrimage with Father Richard Rohr”:

A pilgrim must be a child who can approach everything with an attitude of wonder, awe and faith. Pray for wonder, awe, desire. Ask God to take away your sophistication and cynicism. Ask God to take away the restless, anxious heart of the tourist, which always needs to find the new, the more, the curious. Recognize yourself as a pilgrim, as one who has already been found by God.

The reason this feels so vital to me is that I realize that I became a pilgrim here. It took me quite a while to realize how little I knew and how much I needed to look around with an open eye and mind and heart, an open soul. I did not know it when I was called here and we got here, but I came to Richmond to become a pilgrim.

Oh I had been on a long journey before I got here, but until I got quite a ways into my time in Richmond I was more like the tourist Rohr mentions. I still can slip into tourist-iness easily enough, but it does not take too long for me to realize how unsatisfying it can be. The really satisfying way to live is to stay open to God continually finding me and changing me.

People go on pilgrimages for many reasons, of course, but fundamentally they are about change. And the best pilgrimages create interior change, not just showing a new exterior view but more vitally really changing the landscape inside us. Image

I have changed in so many ways from when I got here in 2003, and it is a good thing.

Thanks be to God!

Pulling the Rabbit Out of the Hat–or It’s Time for Resurrection

I have been reflecting lately about resurrection, not just The Resurrection, the Jesus one in first century Palestine, but resurrection, the idea as Richard Rohr says that

“Resurrection is not a miracle to be proven; it is a manifestation of the wholeness that we are all meant to experience, even in this world–not time as ‘chronological moments of endless duration’ but time as ‘momentous and revealing the whole.’ (he is quoting John A.T. Robinson, 1968)

Before I left my pastorate, I had begun to explore, very gingerly, the idea that resurrection is a way of life–understanding, and accepting, the reality God gives us of being whole human beings individually, and in community as a whole breathing organism.of beings breathing together.

Into these musings came a wonderful short essay, “Rabbit Transit,” by Rev. Ben Campbell, my friend and the Pastoral Director of Richmond Hill.  He is writing about one of his favorite topics, the development of a comprehensive rapid transit system for Metro Richmond (that’s Richmond-Chesterfield-Henrico-Hanover-Charles City-Goochland-New Kent-Powhatan–1.2 million people who could be united, but often seem to be separate even in the air we breathe).

Rev. Ben Campbell
Rev. Ben Campbell

I have heard Ben preach about this, have attended public meetings about this, and I am beginning to trust that if we believe in resurrection, we must bring about this much needed way for us to breathe together.

A rapid transit system would allow people in Richmond to get out to jobs in the counties–which is where most of the new jobs are–and it would allow people in the counties to come in to their state jobs and to the ball park and the symphony and the galleries. It might even reduce the strain on puny parking opportunities in downtown Richmond.

I am all for this shift–heck, as I grow older, I might prefer to have someone else drive me places–especially because I really don’t pay much attention to the lines drawn on maps to mark political divisions. Does anyone really know, or care, when one crosses over from one country to the next?

Ben says the people of this region are “tragically proud of their failure to work together.” I know that is what our history says. I hope, I pray, our future is better than that. We can stop treating the James River as some sort of local Mason-Dixon line, and even more we can stop thinking the air is different in Henrico and Chesterfield than in Richmond.

I urge you to read his passionate argument for resurrection, and to sign up to support regional transportation.  Continue reading Pulling the Rabbit Out of the Hat–or It’s Time for Resurrection

The Ten What?

Some of us are spending time with the Ten Commandments.

No, I haven’t joined one of those groups that insist that the contents of Moses’ tablets (or at least their version of them) be posted on the courthouse or statehouse wall. Instead, we are just digging into each one to learn more from each other about what they mean for us today.

Each week, some folks at our church gather for Living Wednesdays, a time of short worship and then a discussion of a film or other topic. We started a few weeks ago focusing our worship on the commandments, one by one.

The first thing we discussed is the fact that Jewish scholars claim they are more like statements than laws.They are not intended to be rules for which violations earn punishment so much as they are intended to let people know how God wants to be in relationship with people–sort of like the ground rules couples make to insure they make it through tough times. This puts a different cast on how they are used.

So many of the people who want to tack them up in public places seem to want them there as a way to force people to behave a certain way. Or to draw a line between them and other folks (“We follow the Ten Commandments and they are heathens because they don’t”). Or at least to claim that these “rules” are the basis of our civil society (which is not true, despite their desire that it be so).

We just finished #3, the short version being, “You shall not take God’s name in vain.”

For about 15-20 minutes we shared perspectives. It was instructive. We all admitted that in our youth we were taught this meant not to use curses that involved God.

But now we understand that taking God’s name in vain has many meanings. One person said she thinks that people who use God to oppress other people is a way of taking God’s name in vain. Another person wondered if the American habit that claims that God blesses America, and by implication does not bless other nations, is taking God’s name in vain. Who are we to presume that we are God’s favorites–when we so fervently believe others are not?

This is related to our assumption as individuals that what we like, what we think is important, what we value, is what God likes and values. We then got into a bit of joking about what it would feel like to others if we transferred this to another person. One person joked that instead of using the term “OMG” (O My God) we used “OMK” (O My Kim or Kevin), or “OMR” (O My Robin or Rose). How would that feel? Maybe, someone said, this is just about treating God with honor and respect.

We also looked at Psalm 127 (and listened to Ian White sing the first part of the Psalm–click on the link to listen to this lively rendition), which begins, “Unless God builds the house, the builders labor in vain. If God doesn’t guard the city, the sentries watch in vain.” This connected us with the idea that to undertake our lives without God, while claiming we are people of God, is to take God’s name in vain. We can’t do life without God. To pretend we can is to deny and to denigrate God’s name.

All of this was very rich, and opens many more possibilities. We talked only for a short time, but so much wisdom was shared. God clearly was in the room, and animating the hearts and minds of those who were present.

Moses came down off the mountain, and started something so much bigger than he could ever imagine; it still reverberates today. That is the God-sized blessing in these Ten Statements.

Not that we bow down to them, but that we stay in relationship–a living relationship–with them and with the God who shares them.


A Word in Response, in Love, and in Hope

I try really hard not to get into arguments with pastors and other spiritual leaders. I know how tough the road is, and I know I don’t need others getting in my business so I know they don’t need me getting in theirs.

But sometimes I cannot stay silent.

Bishop Darryl F. Husband, Sr. has caused me to speak up. If you do not recognize his name, check out his op-ed piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch for May 30, 2012

Now, this is dangerous territory for me, speaking up to disagree with an African American pastor. I especially try not to meddle in the affairs of other religious bodies. But Bishop Husband has presumed to speak disparagingly not only of LGBT folks, but also to cast the President of the United States into outer darkness. Now, I am not endorsing President Obama here–this is my personal blog, but I connect it to the church I serve, and we don’t endorse candidates through or at church–but he is my president, our president, and when someone makes specious claims about him I certainly can join other citizens in objecting.

Besides, Bishop Husband makes claims about the calamity of marriage for all that simply defy logic.

I hardly know where to begin. But let me start with his claim that the President has little regard for the church and its leaders. This is utter nonsense. Bishop Husband begins to sound like the Vatican: disagree with us and we simply cast you aside. You are not a person of faith, if your faith does not coincide precisely with ours. I understand the militant regimentation of the Vatican, but I find it hard to reconcile with the free church tradition of which Bishop Husband is part. This president, like others in the past, regularly consults with religious leaders of all stripes. He worships God with little fanfare but with what seems to me to be sincerity. That he disagrees with Bishop Husband and others is a matter of conscience to be respected. Nor does it make much sense to claim that President Obama let his true heart unfold in public view as a way to gain votes. I hardly see this working that way so far!

Then there is the usual business of scripture. How sad that people continue to read their own prejudices into what they so piously claim is the Word of God. Nowhere in scripture can Bishop Husband prove to me that God sustains his claim that the only valid human relationships are those that produce children.

And what of his claim that that the president “seeks to weaken the voice of the once only free voice in our society (the African-American pastor)?”  Bishop Husband has convinced himself that the age-old authority of a pastor or priest or rabbi or imam to marry whom he or she deems fit will somehow disappear if same-gender-loving couples are eligible for legal marriage. This did not happen when the U.S. Supreme Court wiped away ugly anti-miscegenation laws and validated inter-racial marriage (see Loving v. Virginia, 1967)–but that did not stop white supremacists from making the claim Bishop Husband now echoes. I wonder if he remembers who his ancestors are in this business of denying marriage to those brought together by God in love?

I tell you that there is one way that Bishop Husband–and other clergy who deny the sanctity of marriage granted to same-gender-loving couples, and others they judge to be beneath their care–is damaging not only the pastorate but the larger church–and that is by persisting in denying the unfolding revelation of God. God keeps showing us new truth about love, and asks us to let go of control so that God’s love can touch all. But so many resist. There are consequences, as Bishop Husband says. But they are different than what he sees.

When couples from churches where pastors refuse to marry them for reasons of their sexuality and gender come to me, I always tell them I will not consider marrying them until they have asked their pastor to do so–because I want to be sure they show proper regard for their particular Shepherd’s Assistant (that is what we pastors are, not shepherds, but Assistants to the One Great Shepherd of Us All). They sadly come back to me with the report of rejection, usually judgmental and harsh, sometimes only distant and cold. I grieve at the loss of respect and affection which comes over these good people, and their sense of being left to wander without the leader they so clearly love.

I could go on, but this is already too long.

Bishop Husband is right about one thing. “Standards of living are important.” And I am grateful that President Obama has joined many other faithful people in recognizing God’s truth as it unfolds, claiming the standard of love, as Jesus taught, as the one true standard–generous love, not stingy, my-way-of-the-highway sort of love, but abundant love that touches and redeems all.

In that spirit, I not only speak up to offer an alternative view to my brother I also reach out to him in Christian love, to encourage him to be open to God’s continually unfolding revelation. I know he and I can meet there, with the Lord we both love so much.

Nothing Sweeter

Christian spiritual life requires discipline.

At least, that is what I keep reading from various authorities, and what I am experiencing in my own life. It is not possible, for most of us at least–certainly for me–to grow spiritually without regular, preferably daily, focus and effort.

This effort takes time. Prayer needs to be more than slap-dash, grabbing a few seconds or a minute to say “Thanks, God!” It is not that quick prayer is not good. It is good to be in conversation with God throughout the day. Often, that conversation can be a quick word or two, or even just a nod of the head toward God.

But that cannot be all there is. Spiritual health requires investment.

If you want to lose weight, for example, you need to adjust your eating habits. That takes time and concentration. And you want to exercise. That takes time and concentration, too. Most of us who have set out to lose weight know it is a journey of ups and downs, and we know that success comes when we stay focused on regularly achieving the ups.

Spiritual health is like that as well. Habits need to be adjusted, and new muscles need to be used.

Daily prayer is essential–it may start out at a couple of minutes, but if it is regular–try for the same time each day, for example, in the same place–it grows into 5, 10, 15, 20, 30, 60 minutes over time. The more you do the more you will be able to focus. In fact, there will come a time when you don’t pray that you will feel the loss. Your day will not be as good and you know it is because you did not use time to pray.

What is the point of this discipline? It is not to say that we do it–that is spiritual self-righteousness–nor is it just to help others. At base, it is to build a relationship with God, the relationship God wants to have with you.

There is nothing sweeter.