Saturday, May 26, 2007

Last Sunday was confirmation Sunday in my church. Five young women and men stood before the congregation to answer ancient questions about the Christian faith, to affirm their faith and to join our church. I must confess that I have not always been confirmation’s biggest champion. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy the interaction I have as a pastor with those young men and women, usually about ninth grade, being confirmed. My problem has been with all the weight the church culture in the upper Midwest gives to this time. There seems to be this sense that you will learn in one to three years everything important you will ever need to learn about the Christian faith, the Bible, the history of the church and on and on. Completing confirmation becomes analogous to finishing high school. And what happens when you are done with high school? You never have to go back! There are all those jokes about ministers who have some kind of pest problem in the church (mice, squirrels, bats) and the solution of one of the clergy is that he confirmed them all and never saw them again.

So as a pastor teaching confirmation, I have tried to take some of the ominous weight off this time. I try and take a more relaxed approach, telling those in confirmation and their parents that while this is an important time and a significant one, it is but one part of the life-long journey of faith. I hope confirmation sparks as many questions as it provides statements of answers. Yes, there are things to be learned, but the life of faith involves not just the deeper reaches of our minds, but also of our hearts. We join a community of people trying to follow Jesus, and building community is vital to that enterprise. So relationships are important. Is my program a great one? Probably not, and you would have to ask those who participate if it has been genuinely helpful to them or not. I am too new to this church setting to know if those who have finished confirmation will stick around in the coming years. Time will tell. One of those confirmed this year was our youngest daughter, and she has given every sign that she will stay active in church after confirmation!

So confirmation has been an internal struggle. Am I getting it right, balancing some learning with fostering that sense of a community on a journey? Is it possible to get it right, or is confirmation a relic of the past that should quietly slip into church history, like father’s “giving away” their daughters in marriage?

But then there was Confirmation Sunday itself. One of the special things about the five confirmation students this year is that their families are all active in the life of the church. That’s another thing about upper Midwest confirmation culture, for some there is the idea that if you don’t do anything else for your child in terms of religious education it is your duty as a parent to make sure they get confirmed. Anyway, Confirmation Sunday came. Parents wanted the service to be special and individual, and helped a lot along the way. A parent had worked with our lay leader to make stoles to present to the young men and women. We projected some pictures of the youth at the beginning and end of the service. There was some special music. We had stones from Lake Superior to give as a remembrance of baptism. During the sermon, I decided to try and say just a few words about each of those being confirmed. That was pretty easy; it was a very good group. They have special gifts to give the church. As I began to talk about each of these young people who have spent part of the last year with me, the words came not just from my mouth and my head, but from some place deeper within my heart. And then I got to my own daughter, and I had planned what I was going to say. “Sarah – you are my daughter, and it has been a joy to say that since the moment I first saw you, just moments after you came into this world. You are also God’s daughter and this is one among many moments where I get to stand in awe as you grow into a special young woman.” And I started to say it, and my voice caught for a few moments. What was already a fairly emotion-filled sanctuary, became even more so. We all realized that these were God’s sons and daughters and we were all standing in awe as they are growing into special young men and women.

Whatever reservations I have about confirmation, I must admit Sunday was wonderful. It was magic. Sometimes God doesn’t care much about my mental reservations!

I did get into a little trouble though. Our older daughter, Beth was present and she doesn’t remember me getting very emotional at her confirmation! Beth, I was a pool of emotion this winter when you were awarded the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Student Athlete of the Year for Swimming and Diving (pun intended).

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, May 18, 2007

There are times when things just come together in such a way that little further comment is required. Last week, two different items came to my attention and its seems worthwhile and illuminating simply to juxtapose them and let it stand at that.

A law firm in Chicago placed a billboard in a location where it could be seen by thousands of people every day. On each side of the billboard was the picture of a human torso. On the left side, it was a female torso, clad in a kind of low-cut lace outfit. The angle of the picture was such that plenty of cleavage was revealed. On the right side, there was the male torso, with not clothing at all. The man’s pecs were well-defined and he had six-pack abs. In between these two pictures portraying our cultural vision of youthful vitality, vigor and sexiness were the words: Life is Short. Get a Divorce.

Last week as I was rummaging through some books, part of my weekly ritual of sermon preparation, I came across this from Joan Chittister. For those of you who are not familiar with her, Joan Chittister is a Benedictine nun and insightful writer about the spiritual life. I found these words in her book, Becoming Fully Human: “The real question of the age is How many ads can a person possibly watch on TV and stay more committed to the enlightenment of the self than to the aggrandizement of the self?”

On another note. Caring for one’s well-being in such a way that one also develops a deep caring for the world is an on-going task of the spiritual life. Caring for one’s well-being as a pastor has its unique joys and challenges. Being a pastor is often wonderful and sometimes crazy-making – and sometimes the shift happens in seconds! Yesterday I met with a group of friends, all of us pastors, and all of us trying to stay as sane and healthy as we can while also being effective in our pastoral vocation. As I was driving home from this meeting, I recalled a story about a conversation between the Buddha and one of his disciples, Ananda.

Then the Venerable Ananda approached the Blessed One, paid homage to him, sat down to one side, and said: “Venerable sir, this is half of the spiritual life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.” “Not so, Ananda! Not so, Ananda! This is the entire spiritual life, Ananda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.

Maybe good friendship is not all that is required for the spiritual life, or for pastors to remain relatively sane and healthy – but I think it is a necessity for both. I am grateful for good friends who are pastors, grateful that I have such friends here in Duluth (even as one moves to the Twin Cities), and in other places. Today I am especially grateful for Bill, Eric, Jeff, Jim and Rory.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Little Things That Contribute Toward Humility

A few people asked for copies of my Sunday morning sermon from May 6. I e-mailed it from home to my church e-mail address. It ended up in the junk mail folder! Ouch!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Last Sunday, I preached and led worship in two very different settings. In the morning I was at the church where I am the pastor. In the afternoon, I led worship for a local gathering of developmentally disabled people. They worship together once a month and the leadership for this rotates among local churches.

In the morning I shared with my congregation how it is I have come to the place in my faith where I affirm that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons can be people of authentic Christian faith and still be GLBT. I don’t believe homosexuality in itself is wrong or sinful. I shared how growing up I had very little awareness of gay and lesbian persons, even into my college years. I shared my initial discomfort when I was forced, as I got to know gay and lesbian persons, to think very seriously about this issue. I shared some of my quandaries over the interpretation of the few passages in the Bible that discuss same sex sexual relationships. While I can’t say just when it happened, I have come to a place of acceptance of GLBT people as persons who can be genuinely Christian without changing that part of who they are. I shared that the most significant factor in getting to this place was my experience of GLBT who were also people of deep and genuine Christian faith. I compared this to the experience of Peter in Acts 11, as I mentioned in my last blog. At the end of the second time I preached, the congregation applauded.

In the afternoon, my sermon was strikingly different. The “members” of this worshipping community had been talking about animals, and raising money for the Heifer Project. In their education class that day they were hearing Job 12:7-8: But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. I thanked this congregation for its work in raising money for the Heifer Project. I thanked them for their care of the natural world, and encouraged them to continue doing what they could in that way. Then I said that one reason we should care for the natural world is that maybe God speaks to us in animals and nature. When the branches of a tree are blowing gently in the wind, maybe God is saying “hello” to us. They seemed to like that idea.

It was a day of contrasts – simplicity and complexity. Human sexuality is a confluence of biology, sociology, psychology, family history – pretty complex stuff. Thinking that maybe God waves “hello” to us in the trees or laughs with us in the waves is kind of a simple idea. Maybe being a person of faith involves both – simplicity and complexity.

I have come to think that the core of Christian faith is having a heart shaped by some simple values. Words such as these lead me to think thus.

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8, Literature of the Hebrew Prophets

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus (Mark 12:30-31, Christian New Testament)

Refraining from all that is detrimental or harmful; engaging in and cultivating what is wholesome, skillful, good; purifying one’s mind – this is the teaching of the awakened.
Buddha (The Dhammapada, 183) [O.K., I am still learning from Buddhists]

In the end, when we look at our life, the question will be simple: Did I live fully? Did I love well?
Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace

Now to be sure applying these values to the complex realities of the world in which we live is, well, complicated. Seeking the simplicity of love in the depth of our lives does not mean seeing the world simplistically. Being in the world authentically, and as a person of Christian faith, asks of us a loving heart and a creative mind.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, May 4, 2007

I seen so many things
I ain’t never seen before
Don’t know what it is
I don’t wanna see no more
Mama told me not to come

Randy Newman as sung by Three Dog Night (remember them?)

Something is happening
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

Bob Dylan

I was not always a pastor and I did not grow up in a pastor’s home. Sometimes my thoughts run toward the less-than-pious. When they do, I can often incorporate them, nevertheless, into sermons, church newsletters, and the like. Sometimes, however, such less-than-pious notions are better kept out of my pastoral ministry.

Such a thought occurred to me this week as I was considering my sermon for Sunday. The primary biblical text I was working with was Acts 11:1-18. In it a man named Peter, a Jewish disciple of Jesus, is reporting back to other Jewish disciples of Jesus – remember Jesus was Jewish as were his earliest followers – about a remarkable experience he had. Peter is telling them about a wild dream in which “something like a large sheet” comes down from the heavens. It is filled with all kinds of animals, animals considered unclean to eat. Peter hears a voice telling him to go, kill and eat. It is the voice of God. Peter resists, noting that eating such things is against his religion. The Voice tells him “what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Right after this, some men come and ask Peter to visit with one Cornelius. To do so would mean a violation of Peter’s religious scruples, but after his wild dream, why not? He goes and I wonder if he feels a little like Randy Newman showing up at a party – uncomfortable with things going on, feeling uncertain and insecure. But then Peter discovers that God’s Spirit has also shown up. God’s Spirit?!! It should not be here – but Peter discovers something is happening, even though he was not sure what it was. There is a movie soundtrack in the making here somewhere.

So I am thinking about all of this, and it suddenly strikes me, like a sheet floating down from the heavens – I should call my sermon “holy sheet.” Can’t you just hear Peter muttering to himself as God asks him to kill and eat unclean animals? Can’t you hear him, in between verses of “Mama Told Me Not to Come” at the residence of Cornelius, mumbling a bit? Don’t you imagine him saying to himself after God’s Spirit shows up in a place that it was not supposed to, “well holy sheet.” For better or worse, I could imagine all this, but for better I decided not to go with it in any official way. One of the fruits of the Spirit, after all, is “self-control.”

But I still found the phrase personally helpful. The other Bible passage under consideration for this week is John 13:31-35. There Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” I got to thinking – doesn’t love take us into strange places sometimes? Aren’t we invited by love to meet difficult people and issues? While love is remarkably inspiring, and filled with joy, doesn’t it also challenge us to the core sometimes? And maybe one appropriate response as we follow the direction of love in our lives, at least one that may fit certain occasions is a simple – holy sheet.

In my sermon on Sunday I am going to share the story of how it is I ended up being the pastor of a congregation that openly welcomes and affirms gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. We are a Reconciling Congregation. The church made that decision before I arrived, but I support their stance. Getting to that place was not simple or quick or easy. I had to work through some issues and it was uncomfortable. One reason I have come to think that same-sex relationships can be appropriate and Christian is that I have witnessed people of deep and genuine Christian faith live out their faith in the context of such relationships. If God’s Spirit is a work in the lives of GLBT people, who am I to hinder God’s Spirit. But I did not arrive here overnight. Love’s invitation is not always to the easy or familiar or comfortable.

Maybe God takes us to difficult and challenging places because that’s where God needs to be and where God’s love needs to be shared. That God invites us to be loving, to be Christ-like, in just those places is rather mind-boggling. Holy sheet.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Wednesday, May 2, 2007

A rare midweek entry.

I have been granted the privilege of having my blog read by a member of my congregation who I consider a wise person. He is deeply thoughtful and in his life, compassionate and kind. In response to my blog he has sent me a couple of wonderful e-mails. Most recently he sent me one in which he shares something of his spiritual journey over the years, and how it has brought him back to words his Finnish father shared with him many years ago. In essence his father told him that what was most important was to live with love and compassion.
Over the past few months a number of quotes have been coalescing in my mind and heart, all of which point in the same direction. I share them here for your thoughtful consideration.

For hatred does not cease by hatred at anytime; hatred ceases by love, this is an ancient truth. Buddha (The Dhammapada [5])

Love your enemies. Jesus (Matthew 5:44a)

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Paul (Romans 12:21)

By perfection I mean the humble, gentle patient love of God and our neighbor, ruling our habits, attitudes, words and actions. John Wesley, January 27, 1767

Whatever happens,
those who have learned
to love one another
have made their way
to the lasting world
and will not leave,
whatever happens.
Wendell Berry, poem from Given

Christianity first and foremost is about being kind. Robert Neville, Symbols of Jesus

With Faith and With Feathers,