Sunday, May 27, 2012


When I was a young woman, I used to be very careful with my necklaces. I only had a few, and I would hang them neatly in a row. But then, as I accumulated more necklaces, it wasn’t so easy to keep them all straight. As the years went by, this got progressively worse. If you should lift the lid to my jewelry box today, you would see that the necklace situation has gotten completely out of control. You would find a giant glob of gold and silver threads that not even an accomplished micro-surgeon could sort through -- fine chains wrapped around each other, woven together so tightly that you can’t tell where one begins and the next one ends.

For most of my life, this would have made me crazy. I would have seen it as a problem, and gone to work at remedying that problem a.s.a.p. I can remember working relentlessly, for hours, just to untangle one necklace. But now, I’m perfectly content leaving that big tangled-up mess sitting there in my jewelry box. I know that may sound like I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it’s hopeless, but that’s not it. The fact is, I find that big tangled-up mess a source of great hope. I can even look at it and smile.

There were a lot of things that troubled me spiritually when I was a kid. I worried about whether there really was a God. And, if there really was a heaven. Then, before I could find the answers to those questions, I got older, and more questions came along. Why does God allow evil? Is God responsible for everything that happens? Is there really a point to all this? Question after question accumulated in my brain. I was seldom satisfied with the answers I found. Even when I thought I had resolved one of them, it seemed like, before I knew it, my answer wasn’t so satisfying after all, and I was right back where I started.

When I was younger, I always thought that the whole point of the spiritual journey was to learn and grow so that I would come to understand such things. If I read my Bible, and studied, and prayed, and listened to what God was saying to me, then gradually, I would start to get a clue, and eventually, I would find clarity. I believed that if I worked hard enough at it, as I got older, I would finally come to understand those spiritual secrets that seemed to elude me when I was younger. And that’s when I would become the wise old woman I aspired to be.

I thought of the Holy Spirit as God’s teacher in my life. When I was too thick-headed to comprehend what God was trying to teach me, the Holy Spirit would soften my brain up so I could receive the truth God wanted to impart. You know, like the parable where the seed was planted in the fertile soil. The Holy Spirit cultivates the good soil so it’s receptive to the word. There’s also a part of Luther’s explanation to the Creed that talks about how the Spirit works. “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead it’s the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers and enlightens…” I always saw the Holy Spirit as my own personal tutor who works on me so I can understand God better. This, I assumed, was the pathway to wisdom.

Well, I do feel that I’ve grown wiser as I’ve grown in years. But wisdom doesn’t look anything like I thought it would. It has little to do with gaining knowledge, or being able to finally answer those questions that used to keep me awake nights. It’s more like that tangled mess of silver and gold threads in my jewelry box. I’m comfortable with the mess. I no longer feel a need to sort through it all. In fact, the mess is actually a sign to me of the incomprehensible mystery of God’s love.

Being able to systematically take threads of doctrine and hang them all neatly in a row is no longer my task. Picking apart a Biblical text and squeezing every possible meaning from it doesn’t excite me like it did thirty years ago. Critically going after people who don’t see things my way and proving my point isn’t something I feel a need to do any longer. I’m comfortable with the mess. I no longer need to be vigilant about warding off ambiguity, paradox, and mystery like unwelcome guests who come pounding on my door in the middle of the night. I dare not open the door to those guests even so much as a crack or they’ll invade my house and never leave. Well, that’s not the way I live these days. I don’t lock the door to my spiritual house anymore. A lot of the time, I leave it hanging wide open. Ambiguity, paradox, and mystery are welcome guests. In fact, I’m hoping we can settle down and have a home together. I not only tolerate them in my life, I treasure them.

You know the familiar saying, “The more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.” Well, it’s sort of like that. But it’s more than that. Because it’s also coming to the place where that I don’t need to know. Richard Rohr says that in any genuine spiritual experience we are utterly humbled before mystery. We are “in awe at the abyss of it all, in wonder at eternity and depth, and a Love, which is incomprehensible to the mind.”

Romans 8 talks about the Holy Spirit working in our lives in a way that I have really grown to appreciate. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (26-27). I used to find comfort in the fact that when we’re praying and don’t know the right words, the Spirit will provide the words for us. Now, when I read these verses, I think more about how the experience of God transcends words.

Communication is a way of transferring what is in your brain to someone else’s brain, so maybe they can get a glimpse of what you’re thinking. It comes from our need to be in relationship with other people. But communication is also a way of deluding ourselves into believing that, because we can describe something with our words, we understand it. Using language implies mastery of concepts. So, when we describe the Holy with words, we are always diminishing God. We are making God into someone so small that we can explain him. A better way of capturing the mystery that is God is a “sigh too deep for words. “

That’s what the Romans passage says the Spirit offers on our behalf. Sighs too deep for words. Doing more than just teaching us what we don’t understand. But holding us in the midst of all that we can’t possibly ever understand. Carrying us into the incomprehensible mystery of Love incarnate. There are no words to describe it. We can’t possibly sort through it and make sense of it. But the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.

Have you ever had an experience that left you sighing? It may have been a sigh of longing, or deep appreciation, or sorrow. There were no words that could possibly have captured the moment. You could only sigh. This passage from Romans suggests that God sighs for us like that.

I think that may be the gift of the Spirit that I am most ready to receive this Pentecost. I’ve known the relentless call of the Spirit, pushing me out of a place of comfort to venture down paths unknown. I’ve known the subtle prodding of the Spirit, drawing me to those who walk alongside me on my journey of faith. I’ve known the overwhelming power of the Spirit, rushing into my life like a mighty wind and empowering me to do things I never imagined. I’ve known the gentle guidance of the Spirit, leading me when I felt lost in the wilderness. I’ve known the sweet comfort of the Spirit, filling the emptiness after I suffered a deep loss in my life. I’ve known the unmistakable enlightenment of the Spirit, revealing clarity and direction when I sought it. I know the Spirit acts in all those ways because I’ve experienced it personally.

The way I experience the Spirit these days, may not seem to be as dramatic as it has been at other times in my life. But it feels as if we’re finally settling down together. It’s like looking inside a jewelry box of tangled necklaces, and smiling. It’s trusting patiently in what I cannot begin to comprehend. It’s an increasing awareness of the loving presence of the One who sighs for us.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Loving Not Judging under fire

I should have known better than to talk with the press. My sound-bite that he was a “good person who made a mistake” seems to be showing up everywhere. It may not have been the smartest thing to say, but I said it. I admit that it sounds like I’m minimizing what Larry has done. That was not my intent, but that’s the way it sounds.

Not too long ago, I told my congregation in a sermon that they can count on the fact that the Spirit will always be pushing us to the limit as we try to live into our mission of “Loving Not Judging.” Just when we think we have a handle on it, we’ll be tested. And here we are. Certainly, loving not judging is the Jesus way of living in the world. And it runs counter to the dominant culture that always insists people get what they deserve. So, would Jesus show compassion for someone who has sexually abused children? Are there some sins that are so heinous they can never be forgiven? Are acts of repentance for some sinners rejected, regardless of the sincerity of the penitent? As much as I may not like it, I have come to know Jesus well enough to know the answers to those questions. Jesus would be loving not judging. Consistently.

Now, that’s not to say that the wrongs we do can just be wiped away as if they never happened. Particularly, when we have done irreparable harm to other people, there are necessary consequences. I have no doubt that this is the way the world works. And, I suspect that this is the way God works, too, although God’s justice is always tempered with mercy. Certainly, in the case of my friend, I do not excuse what he did. I also don’t minimize it. He was the perpetrator of some unconscionably evil deeds. There are consequences that he must face. But that doesn’t mean that God will turn his back on him, so how can I? The love of God isn’t reserved for the deserving.

By offering a loving not judging response to what Larry has done, it may seem to some people that I’m siding with the offender. This is especially hurtful for people who have been victims of clergy sexual abuse. I’m already starting to hear from them. Typically, when clergy are involved in sexual abuse, their congregations will gather around them and support them. They’ll talk about what a wonderful person thier pastor is and how the allegations couldn’t possibly be true. They will ostracize the accuser and blame them for whatever misconduct occurred. The church has a long, sordid history of re-victimizing victims of clergy sexual abuse. This is a grave injustice that I have always spoken against. And now, I am being accused of doing it myself. I can understand why. Perhaps I haven’t handled this appropriately. I am deeply sorry for any I may have hurt in the process. That is the last thing I wanted to do.

I was asked by a reporter how I might feel if the children in my congregation were the ones who had been molested. It was a good question and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Of course, I have been ministering to the person in our midst, who happens to be the abuser. What if those he abused were also in our midst? Is it possible to show compassion to both the abuser and the abused? I don’t know if it’s humanly possible, but with God, I have no doubt that’s the way it works.

This loving not judging stuff is a growing edge for us at Holy Trinity. We’re figuring it out as we go. One thing I hope we’re learning is that people are not either good or bad; they’re more complicated than that. In Lutheran theology we say that we’re both saint and sinner at the same time. So, it isn’t really our job to go around deciding who the good people are and who the bad people are. We can’t begin to know what’s in another person’s heart. Heck, we can’t even begin to know what’s good and what’s bad, when it comes right down to it. There isn’t much we can be sure of, when it comes to standing in judgment over others. But one thing we can be sure of is that God’s love is extended to all.

This is tough stuff. It’s complicated. I’m still trying to sort through it all. It’s challenging me in some new ways. And it certainly isn’t anything I could relay in a sound-bite. But then, that seems to be the way the truth always is.

Monday, May 21, 2012

My brain is treading water tonight.

My brain is treading water tonight. I spent the afternoon at the federal courthouse in Charlotte, along with a number of others from Holy Trinity. We were there to show our support for one of our members. He’s a former Lutheran pastor who has gotten himself into a lot of trouble. When he was serving as a missionary in Haiti, he suffered some serious personal struggles and he acted out sexually. As if that wasn’t bad enough, a couple of the people he engaged sexually were minors. In the courtroom today, we heard all the details. To say it was unsettling is an understatement. Especially since this is a man who has done such wonderful ministry through the years. How can this be the same person they were describing in the courtroom?

My friend is going through all this because he was willing to face his demons head-on and work his way through issues that had held him captive. No one filed charges against him. But when he hit bottom, he knew he had to do something about it. He sought help and confessed what he had done to a counselor. And that’s how his transgressions became known. He was doing what he needed to do to turn his life around. He courageously faced his problems, came clean, and has been working hard to stay that way. Over the past few years, he has shown us what it means to walk in the way of repentance.

I know that repentance doesn’t mean we are no longer accountable for the things we did in the past. I get that. There are consequences for our actions. An important part of repentance is making amends. He needs to do that, to be sure. But where do mercy and forgiveness come in?

At Holy Trinity our motto is “Loving Not Judging.” We try hard to live by it. In this case, we’re supporting our dear brother with as much love as we can muster. I have framed the story for myself as “a good man, who did a lot of good things in his life, was human, and made a mistake.” That’s what I told the T.V. reporters over and over again today as they stood before me with their microphones in my face.

But there was one of those reporters who rattled me. First she asked me how I would feel if my friend had done those things to girls in the United States? I processed that one quickly, confident that I would feel the same way. The fact that these were girls in Haiti didn’t make what he did any less horrific than if they had been American girls. The fact that he had repented and worked so hard to turn his life around over the past three years was still the important factor for me.

But then she asked me another question that has been haunting me all evening. She asked, “How would you and the people in your church feel if he had done this with children in your congregation?” I don’t know how I answered her. I said something, because I knew I had to. But such a question deserves some serious rumination. What would it mean to be loving not judging in a situation like that?

So my brain is treading water tonight. I'm afraid that if I stop I may drown in my doubts.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

People change. I'm counting on it.

When did it become a sign of weakness to change your mind? Have you noticed the way politicians are ridiculed for this in the media? Immediately, the negative spin accuses mind-changers of waffling, or being inconsistent. But maybe they really are “evolving.” Personally, I’m wary of anyone who still believes the same things when they’re 50 that they believed when they were 20. And I greatly admire anyone who has the courage to admit, “I was wrong.”

Last week, the oldest member of our congregation died. I can tell you beyond a doubt that Louise changed her views on a number of issues over the course of her 102 years on this planet. Once she told me the story of how she had gone to the beauty shop as a young woman and after she learned that the man who did her hair was a “homosexual”, she went right to the sink and washed her hair. As she told me this story, tears streamed down her cheeks. “Oh, pastor,” she said, “I’m so ashamed of myself for doing that.” It had happened eighty years prior to her confession. She was no longer that same woman. She had grown into someone who, after befriending a gay couple at Holy Trinity, was so thrilled to hear of their upcoming wedding that she passed along her vintage china to them as a gift.

Her daughter Laura tells the story of a couple of guys who lived next door to her while her mother was living with her. They decided to have a baby and had enlisted the help of a surrogate mother to have their child. Laura wasn’t sure about how she could tell Louise, who was into her nineties by then. How would her mother receive this information? How could she ever begin to understand it? After the first trimester, Laura decided it was time to break the news to Louise, so she said, “Mom, you know Sam and Andre, who live next door? Well, they’re going to have a baby.” The first words out of Louise’s mouth were: “Oh, I’m going to have to find my knitting needles.”

Have you ever met someone whose brain became fossilized somewhere in childhood? It’s a life wasted, and truly tragic. The whole point of the spiritual journey is transformation, which comes for us in big and small ways, even if we should live up into our 100s. We change. We grow. I’m counting on that for myself. And for the world around me.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Can you see whose child I am?

No matter how many places we live, how much schooling we receive, how many jobs we go through, or how many relationships we experience, the people who have the strongest impact on our lives will always be our parents. In most cases, to be more specific, it’s your mother. They say that’s the primary relationship in our lives.

The older I get, the more I realize I’m like my mother. Physically, to be sure. And also in the things I say. But most importantly, in the way I look at the world, in my attitude. One way I’m a lot like my mom is in my honesty. This is both good and bad. It’s good that I’m an honest person, but sometimes it’s not so good when I express that very bluntly, without a whole lot of tact. Both the good and the bad of being honest are something I get from my mother.

It’s not hard to see whose child I am. But I'm not only a child of my parents, Bob and Roberta. I'm also a child of God. And that gets me to wondering... do I in any way resemble the one I relate to as my Father/Mother God? Do I ever find myself doing something and thinking, I guess it’s not hard to see whose child I am?

Of course, God hasn’t had the same kind of influence on us that our mothers and fathers have. God influences us in a different way. Before he left them, Jesus promised his disciples that he was going to give them something that would help them become more like children of God. “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

Our moms and dads have a tremendous influence on who we are as people. Their influence comes at the beginning of our lives when our brains are like wet clay, and they shape us. The Holy Spirit comes into our lives and softens that clay up again. She shapes us in new ways. When we open ourselves up to the Spirit in our lives, it becomes more and more apparent that we’re more than just products of our mothers and fathers. We’re children of God.

May you grow to live in such a way that it’s not hard to see whose child you are.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Because it's where love takes us

The last place I want to be sitting today is inside the largest Southern Baptist Church in Charlotte. After all, they are largely responsible for putting a constitutional amendment before the people of North Carolina that discriminates against families who don’t fit their idea of what a family should look like. They fuel their fire with the Bible. And although I read the Bible, too, I don’t read it the way they do. Furthermore, I would never impose the way I read the Bible upon others as the ONLY way it can be understood. And I certainly wouldn’t insist that the biblical teachings of MY religion be written into the constitution of the state.

Because we are largely a conservative, evangelical Christian state, they have the power. Their way of thinking dominates our culture, even among those of us who are a part of less-conservative churches. Without even realizing it, many people in my congregation are more influenced by the conservative Christian culture around them than they are by the teachings of the Lutheran church. That’s the reality we progressive Christians have to deal with here in the buckle of the Bible Belt.

For the most part, I have insulated myself against the dominant culture in North Carolina. Life is good in my liberal little oasis in the heart of Charlotte. It’s a world where diversity is celebrated and where people are free to love whom they love. The congregation I serve is a bubble within that oasis where loving not judging is our mission because we believe it is the most authentic way to follow Jesus.

I knew Amendment One was going to pass. And so it has. This morning, my feelings about it are all tangled up in threads of anger, disappointment, and heartache knotted with gratitude, resolve, and hopefulness. While I’m working my way through it, I just want to retreat to my bubble within the oasis for a while. But it ain’t gonna happen.

This afternoon, I will be at Hickory Grove Baptist Church. It’s a cruel twist of irony that takes me there. The mother of a dear friend died and that’s where her funeral will be held. To add salt to the wound of her grief, on the day after Amendment One passed, she and her partner will be attending a service at Hickory Grove Baptist Church, complete with an altar call at the end. It’s not a place where they are at all welcome at that altar as the women God created them to be. It’s not a place where their love is recognized as acceptable or valid. It’s certainly not a place they would ever choose to worship. And yet, they will be there. Today, of all days. They’ll be there because they have to be there. And because I love them, I’ll be there, too. Because it’s where love takes me.

And so it is for us, dear brothers and sisters I have worked beside over the months and years in North Carolina. This is where we live. This is what we’re up against. And it’s where we have to be. Because it’s where the people we love are. Because it’s where love takes us.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

I love gay people

I love gay people. I really do. I’ve been blessed with many dear friends who are gay and my life would be sorely lacking without them in it. They have changed me, for the better and for good. They’ve taught me about how important it is to be authentic in this world, and how difficult that can be. About courage. About what makes a family a family. About what it means to truly love another human being.

I’ve been dreading this day when the people of North Carolina vote on Amendment One. Now it's 8:00 a.m. and I’m already hating it. Whether this bull-shit amendment passes or fails, it’s wrong. We should not be voting on this. It is bullying on a massive scale. It grieves my heart that we’re putting good people through this. As a straight person, and as a follower of Jesus, I feel somehow responsible, even though I know I’m not. I can only say to my gay friends, please forgive our stupidity. And please know that so many of us stand with you.

I love gay people. It’s true. And I hate that this is happening to you. I know this isn’t your first experience with being discriminated against. It’s something you live with every day. Yes, I know that. But, especially on this day, I want you to know that your pain is my pain. Your hurt is my hurt. Your anger is my anger. I want you to know that I love you.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Do you feel the burn?

There was a fire in my belly when I preached this morning. I had to get it out before it consumed me; the words burned inside me like five-alarm Texas Chili. I don’t feel this way every time I preach. Sometimes I feel like I’m dishing out lukewarm oatmeal. That’s the way it goes. When you preach every week, you hit some and you miss some. Some weeks your mind is captured by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the words flow. Other weeks you stare at a blank computer screen day after day with ever-increasing panic as Sunday approaches and you realize you have nothing to say.

The thing is, folks are going to show up on Sunday morning to receive whatever I have to offer them, whether it’s of depth and substance or nothing more than a puff of fluff. I try to comfort myself by recognizing that they come for more than the sermon. There’s always the liturgy, the hymns, the community gathered, and the Sacrament of the Altar to make it worth their while. If the sermon were the whole point, I’m afraid that some weeks I might feel compelled to contact them and suggest that they’d be better off spending the morning doing something else.

What if we rated sermons on a four-star scale the way we rate movies? I decided long ago that I won’t waste my time on a movie that gets less than two-and-a-half stars. What if we could use similar ratings for sermons? People could decide for themselves if they want to waste their Sunday morning on a one-star sermon.

Of course, such a system would require that sermons be rated in advance, so the only ones who could do such rating would be those of us who will be preaching said sermons. Could we preachers be objective enough about our sermons to do that? I think I could do it. I can usually tell you how many stars my sermon deserves before I preach it. Would you like me to publish this on Facebook, or send it out to our church email group in advance? Would that help you decide whether you’re going to come to worship or play a round of golf on a Sunday morning?

Well, here’s the problem with that system. I’ve noticed that the sermon I would award with half a star is usually the one that someone will tell me changed their life. And the one I think has the power to change lives just leaves people yawning. Most of the time, this seems to be the way it works. For the longest time I couldn’t understand why. But I think I’ve finally figured it out.

The fire in my belly doesn't amount to much if it doesn't singe some ears. In other words, those who listen are as responsible for the sermon as the one who preaches it. I can work my tail off, fussing over what I’m going to say and then practicing how I’m going to say it for hours on end, but the words are empty unless they are heard. God speaks to us through the words of a sermon when our ears, and our minds, and our hearts are open to hearing it.

I’ve listened to enough sermons to know this is true. Unless I’m open to God speaking to me, the preacher might as well be chattering away in a foreign language. I’ve also noticed that there are times when a preacher’s words burn in my ears. There is so much truth in them that I can hardly bear it; God has my full attention.

Sermons are weird, aren’t they? There isn’t anything else in our culture quite like them. When else would you sit and listen to someone who stands before a captive audience, and presumes to speak for God, without making a bee-line for the nearest exit? Sometimes I wonder if sermons are a passing phenomenon. If they are, they aren’t passing quickly. For a few thousand years now, at least, God has been communicating with us through preachers who are speaking to people who are listening.

Do you  feel the burn?

“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Luke 24:32

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Church of Loving Not Judging

What if there was a church whose whole reason for being was “Loving Not Judging”? Well… I’m there. Holy Trinity Lutheran Church is like a little love laboratory where we’re learning about loving not judging. Not as an end in itself, but to prepare us for the challenges of loving not judging in the world around us. Here in our little love laboratory, we face one challenge after another that pushes us in our awareness of what it means to be truly loving like Jesus. Just when we think we have it all figured out, the Spirit challenges us to broaden our perspective and deepen our understanding.

We’re not simply faced with a series of decisions about whether or not we will love. That would be too easy. Then we could decide once that we’re going to love and not judge and that would be the end of it. But there’s more to loving, really loving, than simply refraining from judging.

We hear a lot about the need for tolerance these days. Is it loving when you tolerate someone? When you tolerate someone, you’re willing to put up with them despite their behavior. If that’s what love is, it has to be the lowest level.

A deeper level of love is acceptance. Acceptance is more than tolerance, putting up with behavior you don’t like. Acceptance is saying that the other person is okay. Whether or not you approve of their behavior becomes irrelevant. After all, no one’s perfect. You’re willing to overlook anything that stands in the way of loving that person. And you accept them.

But there’s an even better way. Better than tolerating someone. And better than accepting them. It’s the way of celebration. You celebrate another person when you recognize and appreciate their gifts, without any need to judge whether those gifts are good or bad. You celebrate the person God created them to be.

Can you see the difference between tolerating, and accepting, and celebrating? Tolerance says, “We’re willing to include you.” Acceptance says, “We want to include you.” Celebration says, “We need to include you because, without you, we’re not complete.”

Sometimes, when groups of people have experienced harsh judgment from the rest of society, they have to struggle through these stages. The civil rights movement worked through legislating that white people tolerate black people, to gaining acceptance through affirmative action, to celebrating black is beautiful. The color of my skin isn’t something to be tolerated or accepted. It’s something to be celebrated! LGBT people have been going through a similar process in our culture. If you’ve ever witnessed a Gay Pride event and it seemed a little in-your-face to you, that’s probably because you may be willing to tolerate or accept gay folks, but you aren’t yet ready to celebrate the fact that they’re gay. Celebration is loving in completeness. If you aren’t celebrating yet, you’ve got some love-growing to do.

Through the years, Holy Trinity has become known as a community where people who are gay or lesbian are welcome. If you go to our church website you’ll read that we aren’t just gay-friendly, we’re gay supportive. This all started in a time when the straight people of our congregation learned to be tolerant. We weren’t going to hold it against a person if they were gay. And then we grew to become accepting. As far as we were concerned, it was okay to be gay. Now, we’ve grown beyond tolerance or acceptance. We celebrate the fact that about half of our adult members are gay. It’s who they are and we love who they are. We need them to be the people God created them to be in our community so we can all be the people God created us to be.

One of our dear members, Pamela Jones, passed away almost a year ago. She wasn’t with us at Holy Trinity for very long, but she changed us. A transgender person, before she ever stepped foot in our sanctuary, Pam asked if it would be all right if she worshipped with us. I can only imagine what it must be like to be in a position where you feel like you have to ask for permission to do something that other people take for granted. I was always glad, when Pam worshipped with us, that she worshipped from the center of the nave, never in the back pews as so many of our transgender members and guests had done in the past. Pam was more than tolerated at Holy Trinity. At a minimum, people accepted her. That was evident the day she received more votes to serve on our Congregation Council than anyone else on the ballot, including the incumbents. Then, it was a transcendent moment the Sunday she stood in our pulpit and preached. We celebrated her for the gifts she brought to our community. Not despite the fact that she looked so different than the rest of us. And not because it was fine with us that she used to be a man and now she was a woman. But we celebrated because she was Pam, and a part of her being Pam was the fact that she was a transgender person. When she died, she left a void in our community that no one else can fill.

Each person who comes to us at Holy Trinity presents us with an opportunity to grow in love. The more diverse the gifts they bring, the more they stretch us, and the more we have to celebrate. One of the things that I hope for our congregation is more racial and cultural diversity. Not just because it would be cool to see people of all flavors in our pews. But because without the gifts of cultural diversity, our community isn’t complete. We need them to be a part of us.

I can’t help but believe that as we grow together in loving not judging, we will continue to be challenged in this little love laboratory we call Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. We’ll have countless opportunities to extend God’s circle of love to include those who have been excluded. Because we have been intentional about embarking on a journey of “Loving Not Judging”, that’s exactly where our journey will take us.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

It must be hell

Rev. Holmes had been a good pastor. He lived a holy life and set a fine example for his parishioners. He never cheated, or swore, or went to r-rated movies. He didn’t drink or dance or gamble. He lived a celibate life and renounced material wealth. He ate in moderation. He could quote the Bible, chapter and verse, on any topic. He was a good person.

And he devoted his life to helping others become good people, too. If the wrong kind of person happened to end up in his church on a Sunday morning, Rev. Holmes felt personally responsible for their salvation. You see, he could pretty much tell who was going to heaven and who wasn’t. The select few who lived holy lives, like he did, were in. And a whole lot of other people were out. People who drank alcohol, smokers, those who used the Lord’s name in vain, people who shopped on Sundays, unmarried girls who became mothers, divorced people, homosexuals, uppity women’s libbers, liberals, activists, lazy people who didn’t work and lived off the government’s money, kids who drove by the church blasting their rap music during Sunday services… They were all going to hell.

And so, Rev. Holmes did his best to turn these people around. The thing was, they never stayed at his church long enough to turn around. After they were rejected at the communion table, or after Rev. Holmes had a talk with them, that was all it took. He never saw them again.

Well, that is, he never saw them again until he died and went on to the here-after. When he got there he was shocked to see that he was in the same place with all those sinners. And they were dancing and feasting and drinking and playing cards and listening to rap music and doing all sorts of other things too shameful to mention. Such a wide assortment of sinners, all assembled in one place, Rev. Holmes had never seen in his entire lifetime.

“What’s the meaning of this?!” he wanted to know. “There has to be a mistake. On earth I lived a pure and holy life. And now you’ve sent me to the wrong place. I don’t deserve to spend eternity with these people!”

Rev. Holmes protested so strongly that he was referred to the person in charge.

Well, when he saw the person in charge he knew for sure that this was hell because it had to be none other than Satan himself. The person in charge was all different colors. The person had one brown eye and one blue eye. You couldn’t tell if the person was a man or a woman.

“Is there some sort of a problem?” The person in charge asked.

“Well, yes, there is,” Rev. Holmes said. “There’s been a terrible mistake. I’m obviously in the wrong place. All these sinners deserve to be in hell. But I’ve lived a pure and holy life.”

“Oh, I can assure you there has been no mistake on our part,” the person in charge said. “But I'm afraid you are quite mistaken yourself. For these people aren’t in hell, as you suppose. Quite the opposite. This is, in fact, heaven. All these people are in heaven.”

“The hell they are!” Rev. Holmes snapped.

“Yes, I see what you mean,” the person in charge said. “But it is the right place. You see, we don't separate people here. All people spend eternity together, in the same place. For all who come here with love in their hearts, it is heaven. However, for the ones who enter this place without love, for someone like you, well, you are correct. It must be hell.”

Let's be clear. That preacher is NOT a follower of Jesus.

As we approach May 8, the public discourse around Amendment One has gotten ugly. Last Sunday was the day the pastors who favor the Amendment chose to preach about it. You may have heard about one sermon in Fayetteville in which the pastor not only voiced his support of Amendment One, but he also encouraged his listeners to physically abuse their children if they ever display any behavior that they think might be typical gay behavior -- a boy with effeminate mannerisms, a girl who is a little too butch. He said, “Dads, the second you see your son dropping a limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. Ok?”

That is so wrong on so many levels, not the least of which is that it is someone who claims to be a follower of Jesus who said it. So let’s be clear. This preacher is NOT a follower of Jesus.

There is a recent study that suggests there actually may be a correlation between being “highly religious” and a lack of empathy. Here’s what one of the co-authors of the study says: “Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not. The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns.”

In other words, the more religious you are, the less likely it may be that you can really love other people. Ironic, isn’t it? Isn’t loving one another the big thing Jesus asks us to do? And yet, are good religious people just doing it because it’s what they’re supposed to do? When they hear the words, “we love because God first loved us”, is it just a quid pro quo arrangement? God did this for me, so now I have to do this for God? It may seem to them that what they're doing is loving. But that’s not how it works.

In next Sunday’s gospel lesson we will read that Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. When we abide in our vine Jesus, we bear fruit. The fruit is love. We don't have to make it so, it just is. Because that's how Jesus is. How can it be anything else? That’s how it works.

What does that love look like? Is it just doing loving stuff for other people? Is it basically something that’s done for show, because we’re supposed to do it? Or does it come from a place within us? Is it because we’re abiding in Jesus and that’s what happens when people abide in Jesus?

Yesterday, my friend Michelle shared the pain she experiences every time she sees a Vote for Marriage sign in someone’s yard. I think many of us feel the same way. But what was noteworthy was the reason these signs hurt her so much. She’s a straight person, so it wasn’t personal. And it also was more than just the fact that she opposes Amendment One. She said that every time she saw one of those signs she wanted to cover it because she thought, “someone who is gay saw that sign today, and it did something to them inside.” That’s empathy, folks. It’s a place of love, and it’s where abiding in Jesus takes you. If you’re not there, you’re not abiding in Jesus.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Those damn signs

For a while it seemed like the pro Amendment One people weren’t going to say a word. We should have known better. With a week to go before the election, their T.V. commercials abound, and their vote-for-marriage signs are popping up all over the city. My part of town is still flooded with vote-against signs, which is one of the reasons why I love this part of Charlotte. But I know I’m living in a bubble as soon as I venture off the beaten path.

Those vote-for signs bug me. Every time I see one, I feel a little stab around my heart. But I know there are people who disagree with me and they have as much right to put a sign in their yard as I do. It’s not personal.

I’ve noticed that these signs are having a profound effect on some of the people I care about, though. It’s more than a stab around the heart for them. It’s a cannon ball through the chest. It’s more than people disagreeing with them. It’s personal.

Imagine that you’re a man or woman who is in a committed, loving relationship with someone of your same gender. You have been together for decades. You have a lovely home. You have raised children together. You would be legally married if the State allowed for it; you even may have had a marriage ceremony in the church. And then imagine being forced to look at in-your-face messages everywhere you turn that tell you your love, and your life, is all wrong. Imagine that, and try not to take it personally.

My soul is deeply grieved over this. Whether Amendment One passes or not, it is already hurting people.