Friday, October 5, 2012

An Open Letter to the Boy Scouts of America

In light of the highly publicized anti-gay stance, including the most recent case of hate published here:,  of the Boy Scouts of America, and after weighing heavily whether I would return my Eagle Award, I sent this letter to the Boy Scouts of America

In 2001 the highest recognition that can be bestowed upon a Boy Scout was bestowed upon me. After 12 years of hard work and dedication to the program, successfully completing the adequate number of merit badges, and successfully leading a service project that benefitted my community, I was granted the Eagle Scout award. To this day, I remember, vividly, the award ceremony, held the afternoon after a terrible snow storm. Letters from dignitaries were read, family traveled a great distance, and there was a lot of celebrating. I was the first Scout, in my troop, to obtain the Eagle award in several years. 

I didn’t realize at the time that the Boy Scouts of America banned certain young men from participating in their program and obtaining the prestigious Eagle Scout Award, if they met all the requirements. I remember being furious that I had been a part of an organization that held archaic views on human sexuality and that an organization that I dedicated my childhood to would have denied friends of mine the ability to attain what I had attained. 

Thinking back, my father, with the help of other parents, started the Cub Scout Pack and the Boy Scout Troop I was a apart of. He relied on a mixed bag of volunteers from all walks of life: single mothers, chain smokers, women, men, day laborers. To my knowledge, he never asked any of them their sexual orientation. 

Increasingly the media is covering stories where Scout Masters are denying the Eagle Award to youth who have met the requirements, but identify as Gay Young Men. What’s more, some of my fellow Eagle Scouts have returned their awards in protest of the anti-gay stance the Boy Scouts of America continues to hold despite protests and clear evidence that morality is not determined by a person’s sexual orientation but by their stewardship of that sexuality. 

Today, as the Pastor, of a United Methodist Church that charters a Boy Scout Troop I have the opportunity to bring greetings from our church and give the Eagle Charge to young men who have obtained the high honor of “Eagle Scout” and every time, in that ceremony, that the Boy Scout Law is recited I am transported back to a time when I was learning the 12 points for the first time. To this day, I strive to live out the twelve points in a way that brings honor to my distinguished award and to God. 

Mr. Williams, when other men began sending their Eagle Scout Awards back to you, in protest of the Boy Scouts of America’s homophobic stance I thought and prayed long and hard about whether I was going to do the same thing. The award was in a box, addressed to you, with a letter, but a day before heading to the post office and proudly dropping it in the mail, I had a change of heart, not because I share the Boy Scouts of America’s hateful opinion of men who are gay, but because I believe in change. 

You see Mr. Williams, it occurred to me that my Eagle Award gives me the same opportunity to change a culture that my serving in a denomination that holds a more tolerant, but no less hateful, stance on people who are Gay and Lesbian. If I keep my award, I can work for change from the inside. I can offer an alternative view of what it means to be an Eagle Scout and live the 12 points of the Scout Law authentically. When I give the Eagle Charge, I can remind the Eagle Scout that he first made a promise, “To keep [his self] physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight,” and part of being mentally awake is being willing to think critically about the world around him. I get to encourage him to challenge hateful rules and regulations, like that of the Boy Scouts of America’s anti-gay stance and that he has a moral imperative to do so, anything less is not living up to his promise to be moral. 

So, Mr. Williams, I can promise you that I will continue to live the Scout Promise and the  12 points of the Scout Law and that I will continue to be proud to be an Eagle Scout, but the promise I made dictates that I continue to work for the full inclusion of men who are gay among the ranks of Eagle Scouts. 

Grace and Peace,

Jordan Shaw, Eagle Scout ’01

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

American Exceptionalism, U.S. History, and Jesus

One of my favorite musicians is Bob Dylan. In 1999, Rolling Stones Magazine rated his 1962 hit, “Blowin’ in the Wind” as one of the world’s top 500 songs. The third verse of that song reads: 
“Yes, how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky? 
Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry? 
Yes, how many deaths will take till he knows
That too many people have died? 
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” 

On my way to a pastoral visit this afternoon I popped in a CD, into the CD player in my car and this song was the first to come on. I’ve always found this song very compelling. Dylan never gives a definitive answer to the questions, like many songs of the same genre. Rather, the questions are rhetorical and instead he merely sings, “The answer is blowin’ in the wind,” saying--the answer to the questions are as intangible as the wind. 

As I write this, it is the eve of September 11. Eleven years ago, I was sitting in my bedroom studying for an Algebra exam and finishing up other homework for the next day. When the first tower was hit, I was sitting in the third row of Mr. Ford’s History class. I remember well the immediate fear of what was going to happen next. I remember the terror I felt, knowing that my father worked for a company that designed war ships for the Navy. I remember the fear of everybody around me as they the schools shut down and they sent us home. Despite the fear mongering that went on, the lock-downs, bomb dogs, random searches I also remembered Jesus‘ words from the Gospel of Matthew, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” (Matthew 5:9) as we gathered at churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, and community events. It seems like everywhere I turned, Jesus’ words were plastered everywhere. Archbishop Elias Chacour points out that the way that English speakers translate these words is to passive--instead of ‘blessed,‘ implying God is blessing people who are peacemakers, the Aramaic (the language which Jesus would have spoken) should be translated to “get up and move, do something.” “Get up and do something you peacemakers, for you will be called children of God.” 

On the eleventh anniversary of when a plane was crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, the Pentagon, and the World Trade Center, in New York, we have two choices: dwell on the terror and fear mongering from that day in 2001 or hang onto Jesus‘ words and work for the peace that passes all understanding. We can allow the fear and suspicion that leads to hatred to rule our lives or we can seek deeper understandings and come together as a global community, allowing God to release us from the bonds of American Exceptionalism, acknowledging the humanity of people who are different than we are, and working for world peace. 

The path to peace is not easy, it’s hard work that requires patient listening and the strength to not be hardened by the disappointments of failed attempts. It requires that we, above all else, desire nothing but God and to do God’s work. The pain that we felt on that day, eleven years ago, is still very real but Jesus is calling us to work through the pain and seek common understandings. 

Jesus is calling us, shall we walk together? 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

David, Akin, and High School A&P

This summer I have been burried in preparing for interviews with the District Committee on Ministry and the Board of Ordained Ministry, among other things, and have remained slightly distant from my blog. That said, as I come up from air I can’t help but respond to the GOP’s war on women and Rep. Akin’s assertions about rape. 

First off, I use the term “war on women” very intentionally. The Good Old Party is really testing the first part of their name and have asserted that women’s bodies are not their own, they have made claims that they should legislate what happens to a woman’s body and they have challenged the decades old laws that protect women and protect people of color. They may not have said things, blatantly to be racist or sexist but their motives are both and their crusade, in my opinion, should be the war that we should be focused on. 

I spent several years, during seminary, working for a Sexual Assault project in Maine. During my time there I learned a lot--I learned how to listen, I learned how to ask questions and read into situations, I learned how to challenge a system that is set up to re-victimize people at every turn, most of all I learned about rape. I didn’t learn about rape from doctors, attorneys, or nurses; I learned about rape from victim/survivors who were courageous enough to tell their stories and retell their stories.  Whether it was a case of forcible rape, a violent, heinous crime where victims are often lucky to be alive, or whether it was a case of knowing the perpetrator and he taking advantage of the victim, the trauma is the same. There is still a remarkable level of hurt, and emotional scars to carry for the rest of your life and those wounds are reopened every time they tell their story or are reminded of the heinous events that cut their wounds deep. 

One of the most famous cases of rape, is the rape of Bathsheba, in 2 Samuel. David, God’s chosen leader of God’s people abuses his power and rapes Bathsheba. He then adds to the trauma of the family system by ordering Bathsheba’s husband’s death, but does so covertly by sending him the the front lines and letting someone else do his dirty work. His perpetration of a crime as heinous as rape leads to further trauma later on, when his son rapes his daughter--but he wont do anything about it. God calls, over and over again, in this story and in others, for the wrong doer to repent, to recognize what they have done and to turn toward re-imaging themselves in the face of the Holy One. In his raping of Bathsheba and in his actions of having Amnon killed for avenging his sister’s name, when Tamar is raped, he answers God’s call to recognize his wrong doing and turn back to God. 

David was a great poet, and wonderful psalmist and a compassionate human being. Despite the heinous crimes that he committed we have much to learn from him. I am struggling to say the same thing about Representative Akin. When Akin opened his mouth, he did not mis-speak, he did not trip up because he was speaking off the cuff, he did not call Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts or call Burger King, McDonald’s he spoke from his heart and what he said was both disgusting and unforgivable. Mr. Akin injected hate in reprehensible comments about a traumatic crime that is perpetrated everyday all over the world and goes drastically unreported because of fear and misunderstanding. In the few seconds that it took him to say what he said, he revictimized thousands of victims who live with the reality of the crime that was perpetrated against them. The story they had to tell to the medical professionals, District Attorneys, Sexual Assault Advocates, Clergy, in Court, and their families over and over again was brought to life once more by the words of a man who is sadly misguided. 

Later on, when Akin tried to backtrack and apologize for his comment, he minimized what he said by claiming he was “speaking off the cuff” and essentially that he didn’t mean what he said. I’m human, I make mistakes when speaking in public, I trip up, I forget where I am. I have even gone into a men’s room with a live lapel microphone attached to my jacket and said things that should not have been said. I get tripping up, but the sad part is that Akin did not trip up--he said what he was thinking and those thoughts suggest that he is a sexist, misogynistic person who does not understand basic anatomy and physiology, and does not belong in national leadership. I am very clear that I believe that women should have the full range of reproductive choices at their finger-tips. I also believe that men should have the same, and that both men and women should access those services when it is appropriate. I am pro-abortion, and believe that women, and men, have to make decisions that are best for them. That said, I make the assertions that Akin is inappropriate, needs to rethink his position, and needs to re-enroll in a middle-school sexual education class not because I am a Democrat, pro-abortion, and would never vote for the man, but because I have had a glimpse into the world of the people he revictimized and his assumptions are just not true, scientifically or otherwise. 

I am outraged by Representative Akin’s comments, not because I am a victim of sexual assault but because I love people who are and I know they were retraumatized by the hateful words he spewed all over the news. I am outraged by the national news corporations turning his pathetic assumptions into “news,” and reducing themselves to little more than a tabloid, and finally, I am outraged by the local news-service who did not stop and correct him or ask him to leave the set. 

David apologized and truly repented for what he did to his family and his people. He showed great remorse. With Akin’s decision, that was announced today, to stay in the race for the United States Senate, he has no remorse for what he said and did to victims of sexual violence. Not because he hasn’t changed his position on abortion but because he’s willing to put his wants over and above the needs of the people he is asking to represent in Congress. David, imperfect and at times misguided, at the end of the day, admitted his humanness and worked to regain the respect of his people. Akin just continues to dig himself into a deeper hole.

Monday, June 11, 2012

...Prayers, Presence, Gifts, and Service...

One of the best parts of my job as a clergy-person, I think, is working one on one with families, specifically when preparing them for a child’s baptism. There’s something special about the energy and excitement that parents have when thinking and talking about their child’s adoption into the Body of Christ. 
One of the challenges for parents who, maybe have wandered from the church and are now wandering back for the sake of their children, is that they constantly try to reason out what baptism is. In an ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ world, baptism calls into question our own humanity and our children’s humanity. When we talk about turning from a world of sin, to a world that focuses on Christ and Christ’s teaching, there’s something missing because, Christianity has become so beholden to “I’m okay, you’re okay” thinking. 
The truth is, we are okay--we are born alright. We can’t do anything to make God love us more. The problem comes, though, when we discount the importance of acknowledging the sinfulness of humanity. I consider myself a pretty good person, I work hard, I live as simply as I can, I do what I can to spread the Good News through acts of justice and love. That said, I am no perfect. I know, I know, it’s hard to believe isn’t it? Mom, I know you’re in shock and disbelief that I, your baby boy, am not perfect. I  swear like a sailor, sometimes; I speed, most of the time; I’m impatient, sometimes; I’m sitting in Starbucks writing this right now, so let’s also talk about the fact that I ordered a hot drink in a paper cup and the fact that they fund illegal settlemets in the West Bank. 
Perhaps the watered down, ‘it’s the way we’ve always done it’ practice of baptism and the church’s response to it in reclaiming the importance of the rushing waters of our baptism, is a result of our cultures emphasis on success over and against failure. Success, making as much money as you can, working as hard as you absolutely can, being the best, requires us to hide our blemishes and shortcomings. Society requires us to fit a certain mold, in order to be called ‘successful.’ 
For me, it has been important to keep two things in mind: 
  1. Success, from generation to generation has been defined differently. 
  2. It never has been nor will it ever be all about me...and I just need to deal with it. 
Success for my grandparent’s generation, the beginning of the baby boomers, was defined by a job that paid a living wage; a modest, middle-class house; and having a family. Success from that time to now has changed drastically. If you take a look at the media messages of success, it is outrageous what defines it today. Success can be considered to be defined by driving the best car, getting paid as much as you can for something. Wearing the best clothes. There’s a 10 year old girl in the congregation I serve who has decided that success is defined by her sense of style. What she is doing is connecting what she wears directly to how successful she is or is not that particular day. Success is also being right all of the time. 
It is both troubling and wonderful to watch people come to the realization that it isn’t about them. I work a lot with youth and with, what some are calling ‘emerging adults’- those 18-24 years old. Everything is about them. Their entire world revolves around what kind of grades they get, how something benefits or does not benefit them. To a point...In my experience many are self-absorbed, but the culture that they perpetuate and that others have boldly proclaimed is the dominant American culture, is one that gives back. The youth group of the church that I serve will turn out big numbers for a mission trip but for a trip to a fun destination they will often find something better to do. Why? Not because those activities that our youth minister has planned to be fun aren’t, but because they see themselves, I believe, as servant leaders. 
Our baptism connects us to a world that is completely different than the one we live in presently. It opens to the doors and windows of our whole selves and encourages us to change in new and dynamic ways as we refocus the lenses which we live in the world with and emerge born anew into the Body of Christ. That said, our baptism is not the end--it doesn’t mean that we are in ‘the club’ but that we are now commissioned to proclaim the Gospel with our whole lives. 
By virtue of our baptism, we have a responsibility to live out the teachings of Jesus Christ in a way that connects what goes on in a sanctuary every Sunday, or at another time, with what is going on in the Soup Kitchen, Starbucks, YMCA, or Tennis Club. We have a responsibility to open ourselves to be shaped and changed by the Gospel in a way that we choose the tough, Kingdom way, instead of the comfortable way. 
Are we willing to accept our baptismal vows? Are we ready to allow God to use us to change the world? Only time will tell...

Thursday, May 3, 2012

I Love Women, Bacon, and You!

If you know a United Methodist or are a United Methodist, you know that the United Methodist Super Bowl is happening right now. As I write the delegates that all of our Annual Conferences elected last year are nearing the end of their time in beautiful Tampa, Florida. New England delegation, I have some good news and some bad news for you. The good news is you can come home soon. The bad news is it’s been cold and rainy. Bring some Tampa sun-shine back with you. As I write, General Conference is on their lunch break. I am not there and haven’t been privy to the feel of the room, the side comments, and the snarkiness of delegates aside from what has been offered on the live stream. I have promised my colleagues that I have spent time with over the past week and a half that in four years I will stop giving play-by-plays as recorded on the General Conference Live Stream and Twitter and just attend in person and talk to those people instead of them. Friends, I’m counting on you to remind me that I’ve said this. There’s a great African-American spiritual:

 There is a balm in Gilead, To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead, To heal the sin-sick soul.

 Some times I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my hope again.

 There is a balm in Gilead, To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead, To heal the sin-sick soul.

 If you cannot sing like angels,
If you can’t preach like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus,
And say He died for all.

 There is a balm in Gilead, To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead, To heal the sin-sick soul.

 Don't ever feel discouraged,
'Cause Jesus is your friend,
And if you lack for knowledge,
He'll never fail to lend.

There is a balm in Gilead, To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead, To heal the sin-sick soul.

 Since 1972 the United Methodist Church has held the stance that Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teachings...or that’s the official stance, anyway. I, as a United Methodist Clergy-person, do not affirm this statement. I don’t affirm that my brothers who are gay or my sisters who are lesbians go against God’s Word. In fact, the hateful prejudices that have infected the church since 1972 and before and have led us to a place where we cannot even agree to disagree are because we have built a fence around God’s Holy Truths--that all people, all of creation, is loved by God so fiercely that you can’t go anywhere to escape it. As you were called in one translation of one of the proposed amendments, I don’t believe you are ‘animals,’ unless that means that we as human beings are all animals and part of the animal kingdom, though something tells me the translator did not mean it that way. I do not believe you are to be stoned to death, even though that’s what the Bible says. I believe you are to be loved, honored, respected, and lifted up as part of God’s beautiful creation. You are beautiful people of God.

 I find it curious, peculier, and disheartening that we, as members of the body of Christ, have become focused on what someone does in their bedroom, in the kitchen, or in the back seat of the car in an abandoned parking lot with another person, but we aren’t worried about the other parts of the Old Testament that we seem so careless to toss around. By the looks of what little of the debate I saw this morning many people, wearing cheap suits, violated the no blended fabric rule. Women were allowed to speak in public (we actually ordain them! Can you believe that!?) And I would guess that at least one person consumed a pork product as part of their breakfast. Why not chastise them? Why not question their validity before God? Why not build walls to keep them out, instead of building bridges of understanding. It’s because in 1956 we saw that the ban on women speaking in public was no longer applied to our culture and voted to ordain women, even though women, by Old Testament law, are not permitted to speak in public. And, because silk or wool suits are expensive and bacon is so delicious. 

This morning’s proceedings and the statements which have followed prove that we have a lot of work to do. It proves that the United Methodist Church has a sin-sick soul. Brothers and sisters who have been at this justice-centered work longer than I have and whose lives are continuously called into question, as the great spiritual says: “Some times [you may] feel discouraged, And think [your] work’s in vain, But then the Holy Spirit [Will revive your] hope again.” The work of a fully inclusive church is far from over. I ceaselessly pray for the day when I can celebrate with others about the fact that the United Methodist Church is a fully inclusive church, regardless of one’s sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or age. Today, the work is far from over, some people feel discouraged, some people, thinking the work is in vain, have fled from the church, choosing ordination in other denominations or leaving the body of Christ all together. Some, in an act of desperation have taken their own lives because they believed that God could not love them, because of what their church had taught them. Hear this, though wonderfully made people of God: Your sexual orientation is just one part of the good things that God has done in you. You are beautifully and wonderfully made in God’s vastly diverse image. I love you and God loves you, too.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Lessons About God From Chewy-the-Dog

In November of 2010 my life changed forever. Previous to that day in the late November, days before Thanksgiving, I had merely tolerated dogs. They were creatures that I was, at times, forced to share temporary living space with, and no more. While I and my sisters were growing up we always had cats, for a short time there were hampsters and rabbits. My grandparents always had dogs and I remember getting attached to them, but no more than a child or youth could when visiting several times a year. Then, Chewy-the-Dog moved into the parsonage in Boothbay Harbor, Maine and suddenly life changed. Suddenly, there was another creature that woke me up in the morning, with a cold nose to my nose. There was another reason to go for a walk through town. There was something else to clean up after.

It’s true that Chewy-the-Dog reminded this bachelor that there is joy in sharing a living space with another living being. I think the best thing that Chewy-the-Dog has taught me, though, is how much God loves each and everyone of us.

Things my dog has taught me about God’s love:

No matter how much I screw up, Chewy is always glad to see me- I, like every other human being, am imperfect. I once told someone that I shoot to get things right about 10% of the time. There are days that I feel like I can’t do anything at all right. My family is disappointed, I managed to overlook a detail that was important to a parishioner, I got a parking ticket. It doesn’t matter what happens, when I walk through the door, Chewy’s tail starts wagging and he comes galloping through the kitchen ready to greet me, exuberantly. On the really tough days, he’s there to lay his head in my lap or sit really close to me on the couch as if to say, “don’t’ll be okay.” His simple actions serve to remind me that no matter where I go or how tough things seem to get, God is there, holding my hand, reminding me that it’s all okay.

Sometimes all you can do is throw a tennis ball- I, like many of my colleagues, work long hours and it is easy to get sucked into working 7 days a week. When Chewy thinks I’ve been working to much he’ll come running with a tennis ball or one of his chew-toys and will get me up to go to the backyard and throw his ball or play with his chew toy. Although he hasn’t learned the art of ‘fetch,’ his version of the game is more ‘fetch then chase,’ which involves me running around the backyard after him, until I’ve wrestled his ball from him, he understands the importance of taking time to stop and rest. It is easy to get sucked into believing that if you put one more hour of work into the day or work for weeks at a time, things in the world will improve. It is true that we are compelled to do God’s work. We are called to emulate the actions of Christ, but even Christ rested. God, on the 7th day of creation rested. We clergy are quick to point out that other professionals sometimes have a ‘savior complex’ but we are slow to realize that we can fall into that trap, too. Working harder and harder, and for what? Kingdom work requires long hours, and hard work but it is not our job to save the world, that’s God’s. It is our job to emulate Christ, to share God’s love and compassion in a world that is aching to know God and invite people into deeper relationships with the God that will save the world.

Even though the kibble never changes, Chewy is always thankful for a full bowl- Twice a day, I pour a cup of the same kibble into Chewy’s bowl. It never fails, when it is time to eat, Chewy is excited to eat what is put before him. When I see him excitedly turn from watching me make dinner, to his bowl and begin devouring the kibble that is just more of the same, it reminds me to be thankful even for the most mundane dish I am preparing. That I should not only be thankful for the wonderful bouillabaisse but also the hard boiled eggs and carrot sticks.

Car rides are the best- It’s not necessarily that we’re going to exciting places. In fact, Chewy-the-Dog and I have the same reaction about going to the doctor, except his reaction is more or less an outward expression of what I feel inside. He doesn’t freak out, because he really doesn’t freak out, but it’s certainly not his favorite place to visit. The exciting part is the journey. It’s the getting into the car and hanging his head out the window. It’s the new smells as we drive along. It’s simply the being with people that love him. As Christians, one of the major tenants of our faith, is that we are going onto perfection, that we someday will love the way God loves, and in some ways we could say that, in that moment ‘we have arrived.’ I certainly look forward to that day, but Chewy reminds me that it is the journey toward perfection that makes up the experience of the destination. The lessons learned on the road that make the difference in our experience. If we don’t live through every part of the journey, how can we appreciate the sweetness of perfection?

Everyday is a new adventure- I am not a morning person. It takes me a little while to get out of bed in the morning. This morning the alarm started going off one hour before I had to get out of bed. Once I am up, I am good to go, but it’s that time between the alarm going off for the first time and placing my feet on the floor that is probably the worst part of my day. Chewy, though, seems to look forward to what the day holds, even though his day usually starts the same way every day. He goes to the backyard, does his business, and then lays in ‘his spot.’ As we move about our day, there are opportunities to share God’s abundance with others. There are opportunities to share God’s peace with others. There are opportunities to be who God is calling you to be in each moment of each day, and that’s something exciting!

Chewy, in some ways, has taught me how love and be loved in return. No matter what happens day to day. No matter if every ball I have in the air crashes to the ground or if I get it all right, Chewy-the-dog is there to see me as God sees me--a beloved child who is just trying to get a small piece of life right.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Timing is Everything

When I was a child, every Easter Sunday began the same way. The Easter Bunny would, the night before hide chocolate eggs all over our house. In the morning, upon rising, my two younger sisters and I would race to see who could find the most eggs. The catch was, though, that it was never a fair fight. We wouldn’t wake each other up or we wouldn’t wake our parents, upon waking it was all out Easter egg hunt war and the earliest riser would make out like a bandit, the other two would have to fight out who got what of the left over chocolate. I can remember a few times when they would go out for blood, of course, I maintain innocence in all dirty Easter morning dealings.

In John’s retelling of the Easter story, it is like reading a drama in 3 acts. The first act’s synopsis is an exploration of people’s fear, grief, and loneliness. Mary Magdalene, in the first act, has broken through the terror and trauma of watching her beloved friend die a terrible death. As Mary approaches the tomb, she notices that the stone is rolled away and the body of her dearly beloved friend is no longer in the place it was placed two days earlier. Suddenly, like any of us would do, Mary jumps to conclusions. She does so, though, without walking into the tomb first. Without all of the fact she goes ballistic and rushes off to tell Peter what she saw.

Act two pans open to find Peter and the beloved disciple going to investigate exactly what was going on. Fear and bewilderment take over when they arrive. Peter and the beloved disciple enter the tomb and then Mary joins them. Sobbing, she asks, on behalf of her two friends and herself, where the body was taken. Receiving no answer, she asks the person she is now assuming is the gardener, again where they have taken her friend’s body. In an arresting move the gardener looks at Mary and says, ‘whom are you looking for?’ Just like John the Baptizer asks in the first chapter of the Gospel of John.

In John’s account of what some have identified as the greatest story ever told, another important fact stands out, perhaps above the rest. The story begins in darkness, just as John’s creation story begins in darkness in the opening verses of John, “...All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:3)

My father is a great gardener. I inherited his hairline and several of his mannerisms but his green thumb I was not fortunate to inherit. There is nothing he enjoys more, it seems, than coaxing a new, unique seed, to sprout new life, or reviving a plant that looks as though it has soaked up its last bit of water. While to some people the seeds, pits, and plant tops represent good compost fodder, to him, a small grapefruit seed, Avocado pit, or the top of a pineapple, represents new life, the continuing cycle of living. Several years ago, dad took a chance on a tiny grapefruit seed. He salvaged it from the carcass that remained after a devouring of a delicious ruby red grapefruit, properly dried it, and planted it, not knowing if it would ever grow beyond its white exterior. Today, that tiny, lifeless seed is a tree that is marveled about by visitors to my parent’s home. It sits just behind the furniture in their living room and has sparked more than one conversation with visitors.

Poet Linda Gregg wrote:

“There is a hush now while the hills rise up
and God is going to sleep. He trusts the ship
of Heaven to take over the proceed beautifully
as he lies dreaming in the lap of the world.
He knows the owls will guard the sweetness
of the soul in their massive keep of silence,
looking out with eyes open or closed over
the length of Tomales Bay that the herons
conform to, whitely broad in flight, white
and slim in standing. God, who thinks about
poetry all the time, breathes happily as He
repeats to Himself: There are fish in the net,
lots of fish this time in the net of the heart.”

Easter for the Gospel of John, is an invitation to begin again, to be recreated by the Spirit as we move forward. In the previous days we have commemorated the final meal that Christ shared with his Apostles, through foot washing and through breaking bread and drinking wine. We have remembered Christ’s humiliation as he journeyed through Jerusalem’s winding streets, and we remembered Christ’s breathing of his last breath. In essence we were dried, lifeless grapefruit seeds, waiting for someone to see our potential to produce lush, green leaves, and strong, complex root systems with enough care and attention.

Today’s celebration is not merely of Easter Bunnies and chocolate eggs. It’s not about being the first to witness great events, it’s not about who got to the tomb first, or who was most devoted to Christ while he walked among us, although I am sure there were those arguments among Christ’s closest friends. It is about being born anew when the time is right. When our life experiences align with our faith and our view of the world shifts in such a way that we are convinced of God’s never-ending love for each and everyone of us.

The great Shaw House Easter Egg Hunt that took place when my sisters and I were children became such a competition that we would try to one up each other every year. One year it would be seven o’clock in the morning, the next the earliest riser would rise at six o’clock. When we got to four-thirty in the morning, we figured out that the Easter Bunny did not visit our house until sometime after five o’clock. The miracle, was not the fact that I out smarted my sisters twice, they liked to gang up on their older brother, and often used it to their advantage, the miracle was that there was always enough chocolate for all three of us, and I may or may not have stolen a few of their chocolate eggs from time to time, but don’t tell them. The Easter miracle now before us is that just as God coaxes into being the owls who, for Gregg, watch out over Tomales Bay, we are coaxed by the same God to celebrate the newness of life each day. The miracle of being small, dried up grapefruit seeds and when the Great Gardener places us in soil and waters us we sprout greens shoots that lead to strong root systems and lush green leaves. God is beckoning to each of us, dear friends, inviting us to join Him in life ever-lasting. Inviting us to open ourselves to new possibilities. We must mourn and wail as we have for the last few days; but this day, this great, this miraculous day has brought with it great celebrations. God has conquered death and given us life eternal, will you accept His invitation?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Setting Our Sights on Easter II

In Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” there’s a scene in which Jesus and his buddy Judas happen upon a crowd that has gathered around a woman and they were preparing to stone her to death. The woman, Mary Magdalene, is portrayed as a prostitute. That said, it’s not her profession that she’s been sentenced to die for, it’s for practicing her profession with Roman soldiers AND on the sabbath, if the previous was not bad enough.

In an arresting move, Jesus takes the stones and hands them to Zebedee and says, “go ahead...kill her...” and in the next breath, “but you best be sure that you, yourself are innocent of all sin...” Zebedee drops the stones and, with the others, leaves the scene, leaving Jesus, Judas, and one very terrified Mary behind.

On February 28th, a teen-age boy, visiting his father, walked through the gated community in which his father resides in and was gunned down for carrying skittles and a bottle of iced tea, only guilty of carrying sugary foods which will lead to cavities and bad health.

On March 25, Cindy, a Korean born American, was headed to a wedding. During a routine traffic stop she was detained in Eloy, Arizona, for not carrying the proper papers with her.

After being found guilty of treason, an Arab man, was forced to walk a humiliating walk through the city streets of East Jerusalem, while carrying the mechanism that would lead to his death. His hands staked, first the right and then the left, his feet bound and staked. Through this all, his mother, the woman who gave him life, looking on.

The name which we have given today is quite paradoxical. Good Friday. The name conjures up thoughts of parties, celebrations, festivals. Celebrating goodness. Yet, we remember the heinous murder of our saviour, Jesus Christ. We remember the sentencing, the shameful journey from the court through the winding streets lined with loud vendors to Golgatha. We remember the nailing, one hand and then the other, to each side of the cross, and we remember his prayers for us, “forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” “Into thy hands I commend my Spirit.”

Good Friday is the paradox of our Christian faith. We, on the one hand, join the centuries of mourners that have gone before us, join us now, and will join us in generations to come in remembering the brutal murder of our savior. We remember vividly the stories and live into the reality that God’s only son, our savior, was tried, sentenced to death, humiliated as he walked through the streets of Jerusalem, and died a death that no one should ever have to die on top of a hill, called ‘Skull Hill.” On the other hand we remember the outcome. We know that what humanity intended for evil, God used for good. We are reminded that, despite our sinful nature, in God’s actions in the resurrection, we are redeemed and forgiven.

The Rev. Annette Joseph, an Episcopal Priest and an advocate for the end of violence against women writes:

“the depth of sorrow i feel is the same as the height of joy i feel
in the love i have for this we of community
i face the night sky
praying wind to blow strength
blow love
blow support
your way
my hands reach up
wanting to encircle
broken community
fractured peace
violated lives
and all i bring back is empty air
empty space
empty arms
so i pray again
flinging it away sending words on wind
blowing across and east to you
wishing my arms could hold you all
in a broken heart
the big of joy is now the big of sorrow”

We carry our own crosses, each of us. The crosses of racism, sexism, and nationalism. In this time of great divide we carry the crosses that have been put upon us, given to us to carry. For myself, as a white, middle class, man the crosses that have been thrust upon me are those of racism and sexism. It is easy for me to pass judgement, just as Zebedee did, or live into white privilege, and ignore the responsibility I have to stand in solidarity with my brothers and sisters with differing skin colors than mine, ignoring my responsibility to do the hard Kingdom work that we are all called to do, yet that would not be putting on my cross. That would be casting it aside, giving it to someone else to carry. When I don’t accept that I live in a place of privilege and live into the mainstream sexism that has become acceptable in our culture, I give the cross that is mine to the woman standing beside me. When I don’t work for racial justice, I pass off my cross onto the Latino man, Black woman, or Korean man standing beside me. When I don’t accept the fact that it is men who commit 90% of the domestic violence related crimes, I cast my cross off onto victims of violence. These actions of passing off the cross lead to blaming, blaming the person who is poor, for being poor. Blaming the woman with a black eye, for causing her husband to attack her, and blaming the woman who is continually harassed, for being a woman. As Joseph put it, it leads to, “fractured peace/violated lives.” Yet, just as God used what an oppressive regime intended for evil those many, many years ago, in a salvific act that would change the way that humanity relates to God, so God uses instances of control and hatred for good. Cindy, the Korean born American woman, was released, after advocates were able to help her get her proper paperwork in order. Zebedee walked away with the rest of the gathered mob, there is hope that justice will prevail for Trayvon Martin, and for the countless women who have suffered at the hands of abusers, there is liberation.

We mourn for our savior has breathed his last breath, but hope comes with the dawn, hope comes in the miracle of what God is about to do in Christ. The fulfilling of the prophecy, the leaning into the anxiety of the unknown, leads to the miracle of the empty tomb.

When we take up our crosses and acknowledge the sins of our upbringing and socialization, the crosses of racism, sexism, and violence, we align ourselves with Christ, and heed his calling to follow Him, even to death, for in doing so, we live into eternal life.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Setting Our Sights on Easter

Sunday we began living the ending and beginning of the greatest story ever told. The end, because we know that on Friday, Jesus will be nailed to a cross and left there to die at the hands of oppressive colonizers. The beginning, because what was meant for evil, God used for good. God breathed life back into our Savior’s body and in doing so conquered sin and death.
On Sunday we commemorated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. We remembered people lining the streets and laying their palm branches on the ground so that the King of Kings’ donkey would not have to walk on the dusty, dirty road. Thursday night we will remember Jesus gathering with his disciples in a room to share a meal together and so that He could begin to teach them the most difficult lesson that they had to learn. On Friday we will remember Jesus’ trial, humiliation, crucifixion, at the hands of the world. Sunday, we will celebrate an empty tomb.
The story does not change year to year. We sing the same “Hosanna!” We wash feet in the same servant-like way, remembering what Christ did with his disciples, and then we remember Jesus’ passion. Despite never changing, the story remains as powerful as the first time we heard it.
For me, every time I sit down to pull out the message which God is giving us in the narrative we are living, the message gets deeper and deeper. The foundational message is that God conquered sin and death in the resurrection of Christ. The manner and method get richer and richer year after year, though. In John’s Gospel, as in the others, women are the first to visit the tomb on Sunday morning. Women, who held a second class status in occupied Ancient Israel. They were not invited to speak in public, purity laws prohibited them from entering the temple or speaking the religious officials. Despite their second class status, God used them as the first witnesses to the greatest story ever told.
In recent weeks the story of Trayvon Martin, an African-American teen who was shot by a neighborhood watch-person, has pervaded our news. The case has brought front and center the fact that we are still dealing with race issues long after race and ethnicity have been covered under the civil rights act. For some it is shocking to think that a young man could be killed for being racially profiled. For activists, it is another case to use to fuel their justice-centered work. For Christians, it is a reminder that no matter how much trust and esteem we put into the structures and systems we have created, only Christ should have our ultimate allegiance.
If God the Parent were to raise Christ today, the first witnesses would be the Trayvon’s, the silent victims of violence, and the people living in the deepest poverty in the world. It is true that Christ was raised for each and everyone of us, but it is also true that on Sunday morning it took those controlling the power a little longer to figure out what exactly was going on.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Finding God in all the Right Places...

Especially after last week’s snow storm over the course of Wednesday and Thursday it is hard believe but this time of year my thoughts begin to turn toward summer, in particular summer camp.

It is no secret that Camping Ministries, especially the camping ministries of the New England Annual Conference, hold a special place in my heart. Summer youth camping, I believe, is one of the best things that any youth can take part in. The skills gleaned from living with 8 to 10 other youth, the self-esteem developed from swimming, boating, and participating in other camp activities, and the lasting relationships with counselors, area directors, administrators, and other campers are deep and lasting.

What church camp gives a youth, and a volunteer for that matter, though is an enveloping in and a bodily experience of what it means to be a part of the body of Christ, unlike any other experience. I would make the bold statement that I am who I am today because of my participation in camping, first as a camper, then volunteer youth leader, and then as a staff person.

I grew up in a United Methodist Church that became an extended family. The members of the congregation that were my grandparents age became like surrogate grandparents because I grew up away from where my grandparents lived. I remember being very young and one or two of them showing up at special events that I had at school or coming to visit us at home. We also had a pretty good network of youth and had an, albeit small, active youth group.

Despite having a great church family while growing up, when I went to Camp Mechuwana I was forced to leave my comfort zone and let go of some of the worldly things that I had become accustomed to holding on to, things that, in our Holy Scriptures we are told not to put all of our trust in. I was given the great gift of being pushed, first to make it through my first week in fourth grade (I was quite homesick!) As I grew accustomed to being away from home for a week I was forced to partake in activities that I would have never been able to participate in otherwise. There’s something special about going through a ropes course, playing water games, or even playing Cheetoh Head with a group of other people your age that you only met days earlier.

During my teen years I fought going to worship and it eventually became a point of contention between my parents and me (those of you currently going through this, either teens or parents, don’t worry, it’s normal and eventually eases up.) What church camp gave me was a space, with friends and mentors, to wrestle with my faith and to show me what it meant to be a part of a Christian community at one of the most formative times in my life.

The peripheral benefit to Christian Camping, for me, was the development of the ability to live in community with my peers and a boosted self-esteem. In a time when most youth struggle with self-esteem issues, I was given a great gift in my connection with a camping program that afforded me the courage to be who I was in the face of competing messages from the church and mainstream culture. When I was in high school and it was time for me to get a job, it was that same summer camp I attended as a camper, that gave me the opportunity to stretch my wings and learn the value of a dollar.

In a time in my life when I was trying to figure out what I believed, who my friends were, and what my next step was going to be, the deep relationships that I developed at summer camp were where I found God’s guiding hand and compassionate word. It was a volunteer in the camping program I was so closely associated with that first saw God’s calling on my life to enter parish ministry and spent hours upon hours fostering in me a passion to see the Reign of God on earth. It was the camp director, my first boss, who taught me best how to love people where they were in their life and care for them from that point, no matter who they were or where they were in their walk with God. When my grandmother died when I was a junior in high school, it was the camp community and the youth program they operated in the off-season that gave me a community that enveloped me in love and held my hand as I grieved and this year, when my grandfather died it was the same community that ten years earlier held my hand and walked with me, that held my hand again as I grieved the loss of my third grandparent.

This summer I get to pass on this great gift to the future generation as I take my 5 year old niece, Caliyah, to her first half-week of camp. She'll get to sleep in the same cabins that her mother, my sister, and I slept in as children and youth, swim in the same lake, and eat in the same dining commons. What's more, though, is that she'll get to experience the love of God in a community that will encourage, comfort, challenge, and inspirer her as she continues her journey with God.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Not Your Grandpa's Type of Clergyperson

Since beginning the pathway to parish ministry I have listened to countless people go on and on... and... on...and...on about how the church is dying, how we need to make it relevant in the 21st century, how they’ve had one person under the age of 40 show up in worship for the first time in 5 years and how they were ready to make them leader of the free world before the end of the holy hour of worship. If they darken the door of the church again, they’re elevated to sainthood. When I or colleagues who look close to my age walk into a church as the pastor the regular questions immediately begin. Then I get, “are you married?” Their face goes from being as bright as those blue halogen automobile headlights to dirty headlights that could use a good scrubbing when I break the news that no, in fact I am not yet married. The first church I served, when the matriarch figured out that I was single, she kept trying to set me up with various young women in the town I was serving. Suddenly the parish became a real-time, leaving me to spend a year trying to explain to various committees that, even if I wanted to, it would be inappropriate for me to date anyone from the small, rural town I was serving, seeing as the community life centered around that particular church.

The challenges that young clergy face are unique. In tough situations we are often brushed aside and are assumed to not be able to handle what would be thrown at us. In good situations we are passed up in favor of Pastors who have had a longer tenure. The truth is, though we lack experience, we are resilient and we know how to reach out to our support systems, when the support system is in place.

I believe that we, across the spectrum on mainline Christianity, do a good job of griping about the lack of younger clergy, but denominational structures do not do a good job at maintaining frameworks of support which are needed if younger clergy are to survive in this profession over the long haul. The top down modus operandi which we in mainline Christianity cling to, is wildly outdated. The way in which the late Gen X/Gen Y-ers tend to operate suggests that a more bottom up, grassroots way of structuring the relational parts of the church (i.e. the mentoring requirements and the formation of peer accountability groups) would be more successful in encouraging pastoral excellence in young clergy. For example, allowing peer groups to form organically, rather than by forcing upon them a structure that they do not own.

Those of us who are under 40 years of age are a hot commodity--a rare breed, I would even say a minority. People who disagree with the former statement will say, “you will grow out of it...” Yes, our ages do change but we cannot effectively change them ourselves. My computer dictionary defines a minority as “...less than half of a whole.” We certainly are less than half of a whole and then some. We should, therefore, be represented at every level of the church hierarchy. This doesn’t mean that we should be promoted over and above our skill level but it does mean that our voice needs to be authentically listened too at every turn, just like all minorities.

Though we are young, our callings are authentic. At every turn I have had to prove that my calling is real, like others in the process. When I was a student I agreed to take an appointment, if the school was within an hour’s drive of the seminary’s campus and had a parsonage. During my tenure as a student I rented half of my parents’ basement, in an attempt to save money throughout a very, very expensive process. One suggestion that was brought to me was that I take an appointment four hours away from campus, continue to live with my parents during the week and make the trek into the wilderness to this tiny country church once a week. I was chastised for turning it down because I said it wasn’t fair for me to maintain two residences, one nearer to school and one in a far off distant land. In another case I turned down a part-time appointment and was called into the Bishop’s office. My story, though my own, is not unique. Other young clergy in mainline denominations face the same difficulties, if not worse. Each of us has a unique story to tell and each of us have stuck with the sometimes arduous process because we, like Samuel, have heard the voice of God calling us. We, like Samuel have had good mentors that have instructed us to say, “speak, Lord for your servant is listening,” and we like Samuel, after some coaxing, have answered God’s calling on our lives to follow Christ.