Friday, November 11, 2011

Has God Ever Been to State College, PA?

As much as I love sports, I have never been one to think that God cares, let alone pulls for one team over the other.  This position found me in hot water with one church member who used to call me during every UGA game insisting that every good play for the Dawgs was an answer to one of her prayers.  Sorry,  I just think God has more important things which garner God's attention than what happens on the playing field, court, or locker room.  That was until this week.

The first time I heard the name Joe Paterno I was just days from turning 13 years old – roughly the same age of victims 1, 3, 4, and 8 as described in the Grand Jury report.  It was January 1, 1983 and UGA was playing Penn State for the National Championship.  Penn State won that game and I remember clearly watching, which would prove to be Herschel Walker’s last time wearing red, black and silver, sitting on the den floor of my father’s apartment. 

As a kid whose team was just defeated, I swore never to like Paterno and Penn State again.  Of course as I grew older, I could not help but appreciate what he achieved on and off the field:  Coaching at the age of 84, more wins than any other Division I coach, the testimony of his former players and colleagues who always spoke of Joe Pa doing things “the right way” and with integrity.  This of course was in relation to his recruiting and coaching practices.  In a system known for its abuses, shady deals, and “plantation mentality,” the football program of Penn State was always proven to be above reproach, respected and trusted across the country.  That was until this week.

I am not na├»ve.  I am fully aware that in order for Paterno to survive this long as head coach, he obviously wielded great power.  He outlived university trustees and presidents.  In fact, he helped choose some and is very close friends with some of the very people who fired him earlier this week.  The events of this past week have pulled back the thin veil to the ways in which power and trust are abused.

I have taken the revelations of this week very personally.  I am a rabid fan of college football. It is no secret I live for Saturdays from September through January. Most importantly however, I am a parent – a parent of a 10 year old boy – roughly the same age as victims 2, 5, 6, and 7 when they were abused by Mr. Sandusky. I have been awaked more than once this past week by nightmares of that being MY son in the shower being subjected to the types of abuses included in the Grand Jury report. I am a person, much like these coaches and other university employees, whose vocation puts me in a special place of sacred trust – a trust never to be violated – when it comes to the care and protection of children.  There is another reason this week’s events are so personal: a former member of my close family was a pedophile who abused and molested teenage boys.

I speak in the past tense because he is now deceased.  He was a close member of my step-family after my father remarried many years ago.  This family member worked with teens and youth at his local church and was highly trusted and regarded.  Sadly, he was never officially charged or stood trial, thus never held accountable, except of course, by God.  That was in large part due to the politics of the time.  This was the 1980’s and unfortunately, the discussion of this topic was very much taboo.  The accusations were leveled against the Senior Minister of the church and my family member.  The whole situation turned into a “he said –he said" situation which led to the conviction of the Senior Minister but no one else.  Apparently there were issues which fell under the "statute of limitations."

My father and I talked about this situation from time to time, but we did not speak of it beyond ourselves – it would have been “too upsetting.” One of the hardest conversations, but also one of the most real discussions we ever had was the one when I had to tell my father the “admission” this family member made to me.  It was one summer – we were in the mountains at a “redneck resort” we sometimes visited.  For reasons I will never know, the family member chose to share with me how he and a group of people once stripped down a teenage boy naked and using wires attached to a car battery, touched the boy’s genitals until he climaxed.  I could not believe what I was hearing.  This was a man I had trusted and actually deeply cared for.  I had been hunting with him and taken trips with him to Atlanta.  Fortunately for me and those closest to me, I was never one of his victims.  Unfortunately, many other teenage boys were not as lucky as I. 

Last night, I printed off and read the grand jury report in the Sandusky case.  After reading all 23 pages, I disposed of it in the fireplace; I certainly did not want to leave something like that lying around for 10 year old eyes.

Like many friends and colleagues, I have wondered quietly and out loud, "Where is God’s presence in the midst of this horror?"  Only because of my faith can I believe that God has been mysteriously present not just in the last week but for the last decade-plus within the lives of these boys, now young men - for the very nature of God is in fact, "Mystery."  I believe God was present in the locker room shower, on those car rides, in those hotel rooms, and in the basement bedroom of Sandusky’s home.  I can only believe that God heard those muffled cries and sobs – those pleas for someone to help.  I can only believe that God has received their anger and pain with open arms and an open heart.  I can only believe that God’s heart broke, God’s eyes were filled with tears, and God’s very soul was angered every time sacred trust was violated.

Joe Paterno was fired not because of a legal failure but because of a moral one.  All week there have been cries for his ouster because he did not “do enough.”  I agree with that and I agree with the decision to fire him, however I admit I am saddened at the way his career has come to an end.

I must also admit that I cannot pass judgment on Paterno without first looking into the mirror.  How often do situations arise in our world which are highly publicized and bring a spotlight on great tragedies and injustice – poverty, famine, war, genocide, abuse – and then within weeks or months the spotlight has moved on?  I pray that in the midst of this evil and darkness, Goodness and Light shall shine.  I do not know when or how that will happen, however, if this is my prayer I must constantly, from this day forward, ask myself if I am doing all I can to ensure all of God’s children are safe.  I must be willing to go far beyond asking that question – I must be certain I am working to ensure the safety of all children – and not just those in my household, but all of those within the household of God.

Monday, September 5, 2011

On children being the most visible sign of grace … (part 1 of 2)

There is something about this place – this cabin – this location with its views and serenity that calls me to prayer. Every morning since we have been here, I make my coffee in the French press, scramble some turkey sausage into my egg white/egg substitute for a 175 calorie, no-cholesterol breakfast and sit out on the back porch staring north towards the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Using a labyrinth, the Lord’s Prayer, and a prayer written by Heri Nouwen (part 2 of 2) as inspiration, I enjoy the silence and the prayers and the coffee. I have to say before any of that could commence on Sunday, the silence was shattered. I sadly confess at this point, the last few days have been rather tense ones. I have not won any parenting of the year awards this weekend. Hell, to even think I would be nominated would be akin to suggesting that “Harold and Kumar” be nominated for Oscars.

I have a 10 year old boy whose body is changing, whose hormones are raging and doing funny things. His mood swings have me “this close” to calling him “Sybil.” I knew this would come one day - that ironic combination of adolescence and karma, but I was hoping for a couple of more years before my oldest transformed into this thing I do not recognized at times. Of course, I also have a 3 year old boy who is – well, he is three. Enough said. It can be a lethal combination for a man such as my self who lives in anxiety, possesses a short fuse, and a family history of heart issues.

The eldest and I came to a head Sunday morning as I preparing myself to pray. Let’s just say the mountains roared and I am sure somewhere, the seas churned and foamed. After the climax between the eldest and me, I returned to my physical praying place, but could not go there spiritually. I sat there with my head in my hands, my body shaking – not with anger, but with guilt. Thankfully it was quiet so I could collect myself. After about 10 minutes, the silence was again shattered.

The sliding glass door to the porch opened and from its cracks came a voice – a sweet, kind, familiar voice. It was the voice of the eldest – the 10 year old. “Daddy,” he said, “I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too, son. I am very sorry.”

“Will you ever be able to forgive me,” he asked?

My heart sank. “Of course I will forgive you. I will always forgive you. Will you forgive me?”

And then he wrapped his strong, skinny, 10 year old arms around my neck and hugged me. Grace.

It was then; I was able to begin my time in prayer.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Priorities, Hospitality and the Kingdom of God

“Priorities, Hospitality, and the Kingdom of God”

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

FCC, Winder

July 4, 2010

He said, “Go.”

Go …

But it is not as if that is all he said. He sent them fully prepared, in groups of two. In this line of work, it’s always good to have some back-up – someone to watch your back … someone to encourage you … a little good cop/bad cop.

“You are like lambs heading into a pack of wolves.” I said he sent them fully prepared – I did not say he sent them with words of encouragement.

He was clear about what not to take with them – no purse, bag, or sandals. Don’t stop and greet anyone along the way.

“Really, Jesus? We can’t even stop and say hi? Who knows, we might win some more followers that way. And what are we going to do about food. A person’s gotta eat.”

This is not going to be easy – Jesus responded - but the good news is, while there are not many of you out harvesting the crops, there is certainly a large crop to be harvested. Pray, there will be more like you who will are willing to work in the fields. Pray.”

“Pray and Go … Go”

“And yes, yes you can eat. By all means, if a person puts something – anything - down in front of you, eat it. It is a sign of hospitality – it is a sign they welcome you and by welcoming you, they are welcoming me – any by welcoming me, they welcome God. That, my disciples, is the meaning of hospitality – welcoming the presence of God in the stranger.”

But what if they put roasted pig in front of us. We’re not suppose to eat pork, remember? The law forbids it.

“I know what the law says. And yes, eat it. Even if they put pig in front of you … just don’t douse it in vinegar. And don’t go around moving from house to house trying to find better cooking. That is rude. Be happy with the hospitality you find.

Not everyone is going to like you and the message you bring. And that is ok. Just never forget that you are a disciple.

“So, Jesus, what do we do if they reject us?”

“That’s simple. IF they reject you, don’t linger – don’t press – you are never going to change a person’s mind, let alone their heart. Simply kick the sand off your sandals and move on … but before you leave, still share our message with them. That is important. Don’t forget that part. Still share the message.”

Our message knows no barriers. Accepted or not – and there are some who will not accept it – our message is for all people: black, white, brown, yellow, Jew, Gentile, South African, Iraqi, American, man, woman, child, elderly, gay, straight, the sick or the well – it does not matter … what matters is our message and the response!

“So Jesus, what IS our message, anyway?”

“Tell them” … and Jesus paused before a big smile came across his face … “Tell them, the Kingdom of God has come near to them.”

When you go into a person’s home, pass the Peace of God, eat whatever they put before you, and be sure to tell them the Kingdom of God has come near.

Silence fell on the disciples. They had heard Jesus talk about this Kingdom before and while sometimes they acted to the contrary, deep down the disciples knew what it meant.

They knew it was wrought with danger. To proclaim any Kingdom other than Caesar’s could mean trouble – it could mean being charged with treason – it could mean death.

To proclaim the Kingdom of God meant to challenge the priorities of the people and how people viewed the world.

To proclaim the Kingdom of God is to proclaim that God, not Caesar is in charge – God - not Congress, not Glenn Beck and Fox News, not Wolf Blitzer and CNN, not TMZ or People Magazine, not the flag or America or the dollar – but to proclaim that God rules the day and even the world.

To proclaim the Kingdom of God is near is to proclaim God’s justice and righteousness is imminent. This is not to proclaim doom, gloom, destruction, damnation, and the end of the world … in fact it is just the opposite.

To proclaim the Kingdom of God is to proclaim God’s love and God’s hope and God’s justice for ALL of creation.

In the Kingdom of God, the blind have sight, the naked are clothed, the hungry are fed, the thirsty are quenched and the imprisoned are set free.

But it is not an easy message to proclaim. A lot of people don’t want to hear that message, believe it or not. Over history, a lot of people have invested a lot of time, energy, and money to make sure the oppressed stay that way –making sure the hungry and poor and sick and uneducated, stay hungry and poor and sick and uneducated because there is a lot of power to be lorded over them.

As of 2007, 1% of our nation’s population controlled 35% of our nation’s wealth. The next 19% of population controlled 50%. That means 20% of our nation’s population controls 85% of the wealth, leaving the remaining 15% in the hands of 80% of our nation’s population.

Even with the economic uncertainty over the last three years, that gap has actually widened.

In God’s kingdom the first will be last and the last will be first. In God’s Kingdom, the “have nots” become the “haves.”

It is not an easy message to proclaim. It is a message hard to welcome, but it is a message in need of hospitality. It challenges our priorities – what do we really value? What really is important? It is a message filled with risk and danger, for the one hearing the message, but also for the one proclaiming the message and it sure would be easy to ignore it.

If it were not for the fact … for the simple fact …

More than once, Jesus said, “Go. Go. Go and proclaim, without prejudice, the Kingdom of God.”

I have to say, I struggle with priorities. This sounds like a problem which should eventually be overcome by age … and dare I say maturity. Yet, it seems that even as I age, it is becoming harder and harder to prioritize my time, my energies, my finances – everything.

When I was younger, I only THOUGHT it was hard to prioritize my time and energy. But now, with work, family, and leisure and faith it is becoming harder and harder.

The number of things competing for my time and attention – the number of voices calling out – sometimes yelling out – are growing and growing.

I have to work because bills need to be paid – food must be put on the table … and on top of it all, I love my work. But when does work start becoming the Kingdom I proclaim, my idol?

I am blessed with a loving and grace filled family. They bring me much joy and I want to spend as much time with them as I can. But when does family time become the Kingdom I proclaim, my idol?

I love time to myself – resting, reflecting – playing golf, watching golf, watching football … but when … and I cannot believe I am about to say this out loud – do those things become the Kingdom I proclaim, my idol?

I love my country. I love where I live and the freedoms and protections offered to me. I don’t complain too much about taxes. I pray for peace and not war. I am thankful for the opportunities my place in the world have afforded me – opportunities I would not have were I born in the Sudan or Haitai … but when does my love of country become the Kingdom I proclaim, my idol?

I love the Church … I love the nurture it provides and the community it has offered. I love the sense of emotional and spiritual safety and the teaching it has provided to me … but when does my love of church become the Kingdom I proclaim, my idol?

I love my work, my family, my leisure, my country, and my church … but I love God more than any of these things. But when do these things become the Kingdoms I proclaim? My idols cast in gold?

The answer is this: when I start substituting or even equating these things as the Kingdom of God … our priorities are then out of whack, and hospitality – a major component of our Christian faith and the foundation upon which the Kingdom of God is built – is forsaken

Go, he said … and go, we shall. We shall go into the world, proclaiming that God’s Kingdom has indeed drawn near …

It is not an easy message to proclaim – it is not an easy message to hear … but it IS the message Jesus, in whom we see the heart and mind of God, calls those who wish to be his disciples, to proclaim.

Whether it is received or not, is up to the hearer. Nonetheless, go. Go.

Go and proclaim the Kingdom of God. And go we shall!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Can You Really Go Home Again?

I have walked down that aisle many times over the course of my life. Most occasions have been rather mundane, more habitual than ritual. However, some of the most important journeys of my life have been taken down that 65-foot long, carpeted aisle. As a child, I would solemnly walk in stride to the organ music – a contemporary of mine either to my right or left. In our hands, a long brass pole with the light of Christ on the end. It is a task to be taken seriously and I wish I could say I always did. Often there would be giggling and laughing. I learned an important lesson in church acoustics walking down that aisle. What I thought were whispers between my fellow acolyte and me were actually public conversations for the entire gathered congregation to overhear.

The first of many significant journeys down that center aisle was in August of 1984. It was the last night of a revival lead by Mercer Shaw. I cannot count the number of times he led these summer revivals in our church. He was the typical summer revival preacher … bad hair … motor home parked in the church parking lot … wife with bigger hair than his … baritone voice. I would like to say the events leading up to my confession of faith were Paul-like – a Damascus Road kind of thing – but that would be a lie. Rather it was more of an “I’ll go if you go” kind of thing between Scot and me when the invitation was extended.

Rather than feeling a nudge from God, I felt a tap on my shoulder. The finger belonged to an 80 plus year old woman. It was bent with age and arthritis - all bone, yet very firm and determined. Ironically, the woman attached to the finger would years later be my neighbor and I would have the opportunity to minister to her surviving sisters.

“Go on,” she said with a smile. “Y’all go on down there.”

And we did just that. Scot, four others, and me walked down that aisle and made our profession of faith. Some six weeks later, I would rise from the baptismal waters and enter fully into a community that had nurtured me until that time and after. It would be years before I truly understood what that walk down the aisle would mean – the consequences of that action. Then again, I wonder some 24 years later, if I still fully understand the ramifications of that day.

The next major walk down that aisle occurred in June of 1994 – my wedding day … well, my FIRST wedding day. Obviously, that journey did not end the way it was envisioned that June afternoon, but it remains to this day a very significant part of who I am – a part of my story and journey of life and faith. I walked down that aisle single and I walked back up a married man. Had I not walked down the aisle that day, my life would be forever different, and I must say, less fulfilled. In spite of this particular trip’s final destination, the journey it started brought me great joy. Had I not taken that journey on that hot summer night some 15 years ago, I would not be the person I am today – I would not be as self-aware – and I most certainly would not have my oldest son.

Just a tad under four years later, I traveled down that aisle one more time – this time, second in a long processional line while a solo trumpet blared the opening verse of “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” After a long and winding road, the calling I had felt some eleven years earlier was being affirmed, as I was ordained into the Christian Ministry. I can remember that day very clearly, as once again, it was the culmination of one journey and the beginning of yet another.

So this past Sunday (the 29th), when I walked down that aisle to once again become a part of that community of faith … having kicked the sand off my shoes down the road, I returned to the place where my journey of faith began. There were many new faces in the crowd that day, but also some very familiar ones; men and women who mentored me, taught me, loved me, and challenged me all along the journey I have traveled.

They say you cannot go home again, and to an extent, I agree. Once you leave a place, especially for an extended period of time, it will change – become transformed – and that is as it should be. However, that grey-carpeted aisle was still there. As were those wooden pews, the high ceiling, and the beautiful stained glass depicting the baptism of Jesus. That aisle has been so significant to my journey it is only appropriate such a depiction look down upon it. And I knew I was home.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Journey Towards Authenticity Continues

For several months, life within the Chandler family has been chaotic and in turmoil. This, I realize, is a part of every family, but to be perfectly honest I think we have had more than our share. Being a clergy couple provides some wonderful opportunities and yet, also great challenges and frustrations. Traditionally, I have been a person who has kept much of his feelings inside which can lead to added frustration, not to mention have emotional, spiritual, and physical consequences.

One of the outlets I have embraced, especially during these last few months, is writing. I journal, I blog, and I write short bursts of expression on Facebook. I realize this makes some people feel uncomfortable or perhaps even threatened as they are not aware fully the context of those “bursts.” It has also lead to new friendships and deepened relationships – expressions of caring and concern, broadening the circle of love, friendship, and support for Courtney and me in a time of great turmoil and distress. For many, the question might have been at some point, “What in the world is going on?” Some have asked that of us, some have asked others, some have not asked. I can assure you, it is a question I have often asked myself, “What in the WORLD is going on?”

Today, I guess, is as good a day as any to articulate my journey and my story as best I can in hopes of trying to makes some sense of it myself but to also ask for your continued prayers and support for Courtney, the boys, and me as our journey continues in ways never expected.

When I began sabbatical in May of this year, it was for me, a journey and quest for authenticity. As I have shared some in a blog, I had felt over time I had allowed my authentic voice to be silenced. If you know me at all, you know I can be blunt and direct, crude and funny; sometimes – ok, often – dancing, if not stomping, on boundaries society has created. What people do not realize or see, I often think, is the other side of me. For as long as I can remember, I have used humor – sometimes rightly labeled as sarcasm and cynicism and sometimes mistakenly labeled as such – to mask and hide what I think is my true self.

A great deal happened on that sabbatical experience – a large majority of it being extremely positive, yet there were several influences from the “outside” which penetrated that holy experience for me. For anyone who has either served a church in vocational ministry or lay people who have tirelessly given of their time and talents, we have become all to aware of the difference between “Church” as an institution and “Church” as a true community of God’s people trying to live with hope while pursuing justice and peace. It is an all too easy trap to worship the institutional Church while ignoring the Church as community. My sabbatical away from the Institution was most helpful and refreshing. It allowed me to refocus my Spirit on Community – yet I knew, lurking in the shadows, was the Institution.

I literally had not returned from sabbatical 24 hours before the Institution, filled with anxiety and other issues, emerged from the shadows and reared its ugly head. The fact is, the Institution had been popping in and out of my world for the last two months of my sabbatical, but I was able, for the most part, to fight it back. That all changed on, ironically, September 11, 2009.

Imagine, if you will, going to your mailbox at home, or as I did that day, sitting in my office and finding a plain white envelope addressed to you, with no return address. You open the envelope just as you have opened literally thousands of other envelopes before it, and you find within a single white piece of paper and on that paper are the following words:




The letter, of course, is unsigned.

Words cannot truly express the hurt, shock, and anger at receiving such a letter. I will say, however this letter has deeply impacted my life and the life of my family, as well as both the Institutional Church and Communal Church I have tried to faithfully serve for the last six years in Athens.

In the time since this letter was received, I have been unable to bring my oldest son with me into this place as I have feared for physical, emotional, and spiritual safety. He is well aware now of this situation and I know he is deeply troubled by it; expressing this in ways only an 8 year old can – with honesty and sincerity. I have been walking around this place filled with an emptiness that is indescribable and an anger and frustration hard to imagine. I feel as though all aspects of my life – physical, emotional, spiritual; vocational and personal – have been violated.

Complicating matters a great deal has been the collision of my vocational world and Courtney’s as she has had to deal with some very difficult issues in her ministry position – issues which led to her termination last week. She and I have tried very hard to keep these worlds and struggles separate for the sake of our own sanity and the peacefulness of our home. The collision which took place was due to the actions of another, and then another, and then another, and so on. Oh well … some things are simply out of our control. I will simply say I love Courtney deeply and am proud of her as a person, a spouse, a partner in life and in ministry. She is a woman of incredible gifts and graces, integrity being one of the greatest. When all else is going to hell in a hand basket, Courtney has always acted with compassion, justice, and integrity!

Everyday for the last 15 years, I have awakened with the knowledge that I am the “some minister” of “some congregation.” On November 16th, that will no longer be the case as tonight (November 3), I am resigning my position as the Senior Minister of First Christian Church in Athens. At this time, I do not have another ministry calling so I do this with a great deal of fear, trembling, but also faith and hope. The time has come for me to begin a new journey, personally and vocationally … spiritually.

One of the great lessons I have learned in recent months is regarding where I place my faith and allegiance in regards to the Church. I have for too long, wrongly placed my hope and faith in the Institution of Church rather than within the Community of Church. Do not misunderstand, the Institutional Church has taught me a great deal – it has assisted me in the forming of relationships I would not otherwise have. Yet, is it is the Communal Church God formed that day of Pentecost – it is the Communal Church that cares for and nurtures God’s people. For too long I have been guilty of idolatry and the time for confession, repentance, reconciliation and healing is about to begin. I love the Church, but I love God even more … and so a new journey for me begins.

There is a lot of grief and sadness associated with this transition in my life and within the life of my family … and yes, there has been a great deal of anger. But I have allowed those things to have way too much power over me. No more. Now I shall be the person I know I truly am – to be the person God has created … blunt and direct, crude and funny; dancing, if not stomping on the boundaries society has created … but I hope to see and hope others will see the other parts of me – caring, sensitive, compassionate, justice-seeking, loving, prophetic … a person of deep faith and hope. Indeed, I love the Church, but I love God a whole lot more.

Who knows where this journey will lead? When it first hit me that I would no longer have a pulpit to stand behind on a weekly basis, it scared me. The irony of it all being when I first accepted the call to vocational ministry 22 years ago, I had said I never wanted to pastor a church – I never wanted to preach on a regular basis.

In May, I set out on an intentional journey of trying to reclaim my own voice, a voice of authenticity. I thought it was something I could do in a three month period. While great strides were made in that time, I realize now that journey continues, but down a different path. The world, God’s Community of Creation, is now my Church and my voice will be my pulpit.

I covet prayers and traveling mercies for this journey. For the ways our paths have crossed to this point, I give God thanks. I pray also, our journeys shall continue to cross in hopes of finding our individual voices of authenticity together.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Worshipping on the Island of Misfit Toys

One of my biggest hopes during this time of sabbatical has been to worship with different congregations, with different people, and in different traditions and ways. To this end, I have been successful. Worship for me takes on a variety of forms, not just the customary Sunday morning, 11 am time of sitting in the pew and going through the liturgical rites. Thus far, my journey has taken me several places.

Of course, I began this journey with 19,000 others worshipping at the feet of “The Boss” in Greensboro; I have communed and worshipped in nature while on a solo camping trip; and I had the pleasure to worship one Sunday morning on the golf course of the Athens Country Club. People find the Sacred and Holy in many forms and ways – that sense of Presence, Calm, and Awe. It can be hard to explain, but an experience to be had.

Of course, I have spent the Sunday morning hour in more traditional worship settings as well. I have sat in a cathedral church listening to the sounds of pipe organ and strings as a soprano voice filled the stained glass sanctuary to its heights. I have sat in the air conditioning of a camp dining hall turned sanctuary as children presided at the Lord’s Table, extending God’s invitation to a great Love Feast consisting of Rice Krispee treats and apple juice in sign language. I have worshipped with my wife and children present – once as my wife preached a beautiful sermon. Today however was something different altogether; today I worshipped on “the Island of Misfit Toys” … and it was GOOD …

You remember the old “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” show from 1964, don’t you? There is not a single American child (other than perhaps an Amish child) born in the last 45 years who has not seen this classic. It is to the Island of Misfit Toys Rudolph and his traveling companion Hermey (the dentist wannabe) find themselves on Christmas Eve. The island is filled with toys no children want, so they are forever banished (or so we think … don’t want to give away too much, less there be some Amish kids reading this) to the dreadful island.

This morning I dropped the wife and kids off at her church and traveled up the road about 10 minutes to the Virginia Highland area of Atlanta to visit a congregation I have been wanting to check out for almost a year - a United Church of Christ/Baptist Alliance congregation. They are small – progressive in theology – open and affirming – and currently being served by an openly gay interim pastor.

Virginia Highland is a very happening place at 9:30 on a Sunday morning, but not in the “getting ready to head to church” kind of way; more like the “bagel, coffee, and New York Times reading” kind of busy.

I entered the gorgeous worship space and was immediately welcomed by the Spirit within. I was an hour and a half early for worship, so I was afforded the pleasure of sitting in silence within a true sanctuary until greeted by the organist and choir director. As more and more people entered, the more welcomed I was made to feel. I was a stranger – someone just off the street – and I was made to feel at home. “How did you hear about us?” was the most often asked question. I explained my connection to the DOC church, my sabbatical period and my desire to worship in different places and ways. How marvelous it was.

Worship began at 11 am sharp. The service was highly liturgical in nature – “just pretend you are Episcopalian for an hour” was the advice the Associate Minister offered when she greeted me. I was one of about 55 people present, including the 3 children I saw – and if I had to guess (without trying to stereotype) I would say 65% of those present were gay.

There were 2 elderly women in the pews in front of me. I am guessing they have been a part of this congregation is its past incarnation, whatever that might have been, and have chosen to remain a part of the church, regardless of its vision and purpose. To my right sat a young woman in her early twenties. If I had to guess, she too was a first time visitor. She looked shy and uncertain, but did choose to engage herself in the liturgy. I did notice she was quick to leave following the service.

Worship was an interesting mix – reflective of the diversity of those gathered and our various places along our faith journey. In the mix of the high church liturgy and the real wine used for communion was the piano prelude calling us to worship – an homage to the late Michael Jackson. Some would find that out or place or irreverent in a place of worship, but somehow it fit beautifully, tastefully, and faithfully.

Here is the thing: on more than one occasion, the minister referenced the diverse church traditions represented by those attending worship this morning. He himself acknowledged growing up as a fundamentalist Christian. This, from what I understand, is not uncommon in congregations in which a larger percentage of its worshipping members are gay, lesbian, or trans-gendered. Children of God, created in God’s own image and likeness, in some cases choose and in other cases are forced to leave the faith tradition of their upbringing because of sexual orientation. Fear, judgment, ridicule, violence, hatred, rejection … in the name of God, ironically, leads to banishment to the Island of Misfit Toys.

A dear friend and muse of mine has been writing a good bit on the topic of “Sanctuary” as it relates to where her own faith journey currently finds itself. For her, and in the traditional sense, a sanctuary is called to be a place not only of worship but also of safety. I would argue (and in fact, have) that in order to be the former, it must FIRST be the latter.

As I experience worship in its entirety this morning, I found myself filled with mixed emotions. I was angry. I was angry for the NEED for a church like the one in Virginia Highland to exist. No person, regardless of color, age, height, weight, disability, or sexual orientation, should ever be made to feel they are not welcomed in a church simply because of who they have been created to be by a loving and merciful creator. In some ways, this church exists today because of the hatred, intolerance, and ignorance of others who dare claim the name of Christ as their Lord and Savior. That pisses me off.

At the same time, I was moved to great joy BECAUSE this congregation exists. Please do not misunderstand – this little church is not “a gay church” nor do I think they desire that as their identity. Rather, they are a Church – a part of Christ’s body – whose make up includes gays and lesbians. How wonderful it is this small church in Virginia Highland DOES exist to give witness to a loving and caring God and to offer a true sanctuary not just for those present today, but for all who have felt rejected and cast aside by church or who want to live a life as modeled by Jesus himself

I am filled with great joy to know places like this exist and with the guidance of the Spirit, this Church will continue to grow in wisdom and in faithfulness. Indeed, I worshipped today on the Island of Misfit Toys … and it was GOOD! So good, I hope to return (just like Rudolph and Hermey did in the 2001 sequel).

I wonder about the young lady sitting in the pew to my right. She seemed so timid. I wonder if she had been abused at some time by the church. She sat there like a pet who had been beaten and was just waiting for the next swat of the newspaper. I wonder if she sat in that pew, based on her previous experience, waiting for the other shoe to drop – expecting the next word to be spoken to be one of hurt rather than one of comfort and affirmation.

As I turned the corner to walk back to my car, she was ahead of me by about 30 yards on the sidewalk. I saw her turn out of site, not sure if she lived in the neighborhood of if she was going back to her car. I hope she found sanctuary this morning. I hope she enjoyed sitting among a group of misfits, including myself.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


“Making room for less …”

That phrase has stayed with me now for the last two and a half weeks. Making room for less.

I write this sitting by a lake in one of our state parks. Temperatures have been much cooler these last few days compared to the other days of May. I have a tent pitched and water is coming to a boil on my camp stove. I am alone. But then again, I am not alone at all. When we live in community, as people of faith often do, we are never alone.

At home, my wife and youngest son prepare themselves to turn in for the evening. My oldest is with his mother, getting ready for bed before his last day of second grade.

The congregation I currently serve is now seated around a table for a called board meeting. Their task, as I understand it, is to be creative as they discern and plan their future in the midst of economic crisis and chronic anxiety.

Tonight, MY congregation includes crickets chirping, a very friendly squirrel, a thirsty deer, and birds playing on a sand bar a lob wedge’s distance away. There are also gnats swarming around me … every congregation has gnats.

The sun is beginning to set.

The church choir tonight is Jimmy Buffett on my I-Pod (ironically, “My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink, and I Don’t Love Jesus” just started. No lie. You cannot make stuff like that up.).

It has been windy today, but now there is just a breeze. The Holy Spirit likes to worship outside, too.

A couple of Sundays ago, I sat with a different congregation. The music was to die for. A thin young man wearing a turquoise shirt and khakis with a beautiful voice sang a capella. His voice filled the church and my soul. God bless the men, women, and children with that gift; I certainly covet it.

The sermon that day was “based” in John’s Gospel; Jesus’ words of being the Vine. Vines. Branches. Fruit. Pruning. I heave heard these words and preached them more than I sometimes care to. I soon became disinterested in the sermon. It seemed to be ill-prepared and rambling. In my head, I began to write my own sermon - I guess from that standpoint the sermon was “successful.” Here it is, nine days later, and I still reflect upon it.

Each biblical text, I believe, has within it at least one“image.” Some are obvious, others are more embedded, if you will. My mind began to wander to the image of “pruning.”

On my most cynical day, this should not be to surprising. William Sloane Coffin once stated that in order to protect the sheep, you have to get rid of a few wolves. That is pruning. This, however, is not the type of pruning I was considering … THIS time .

I was thinking more of the temporal pruning my life – and I am sure, most lives – find themselves in need. A pruning of things that in the Grand Scheme … that in a healthy and fruitful life – that within the Kingdom of God – do not mean a damn thing. My wife calls it “clutter.”

I have a lot of clutter in my life and most of it is clutter you cannot see. It is the clutter that fills my mind and often troubles my spirit. It is the clutter that causes me to grind my teeth and clench my jaw. It is the clutter that causes me to snap. It is the clutter that causes me to question. It is the clutter that brings me to the woods. THIS clutter needs to be pruned. It needs to be cut away and burned in the unquenchable fire. This MUST happen in order for new fruit to spring forth and flourish.

When the clutter is gone, newness has the potential to come in and take its place. Without clutter, there is the possibility for clarity.