Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Missing Jesus

Sunday morning, Abby and I managed to get to church only a couple of minutes late. Not too bad for our first Sunday morning on our own, Shannon having left for work much earlier. And, I have to say, there is something kind of nice about it being okay to be late for the service. One perk of life on the pew side of things. Helps to have a baby, too, all kinds of things are immediately forgiven – particularly never being on time for anything, ever.

It’s a friendly congregation, lots of smiles every time I’m there. And everyone wants to meet Abby so I am more popular than I’ve ever been in my life. Worship is in an old, traditional sanctuary – a building they bought 3 years ago because they’d outgrown their smaller building and needed more space than was possible at the previous site. Beautiful stained glass, well-built and maintained organ, a wide variety of folks sitting in the pews (which they’re gradually removing to create more flexible worship space).

I’m trying, hard, and praying, over and over, to have an open heart and spirit to this new community, this new perspective from the pew. One of the things I’ve looked forward to, in the midst of all that is hard about this transition out of the pulpit, is learning to worship without also needing to think about what happens next. To simply be there, ready and present to the Spirit moving, with no responsibility other than doing just that. I knew I would hear God speaking in a different way, listen to the music flowing around me with new ears, and even see Jesus’ face in ways I haven’t before.

And I am hearing God speak through new voices and welcoming faces, I am experiencing the music with new appreciation and gratitude. But I am missing Jesus. There’s rarely a mention of the name at all. Sometimes the music will say something about Jesus, but not every week. I have yet to read liturgy containing language about Christ. Communion happens once a month, and even that Sunday there were no hymns with even a passing reference. Yes, Jesus is present regardless of whether the name is said. But it’s not clear to me that there is much that is distinctly Christian about worship at all.

There’s no doubt the liturgy is beautifully written, every week. Hymns, too - some of which are written by members of the congregation. Intentional work has been done to expand language about God, the earth and humanity. I haven’t seen a better effort around using inclusive language. It’s clear there are many, many gifted worship leaders and musicians. And, still, I’m missing Jesus. It seems to me that at least some of what is happening is what seems to happen in too many progressive Christian churches: in a well-meaning effort to expand understandings of God and one another, Jesus has gotten left behind. To try and distinguish ourselves from ‘other’ Christian churches that may not be as welcoming to all of humanity, we in the so-called ‘progressive’ Christian world walk too far from our grounding in the Christ who calls us together in the first place.

I can say we to include myself because I have been in that same place, thinking that Jesus language wasn’t all that necessary because it was all contained within the expansive God language I used. It took me awhile to realize that I wasn’t actually a Unitarian – but I was writing and thinking as though I was. There is absolutely nothing wrong at all with being Unitarian. It’s just not who I am. And not who I want the Christian church I participate in to be. I need Jesus. Maybe now more than ever, in the transition wilderness I find myself in. And if we’re going to claim ourselves as Christian communities, then ‘progressive’ Christian churches need Jesus, too.

Have I mentioned I feel strongly that I shouldn’t be missing Jesus in worship?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Entry-Level, and A Day to Remember

I’m on the market, the job market, that is. It’s a new experience for me this time around. There’s no system set-up to circulate my resume to every available non-profit job in the area. If I were applying for a church job in my denomination, I could look at a big long list of open positions and tell those who coordinate such searches to send my ‘stuff’ in. There’s not a big long list of open positions in Asheville’s non-profit world. Most of the time, even when something is open, it’s not posted anywhere. You have to know someone or be connected somehow.

On the positive side, some of the folks we know here are connected in significant ways. On the negative side, it’s simply rare to find an open position. In the last couple of weeks, through the before-mentioned connections, I was told about an open position with a non-profit here that works mostly as an alternative to incarceration for men and women whose offenses or crimes allow for lesser sentencing. Unlike the prison system, this organization does believe rehabilitation is possible. Nothing easy about their work, but they’ve been doing it well for a long time here. It would be a meaningful and worthwhile place to work, every bit of it God’s work. The work of salvation, even. Supporting and helping men (in this particular position) save themselves, to imagine a new and whole future for their lives. Not easy, not romantic work. Jesus’ footsteps are all over it.

I had an “initial” phone conversation yesterday with the guy handling the search for the open position. It’s an entry-level position, one that I could have applied for 10 years ago and had a shot at getting. And so I’ve struggled with my well-taught and absorbed ideas about “going backwards” or “settling” for something less than what I’m capable of. The guy I talked to yesterday even flat-out asked me why I was applying for an entry-level position. I suspect it’s likely I won’t be asked for an in-person interview. But even if I’m not, the process of the last several days has invited me to ask important and hard questions of myself.

What does entry-level mean, anyway? How important is going “up”? The organization could not function without this position. It’s the on the streets, in the courtroom work essential for it all to hold together. Do I want to be an E.D. someday (assuming I stay in the non-profit world)? You bet. But I’ll be a lot better at it if I’ve started on the ground, out in the streets. Romans and 1 Corinthians both talk about gifts, about each of God’s people being given unique qualities and skills to build the body of Christ. I’ve assumed for years that mine could only be used best on the pulpit side of life. Entry level somewhere else could just be an opportunity for me to begin to build in a different way, a new way, and yet still a part of the ever-expanding body of Christ that reaches into the pulpit and far, far beyond.

And it’s Veterans’ Day. I’ve thought about my dad, who gets a distant look in his eyes when he’s asked about Vietnam and who has spent his career always being involved in ROTC. I’ve thought about my uncle, who cannot stay in the room when Vietnam is mentioned and carries more brokenness from combat than I can begin to imagine. And then I’ve thought about the young men and women I know who serve now, each of them serving in different ways and in different places, but all extraordinary human beings who are giving their daily lives now in our country’s military.

I’m a pacifist. I want our military to lay down all of its weapons and turn them into plowshares and pruning hooks. It’s also true that I am grateful for each of those I know who have served, and for the millions I don’t know. Today I’ve remembered the names I know, and trust God knows all the others. And I pray for peace in all corners of the fragile, beautiful world that holds us all.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Church, A Proposition, A New President, and A Baby

My beautiful wife and child

I became a member of a church today, standing in front of a crowded sanctuary full of mostly unfamiliar but kind and welcoming faces. The sleeping baby in my arms was the only thing that held the dam of tears at bay. Tears of grief and tears of relief, welling up from my heart, mingled together behind my eyes. For the first time in a decade, I joined a church as the wife, the mom. Those are my titles, my first impressions in this congregation. Not pastor, not teacher, not leader. Standing there this morning, Abby in my arms and Shannon’s loving hand on my back, was the final letting go of what has been. It also means there may just be space to move forward, enough release to see what is next for me, where God is leading on this winding road of following. Grief at losing what has been; relief for the push to move ahead.

Proposition 8 passed in California. It made the news here, of course, but not in huge ways and certainly not on the front page. There was no big outcry of anger outside of our living room that we could hear. I didn’t sleep, obsessively checking the Chronicle for results through the night. It was pretty clear by morning that a slim – but enough -- majority of California voters were determined to take away the rights of some of their fellow citizens. Why does it matter to me now, people have asked. North Carolina doesn’t recognize our California marriage license anyway. But it does matter. We took those legal vows in front of the County of Santa Cruz, friends and strangers, in a room overflowing with hope and joy and love. It matters a great deal that Prop 8 passed, saying that no more people ‘like us’ should experience that kind of hope and love and joy. The entire state should be completely outraged and embarrassed. And I wonder what I could have done more of while I was there, and even here from the other coast. I wonder why there wasn’t more outrage before November 4, why wasn’t I more outraged when the whole process began months and months ago to get Prop 8 on the ballot? I should have been mad a year ago, instead of assuming others would be and that there’d be no way such an insidious ballot measure could possibly garner enough votes. There are, of course, lawsuits and vigils happening all over California. It’s not over. Separate but equal will not rule the day, not in the end. Those lawsuits and vigils are beginning to happen in other places, too. And someday, even, our marriage license will even matter here in our home state. It took me a day or so to remember that I believe in the resurrection: the impossible happening against all odds.

Barack Obama stood in Grant Park at midnight Tuesday, and I know more than one person in the crowd of many colors that gathered also believes in the resurrection. It is no small feat to overcome prejudice of any kind, and certainly not the deep-seeded racism that is still found in far more places than most of our country wants to admit. Was this election about more than race? Absolutely. It was about change and hope and the need for certainty that there can be a new day in the United States of America. Will Obama be able to deliver on all his promises? Not a chance. Does the Democratic party have the magic keys to this new day? Not by a long shot. I’ll admit, though, that I do feel more hopeful than I have in several years about how the citizens of the U.S. might reach across the aisle, or around the corner, or even across the table and care just a little more about each other. There’s been a huge shift in this election, and I’m daring to hope it’s a shift toward one another, a move to come closer to true community.

And the baby. Abigail: our nearly 6-week-old daughter who’s sleeping right now, as is her other very tired mom. Everyday, at some moment or another, I’m still in wonder that the hospital let us take her home. She’s beautiful (I know I’m biased, but she really is), and does something new everyday. The Sunday evening before she was born, I cooked Shannon’s favorite dinner, knowing there wouldn’t be too many more days before our child came into the world. She finished those leftovers a week later, watching Abby sleep. Last time I wrote a blog entry, I was waiting. Waiting for her, waiting for God to make it crystal clear what my life here will look like without a robe and stole. Sitting in the present moment is my greatest challenge, always. And I’m still waiting.

But now I’m waiting for Abby to wake up, enjoying the sound of her breathing and her tiny hands waving around every once in awhile while she sleeps. I’m more tired than I’ve ever been, and Shannon even more so since she’s the one providing the food every few hours. It’s been a more than full 6 weeks. And I wouldn’t trade a minute. The name Abigail means joy. And every time I look at her, I remember that new life is sometimes a long time coming. I remember that new life explodes into the world in the midst of chaos, and even pain beyond measure. I remember that I believe in the resurrection. I believe in Jesus’ resurrection, in all its mystery and hope, and I believe in the big and small ways new life comes everyday. Abby reminds me when I forget. So does her other mom. And tonight I remember that my cup overflows, and am sitting in gratitude.