Feast of Lights 2016

The Feast of Lights is a service of lessons and carols held at Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. A 60-plus-year tradition, there are elements of the service that folks have come to expect and cherish. It begins with a child singing the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s  City.” It ends with choir members carrying lighted candles into the congregation as we sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and “Silent Night.”

The tenors and sopranos sing a descant on”O Come, All Ye Faithful.” As a tenor, this is unnerving for me. It’s loud and it’s high, and I sing it relatively far away form others, but close to the congregants seated near me. It’s basically a solo. 

I decided to pull all the stops and sing that descant full throttle. I processed to the spot where I was supposed to stand, closed my eyes, and let ‘er rip. On the last phrase of the descant verse, I remembered to enunciate,  nailing the “CH” consonant in “CHrist the Lord.” I opened my eyes and saw that I’d blown out my candle.  

I got tickled. A few folks around me started suppressing laughter. I had to make a walk of shame to a nearby choir member to relight my candle. I recovered, and I successfully transitioned into the much more manageable “Silent Night.”

We sing the last verse of” Silent Night” accapella. As we sang, I saw that the members of the orchestra were singing, too. This was significant to me because, while the choir is all volunteer, the orchestra is composed of paid local musicians and members of the the Nashville Symphony. They hsd finished their gig. But their singing said they had transitioned from employees to participants. 

Mom and I have a tradition of sharing our Feast of Lights Christmas moments, that moment when the transcendent message of grace that is Christmas becomes incarnate. It happened for me when the orchestra began to sing. 
Merry Christmas. 

Love to Orlando

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a vigil
a march
a demonstration
an act of civil disobedience
a prayer

a mayor
a pastor
a police officer
a politician
a Muslim
a bartender
an advocate
a choir

a bear
a twink
a fat
a fem
a leatherman
a rugger
a Mr. Friendly
a Sister

a straight
a lesbian
a gay
a bisexual
a transgender
a queer

a bar
a community
a city
a state
a country
a world

a friend
a mother
a father
a sister
a brother
a daughter
a son
a boyfriend
a girlfriend
a husband
a wife

a shooter

a survivor
an injured
a victim

“I see you and you are loved.
I see the pain, the grief, the confusion.
I see you and you are loved.
I see the anger, the fear, and the loss.
I see you and you are loved.
We see you, Orlando, and you are loved.”

 

To the Delegates to General Conference*

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My friend in Christ, Louis Jordan, asked if I’d speak today on this topic: What is it like to be a gay man in The United Methodist Church? Wow. We’ve been talking about our denomination’s policy regarding homosexuality since 1972. That’s 44 years. What can I say in eight minutes that might make a difference to anyone here? But, the Holy Spirit has done far more miraculous things, so let us acknowledge the presence of the Spirit with us now, in Jesus name. Amen.

What is it like to be a gay man in The United Methodist Church? There’s too much of my story to share, so let me offer this: at the end of the meeting I’ll come back up here. If you want to talk more, come by and I’ll give you my contact information.

What is it like to be a gay man in The United Methodist Church? I have to make a distinction here between the local church level and the denominational level. On the local level it’s pretty much been fabulous. But at a denominational level (which is the level we should talk about today since y’all are going off to Portland for General Conference)…At the denominational level, it’s been humiliating, painful, and scary.

I was an elder here in the Tennessee Conference for ten years. There came a time when I finally accepted my sexuality. I met with my district superintendent, Juanita Wright Bass, and my bishop, Kenneth Carter. I had three small children. I had to provide for them. I didn’t know what would happen. Bishop Carter led me through a series of questions. I left that meeting having surrendered my credentials in good standing.

What is it like to be a gay man in The United Methodist Church? For me and for my family—son Sam, son Ben, daughter Ruth—it’s been humiliating, painful, and scary.

For years, I was bitter. But over time, my family and I healed, thanks in large part to the love given to us by our Belmont church family. They didn’t know my story, or not many did. They just loved because that’s what church folk do. At some point I realized that I am still in ministry, living out my calling at The Upper Room where I’ve been for over ten years.

Then, a little over a year ago, my partner (Blech. “Partner.” I’ve always hated referring to Frank as my partner. It sounds like something from a cowboy western. Thank God I don’t have to call him that anymore.) Anyway, Frank needed health insurance. Hey! I can do that for him. Strangely enough, the General Agencies, of which The Upper Room is a part, offer benefits to same-sex married couples. Just months before marriage equality became the law of the land, Frank and I made plans to travel to North Carolina where marriage was legal. I focused only on getting Frank health insurance, but Pam Hawkins knew Frank, knew our children, knew me, and she knew we needed more out of a wedding than a legal contract. Pam went with us, with Belmont’s blessing. She officiated at our wedding. It was holy.

We came back home and my sister, Henrietta, threw Frank and me a reception. I was not prepared for the outpouring of love I felt that day. LGBT friends, church friends, family, all gathered at OutCentral on Church Street in Nashville. These were people from groups I had tried to keep apart for years. They were there to support Frank and me and to say, “We love you and we no longer want to be kept apart!”

Meanwhile, Pam was charged for having officiated at our wedding. She entered into just resolution. I eventually went with her as her advocate. It was the first time I’d set foot in the Bishop’s office since I’d been there 16 years before to surrender my credentials. Pam was suspended for 90 days. Some thought she got off easy. I thought it was one of the saddest things that has ever happened in my life. At one of the happiest times in my life, my denomination’s role was to punish the person who made it possible.

What is it like to be a gay man in The United Methodist Church? It’s humiliating, painful, and scary. Now, not just for me, and for my family, but also for my friend, for my pastor.

But in the immortal words of Gloria Gaynor, “I will survive!” Truly, at 51, I’m at peace, personally. What bothers me, what hurts me, is thinking about that 12-year-old boy who’s going to Sunday school at his rural United Methodist Church. Week after week, he hears his Sunday school teacher tell him “God loves you. We love you.” As he gets older, he realizes there’s something different about him. He realizes he’s gay. He doesn’t know how he knows, but he knows this isn’t something he should talk about, not to his parents, not to his Sunday school teacher. He’s left to figure it out on his own. The years pass. Eventually, he comes across these words, the official policy of the church he loves: “Homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Upon reading that, he repents of his sin, is no longer gay, and lives his life as a straight man.

Actually I have never, ever, heard of that happening. I’m afraid that, as a gay man in The United Methodist Church, either he leaves the church, or he enters a time of humiliation, pain, and fear. Is he a person of sacred worth? Or is he incompatible with Christian teaching?

May the Holy Spirit be with you as you travel to Portland for General Conference.

*Spoken to the Tennessee Annual Conference delegates to General Conference on May 1, 2016, at a “Listening Session.”

Good Friday

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From the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

This past week, my husband, Frank, and I had one of the biggest fights we’ve had in the sixteen years of our relationship. Susan, I forgive you for asking me to talk about forgiveness in the midst of that. You didn’t know what you were doing.

From the cross, Jesus said,
“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness from the cross isn’t the first time he’s taught us about forgiveness. In the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.”

And in Matthew chapter six, Jesus’ followers come to him and ask him to teach them how to pray. In that prayer, which eventually came to be called the Lord’s Prayer, are these words, “Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, God,  just as we also forgive those who have wronged us.” Jesus ends his instruction on how to pray in this way: “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins.”

There’s a familiarity, a rhythm, a cadence to Jesus’ words about forgiveness. Forgive others…love others. God forgives us…love God. Do you sense the connection between forgiveness and the Great Commandment, to “…love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself”? Forgiveness is the key to being able to live out that Great Commandment, by God’s grace.

We are going to hurt one another in this world. Sometimes the hurt is slight and forgiveness comes easily. Other times the hurt is seemingly beyond bearing and forgiveness is all but impossible.

Thank God we do not have to forgive on our own! We forgive because God forgives us. We love because God loves us.

“God shows God’s love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

From the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

Shared with Belmont United Methodist Church on Good Friday, 2016.

Maundy* Thursday

“I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other” (John 13:34, CEB).

There’s a reason why this day is called “holy” in the Christian tradition. There it is, distilled into one commandment: Love each other.

As a symbol of the love Jesus was talking about, he washed his followers feet and dried their feet with a towel. This was a common act of hospitality in Jesus’ day. As people traveled, their feet got dusty. A hospitable host would have a servant ready to wash a visitor’s feet when they came to visit.

In washing his followers’ feet, Jesus assumed the role of a servant. This was his example of love. He connects it to voluntary, humble service to others.

Jesus’ act of washing feet freaked Peter out. Jesus told Peter that he could have no part of him unless Peter allowed him to wash his feet.

The idea of loving one another through service still freaks out Christians. Servanthood is a sign of weakness. It’s something we pay other people to do for us. It’s humiliating.

But love for one another through service to one another is what the world desperately needs.

Instead, we Christians allow ourselves to get distracted by gray areas. We’re so easily sidetracked. I won’t list specific issues here, but I’ll leave it up to you to name them. They’re all over the news, the issues that we focus on in an effort to get along with each other. And it’s all up in our intimate relationships.

What would our lives be like if we responded from a place of servant love? How would those acts of love in the world change the world?

“I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other” (John 13:34, CEB).

*Derived through Middle English and Old French mandé, from the Latin mandatum, the first word of the phrase “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos“.

This Christmas Is So Screwed Up

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The daughter has a job 194.3 miles away in a different time zone and I will be going to meet her there for an 11 pm Christmas Eve service. We’ll drive back afterwards and I’ll drop her off at her mom’s house before I return home after 1 am Christmas Day.

I’ll wake up at 6 am and drive to my son’s house in time for presents with the granddaughter. The husband will be at his ex-wife’s house with my stepdaughter and grandson.

We’d postponed our Christmas lunch with my sister, mother, brother-in-law, the husband’s stepfather, and the kids and grandkids until the 26th, but one of my sons has to work from 9 am to 9 pm that day, so we’ve moved it yet again to the 27th.

I’ve worked hard to build traditions for our family through the years, probably out of guilt at having been married to their mother and divorcing her. There’s no way to pull off those traditions this year. What had become rote is now scattered on a calendar, spread out and diluted in an effort to accommodate everyone involved.

The perfect Christmas has become an impossibility.

And that’s just fine.

When Jesus was born, circumstances were far from perfect. Strip away the sentimentality and look at the story realistically: an unwed mother; a sceptical fiancé; an ill-conceived, government enforced journey; labor and birth in a barn; complete strangers showing up, some of them bringing useless gift for a newborn.

It’s as if God was trying to tell us something. In the midst of all that first Christmas mess, incarnation happened. The word was made flesh to live among us. God set the bar low on purpose to show us that God loves us just as we are.

The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, “Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2:10-14, CEB).

Merry Christmas.