Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Blessing of Being O&A: Advocacy and Incarnation

Advocacy. In a word, this is the blessing of being an Open and Affirming congregation. It's what sets O&A churches apart. It doesn't just mean everyone is welcome, if they choose to join us. It means we'll go be church most fully when we're outside our walls. It means we stand up for each other and never back down until the full equal dignity of each person is affirmed in the public square.

To be Open and Affirming means we stand up not only for those who are like us but those who broaden our sense of who "we" are. Being Open and Affirming dismantles the advocate/victim dichotomy. It picks apart the paternalistic care-giver/care-receiver attitude and declares that we're all in this together. No more we/they. No more gay Lazarus scrabbling for crumbs beneath Dives' straight table. From now on, "we" means more than it meant before. A place at the table set in the presence of enemies with whom we may yet become friends. A place at the table even in the valley of the shadow of death.

Too many churches suffer from the paternalistic attitude that "we" are here to help "them," where "we" are the sympathetic rich, healthy, white, straight followers of Jesus, and "them" means the people gospel calls us to serve: the abstract hungry, thirsty and oppressed minority, the sexually diverse, the "nones." As if "they" aren't already among "us." Sigh. This gets to the heart of the problem.

Jesus says he comes to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. We can do that safely enough with ministries of checkbook and pen and feel pretty good about ourselves, without ever addressing the essential problem of human nature, our us/them tribalism, our insistence on being separate, destined, unique.

The thing is, when Jesus proclaims his calling, he can't just mail in a check or stand at a distance and talk. He comes. He doesn't wait for those he serves to come to him. If Incarnation means anything at all, it means Jesus enters into the reality he comes to reconcile. He breaks down the first person/third person divide. He takes the us/them of poverty, sickness, disability, and, yes, sexual injustice, and he walks in the midst of it all saying we're in this together. He doesn't ask, "Are you with me?" but declares, "I am with you." The first is just recruiting. The second is advocacy. Even when he says, "Follow me," Jesus doesn't recruit. He invites us to find our wider voice.

Incarnation means God "the Father" sets aside paternalism. No more condescension, no more patriarchy, but "he walks with me and talks with me": now a Paraclete coming alongside us, transforming human relationships by means of equal justice and unconditional love.

The O&A church knows in its bones the experience of Incarnation. It feels in its heart that there is no "we" inside the church serving the likes of "them," outside, somehow objectified and made the recipients of our magnanimity and public policy work. It means we move the boundaries of who we think we mean when we say "we." When we advocate, speaking truth to power, we aren't speaking out on behalf of some abstract third person we call them. We are finding our new voice as a broader we, a voice truer to God's heart and more inclusive than before.

Being Open and Affirming means we speak up and speak out, yes, for GLBT sisters and brothers, not apart from who we are but because we now know we are one. We straight, we gay, we lesbian, we bisexual, we transgendered, we questioning and queer, we who embody Jesus' incarnation as fully as a community can so that dividing walls come tumbling Jericho-like down, became a wider, deeper more radically inclusive "we." 

After all, we really are all in this business of life together as God's beloved daughters and sons. Becoming Open and Affirming, we become Advocates for ourselves, because we realize we are infinitely more than we ever imagined. We are the Incarnate, Infinite, Embodied, Communitied, Holy Oneness of God.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

It Doesn't Matter How Dead You Are

May 24, 2015
Ezekiel 37.1-14
It Doesn’t Matter How Dead You Are, These Bones Will Live

It was 9:00 a.m., May 1, 1865. The event: a contender for the original Memorial Day observance in the United States.

The Charleston Daily Courier reported that for 10 days in April of that year, 28 freed slaves who were members of a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, constructed a graveyard with a wall ten feet high. This was on the grounds of a former race course in Charleston that had been converted to a prison camp by the Confederate Army. The freedmen landscaped the graves into neat rows, whitewashed the fence, and built an arch over the entrance. On the arch, they painted in black letters, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”  

They then exhumed the remains of 257 Union soldiers who had been buried in the prison camp’s mass grave. They relocated the bodies to individual plots in the new cemetery, and at 9:00 in the morning on May 1, 1865, nearly 3,000 black schoolchildren marched around the racetrack carrying roses in their arms and singing John Brown’s Body. Three hundred freed women of the Patriotic Association carried flowers, wreaths, and crosses for the graves. The freed men of the Mutual Aid Society marched around the track and into the cemetery, followed by crowds of black and white together.

Professor David Blight, author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, wrote,

All dropped their spring blossoms on the graves in a scene recorded by a newspaper correspondent: "when all had left, the holy mounds — the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them — were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen; and as the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them, outside and beyond ... there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy."

An official dedication ceremony was conducted by the black ministers of Charleston, followed by some 30 speeches by Union officers, black pastors, and abolitionist activists. Picnic lunches followed, and the afternoon witnessed a Union brigade, black and white together, conducting exercises on infield.

Ezekiel’s vision is of a valley where we can imagine a terrible battle had taken place years before. The bones of the dead are scattered, cleaned by time and its attentions. They are dry. This is no recent tragedy. Ezekiel was a preacher’s kid, or at least born into a priestly family. He was among the Israelites who were forcibly marched out of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and into exile. He was perhaps less pastor or priest himself than he was a prophet, but he clearly loved his people. By Ezekiel’s visions and symbolic actions, God offered a hurting community, a vision of hope.

Ken Lawrence taught religion and art at TCU, religion and human experience, religion and personality development. But he was far more than a professor to Katy and me. He led study trips overseas exploring religion, art and architecture. I want with him to Greece and Turkey, Katy to Italy. He could stand in the ruin of an ancient temple or before a painting in a museum and hold an audience spellbound for hours, opening up windows onto entire worlds and worldviews that sparkled with ideas still relevant today.

Ken went to seminary at Brite after serving in the military, where he had worked developing NORAD, the North American Radar Air Defense. For his doctorate he did clinical work in a mental hospital in Boston and spent months studying Renaissance art in Italy. He and Dad were regular roommates at the annual meetings of the Association of Disciples for Theological Discussion. And Dr. Lawrence — Lorenzo, as we who traveled with him came to call him — became advisor, mentor and friend. After Dad died, Lorenzo was the one who guided me toward graduation. But more, he understood what I was going through. And he could assure me in ways I might not have trusted others to tell me, that I’d turn out ok.

When Katy and I taught second and third grade Sunday School at East Dallas Christian Church, we used curriculum Lorenzo had developed, a three-year cycle of art, poetry, prayer, and other resources that related to the texts in the Revised Common Lectionary. We taught our kids to read the works of art just as they were learning to read the text of the Bible, which they did out loud every week as part of the class.

When our class came to this vision of Ezekiel, we started the day with a scavenger hunt for cut-out bones that the kids then assembled into a dancing skeleton on the wall. We read the words of the vision in a rhythm that still runs through my head every time I hear this text:

The hand of the Lord came upon me,
and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord
and set me down in the middle of a valley;
it was full of bones.
“Bones, bones, dry bones;
bones, bones, dry bones;
bones, bones, dry bones;
now hear the word of the Lord.”

It didn’t matter that the kids were in second or third grade. They understood something of death. More than one had lost a beloved pet. At least one had a grandparent die whom they’d known and loved. Children that age have brains that are just beginning the transition from literal, pre-critical thinking toward metaphorical, abstract thought. They are learning to write the language they’ve already learned to speak, to express symbolically in images and actions the truths in their experience they may not yet have words to explain. This is why the stories and images of scripture, especially the fantastical and parabolic, connect so well to children. When we give them permission to wonder, to ask, “what if?”, to pay attention to their own responses instead of adding our own moral to each story, we set their imaginations free to experience God in ways that open them to understand in the core of their being that they are loved.

Sadly, this is not how many of us were raised, nor have we raised our children to read and hear scripture honoring the wonder and curiosity that brought it to life to begin with. We teach our kids to do with scripture what Billy Collins says some students do to poetry: 

All they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it. 
They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.” (Introduction to Poetry)

When we fail to engage children in the wonder and delight of poetry, story, or song, because we ourselves are stuck in our own fears, we teach them, too; but what we teach them changes. We teach them that fear is more powerful than love, that being right is more important than doing good for others, that faith is an escape from reality not a promise to transform it.

The dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision aren’t just the dry bones of a community in exile. They are the dry bones of our faith when we let it descend to a Sunday morning talk-show shouting match of who’s right and who’s wrong. We’re willing to harm each other over land, money, an inheritance unfairly divided. As the Pew study that’s been getting so much press recently makes clear, Christianity that’s all about either/or and not about both/and is on the rise, and the both/and traditions are losing ground.

God calls us to be both faithful and active. We are called to become a both/and people. And if this means that our faith doesn’t make as much sense in the culture of death that surrounds us, maybe that’s because we know the reality of suffering and still believe in life. Our vision is set in a valley of dry bones, but the bones don’t just lie there. In death, the power of God is to bring life.

It takes work, of course, and we have a role to play. Prophesy to the bones. Speak God’s presence to those who are dead and dying. Speak a word of love to the loveless, of healing to the sick, of presence to the abandoned, of food to the hungry. And don’t just speak of such things but act. Because God will make these bones live.

Then, when the bones are reassembled and the flesh has returned, prophesy again: to breath this time, to God’s presence, to a spirituality that is prophetic and lifegiving, that connects us to the source of being itself. Prophesy to the breath. This doesn’t mean predict the future: it means announce God’s presence where we are to whomever will listen.

And the breath will fill the bodies, all together, so they may rise up as one, and jut as Israel’s exile will end with a return to the land of promise, so too will our faithful community thrive.

We have a prophetic role to fulfill, speaking a word of life to dry bones, in  the wake of violence and destruction, not giving up, trying again and again, with God's help, to grow not just sinew, flesh, and skin, but breath.

It doesn’t matter how dead you are. God’s spirit is moving. We will live.