This last week I enjoyed leading conversations with a number of church leaders on the subject of our calling as Christians. In Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, Eugene Peterson – author of the Scripture paraphrase The Message – describes the spiritual goal at the heart of Christian community.
The image is a triangle. In geometry, there are important relationships between the angles and lines of a triangle. For example, Peterson suggests that preaching, teaching and administration are the visible lines of my own work. However, without the angles – the spiritual foundation of our work together – the lines are disconnected from their reason for being. Peterson applies this image to the role of being the pastor of a congregation. I believe the lesson applies to all of us.
The angles of our Christian vocation, according to Peterson, are prayer – bringing ourselves to attention before God; Scripture – attending to God in the texts of Israel and the church; and spiritual direction – giving attention to what God is doing in the person before us at any given moment.
As Christians in community we balance many tasks that help a church function as a volunteer organization and a non-profit corporation in our day-to-day world. But the church at heart is neither a volunteer organization nor a corporation; the church is a spiritual entity: the Body of Christ, called together by God to be the sacrament of Christ’s healing grace for a hurting world. If we are not paying attention to God in the midst of our work, we are not being church, no matter how successful we may appear to be.
Pursued with intentionality, how might this image change our way of being church? Take for example our gathering on Sunday morning. Who among us has not come to church with a lingering problem or loose end from a project to discuss with someone? What if we set this ‘work’ aside for the work of Sabbath: paying attention to God. The coffee time following church, becomes more than snacks, it is time for relationship. A new person is no longer a ‘visitor’ church shopping, but someone God has brought to this place on this Sunday for a reason. With practice, we might even be able to take this spiritual soul of faith into every day. As we look forward to the excitement of being together this fall, may we pay attention to God: in prayer, in Scripture and in one another.
-- Grace and Peace, Pastor Mark
In gratitude for my friends, family and colleagues who supported me, for the LA LGBT center's "coming out group" who helped me find my way, and for all those brave men and women who speak for the outcast while people of faith remain silent ...
A Coming Out Letter
Life is a gift and far too short not to claim the life you have been given.
When we lost our marriage, my wife and I were devastated. The apostle Paul, in one of his letters, says that human beings are like clay jars. The only benefit that I can find to being fragile pottery is the chance to have a long, good look at the pieces when we are broken. As I labored to put myself back together, I realized that there was a more obvious form to the pieces than I had been living. I am writing to tell you that I am gay.
Since I was a child, I suppressed my primary attraction in life. There was no room in our culture for my homosexuality to be acknowledged, so I safely packed it away at the edge of my awareness. I lived my life well and as fully as I could. For that I am deeply grateful, but three years ago it fell apart. It is time now to fully claim the life God has given me.
This is not a choice. I had been suffering, suffering for a long time: chronic anxiety, acute panic attacks, painful physical tension, self-loathing, toxic perfectionism. Many suffer these symptoms for different reasons; however, it wasn’t until I let the unacknowledged part of myself be my self, that I realized the burden I had been carrying.
As early as kindergarten, I knew I was different. I blamed myself, made up for it by being the best little boy I could. As an adolescent, I was desperately lonely and didn’t understand why. I never doubted, for a moment, your love for me. I had just never loved myself. Among the LGBT community, I am finally among people who are like me. They are extraordinary people. Being gay is a remarkable gift.
Human beings, in all their complexity, imperfection and beauty are simply a miracle. Each of us is created in the image of God who is Holy, wholly Other. I now understand that difference itself is sacred, a sacrament of that divine otherness. For the first time in my life I am beginning to see that my value lies not in my ability to be the person others would like me to be, but rather in the unique beauty and complexity of my own heart, soul, mind and body.
To use an Old Testament metaphor, the last three years have been all wilderness, but now, at least, I am standing on the shore of the Jordan. I can see my way across. On warm summer nights I swim in its waters. The water is good. I know that I am a child of God.
Ancient Israel met God in the wilderness. As I have drawn closer to myself, I too have drawn closer to whatever it is that we gesture at with the word God. I am a better pastor, a better interpreter of the Bible. The New Testament, after all, is written by folks challenged to live their faith openly in a hostile world. I am Nicodemus, standing in the shadows, afraid to step into the light of day. I am the woman at the well, drawing water alone to avoid the judgement of her peers. I am the blind beggar, healed without asking for the gift or for its consequences. I am Lazarus. Once, dead. Now, called out to new life.
Know that I am well and happy. Celebrate this with me. If you don't know what to say, begin there.
- Rev. Mark Sturgess, Holy Week 2012
In 1958, John Steinbeck – Nobel Laureate and author – wrote a letter to his teenage son, Thom. Thom had recently confessed to falling in love with a girl at boarding school. His father’s letter in response, published recently in The Atlantic, is both charming and wise. As I read it this Christmas season, one paragraph caught my attention:
"There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you – of kindness and consideration and respect – not only the social aspect of manners, but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak, but the second can release in you strength and courage and goodness, and even wisdom, you didn't know you had."
In that paragraph is a lifetime, even an eternity, of wisdom. Twenty centuries earlier, another wise teacher named John wrote a letter to his church. John said, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God … God is love.” I may be naive, but my faith is simple. I believe that the universe, and whatever it is beyond it we call God, exists for the sake of the kind of love that Steinbeck and the New Testament speak.
When I gaze into the manger in Bethlehem I see an outpouring of love, the source of everything good. It is a love that recognizes each of us as unique and valuable, love that has the power to release you in strength and courage and goodness. This is the love the Christ child will live and die to be. Let his life and each of our lives through his, count for the good. Let this Holy Night be a sign of God's infinite love for you: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, 'Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”
Merry Christmas, - Pastor Mark
Henri Nouwen has written that ministry is receiving God’s blessing from those to whom we minister; in the midst of serving we are blessed with passing glimpses of the face of God. The most humbling gift I have experienced in the practice of ministry is being called into moments in people’s lives that can only be described as holy. These experiences have affirmed my faith in the fundamental witness of Scripture that God is Holy and God is With Us.
Early on a Saturday evening, two days after we celebrated his fiftieth birthday, I received a call that John had died. He was a free-spirited Texan, a grade-school teacher, with a devoted wife and three middle-school aged children. Throughout the four years I knew John, he was in and out of chemotherapy for cancer that had metastasized into his lungs. I heard a pastor once say that the mystery of life includes our death. Ministry at the time of death is one of those mysteries into which I am invited, undeserved, that is as sacred as it is difficult.
When I received the call that night, I drove to his home immediately. The cries of John's grieving children echoed throughout the house and are seared into my memory. When the time seemed appropriate, I gathered his children, wife, and immediate family; we held hands in prayer and surrendered his spirit to God. I waited with them for the morticians to arrive, escorted the body to the van, and said good night.
For me, the word “holy” means that God is utterly unique, set apart from the world of our common sense. God is beyond our imagining and beyond our words. Yet Scripture teaches that our Holy God is also with us. If God is with us, sacred moments in our lives should be plentiful. They are, extravagantly so: an astonishing live performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony at Disney Hall; dolphins dancing in the surf on Easter morning; a choir member offering a heroic solo the Sunday after she had been diagnosed with cancer. With Anne Lamott, I believe that we can look for encounters with the holy by searching our lives for moments of wonderment, when the only possible response is silence or a breathless “wow.” These moments are the fingerprints of God upon our lives. That is not so difficult to grasp; but sitting alongside a father's lifeless body with his grieving children … where is God here?
The insight has not come easily. Only now after 11 years in the practice of ministry am I coming to trust in it, and then only after spending year after year bearing witness to the passion of the One we call divine. John's was a fractured life in ways dIfferent from mine. Yet in the days ahead, as I spoke to the family and presided over the largest memorial service I had ever seen, I recognized that he was dearly loved. His life, my life, your life, each and every life is a gift of God. Beloved.
Human beings in all their complexity, imperfection, and beauty are simply a miracle. The breath of our Holy God graces each one of us with infinite value; but more than this, I believe that if we listen closely, we can hear in the moans of the sick, in the lament of the outcast, and even in the cries of a grieving child, the very voice of God who chooses not to be a distant other, but chooses to save us by suffering with us even unto death.
Seared into my memory are the cries of John's children that night, but in them I hear the voice of God: I hear Jesus weeping with Mary and Martha over Lazarus; I hear Christ’s dereliction in Gethsemane and his excruciating suffering on a cross; I hear God’s joy at our birth and God’s grief in the midst of our loss. Holy & with, almighty & vulnerable: I don’t understand it, but I know it to be true. In the end the only help we can offer one another is our solidarity, our vulnerability, our presence. Some call it love. This is what God offers us; and if we have the courage to turn toward the awe-inspiring love through whom we were created, the suffering love through whom we are made innocent again, we might just be able to accept the gift, know that we are beloved, and call it grace.
Last Sunday I interpreted Jesus' famous words from John 14: "In my Father's house are many dwelling places," as words of comfort for the living: know that in the heart of the God there is enough room for you. The key to being at peace and helping others to be at peace is the knowledge that we are welcome in this world. This poem by Mary Oliver speaks to me in the same inviting voice as it approaches its closing line "over and over announcing your place in the family of things."
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things."
as printed in Kevin Young, ed., The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief & Healing (New York: Bloomsbery, 2010), 251.
When Christians speak of God, we often do so with far too much confidence in ourselves and far too little reverence for whatever it is we gesture at with the word God. This brief quote by Karl Barth is an important reminder for us all.
"As [servants of God] we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so we cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory."
Karl Barth, "The Word of God and the Word of Man," 186.
"Who am I?" was written in prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, shortly before his execution by the Nazi's. It speaks to the basic question of self that haunts our human condition: is our identity, our value, dependent on what others think of us, or are we what we think of ourselves? In this poem, Bonhoeffer, one of the theological giants and martyrs of the 20th century, gives us a precious glimpse into his own struggle with questions that haunt us all: am I the hero they tell me I am (or should be) or I am the terrified frailty that I know myself to be?
In each of our lives, at one point or another, we struggle with these questions. What is my value to the world? Who am I? This struggle is the dark night of the soul. In his triumphant and utterly vulnerable final line, Bonhoeffer surrender's himself to the Higher Power and discloses to us the only answer that brings new life in our human wilderness. In the end our infinite value and the infinite value of every human being, lies in the knowledge that we are all, each and every one of us, children of God. "Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine."
"Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell's confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as through it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing
My throat, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely question of mine,
Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine."
The poem is as quoted in Douglas John Hall, Waiting for the Gospel: An Appeal to the Dispirited Remnants of Protestant "Establishment" (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2012), 94; translated by J.B. Leishman, and reproduced in G. Leibholz's 'Memoir' of Bonhoeffer, in Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 15.
"Let the Scriptures, then, first of all be themselves. Let us admit that here are words from another era that are now alien to us. Once we have done so, we will be able to see that, in their own terms and their own context, the biblical authors were dealing with the same issues that confront us -- issues of faith and understanding that do not fade in a thousand years or in ten thousand. Who is God? What kind of world has God made? Who are we, human spirits and souls and bodies, who find ourselves in this world? What are the limits of our existence and our power, and what lies beyond them? Why is suffering a part of our lives? Why does this world not measure up to the best that we might hope of it? And why does it give us so much more than we could have asked? The mysteries of our existence remain with us; to grow in comprehension of Scripture will mean that we grow in the mysteries, too." - William Countryman
L. William Countryman, Biblical Authority or Tyranny?: Scripture and the Christian Pilgrimage, rev. ed. (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994), 103. Italics mine.
"May all your expectations be frustrated, May all of your plans be thwarted, May all of your desires be withered into nothingness, That you may experience the powerless and poverty of a child and can sing and dance in the Love of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." -- Larry Hine (as quoted in The Christian Century, April 16, 2014, p. 9).
In preparation for Holy Thursday this year, I find myself reflecting on Jesus’ final words to his disciples in the gospel of John. “I give you a new commandment, to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” At the core of my own faith is a simple conviction: that to love is to know God and this is how we are called to make God known to the world.
Arthur Peacocke, the distinguished British scientist and theologian died from cancer at the age of 81 in 2001. Shortly before his death he penned these words. I have found them helpful: “Over the years I have given much thought and spilt much ink on the nature of God and God’s interaction with people. Not surprisingly the subtler nuances of my deliberations have fallen away before the absolute conviction that God is love and eternally so. This remains the foundation of my prayers and thoughts for ‘underneath are the everlasting arms.’ This is not always easily experienced and it needs concentrated meditation – the ‘black dog’ of depression is sometimes difficult to dispel.” Quoting the Venerable Bede (ca. 720), Peacock goes on to write, our human life is “as if when on a winter’s night you sit feasting with your elderman and thanes, a single sparrow should fly swiftly into the hall, and coming in at one door, instantly flying out through another. In that time in which it is indoors, it is indeed not touched by the fury of the winter, but yet, this smallest space of calmness being passed almost in a flash, from winter going into winter again, it is lost to your eyes. Somewhat like this appears the life of man [sic.]; but of what follows or what went before, we are utterly ignorant. … Thanks to the revelation of God through Jesus the Christ, we do not share this ignorance. I know that God is waiting for me to be enfolded in love.” As quoted in Context, Martin E. Marty on Religion and Culture, April 2007.