Rev. Dread

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Twenty-two hours after I sat in Rusty Ace’s chair–well, twenty-two hours of work spread over three sessions–I was released. It has been about twelve hours since the last lock was blunted, but I am now a dreadhead. To be honest, I feel complete. Home. Like I’ve had a part of myself that was missing placed neatly into the space where once was emptiness. Seems kinda grandiose for a “hairstyle,” right?

The decision was a long time in coming, and fits into a larger trend in my life recently. People who have known me for more than two years, who either follow me on FB or see me in the real world (gasp!), may have noticed that my physical appearance has changed. A lot. It is not just the 40 lbs I’ve put on as a result of bipolar meds and the onset of middle-age (40 for me is in July), it is numerous tattoos where people can see them. It is a beard. A full (except for my upper cheeks, where not even a dusting of peach fuzz grows) beard. An undeniably wild beard. And not grown because I want to be a hipster. No one wants to see me in skinny jeans and I stopped using a typewriter when mom purchased a Videowriter and I penned a short story that was a not-so-subtle ripoff of Stephen King’s “The Body,” better known to most as Stand By Me. (Instead of a group of young boys going to find a dead body, my group of boys went to rope a wild stallion. The hero gets hit by a bus at the end. Yet, he somehow narrates the story. I was ten. What do you want?) I have grown my beard long and wild to stand in solidarity with my Muslim and Sikh brothers who are profiled. You’ll also notice that if I wear a buff over my dreads, it kinda look like I’m wearing a turban or a taqiyah. That adds to the effect. Profile them? Profile me.

But the decision for dreads was a large hurdle. Some people in the congregation have explicitly asked me not to do it. I heard that and thought about it, but it is my body. Period. My dreads, my journey, as Rusty often says. I did deep research to make certain I was not co-opting something sacred. I understand the significance of dreads in Rastafarianism, but I am not trying to be a Rasta. I couldn’t be, anyway, because it really is something you need to be born into unless you are lucky enough to be close to a teacher or a community. Dreadlocks appear throughout history, from the Egyptians to the Jews to the Celts to the Nordics. Locks are often associated with religious leaders and shamans, as well. My family ancestry includes Nordic (my father is full-blood Finn) and Celtic (John McCain is a very distant cousin) roots. I’ll be honest, though. Being in my teens and 20s in the 1990s, I was wary of the “white guy with dreads” phenomenon. When my good friend, music collaborator, and now Studio Brooklyn producer Amon Drum  got locked, I began to change my mind. Amon went to Africa to train on djimbe, and he’s a spiritual cat. His locks were totally tied up in his identity as a traditional African hand percussionist.That was really the start of my education and the evolution of my mindset.

The other reservation I had is the fact that I often write about Black culture and African American justice movements. I am an ally of the Black Lives Matter movement. I support the NAACP. And I am earning a doctoral degree in the work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My mentor is African American. I am the only Caucasian in the group. To be honest, I’ve had the fear of being a wigger. I don’t want to appear the male Rachel Dolezal (no slam at her, just I absolutely identify as Caucasian because I am). The final decision came when I awoke for the third morning in a row and had to cut out huge knots in my hair. No matter the brush, the shampoo, the hair ties, the hats, or the myriad different things I tried to keep my thick, curly hair from knotting, I couldn’t stop the damage. I put a post on FB about locks, and that’s when Rusty–an incredible local artist and now, I’m happy to say, a dear friend–responded that she is one of two people in the tristate area who utilizes the crochet technique. After I looked it up and realized what it was, I was excited. Appointment booked.

Really, the sessions themselves are going to remain private. Ultimately because Rusty (along with her awesome partner Ryan and their Bodhisattva of a daughter, Presley) and I bonded. Hard core. And there were some incredibly synchronous moments, like when I realized two pieces of furniture that had been in my family for years but had been let go over the past decade were sitting in their house. There were so many signs that we were meant to come together and to do this project. She said several times, “Your hair wants to be dreaded. I’ve never worked on such easy hair.” She also said she had never worked with so much. That’s why it took twenty-two hours. (Incidentally, Rusty sent me some literature on the significance of twenty-two and it was further confirmation that something really powerful just happened.)

I write this today because I imagine that the change might come as a shock for some. I realize that I am in a profession in which we are advised to bring as little attention to ourselves physically as possible. We are to be a presence of comfort and assurance, and we should avoid things that make people uncomfortable. I have blown that out of the water with my religious tats, earrings in both ears, and now dreadlocks. I certainly get the objections, but I don’t agree with them.In many religious traditions, hair (facial and otherwise) can be an external sign of something internal. For me, the locks symbolize my being locked to my community of Yellow Springs; locked to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; locked to my dear wife; locked to my family; locked to the commitment of other relationships without an ulterior motive; locked to living a life of service, compassion, love, and justice. I have no doubt that when I die, I will have locks. I cannot imagine what would cause me to cut them (please, Lord Baby Jesus, don’t take that as a challenge).

So in advance, yes. You may touch them if you ask. Yes, I will wash my hair, just slightly less frequently than before (which was still only about twice a month because of the sheer volume of hair). And, yes. I have been deliberate in changing my “image.” I look the way I feel: Someone who wears his heart on his sleeve and is kinda wild in a John the Baptizer sort of way. I will have a crazy beard for at least the foreseeable future, until Muslims and Sikhs are treated better in this country. And, yes. My locks are for Jesus. They represent my commitment. And I believe that God brought Rusty, Ryan, Presley, Miriam, and me together into a significant relationship as a result of this process. For that I say, “Thanks be to God.”

(For those interested in hiring Rusty, contact me and I’ll facilitate a connection. She is incredibly talented, so she also is in demand. You might have to wait a little bit for an appointment, but she’s worth it. Totally worth it.)

Exclusively Inclusive

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I sometimes wish that we did not have to modify the word “Christian.” Orthodox Christian. Catholic Christian. Protestant Christian. Conservative Christian. Progressive Christian. Those of us in the club know what questions to ask to make quick determinations? Oh, you’re Lutheran? Which Synod? We know what ONA, More Light, Reconciling Ministry, Opus Dei, SBC, and other ingredients in the alphabet soup signify. My home denomination, the United Church of Christ, was formed with the goal of fulfilling Jesus’ words in John, “That they may all be one.”

Alas, that has not come to pass. So it was in such a context that our lovely church secretary Tina answered the phone today to be told, “We googled ‘conservative Christian churches’ and yours popped up!” Tina had to go on to explain that we are More Light, which means we affirm the GLBT community without reservation. The conversation quickly ended. Tina burst into laughter and told me the story. I immediately laughed and put the story on Facebook, as I am wont to do.

The thread unfolded much as one would expect with my diverse, intelligent, and snarky group of friends. There were jokes about how Tina should have said, “Our pastor is finishing getting his hair dreadlocked today because yesterday he had to bless a transgender girl, but I can have him call you when he gets back into the office.” It was riotous, clean, good-natured fun. Then someone posted, “Inclusive means everyone.” I immediately liked the comment and nodded; I completely understood what she meant and decided that it is an important message to unpack.

I had a hard experience early in my preaching career (long before I can to First Presby). I made an overtly political reference to a named candidate; it was not quite enough to violate the law, but it was toeing the line. The person who objected was not who I might have expected (because, assumptions) as she is trans* but is politically quite conservative. There were a few other people who objected, and one who still refuses to ever hear me preach. I did the hard work of introspection, apology, and reflection. Through the mentoring of my pastor, I internalized an important mantra: “Would a conservative Republican Evangelical feel spiritually nourished by my sermon?” One does not have to agree with what is said to be spiritually challenged; and my job is to preach the gospel, not political opinions. Sometimes the gospel helps me form my political opinions, and I certainly call people to action through my sermons. But as the pastoral leader of the church, am I being invitational with everything I say and do?

But here’s the rub. I feel called to pay particular attention to those left out and abandoned by most churches. I feel called to enter into relationship with people who are hurt by religion, and with those who are even downright hostile to it. I do not seek to convert them. I do not seek to save their souls. I seek to invite them to investigate a community in which they are affirmed for their intrinsic personhood, where they are provided opportunities to volunteer, lead, and to express their gifts in ways that are authentic and loving. I do this because that is the gospel, at least to me. For me. It was that invitation that helped me get through the death of my brother. It is that invitation that helps me get through my mental illness. I believe that I am loved, even when I feel unworthy of it.

So, yes. You are welcome to come and worship with us if you are a conservative Christian. But you will not be able to come into the community and begin commenting on other people’s relationships and perceived sins. We don’t do that; we don’t hold others up for ridicule. We hold up others for love. Period. And if you think that I am doing the wrong thing as a spiritual leader, you are welcome to tell me. Tell my bosses. Tell the denomination. But you will not be able to intentionally hurt or judge one person who comes to the church I pastor. That will not happen. Not on my watch.

This does not mean that we have to agree on theology, scripture, tradition, or liturgy. If you want to be part of the community because you feel challenged and believe it is important for you to be here to offer a differing view, that’s great. Come on in. I love vigorous discussions and I am comfortable with positive tension. But there is no room for the agitator who simply wants to disrupt the wayward Christians who love the wrong people and refuse to declare any of God’s creations to be “abominations” for simply being who they are. There is not room for the person who believes that trans* persons, gay persons, and child molesters are somehow the same. That they set forth equal arguments for why they should be allowed to be themselves.

I absolutely agree with the person who posted “Inclusive means everyone.” Yes, it does. And part of our role at FPCYS is including those who are refused at most other houses of worship. Our preferential option for these types of persons does not somehow infringe upon the rest of the population. You are welcome here, all of you; but there are requirements. If you are unable to love and affirm someone else as being no more or less sinful and worthy of grace than are you, then you are not being inclusive in the way we are, and there is probably a better church for you down the road a piece.

Blessing Zay

In case you don’t know her, this is Zay. Click here for a short film The Cincinnati Enquirer did on her and the family last year. Knowing her story is pretty important to understanding this blog.

I met Zay when she still went by her birth name and responded to male pronouns. She was full of energy and in the cast of The Three Penny Opera, a show that also featured my wife. I thought that it was really cool that her parents supported a gender-fluid child. Over the coming months I–like many of us lucky enough to be in her life–understood that Zay is a girl. She is not a boy who likes to wear dresses; she is not confused or experimenting or trying to be cool. She is trying to survive. She is trying to be who she knows herself to be.

There are not many people I will say I admire; respect? Yes. Love? Yes? Appreciate? Yes. But admire? That’s a high bar. Zay’s parents, Chass and Jason, are two people I admire. Because as hard as it was for Zay to give voice to herself, it was equally hard for them to understand what was going on, what they needed to do, and how they could go about doing it. I have marveled at their tenacious dedication to let love and compassion overpower fear and uncertainty. Having held the hands of trans* persons as they recounted horrific tales of unspeakable violence by their own family members, I know (as well as a cisgender person can) how incredibly important family support is when coming out and transitioning, and how lucky Zay is to be facilitating transition as she goes through puberty. This community is not unfamiliar with trans* persons; we already helped produce the inimitable Trace Lysett (although I speak with no authority on Trace’s transition or experiences), but we are by no means a perfect community. There is trans* phobia here, and transitioning can be rough. Zay’s parents have done an incredible thing for their daughter, while all the while mourning the loss of a son. It is a tough dynamic.

I’ve been on the organizing committee for Yellow Springs Pride for the past several years, and that is really how I go to know Zay and Chass the best. The year I was the featured speaker, Zay was crowned Pride Queen. She led the parade and the village rallied around her. I’ll be honest and say that I only ever see Zay smiling, but I know there have been difficult times. I know that being who she is takes a toll on her, on her family, on the dynamics they face each day. I wish it were different, but it is not. As wonderfully supportive as family and friends are, fear and uncertainty make people behave badly and there is no avoiding it. That’s why days like today are so important.

I was asked several weeks ago to put together a blessing service for Zay on the day that her name becomes legal. Friends and family gathered at the county courthouse before packing into a small courtroom to witness the historic event. The guards, court officials, and magistrate were lovely. Absolutely lovely. They recognized this as a huge event and were nothing but cheerful, enthusiastic, and helpful. As nonbinary people continued to join our ranks, there was no snide remarks, no persons pointing, no untoward questions about genitals. It was an amazing moment when the magistrate declared that “Zay Irene Crawford” is now one step closer to being her legal name recognized on all documents. We clapped and cheered and laughed and hugged and cried. It was beautiful.

After, we gathered together at a local park to break bread and share stories. Zay flitted around and fed the ducks, danced, and greeted her admirers. It came time for me to give the blessing, which I did–and you can read it below–while trying not to cry. Zay stood next to me as everyone encircled us, a physical representation of our spiritual commitment to surround Zay with love all of her days.

In many Christian denominations, I would be defrocked for what I did today. The fact that I am so open about my support of the GLBT community–a community to which I belong–means that many churches and many Christians won’t have me as a member or as a pastor. But I feel that today I followed Christ in one of the most significant acts I could do: affirming the idea that Zay is not an abomination, not an affront to God, not a boy who thinks he is a girl, but rather a wonderfully made, radically loved miracle. I was able to be a vehicle to communicate God’s love and compassion, to express that God’s wondrous creation is so much more intricate and beautiful than the binary spectrum reflects.

This, friends. This is why I went to seminary. This is why I seek to serve. I am invited into the most powerful, intimate moments of people’s lives as a symbol of God’s presence, as a reminder of our undeniable connection to one another. I may have delivered the blessing today, but Zay IS the blessing.

The Ceremony 

William Shakespeare famously queried, “What’s in a name?” The ancients believed a lot. Abram, the founder of the three great monotheistic faiths, became Abraham as a testimony of his transformation; Sarai, his beloved and the matriarch, became Sarah. Millennia later, a passionate Jew named Saul was so overcome with a sense of God, be changed his name to Paul and helped bring forth a new revelation. Around the world, Jews and Christians take religious names at bar and bat mitzvahs, christenings and confirmations. Our Muslim brothers and sisters are named in honor of their prophet and revered figures. What’s in a name, indeed.

Names are highly symbolic within the vast variety of Native American tribes and nations. The blood of Native ancestors runs through Zay’s veins, and while today is not an official naming ceremony in a Native tradition, the spirit of such a hallmark event is present in this moment. Zay—in ways that most of us cannot imagine at her age—understands central aspects of herself, an understanding that transcends years on earth. She has a deep, intrinsic knowledge of who she is, and she has spent most of her life explaining that to others. In her bones, in her body, in her mind, in her soul, and in her heart Zay Irene Crawford understands that she is a young woman meant to grow more fully into her identity. Today, we recognize that; we recognize her strength and beauty as a child of God.

I now ask that Zay’s family come forward. Please repeat after me.

On this special day, we surround you with love. We affirm who you are, and embrace you on your journey. We will walk in solidarity as you continue your path, and we pledge our unwavering support. In this family, you are a daughter, a sister, a niece, a granddaughter, a beloved of our own. As long as we are with you, you will never be alone.

Zay, please repeat after me.

I, Zay Irene Crawford, do proclaim that this is my name. It identifies who I am called to be. I take the name of my grandmother, Irene, which means “peace,” and the name of my family. I am to you a daughter and a sister, niece and granddaughter, and you are beloved to me. As long as you are with me, I will never be alone. 

In every tradition, a community gathers around a new name. A community that pledges to love, to seek justice, to extend compassion, and to be present in the wonders and mysteries of life. Will those present who feel so moved, affirm their continued support of Zay and her family by repeating after me: As long as you are together, we will be here.

In the Love of the Creator, the Source of All Things, the Unnamable Spirit, we lift up our hearts and present to the world, Zay Irene Crawford.

What If They’re Right? A Progressive Pastor’s Fears Laid Bare

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I was not raised in the Church. I came to faith via a long and winding road and a tremendous amount of study. Like most highly educated pastors, I have thought through my theology. Deeply. And I do not separate my faith from any area of my life. It is all-encompassing. Grace is a wonderful thing, as I am broken. Wonderfully made and radically love, yes, but broken nonetheless.

I have made decisions about my understanding of community. I can give biblical justifications for why I support women’s ordination, the full inclusion of GLBT persons into community and religious life, and do not think that Jesus is the only way to God. Some fundamentalists stick around to hear my explanations, some do not. Some are fine with agreeing to disagree, and finding areas in which we have crossover to use that shared belief to propel us into relationship and meaningful collaboration to do God’s work. Some refuse to acknowledge my ordination and believe that I am leading a congregation to hell. In fact, the two denominations with whom I am intimately tied, the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA) are two of the most liberal denominations. Add onto that the fact that the congregation I serve aligns with the More Light Presbyterian movement, and I am about as “Progressive” (meant in the categorical sense) a Christian as you can get.

To me, though, the most important word in that descriptor is Christian. I take the gospel seriously. I emphasize the things I believe Jesus told us humans to emphasize: compassion, justice, mercy, solidarity, and love. I leave to God the task of judgment and the state of a person’s soul. I take the bible seriously, but not necessarily literally. I have deep, abiding respect for the long tradition of our faith, but I think there have been many, many mistakes. I find that too often I have to spend a lot of time explaining those mistakes to people who are not necessarily resistant to the view of God my faith espouses, but who are so damaged, so wary, so weary of the Christianity that judges and casts stones, they are hesitant to even think about trying church.

But here’s the rub. Mainline, liberal congregations across the country are struggling. There are myriad reasons for this and if you want to learn more, just pick up any issue of The Christian Century from the past ten years and you are likely to find at least one article about it. Our detractors say it is because we have polluted the gospel. We have acceded to the culture and abandoned Christ. I have written many times about my view of the gospel and I feel absolutely fine claiming that I follow Jesus. However, non-denominational mega churches, which often have a blood atonement theology, a charismatic preacher at the helm who dispenses advice masked as scripture, and a financial statement that can rival those of entire denominations, are thriving. Growth may be slowing down, but the communities are sticking. People are leaving traditional denominations and are going to these churches. For years, we educated and discerning Christians (to our own minds) joked that offering designer coffee and house bands would not be enough to keep people. We misjudged what it was that sent people to churches such as these. The truth is, non-denominational mega churches might be the future of Protestant Christianity. And while they are not for me, for a wide variety of reasons, I am not interested in badmouthing another part of the Body of Christ. Not for addressing what certain people want and need. I know I couldn’t do it, but I don’t deny that there is serious commitment to Christ that emerges in these communities. I don’t agree with their vision of Christ, oftentimes, but the discipleship is real. That’s important.

So, here’s the deal. All the people who said that they’d come back to church if denominations were open to the GLBT community; people who said they would be part of a thinking church, a church that allows for questions; people who said that they want to be able to be in a space where their experiences and even admiration of other religious traditions would be respected; all of those people who motivated so many of us to push within our denominations, to be vocal and visible in social justice fights, we need you. Now. We need you in order to help congregations that are aging, that are struggling financially because they are trying to upkeep ancient buildings. We need you–even if you don’t come to worship proper–to offer to work with us, to help us staff committees, throw community events, create spiritual spaces that are utilized and respected.

Because we could die. And maybe that needs to happen. Maybe our vision of the Gospel is not correct. I reject that claim with every fiber of my being, but I need people to understand the stakes. I have so many passionate, talented, spirit-filled friends who went to seminary, accrued major debt, and are tasked with leading aging and financially-challenged communities and we’re frightened about what we face. Most of us will never be full-time pastors.  For me, the fear is not monetary; it is the prospect that a community that has been continuous since 1860, that has pushed the boundaries and been vital to village life, might end. On my watch. It would be a loss, not just to the Church but to the community as well. I imagine that many of you reading this who do not live in Yellow Springs probably have a few churches in your area that fit this description.

This will be my last doom and gloom blog. I am focused on solutions. I am focused on community. But I wanted to be clear about what drives and motivates me, and what is at stake. I’m looking to try new things and to gather people together in ways that are authentic and meaningful, but also in line with the gospel that is at the center of my heart, sinner that I am.

Community Concerns

 

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When Dr. King graduated from Boston University, he had opportunities to pastor churches or even teach up North. He and Coretta prayed on it fervently, and concluded that they were called to return to their native Southland. History would have been much different had they not gone first to Montgomery, and then Atlanta.

Lewis V. Baldwin, in his seminal work There is a Balm in Gilead, traces the intellectual and cultural influences of Dr. King’s life, from the South to the Black Church. King’s father and mother were both educated and deeply rooted in the church, so he knew no other life than one centered in Christianity, community, solidarity, and suffering. He knew the language and the rhythms, the traditions and the concerns. He was invested in the larger community because he understood the connection between secular systems and the ability to follow God; if laws or culture keeps you oppressed, your religion of justice cannot be practiced. King was a disciple of Jesus Christ first, a civil rights activist second. The two just happened to overlap quite a bit. We often forget that in our watering-down of King’s radical work.

It is always dangerous whenever a minister, especially a White one, starts talking about Dr. King. I’m not comparing my own path to his; that would be asinine. But I do understand what it means to be so closely attached to the place where you serve. Yellow Springs has been my home for nearly all my life. There were years in which I lived elsewhere, but my family home has been here for 30 years. I grew up playing in Glen Helen. I am a product of the schools. A big part of my sense of self is wrapped up in this place.

But the center of my life is my identity as a Christian. As a Jesus follower. As a servant. As a person committed to being in relationship with anyone who seeks me. A person who is not that concerned with rules regarding who gets Communion and I don’t believe I have the ability to save a soul. Frankly, that doesn’t even make my list of top 500 things I think being a pastor is about.

This village, historically, has been intimately concerned about justice. I think that is still there, but it is being pushed to the periphery. Our demographics have changed and our median income has risen, pushing out some of the weird, creative, passionate people that once found refuge here. I look around and I think that there is a need for a spiritual place that provides sanctuary and freedom simultaneously; a place that is safe but encouraging of questions. Of skepticism. Of a desire to push deeper to bring our words in line with our actions. A place that is hospitable and invitational, but is also radical and on fire. A place where art, theater, music, and spirituality find expression inside and outside of worship. A community that comes together in commitment and trust, exploration and sharing; a community that dares to believe that God is too big for labels, but that traditions can give us purpose, direction, power, and peace.

But people have to want it. They have to see the need and feel that this place is worth the risk. The time. The vulnerability. The messiness of relationships and community. I will do everything I can to continue the invitation; the congregation will continue to be welcoming; we will try to show our love in the things we do and the words we say. We hold on to the prayer, If you love them, they will come. 

I love this village, and I love the Church. I fear for both. I fear that if we do not pay attention to the needs and concerns of people we will fail in our charge to pass on the legacies to a new generation. If we do not commit ourselves to taking risks, to allowing for the possibility that change can bring about new life, to caring enough to reach out to our neighbors and invite them along on the journey, we may see something beautiful slip away. If we do not remember who and what we have been in the past, but strive toward the future, we will see our opportunity slip away. If we don’t talk seriously about our declining non-White population and our growing economic divide, we could see the chance for authentic diversity die. If we don’t listen to the concerns that people have about the practice of Christianity, if we don’t affirm the hurt of those who have been pushed away by organized religion, if we don’t stop to think that maybe God is calling us to a new form of ministry we’ll be staring at a corpse that cannot be raised.

Luckily for us, we have a resurrection hope.

 

Why We Need Non-Christians to Save the Church

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I preached a hard sermon today. A sermon that was not meant to make people feel comfortable. It was a sermon born of frustration and prophecy; a sermon meant to inspire and shock. A sermon that took Acts 11:1-18 and made it personal. A sermon tasking people with breaking the rules, pushing the envelope violating polity. A sermon meant to honor the lesson that Prince taught my generation, which is to get through this thing called life. To embrace your place in the world, even when you are grasping to hold on, and to tell your story. Like Peter to the Jerusalem assembly. Here is why I am doing things differently, and why you should, too.

I wrote honestly last time about how I fear the congregation I serve could die within a generation. I spoke that aloud today, the pews filled with members and visitors, faithful and questioning. I put out a call that we are going to have to do more, try new things, dare to believe that God is okay with us making mistakes in the pursuit of relationships and connections. This is not about building up membership. This is about emerging as a brave, vital community that is comfortable enough in its own identity that it does not need to determine how others approach their spirituality. It means that we fling open our doors and actively go out into the community, not to proselytize but to listen. To hear the needs of God’s people and to use our resources to create space that allows for healing, for questioning, for reflection, for sharing, for a sense of belonging, and for a respect that there are infinite paths one may walk. We use a particular religious language and lens to express ourselves, but we are not frightened of other methods.

In truth, I’m looking for non-Christians. I find that the Christianity they reject is one I reject as well; my atheist friends largely reject belief in a God to whom I also cannot accede. We don’t honor God by being scared of others; we don’t honor God by allowing rules to keep up out of relationship. I am not arguing that “anything goes,” but when I read the gospel accounts, I encounter a Jesus who was in the muck and mire, who pushed the boundaries of clean and unclean, who was fearless and dogged in his pursuit to bring love to those who needed it most. That is what I yearn to do. To push the boundaries and to be engaged with people who ask questions, who push back against tradition, who demand that justice and equality be more than buzz words. We need those who are resistant; and I think that we have a lot to offer as well. A Jesus-centered commitment to life and relationships that demand action and attention. A community that lives the faith more than for an hour on Sunday.

I think it would be easier for me if I didn’t believe in God so deeply, so profoundly, that I cannot turn my back on what Christ calls me to do. I am not trying to talk myself up or present myself as some holy figure. I am broken; I am a blessed mess of contradictions and passions and desires that swirl around inside me, but the one constant is my sincere commitment to follow Jesus. Just, follow him. I’ll talk about him if you want. But I’m more interested in doing what he did. Being present. Loving. Standing up for justice. Centering on God. And listening to others. I can’t turn my back on that call. I don’t care if someone is a Christian or not. If they want to be in relationship with me, that is enough. If they need me and ask, I am going to go. I can do nothing less.

I really want to hear–especially for those in YS–what would make you consider stepping through the doors to have a chat, to share a meal, to complete a project, to form a relationship. Don’t think of this as church, think of it as a spiritual center where an invitation is being extended. Come share. Come exist. Come discover things about your self and your community and what it means to be an embodied spiritual being.

Because, dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.

The Calling: Sometimes

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It is a strange thing we pastors do. We claim that not only is there a God, but also that this God has somehow called us to service. Many of us–at least, those who do it right–make incredible sacrifices in terms of earning potential, personal lives, and family relationships. We voluntarily take vows that require us to withhold information from our spouses; we accept people speaking to us with great disrespect, either because they are not believers or because they somehow think that we do not retain feelings when we put on the clerical collar. We open up ourselves to public conversations about our bodies, our tattoos, our hairstyles, where we go on vacation, and a whole host of other factors.

The calling is sometimes a great burden. And one of the problems is that sometimes people do not want to hear us gripe. Sometimes we’re told to keep it in because we are charged with being leaders, and congregations should not know of our pain, our struggles, our desires, our frustrations. Those outside the congregation don’t want to hear a pastor complain, either. Get over it, they might say. Everybody has problems.

Let me be clear. I love the people in the church I serve. I cherish the relationships and I respect the people in the community. I also understand that this is their church, not mine. I am to serve to the best of my ability, and to do so with a humble, grateful, and loving heart. Most of the time, that is very easy to do.

But there comes a time (at least one), I think, in every pastor’s career when she/he/they believes that God is speaking. If not speaking, revealing possibilities. If we’re doing it right, we pastors believe very deeply in God and seek out the signs and symbols that can help us lead a community. And maybe that sets us up for pain when others don’t share our vision, or tell us to slow down, or say that what we want to do cannot be done. It is hard to be a pastor who feels like the past is an albatross because everything has been tried before or has been done better than it can be done by us.

Here’s a hard truth. Churches like the one I serve could die within a generation. Our numbers are down. Our membership is older. The burdens of caring for a beautiful, but old building are weighing upon a congregation that has very little money to spare. Our identity as followers of Jesus Christ has been subsumed by our identity as building superintendents. And I didn’t go to seminary to be a building manager.

It is a strange thing I do. I harness my talents and my passion toward a story. A myth. A collection of doctrines and dogma that don’t always make sense. I voluntarily eschew money and career advancement to do what I believe I am meant to do. No one forced me, and I am so blessed to have the opportunity to do this, especially in my hometown. But I feel charged with continuing a legacy that was started in 1855, and I fear that without bold and hopeful action this legacy will die. The congregation will cease to exist, and the building will no longer house a community committed to following Jesus Christ. I will have failed.

Sometimes the calling is hard.