Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Easter Expectation

We would like to be those two angels sitting in the tomb, safe with our insider information. Smiling at those outside, “Why are you crying?” without sharing what we know, namely that Jesus is alive again.

We would like to be those two disciples, running as fast as possible to the tomb, peeking quickly inside, and then running as fast as possible back home again without even glancing back, to lock the door and take care of ourselves.

The truth is we are more often Mary Magdalene, unsure of what exactly is going on, confused, hurting, tears filling our eyes, with no idea what will happen next.

And yet alert, aware, and strong enough to stay anyway. The thing is, Mary stays. She sticks with it. She stands firm. It’s obvious she expects something, although exactly what she isn’t certain. But of course, there’s a difference between “expectation” and “certainty.”

Expectation means you know that this present moment is not all there is. Expectation is understanding that there is more, even if you aren’t certain what that “more” actually looks like.

Expectation is what compelled Mary Magdalene to stay, in spite of her pain, her grief. And through her tears, in the darkness, she saw … someone. Someone who called her by name.

“Mary.”

And there it was. “Oh. You know me! And yes, I know you. Oh, it’s you.” And just like that, expectation was fulfilled, as she saw Jesus, living and breathing and walking and talking. Jesus.

Easter is all about expectation. And that doesn’t mean that we know exactly what will happen next; it just means we know Jesus. And more importantly, that we are known by him.

And now we carry that expectancy into every moment of every day, and it gives us hope. Life is uncertain, the world is a violent place, there will be struggle, grief, obstacles to overcome. None of that goes away just because it’s Easter.

What has changed is that our lives have been infused with expectation, and we know that our present reality isn’t the end of the story. Easter assures us that, no matter how bad things are, expectation will be fulfilled. If we stick with it like Mary did, we will see Jesus.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Hidden From Your Eyes

This is a picture of a pew in St. George’s Coptic Church in Tanta, Egypt.

I do not want to look at it. I cannot stop looking at it.

I’d rather it was hidden from our eyes.

There is blood on this pew because a Daesh terrorist detonated a bomb in this sanctuary during worship, killing 27 people and wounding 78 more. (A few hours later another Daesh terrorist detonated another bomb at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, Egypt, killing 17 more people and wounding another 48.)

It was Palm Sunday.

It was the day on which the Bible says Jesus said these words: “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.’”

I wish I could stop looking at this picture. There is a smear on the back of the pew, apparently made by someone’s fingers in the drips of blood running down. Had those fingers been moments earlier waving a palm branch?

Hosanna, indeed.

We waved palm branches on Sunday, too. Young and old alike sang familiar songs from pews not that much different from the ones in this picture. As we did, our kids paraded around those pews a few times, holding their branches over their heads, smiling at the grown-ups smiling back at them, caught up in the joyful energy of the moment.

And then, you know, we went home and ate lunch.

I suppose I’ll never really understand what motivates violence like this, how such hatred and fear of the other takes root in the human heart, corrupting us, eroding us, minimizing us.

A sensible explanation is hidden from my eyes. Hatred warps the human soul. Violence only ever causes more violence. Fear distorts truth, casting instead a shadow of grotesque and horrifying false reality.

It’s the Palm Sunday juxtaposition that won’t let me go this time. Save us! From halfway around the world, a picture of a bloody church pew. A phrase from Jesus Christ Superstar that says “To conquer death, you only have to die.” A so-called “triumphant” entry, deeply misunderstood then as well as today. A cheering crowd of people who know not what they do. Waving palms, breaking bread, driving nails.

What has changed?

We’re just stuck here. Stuck between Palm Sunday and the cross. Cheers and lament. In between “Hosanna” and “Crucify.” The next big thing is already old news. That which is in plain sight is simultaneously hidden from our eyes. Spiritual déjà vu.

If I didn’t know better, I would say that it feels like we need a resurrection.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

There Is More Than One Way

The other day my friend Valerie asked me, “Can I come to your church?”
I replied, “Yes! Of course!”
And then her face lit up and she said, “I never realized there was another way to do it!”

The “it” she was referring to was the sacrament of Holy Communion. We had just had pre-opening night Communion on stage together with many of the cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It was a wonderful, holy moment. And it was different from what she had experienced before.

Valerie had grown up in one particular tradition, and thought that there was pretty much only that one way that “counted.” And of course it is deeper than just how you do Holy Communion. The antecedent of the pronoun “it” in Valerie’s statement truly refers to the church in general. Her observation is profound, and the church needs to listen hard.

Yes, there is more than one way to do church.

How many people grew up being told that there is only one way to do it? Or how many were told, “Well, there may be other ways, but there’s only one right way?” Or how many of us grew up maybe not being told that explicitly, but at least were never encouraged to seek other ways of being in relationship with God?

I believe that people long for meaning. And some stuff that is very meaningful to me is not going to be the slightest bit meaningful to you, and vice versa. And that’s okay. It’s not that my way is “right” and yours is “wrong,” it’s just that my way is meaningful to me and yours is meaningful to you. Unless, of course, someone’s way does harm to another - then that’s not okay. That way is wrong and it needs to be challenged.

When it comes to our relationship with the divine, our religion, who am I to say that the meaning you have discovered in your way is not right, just because it doesn’t work for me?

Is not God capable of relating to people in whatever way God chooses? Or would I dare to suggest a limit on God’s capacity to interact with the world? (Spoiler: No, I would not.)

And so listen up, Church. Listen to my friend Valerie. She wants to know that there are other ways to do it. She wants to discover her own unique relationship with God, not be told what it has to look like. She wants a relationship with God that means something to her, not necessarily the one any of the rest of us would find meaningful. And of course, she’s not the only one.

So, we have to quit insisting that one, narrowly defined, rigidly constructed way of being the church is the only way to do it. Our systems and structures have to be flexible enough to offer connection and community for a diverse collection of people, such that each one of us finds opportunities to encounter God in our midst.

There is more than one way to encounter God. There is more than one way to follow Jesus.

There is more than one way to be the Church.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Playing Pilate

“Because it’s fun to play a bad guy,” is the superficial answer I give when someone asks me why I wanted to play Pilate. And that is true. It is engaging for me as an actor to portray a “bad guy” in a show. There are more layers of the character to reveal.

But for me, playing Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar is much deeper than that. Ever since I was a kid listening to my parent’s LP, I have been intrigued by how Pilate is portrayed in Superstar. In fact, the Bible itself portrays Pilate as a more complicated figure than he is often given credit for.

And his story, as the early church told it, is similarly complicated. Some early documents indicate he converted to become a follower of Jesus himself. The Coptic tradition considers him to be a martyr. The date and manner of his death are subject to scholarly debate, which is odd for such a notable figure. Augustine believed that Pilate was sincere when he wrote, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (see John 19:19-22). “It could not be torn from his heart that Jesus was the King of the Jews,” Augustine wrote.

So I am working with a lot of “back story” to enter into this character and attempt to convey at least some of that nuance and complexity on stage. And here’s what I’ve got…

Pilate has been appointed to Jerusalem, in the Jewish nation of Judea, to be the head Roman in charge. But he is not the least bit engaged with governing the people. In fact he would rather just isolate himself in his palace and let the temple leaders handle their own business. As long as there’s no trouble, as long as the people stay quiet and continue to pay their taxes, as long as Caesar’s attention is not turned this direction, all is well. No news is good news.

Enter Jesus.

Jesus draws the aloof Pilate into the story against his will, kicking and screaming. The first pull comes when Pilate is haunted by a vision in which Pilate sees Jesus, though he only knows him as a random Galilean. Pilate confronts him, but gets no response, and since Pilate is a man accustomed to people responding, this alone is noteworthy. Suddenly Pilate witnesses Jesus attacked by wild and angry men who disappear into the mist, a puzzling development. The vision shifts into an image of countless people grieving for Jesus, and the deepest cut of all, they seem to be leaving Pilate the blame for his death.

This dream has shaken Pilate, enough that he feels compelled to share it, to talk about it. He has no idea what it means, but he cannot let it go. The most amazing Galilean in his dream has looked directly into his hidden self, and left an imprint that cannot be erased.

And so, when the temple leaders bring Jesus to him, it comes as somewhat of a relief to see that he is a rather ordinary, unfortunate man. Not a king at all. Pilate is actually bemused,  if somewhat annoyed, at this initial encounter with Jesus, and he even connects with him on a personal level, bantering a bit, admiring how cool Jesus is under pressure.

But Pilate gets bored easily, and after all this is just a random smelly Galilean, so Pilate dismisses him - Herod’s race? Herod’s case!

Jesus does not stay long at Herod’s place, however. All too quickly he is dragged back to Pilate, and the point is clear. His role in the drama is limited. “We need him crucified, it’s all you have to do,” say the leaders of the temple.

Pilate resists. First of all, Pilate does not take orders from anyone in Judea. He is naturally inclined to minimize the significance of a demand coming from the temple. And so he initially attempts to laugh it off, to wave it away like a persistent swarm of gnats.

And then there is a moment. The crowd is still, Pilate kneels next to Jesus whose eyes meet his, looking directly into his hidden self, and a phrase from his dream floats through the room. In this moment things begin to change; from here the energy builds relentlessly toward the inevitable conclusion.

Hoping to avoid killing him, Pilate decides to flog Jesus. Many times before, public flogging has been enough. Perhaps that will satisfy the crowd this time, too. But something happens as the punishment is enforced. What begins as a mundane event, chilling in its ordinariness, becomes a disturbing, horrifying, and convicting act of savagery.

Something inside of Pilate cracks.

It is just at this moment, when he is the most vulnerable, the most exposed, that grace comes to Pilate. “You have nothing in your hands,” Jesus tells him. “Everything is fixed and you can’t change it.” Jesus absolves Pilate of blame, removing from his hands the shame and guilt of this atrocity.

But grace, as it often is, is difficult to receive. The shock of it terrifies Pilate, and deepens the fissures in his soul. He struggles to keep himself together, to regain control.

The crowd spots the weakness and intensifies their pressure, leaning on Pilate, pressing him, shouting at him. “Remember Caesar!” they yell, which of course adds a whole new dimension to the torment. If news of this disturbance somehow gets to Caesar’s ears, the consequences get serious for Pilate. The weight is enormous, unrelenting, eroding his resistance, crushing him.

And finally … he breaks.

Pilate shatters into a thousand pieces, his thoughts reduced to a nearly indecipherable shriek. “DIE, if you want to! You innocent puppet…”

And he exits. He has become the broken man, the unfortunate, good for nothing but cluttering up a hallway. He tries to wash his hands of Christ’s great self-destruction, but finds them indelibly stained.

And yet, there was a glance. There was a hint. A seed of grace has been planted deeply in his hidden self. We are left to wonder if it will take root and blossom.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

There Will Be A Church

It could happen this way…


In 2024 there will be three denominations that include the 12 million people who currently comprise the United Methodist denomination.

There will be the Wesleyan Covenant Church (or some such name). They will have a thoroughly Wesleyan theology, though they will emphasize the Scriptural authority part a bit more. They will not allow gay people to get married or ordained, and will be explicit about stating such.

There will be a Progressive Methodist Church (or some such name). They will have a thoroughly Wesleyan theology, though they will emphasize the grace part a bit more. They will allow gay people to get married or ordained, and will be explicit about stating such.

There will be a United Methodist Church (or some such name). They will have a thoroughly Wesleyan theology, and will constantly wrestle with the tensions that inevitably arise when Scripture is read through the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience. They will remove sexual orientation and gender identity as barriers to marriage and ordination, leaving authority to make those decisions in the hands of pastors and Annual Conferences.

The three new denominations will be in “full communion” with one another. This means that they are unified in the essentials of the faith but recognize clear differences of opinion regarding how a holy life is to be lived. We will be able to celebrate Holy Communion together. There will be a way to recognize ordination among the three, though I’m sure there would be extensive discussion as to how that would look. And most importantly, we will share a common commitment to the mission of the Church.

At some point, maybe in 40 years, maybe in 60, these three denominations will merge again.


… or it might not. Who knows really?

What I know for certain is that I am not in the least bit anxious about the future of the church. I believe Jesus when he says that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” I believe in resurrection. I believe in something eternal, something that exists beyond my ability to comprehend it, that will outlive me.

And even if it looks nothing like it looks today, there will be a church.

As long as there are people who need to know they are worthy of the deepest love imaginable, there will be a church to tell them.

As long as there is evil, injustice, and oppression to be resisted in whatever forms they present themselves, there will be a church to resist them.

As long as there are widows, orphans, and immigrants in need of help for their journey, there will be a church to walk alongside them.

As long as there are people who need the transformative power of grace to flip their lives around so they might become the people they are created to be, there will be a church to offer it to them.

As long as God’s mission is unfulfilled, there will be a church working to realize it. Yes, even if it looks not in the least bit like it does today, there will be a church.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Seeking Compromise, Part 2

“You speak of compromise. That is a concept that requires a commitment from all involved. I have yet to hear what progressives are willing to contribute to this compromise you talk of. All I ever hear is that I am to compromise my conscience so that you [would] now [be] free to live by yours.” - anonymous comment on “Enterthe Rainbow,” February 14, 2017

I have a personal policy against responding to anonymous comments, so I hope to learn the identity of this commenter some day, because I really want to respond. If I was going to respond, it might look something like this:

Anonymous Commenter, you indicate that those against marriage equality are being asked to compromise their conscience, and I agree with that. But even more so, they are being asked to compromise their idea of sin, morality, purity, and even obedience to God. This is a very big deal for those opposed to marriage equality, and should not be minimized.

And what are those in favor of marriage equality being asked to compromise? We are being asked to compromise our sense of justice. But even more so, we are being asked to compromise our idea of human decency, covenant, Biblical interpretation, and yes, even obedience to God. This is a very big deal for those in favor of marriage equality, and that should not be minimized either.

So I really want to say to you, Anonymous Commenter, that if we United Methodists are going to compromise by allowing some sort of local autonomy in which pastors can marry a same-sex couple if they want to but wouldn’t be forced to, then here’s the compromise: You are going to have to let me do something that you believe is immoral and I am going to have to let you do something that I believe is unjust.

To be blunt, you would have to let me marry same-sex couples, an act you believe to be morally wrong, and I would have to allow you to refuse to marry same-sex couples, an act I believe to be unequivocally unjust.

Obviously, this compromise would be a very big deal and should in no way be minimized or watered down to a simple either/or proposition.

So why would we do it? Why would one side compromise morality and the other justice? For what cause would we even consider making these concessions? The only reason we would decide to do so is if we believed that Christian unity is of higher value than either morality or justice.

Some people believe thus, and are working to keep the church united. Some people do not, and are making plans to leave. Obviously I fall into the first group, believing that unity is worth striving for, even if that means seeking a difficult compromise.

Can we be united as one body in the church if I am doing something you believe is immoral and I know that you believe it is and in fact you may even remind me that you think it is immoral every time we are together? Can we be united as one body in the church if you are doing something I believe is unjust and you know that I believe it is and in fact I may even remind you that I think it is unjust every time we are together?

These, my friend, are the million dollar questions with which we would wrestle. But here’s the kicker; we could only wrestle with them if we stay together. And I happen to believe that there is holy value in the wrestling itself, even if it is messy and difficult and doesn’t result in a nice, neat resolution. Indeed, the conversation matters.

So that’s basically what I would say in response to the comment quoted above. But, like I said, I have a rule against responding to anonymous comments.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Seeking Compromise Is Not Divisive

The Bishop of the Mississippi Conference has announced that two large United Methodist congregations are making plans to leave the denomination. There are likely others with similar plans in other places, but these two have been made public this week.

They are planning to leave because “there is a deep concern that any legislative or judicial solution to the denomination's current impasse on human sexuality will sow seeds of deeper division within our Church. They see this division as something that continues and will continue to damage the witness of The United Methodist Church of which they are currently connected,” according to Bishop James Swanson’s statement.

In my opinion, large churches planning to leave the denomination are actually sowing more seeds of division than potential compromise policies on marriage and ordination. That’s kind of the definition of division, isn’t it? Whereas seeking compromise is actually about NOT dividing?

Unless I’m completely wrong, the two congregations who are publicly planning to leave the United Methodist Church have gotten things exactly backwards here. Trying to find a compromise is not divisive, by definition. Saying that you want to leave the denomination is divisive, by definition.

I wish they would just come right out and say why they want to leave. If they don’t want gay people to be married, why not just come right out and say that? If they don’t want gay people to be ordained, why not make that statement out loud? (Though pastor friends in Mississippi tell me that these may not be the only issues at hand here. The situation is probably more complex than just that.)

But why all the hemming and hawing around what is really making them so upset? The time for hemming and hawing has gone. We need to be able to say exactly what needs to be said, with as little ambiguity as possible.

Furthermore, and in disagreement with the statement above, I believe that seeking compromise on marriage and ordination is actually a pretty GOOD witness for the United Methodist Church to be making right now. Having difficult, tense, holy, grace-filled conversations is exactly THE witness that the world needs in our present polarized climate. (As with our nation as a whole, I believe the Methodist church is polarized, not divided.)

In their official statement, one of the churches wrote, "The Orchard has no desire to be a part of these debates. We simply want to help people grow deep in the love of Jesus and branch out to others with that love." I do not see these two ideas as mutually exclusive. One can both love Jesus and have a debate. Being a part of a difficult conversation, and doing so with grace and love and respect, is a PERFECT way to "help people grow deep in the love of Jesus," it seems to me.

I lament that the conversation would be relatively less vibrant minus the voices who are threatening to leave.

As I have said before, my guess is that the Bishops’ “Commission on a Way Forward” will recommend a compromise position that allows individual pastors and congregations to decide questions of marriage and individual conferences to decide questions of ordination. Some people fear this outcome, because of the difficult conversations that will inevitably result.

And some people are so afraid of it, apparently, that they would rather just leave the denomination altogether.


"It is only when our love grows cold, that we can think of separating from our brethren. And this is certainly the case with any who willingly separate from their Christian brethren. The pretenses for separation may be innumerable, but want of love is always the real cause; otherwise they would still hold the unity of the Spirit in the bound of peace." – John Wesley, Sermon 75, On Schism