An unusually strange and powerful experience at church today. I have always maintained that if i had to choose only one thing that I “like the most” out of all the various rituals we participate in during the average church service, it would be “the sermon”. Sure the social aspect offers benefits, as does the variety of service opportunities. But during the actual hour-long weekly service, it is the sermon that draws me in the most and keeps me coming back. I have plenty of friends who find the sermon the most challenging moment of the hour to endure, and instead relish the sacred music and the singing of hymns. I too find myself deeply moved by the music, especially at Christ Church in Manhattan — conducted and arranged by the illustrious and enviously talented Dr. Steve Pilkington, or at Abyssinian Baptist in Harlem — which features an extraordinarily large gospel choir and draws crowds so mammoth that on any given Sunday one can see the line to get in wrapped around the block for miles.
It is during these moments –when a particularly haunting piece of music is being performed — that I FEEL the most, as if my soul is being lifted to some ethereal and transcendent alternate universe where only I and the Great Divine Itself exists. One finds that connection and communication with the God-Force is more easily facilitated through the power of the music and voices during these moments. Nonetheless, perhaps only because music making is what I spend the majority of my time doing — unlike others, I am afforded the opportunity more than most to feel magically transported through the power of music in my day to day life, it is the sermon that I look forward to the most; it is the sermon that stirs me mentally and intellectually. It is the sermon that intrigues and engages me as a person, much like a good book or a film.
It’s no secret that I believe that Reverend Stephen Bauman at Christ Church in Manhattan to be the single greatest sermon writer, and deliverer, currently practicing in the world today. His sermons aren’t the usual fare of fire and brimstone, obligatory chapter and verse followed by inductive break-down and explanation. Instead they are usually highly intellectual and passionate calls to a greater good for and by all. Not only is he a brilliant writer — the gist of his typical sermon is at once topical, current, relevant AND moving, but as well a gifted orator. In the truest sense of the word. It is one of the things I miss most when I’m not in New York. That says a lot considering the cornucopia of innumerable pleasures and benefits the great city offers its residents and visitors alike. But for me, that fifteen minutes of rapt attention, sitting there on the very edge of my seat, listening to Reverend Bauman with baited breath, hanging on every word and sentence — so meticulously and brilliantly constructed, has become as much an important and enjoyable part of my life in New York as has Sunday brunch, America’s best pizza and bagels, The Met, MOMA, the Natural History Museum or any of the other many aspects of New York that draw more people to live there than any other city in America.
When I’m not in New York, and not traveling, my family and I reside in a small town in the country an hour outside of Seattle where we have a second home. Here we have found another church to call home in the town Redmond. While it’s true that I find it easy to miss the sermons of Stephen Bauman, and the glorious music of Steven Pilkington and his magnificent choir, this small church in the middle of nowhere offers us a pretty decent home away from home with it’s own batch of special rewards and benefits. It’s small-town America versus big city. West Coast versus East. The church is quaint; and the people are friendly, sincere, honest and long to do their part to make the world a better place. Their commitment to service is impressive and unrivaled considering the size of this tiny little community. (Indeed their homeless shelter tends to serve about twice the number of regular attendees than does ours is Manhattan on the average day. Considering the population in New York is over 8 million and this town less than one-hundred thousand, either there are just a lot more homeless people in the Seattle area, or this church is really doing something right.)
In terms of sermons, it wouldn’t be fair to compare one pastor’s to another. Especially when one of them happens to be the head pastor at a church on Park Avenue in the center of New York City. So I try not to. Instead I just try to accept each church as it is, on its own merit. Of course this isn’t easy. But I do try. I find that if i don’t expect anything, then it’s easier to appreciate those moments when I do on occasion experience something sublime or transcendent. Thus was the case today, at this small church in the middle of nowhere in a town as white-bread American and nondescript as one could find anywhere else in small-town America.
After all the usual rituals and songs and prayers, Pastor Cara as she is known walked up to the front of the church to deliver her sermon and one could immediately recognize that she was unusually disturbed, moved, maybe even angry. It appeared as though she may have even been crying recently. Her eyes were red. But there was also a fire in them. She proceeded to tell the congregation that she was indeed angry AND had been crying, all morning and the night before.
She went on to explain that over the last few weeks several Methodist pastors, and even bishops, from around the country had been brought up on formal charges and “convicted” by a jury of their peers and other various powers that be in the United Methodist Church for “breaking the rules” and betraying their vows because they had officiated at same sex weddings. Some had been suspended, some have been warned and some have been flat out fired. She was speaking specifically about Reverends Frank Schaefer and Melvin Talbert, both cases gaining national attention. [Instead of going into the details about each case, which would be unnecessary due to how many articles have already been written about these events, I encourage anyone interested in this issue to Google the names to learn more about the individual cases.]
Obviously there has been a whirlwind of talk, debate and activity on the national front regarding this issue both in terms of the political ramifications and states’ rights, civil rights AND how it is affecting churches and religions around the country. These cases specifically are inciting hundreds of thousands of words to be typed into the national blogosphere on a daily basis. It’s also leaped into mainstream conversation, transcending regular religious subject matter which almost never sees the spotlight of the very secular world in which we live today. It’s a fiercely divisive and debated subject. Just a few months ago I wrote at length about the subject here in a post entitled “Gays at the Table”, specifically about where I stood on the issue of same sex marriage rights and homosexuality in regards to how it’s affecting the Methodist Church and religion in general.
As I explained in the previous post, just so we are clear, in the bigger picture, like many people, I do not believe that we as Christians should discriminate against our same-sex oriented brethren in any way. Whether it’s the right to become a member of a church, or the right to get married, or the right to receive Holy Communion, or even the right to be a Boy Scout Troop Master or a pastor or a reverend or a bishop. This is the future; our future. The future of a more evolved intelligent and enlightened humanity. We haven’t arrived at this juncture because we are more wicked or sinful, but on the contrary: we’ve arrived at this place because we are more well thought-out, more evolved in our thinking, more in touch with our hearts and with the loving compassionate views that brought us together through the actions and teachings of the big man himself, Jesus of Nazareth.
So that’s where I stand on the issue itself. Obvious I know. There aren’t many in the industry of arts and entertainment who don’t share that viewpoint. We’re just about the most freedom and peace loving, liberal minded bunch in the world today. And that’s a good thing. The world has always depended on artists to shine a light on the more enlightened but perhaps less illuminated path. Just as we stood up for and fought for the “sun is at the center of the solar system” theory ala Galileo, or the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, civil rights for minorities, laws against human trafficing and slave labor, equal pay for all, labeling of genetically modified food, political campaign finance reform and financial institution reform, we have now found ourselves having to help explain why it’s so obvious to us that people who are same-sex oriented deserve to be discriminated against no more than someone who was born with a different nationality or a different skin color does.
I say “obvious” because artists tend to view life through a very compassionate, peaceful and loving lens. More than live and let live… More like live and help live. Together — if we allow ourselves to truly come together — we can do anything, achieve anything, conquer anything, accomplish anything. To us, all these things were obvious long before they became fashionable in the mainstream. Hell I’ll even go out on a limb and confess that most of us are still waiting and hoping to live in a world where it’s obvious to EVERYONE that war of any kind is just plain wrong and that there is NO excuse worthy enough to justify the killing of another, perhaps besides self-defense — and even that one is a stretch in the bigger scheme of things (let’s face it: killing in the name of self defense, though logical on the surface, is a rather selfish and self-obsessed way to view the world, compared to the example that Jesus, Gandhi or the Dalai Llama offered.) It may be unpopular at the moment, but one day humankind will see the merit of banning war-waging altogether and instead choose peace and harmony. Long gone will be the rationale for invading other countries, drone strikes and targeted assassinations in the name of God and country.
In regards to same-sex marriage and weddings and how it is affecting the Methodist Church, and other Christian denominations around the world, there are many who believe that the various churches will have no choice but to yet again “split”. That even the Methodist Church is on it’s way towards splitting into two separate smaller denominations: the traditional one that believes that homosexuality is a sin, and a new breed that does not. I personally do NOT believe that a split is a foregone conclusion. When asked over the last few weeks how I felt about this most recent slew of convictions and condemnations of pastors and bishops for officiating at same-sex weddings, I surprised many by replying that if these men did indeed “break the law” or “break their vows” then they did in fact deserve to be reprimanded.
After all, what are rules and laws for? Why are they there? The key, the very foundation one could safely say, of any organization is that it is organized. And what makes it organized? Rules and laws. We believe in this. We don’t believe in that. We come together at this time. We leave at this time. Our religion is called this. Their religion is called that. On and on ad infinitum. There are obviously tens to tens of thousands of rules and laws that govern any one organization, which is precisely what makes it an organization. If people were to begin dismissing or ignoring or bypassing or breaking whatever rules and laws they as individuals chose to because they disagreed with them, then there would be no organization. It is the rules and laws that keep the organization organized, that differentiate it from being merely an idea or a concept AND what differentiate it from OTHER organizations. With no organization there would be chaos. And without organization — without being organized — one could hardly claim to be a part of something tangible like a valid organization or organized structure.
Therefore as members of any organization we must adhere to and ask that our fellow members adhere to the rules and laws that organize the group or the structure. Especially at the leadership level. It is the key to the whole system not falling apart. If a pastor from one Methodist church in Alabama decides to ignore the law forbidding pastors from officiating same sex weddings, what is to stop another pastor at a church in Oklahoma from becoming a cocaine addict because he likes cocaine? Or from marrying his neighbor’s 11 year old daughter because “we get along really well and she’s very mature for her age anyway.” In fact why not let pastors do whatever they want to? Why not disregard all the rules and laws that govern the United Methodist body and just let everyone decide for themselves what rules or laws they abide by as they choose in the moment?
Well the answer to that is obvious. Anyone who is a part of any formal organization — and that includes all of us, for we are all a part of many or at least one organization — the country we are a citizen of at the very least — recognizes that the laws and the rules that govern us are what keeps the peace within that organization; they’re what allows us to move freely within our day to day lives without fear and with a sense of relative peace, safety and security. God forbid we get to the point where we become so liberal minded that we decide one day that no one has to abide by any of the rules or laws that we’ve previously created and decided as a group to live by. For that will be the end of what we know as civilization. Then it’s every man woman and child for themselves. Survival of the fittest. Live and let die. Kill or be killed.
Now this isn’t to say that the current laws on the books of every and all organizations — including countries and religions — are right, or just, or fair. Many are not. But within the construct of every institution and organization exists the ability to change those laws. And that’s precisely what we see happening on a state by state level across the United States when it comes to same sex marriage equality. One by one each state is gunning up and deciding for themselves what they deem to be the best law regarding whether or not same sex marriage should be legal or illegal. Each state with slightly different forms of what it looks like, of how legal it is or how illegal it is, and the individual smaller rules and laws that govern the bigger law. That decision is up to the people and the elected leaders of that particular state. And that’s how it should be. That’s organized. That’s organization. That’s a well run and civil civilization. Safety and security that you can trust. The opposite of chaos.
The same thing obviously needs to happen in the United Methodist church. And perhaps in many other christian denominations as well. If enough people eventually decide that they deem it appropriate to allow Methodist pastors and bishops to marry same sex couples, then they will eventually change the law regarding that issue within their organization. And that will be that. Just as individual states are doing within the American union. It WILL happen. It is only a matter of time. But the last thing we need, or want, is for people to decide for themselves what rules or laws they deem valid or relevant to them.
Another aspect of the issue that needs addressing is this tendency that people have today of making the other side feel “bad” or “wrong” because they don’t yet happen to agree with them. As of late the issue of same sex marriage equality has become very fashionable and mainstream. It’s hip. It’s in. It’s the “right thing to do”. To some it seemed to happen overnight. To others, especially those waiting for decades for the right to be considered legally married, it’s taken forever. But we must remember that this is a HUGE change. A mammoth transformation in how we view the world and in how we view our religion and religious ideals. It may SEEM obvious to some of us, like a logical and rationale step towards our continued evolution as a society; but to others it seems like a huge step in the wrong direction, a major aberration and perhaps even an abomination. In fact in the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament it clearly states that homosexuality IS an abomination. It uses that specific word.
So what we must all try to understand is that those who stand against same sex marriage equality because they still maintain that “homosexuality is a sin” are doing nothing new or shocking, they’re doing nothing different than what they’ve done for thousands of years in the religion they’ve practiced for generations upon generation. What WE are asking of them actually is HUGE. It’s a MAJOR fundamental change in theory and in practice. We can’t blame them for wanting to stick with the status quo. After all, aren’t we risking treading down a potentially dangerous and unmanageable slippery slope if we start picking and choosing what we believe “God” has dictated and what we all of a sudden are now saying “God didn’t really mean that. Humankind made that up and we no longer agree with it.” What’s to stop us from doing that to the entire bible? To every holy book for that matter? To the idea of “God” Itself? Where is there TRUTH if we alone can pick and choose what truth is to us depending on how we feel in each moment? In each generation?
As an example, I personally believe that pot, cocaine, LSD and pain killers should be legal for recreational use. And furthermore if someone wants to use them everyday so be it. If they want to be high when they go to church so be it. As long as they aren’t hurting anyone, why not? In the industry I’m in, these substances are as commonplace as water, juice or milk are in the average American home. You see them everywhere. You can get them everywhere. Backstage, front of stage, side-stage, on-stage, in the audience, they’re everywhere. But in mainstream America, these substances are illegal and extremely taboo. One doesn’t dare bring them up in “polite society” for fear of being excommunicated or banished or shunned or jailed.
Because of this should I just start breaking the law all the time because I don’t agree with those laws? Should I show up to church high? Should I offer a tab of acid to my pastor? What about to some of the kids at church? See, the key to my survival, and to the safety and security and survival of the society that I and everyone else lives in is that I recognize that my viewpoint is my viewpoint. It’s no better or worse than any one else’s viewpoint. But it is the prescribed and agreed upon viewpoint of the majority of people in our society at this time. Hopefully that will one day change. But until then we abide by this viewpoint and the laws that stem from it. More than that, we also recognize that one does and doesn’t do and say certain things in society based on a shared desire to get along and keep the peace. If change is going to transpire, it happens slowly over time, with caution and respect.
One day I’d love to speed down Fifth Avenue going a hundred miles an hour in the back of a limo high on a variety of substances with my pastor, our naked bodies sticking half way out of the tee top chugging Moët out of the bottle and screaming our heads off… “Whew!!!! We’re flying!!!! I’m high for Jeeeeeesssssuus!” But alas, that little reverie may never happen. Or at least be years away at best. And that’s okay. That’s the deal we make to live in this well organized society. And frankly I don’t mind. In fact I don’t even mind that my pastor if he or she ever read this might both have serious concerns about my sanity. I get it. I respect that that’s a pretty wild request in terms of change.
Just because same sex marriage is all the rage now in our present society doesn’t make it right. I’m not saying it’s wrong. The only people who can decide that is each individual for themselves and the then together as a collective, as a society of individuals, we can decide if it’s something we want to deem appropriate or not for ourselves. Call it playing God. Truth is we’ve been playing God ever since we invented the poor bastard. If anyone should be confused it’s God. Talk about a confused sense of self. He must really suffer from an extreme identity crisis. For more has been done in His/Her/It’s name than can be imagined. Both good and bad. It seems the only beings in the universe who really know what God is or believes or wants, or likes or dislikes, is us, human beings. And for thousands of years we’ve taught ourselves that God doesn’t like homosexuality. We’ve agreed on it.
Now we’re trying to change that. We’re changing what this God believes; yet again. And that’s okay. That’s what human beings do with their Gods. But we should be respectful of the fact that many among us actually believed what we previously already agreed on. Now that we’re asking them to change, now that we’re asking them to believe that God has changed his mind, we need to recognize what a big stretch that is. So we need to be respectful of their inevitable shock and resistance to this change.
If anything, it is we who are the most vocal proponents of suddenly changing what God believes who need the most to be tolerant and compassionate. Not just toward our fellow gay and same sex oriented brothers and sisters, but also to our more conservatively minded traditional brothers and sisters who want to keep things as they are and have been for thousands of years. We must resist the urge to make them feel wrong or bad for how they feel just because we’ve changed our minds and changed God’s mind about homosexuality and same sex marriage. While at the SAME TIME slowly working toward changing the laws and the rules about it to be more inclusive and loving and compassionate.
Once these rules and laws are changed, legally, formally, on the books, then and only then can and should we allow pastors and bishops to officiate at same sex weddings. Because then they won’t be breaking the law. And thus no reprimanding or punishment or suspension will be necessary. And then and only then might we encourage our fellow members to start “getting with the program”. Because then it will be they who will be bucking the system and going against the grain. As of now, they have every right to feel the way they feel. They’re in the right after all. They’re abiding by the laws that we’ve all priorly agreed to follow.
This doesn’t mean that we cannot do our best right here right now to change their minds. We can. And we should. There is nothing more anti-Jesus or anti-Christian than to consciously and blatantly deny basic civil and human rights to those among us just because they are different than we are. So on with the marches and petitions and sit ins and be ins and protests and demonstrations and letter writing campaigns. This is a mission that I have full faith we will one day soon accomplish. But until we do, let us remember that is is WE who are the rebels here. It is we who are bucking the system and going against the grain. It is we who are advocating breaking the law. And it is we who are advocating picking and choosing what God believes or doesn’t. Implying that we know better than God; in fact implying that it is we who decide and dictate what God is and isn’t. That is quite a big request. So it’s no wonder that some among us are a bit resistant to follow our lead. The least we can give them is the same respect and tolerance that we are asking of them in return.