Sunday, July 22, 2012

Be a Pray-er and the world may become more of a prayer...

Jan Hus Presbyterian Church and Neighborhood House
July 22, 2012

Be a Pray-er
Sermon Notes - PDF File
© 2012 Ray Bagnuolo
Imagery is not always kind to the soul. Think about it, what could ever accurately reflect a soul, anyway?

Keeping up appearances, perceptions, to “show people” who you are, we are -- too often becomes a source of deception, instead. In the process, what is and is not real gets confused, lost, and blended in ways that can create the strangest of actions.

Aside from positive or negative campaigning, consider the way our nation receives the example of mental, spiritual, and physical help modeled by the presidential candidates.

As we approach the elections, the images of these folk will be even more carefully crafted than they have been, making it difficult to get to know people if all we watch or listen to are sound bites and commercials. And even if we do the work to research these folks more carefully – it’s hard to tell fact from fiction.

My comments today that flow from our gospel reading about Mark and are centered about rest and prayer, and how both are presented as a model or witness, if you like. Back to campaigning...

While prayer in this campaign seems to be more of a tag line “God Bless You! God Bless America! (forget the rest of the world) – a tag line that is generally accepted and being either a good thing or without any value as if everybody just sneezed!  – the image of rest produces an extreme response in the opposite direction. And play? Even worse.

You may remember the kerfuffle that Candidate Romney experienced over being seen jet- skiing with his wife; not a bad thing by any means – but considered a bad thing for a presidential candidate when the great majority of the country is under economic duress. It’s bad imagery.

Or remember the beer in the Rose Garde; the golf games; and such of the President.

These days, even the president, mindful of the images and their potential impact, canceled his annual vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, instead delivering a speech that forced him to address the dismal news of less than 80,000 new jobs being created in June.

What’s real what’s not. Please one side anger the other. Where are we supposed to go in our thinking, let alone our voting?

But really… When did family time or rest, within the budget you can afford, become a bad thing? When did it become something that came to mean being out of touch; a zealot; or just plain lazy?

It most likely has something to do with Americans wanting a “working president,” with few Americans really having any idea of what being the president entails  – and a sense of resentment by the many who have to work day in and day out – watching others who “seem to have it all;” as somehow better than they; seeming to have no idea of the extreme hardships of others - outside of sound-bites.

I guess we don’t want a president who looks like he or she is having fun – especially if we are having little fun. In fact, I think that is where the place of “anger” in these campaigns has found some of its footing. “How can they be enjoying themselves when we are so miserable?”

Or is it jealousy and greed, using the outsides of people and forgetting their insides. In the process we become superficial and caught up in the anger and the polarization and the nihilism, the sense that, well, everything is soon going to be shot to hell. And we all get angry!

Whatever it may be, it is unfair to expect presidents, presidential candidates, or any one of us to be a “working machine, living on the surface only, discounting time by looking for everything now – willing to trade down the future results of consistent, steady effort.

And the struggles and tragedies are real and daunting. The shooting in the theater in Colorado is real and, yes, somehow incrementally fostered by our society’s anger and divisions. Or so I think. And, we do have struggles and many of us do work more than one job to make ends meet, including the work to find a job or just get through a day.

Even so. Does that mean we don’t pray or rest? Is there any situation or condition that means we don’t rest? Meditate? Pray? I remember thinking as a kid that I had to be perfect in order to pray. Work hard to get to someplace where I could be “good.” As for rest, well it always seemed I had to do more or better, in work around home or studies in school.

With this in mind, the question for me today, from the fringes of Mark’s gospel, is “Am I a pray-er”?  Am I someone who rests, stops, prays, meditates – suspends, with practice – the noise around me. Drops below the surface, enters into the space that produces no products or calculable outcomes…but feeds me and guides me in who I really am in relation to God.

“Oh, I can’t stop! There’s too much to do!”
“I don’t have time to pray right now, maybe later.”
“I will be late…this is silly…I have too much on my mind…I am too worried.”
“I am too anxious to pray right now…”

Yet Paul in Philippians 4:6 says: “Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, tell your requests to God in your every prayer and petition—with thanksgiving.”

Pause. Rest. Pray. Listen. Be guided. Be thankful.

In today’s reading of Mark, the passage is a familiar one about the feeding of the 5,000. It is, in fact, where our offertory response comes from. That passage is so familiar, that it overshadows the parts before and after –

Just before,
  • the disciples return from going out into the villages and communities spreading the Good News, returning they tell Jesus “all they had done and taught.” They had been working, cold-calling if you will – entering into places not always friendly, not always ready to listen and they had achieved some wondrous things. And Jesus’ first response according to Mark wasn’t “Great job!” It was compassion for these faithful disciples, whom he loved and who were exuberant and exhausted and Jesus says,
  • “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves (away from the crowds) and rest a while.”
Take a break. You deserve it. You need it. There is more to do, but first, eat, rest, pray.

And still the crowds pursued them, so much so that by the time Jesus and the disciples got to the other side of the lake, the crowds had rushed there to be with them, in their presence. And Jesus had compassion on the lost souls and taught them, fed them, and in the end collected more food than they had started with, for the generosity of those present began to flow…and there was abundance for all.

And when they had finished, Jesus “immediately” made his disciples get into the boat and go on to the other side to Bethsaida to rest, while he remained with the crowds so that they could get away for a while.

There is an expression in 12 step meetings that hinges on the word “HALT.” It means that if you are starting to feel anxious, nervous, troubled, or tempted to do something you don’t want to do…stop. HALT! Get away from the situation for a minute or two and think about whether you are:

Lonely or

Because one or more of those conditions can “change your thinking and behavior” just as they can impair your health, well-being, or interaction with others.

It seems Jesus knew this and part of his teachings, in fact much of his teachings intersect and interconnect with each of these time and again.

Eat. Rest. Pray. Listen. Be guided. Be with others in rest. Prayer. Compassion.

These things, too, are teachings of Jesus.

Above all, Jesus emphasized the personal aspect of prayer with God, so intimiately that he referred to God as Abba.

And he taught this to us.
When you pray, don’t pray in fancy, public ways for everyone to see. Pray behind closed doors to God: “do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your God in secret. And God, who sees all in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6: 1-4

In other words however you pray, however your prayer develops changes and grows, or even forms into moments and times of silence…it’s just fine.

In other words, public worship such as this brings us together and is important, just as the disciples came and rested and prayed together, but so too important is the quiet place between you and God, where we can be heard and listen and be guided. Refreshed, reconnected, and feel God’s love.

No showcases here. No carefully crafted images to spin opinion or perception. Just real, deep, uncertain -  Rest and Prayer. Prayer and Rest.

There will be plenty to do when done resting and praying, and the plenty will be better done once we are rested and filled with prayer.

Simply put: Be a pray-er and life will become ever nearer to being a prayer.


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Overture Advocates for the Marriage Amendment: Audio

7/2/12 - GA220 Overture Advocates on Marriage Amendment

Advocate               Start time
Scott Clark:           0:06
David Kingsley:      5:50
Myra Kazanjian:    10:04
Andrew Stehlik:     15:57
Lara Marsh:           20:20
Ray Bagnuolo:       24:12
End:       26:04

Friday, July 6, 2012

GA220: A Display of Rainbow Grace!

I know. We ended up this assembly with ANOTHER STUDY. True. But what continues to be most amazing about this assembly is not the outcome but the demonstration, the promise of what is to come.

Think about what happened here. We had a vice moderator who resigned because of pressure she received for marrying a lesbian couple. We cringed at how she was treated. And, at a meeting to process the swirl of rumor and fact that surrounded her stepping down, ministers stood up and identified themselves openly as having performed same gender weddings. Ruth Hamilton, David Ensign, Mieke Vandersall, and I made it clear that we, too, conducted and will continue to conduct these marriage in states where they are legal - as being faithful to our ordination vows.

Others will follow as we simply refuse to accept the injustice. More will come...

Rev. Ruth Hamilton, a commissioner to the GA from National Capital, in a powerful statement from the plenary floor called others to COME OUT and identify themselves, their churches, and councils as having been part of the growing number of ministers and churches marrying same gender couples.

Looking for prophetic voices?  We haven't heard anything yet!

I don't know if you remember, but to get someone to even whisper such things in the not too distant past was almost impossible except for a very few. And they often found themselves quickly charged. It seems such threats, whether based in polity or out of efforts at intimidation have lost their salt. 

And, consider that it was at the last assembly that we passed Amendment 10-A that is now ratified and in our Book of Order. We are now ordaining pastors who would have been kept out with G-6.0106b, just two years ago. And today, at the very next general assembly we are in the process of bringing marriage equality to a mainline protestant denomination - the PC(USA). 

Yes, we are behind...but we are catching up in a hurry.

I can't help think about how many years it took to get G-6.0106b out of the Book of Order.  

And marriage? 

Remember, it was at the last general assembly that a parliamentary procedure was used to prevent marriage from even being discussed. We never even got to talk about it, following the exceptional report compiled by the marriage committee. And this year we not only get the amendment to the floor of the presbytery, we come back and nearly pass an amendment to change the constitution to become more welcoming for same gender couples in marriage with a margin of less than 5% separating the voltes: 308 - 338! 

And! In the process of getting to this vote, the commissioners turned back two minority reports, did not limit debate, and dismissed a series of claims about whether or not the amendment was even in order. What followed was more than a four hour conversation on the lives of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender - those who love them, their pastors and families, and what this church is not doing to make us as welcome and safe as we all should be as baptized sisters and brothers. 

The evidence of grace is everywhere. I truly believe that every minute every single person who ever worked for justice and love in this church for the LGBT community is building to critical mass. Call it a crest, a tipping point, an emergence, or the Holy Spirit - it is happening and we have a terrific community building in numbers and strength to take us forward. Just take a look at the YAD's, TSAD's, and others - who even in disagreement came together. Courage, too, was on display.

Yes, there was some snarky stuff that happened, the comments that took the air out of the room, the extreme anger and ignorance that surfaced here and there, not to mention the treatment of the Tara and Neal. It was on display for more and more people to see just what we face all too often - and what no one should ever face in the church, any church, especially not this church.

I also have to mention the powerful sermons of The Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer Oget and Elder Tony De La Rosa, with thanks to Cindy Bolbach for bringing their message to us all. My friend Joe Gilmore, the pastor of South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry, NY once told me that he often thought of God pacing the horizon, waiting, waiting for us to catch up. We're on our way God, on out way...and we've got a rainbow scarves around our necks, flowing in the wind!

I came here expecting to leave with it all. And, honestly, we will leave with more than we expected -- and work to do.

Thank you all for your hard work and faithfulness in staying true to this call. We have only just begun, and the clock to the 221st General Assembly has already started. 

In all the ways you may know God, give thanks - as I do for each and every one of you.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Elusive Courage: GA220 Presses Leadership

A disclaimer of sorts...

The caution in writing about things that are "observed" is that such perceptions fall short of knowing what actually caused the observable event.

Yesterday's resignation of the General Assembly's Vice Moderator the Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe was seen by many. The events that led up her stepping down are known to a very few. I have no inside information, just an inside response. I have my observations and my perceptions based on what I saw and what I read. I have these reactions within the context of the last six days of being at GA, but in the end these comments are intuitive and subjective.

Tara's resignation is in the middle, in this sense: behind Tara is all that led to her decision. Before her are all of us receiving her choice. Her action most likely satisfies the desire of the General Assembly to conduct the business of the church decently and in order. In many ways, her resignation was a business decision, as well as a pastoral choice. I say this because within minutes she had resigned, the name of a new vice moderator was offered, and the assembly was back on track. That is until a commissioner stood and asked this Christian body, "What just happened here? Are there any feelings of compassion or the need for some of us shocked by this decision to have some voice, some discussion..." The answer to that was no, by a vote of 232-233-17. We needed to vote to talk to one another as part of the human and church story that had just been exploded upon us. Our own pastoral care toward one another had slipped away, for the moment. 

And some of us remained silent.

Remember I said this is about my perceptions, and to me, it appeared that the leadership of this church "for the good of the body" exerted its power to chill us all down so that we could move forward. For those observing, many believed this was a good thing. Others, like me, disagreed. And it seemed that the overnight hours produced reflection that prompted a set-aside of fifteen minutes after lunch today for a "speak out." We will see how that goes.

For now, though, I have two things on my mind that might be described as the difference between what I hope for and what has happened, so far.

And, here, another clarifier. These General Assemblies tend to intensify everything. Thousands brought together in limited spaces and times with packed agendas and work to be done. It is a time every two years when those seeking entrenchment or change sit across from one another, too often dig their feet in and argue with passion and little openness for compromise. Yes, all too familiar.

Yet there are also here the signs of remarkable change and movement. It is amazing, for example, that in our time we have stepped beyond the discriminatory boundaries on ordination for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) folk, and we now seek a constitutional change for marriage equality in the Presbyterian Church(USA). The cumulative effect of more than forty years of sacrifice and work by thousands to welcome folk who are LGBT into the leadership of the church has changed this church.

Considering all that has been reformed around welcoming the LGBT community, it is not surprising that there are forces in our church represented here that will attempt to roll back such changes. Where that is not possible, these forces will create an entrenched presence to stop the church from any further advance in welcoming our community.

In small spaces and with limited timeframes to influence outcomes, some segments of the opposition become over zealous. The "pushbacks" can become so hurtful, un-Christian, and so pernicious that they obscure the loving embrace of the great majority of this church. There is an incredible cloud of witnesses here, witnesses who, whether in agreement or disagreement, have not forgotten who we are, whose we are, and how we are called to love one another. This is not about us who are such witnesses.

This is about our work. It is in this space and time that we are called to serve. And it is not easy. And, courage is sometimes elusive. Yesterday's resignation of the vice moderator spoke volumes for me about the shortcomings of love, patience, and understanding in our leadership and the void in courage it created. In the vice moderator's statement of resignation, she stated that she did not want to become a distraction to the work of the church. I am of the opinion the the "distraction" and that which causes it is, in fact, the work of this assembly, this church, our communities, our country, and our world. Our great desire to be macro-oriented in the work of the church has had the creeping effect of dwindling us into a limited, brittle, and fractured institution attempting to control outcomes, confusing courage and acquiescence. Therein lies much of our decline. It is self-imposed.

The resignation of Tara McCabe Spuhler was not the outcome of disagreement in theology, polity implications, or pastoral care. She signed the marriage license for a same gender loving couple. We all knew that before the assembly and Tara addressed it directly in her comments in the nominating process. And we elected her and a moderator who disagreed with her action but respected her decision of conscience and pastoral care in the matter. As a diverse church, we embraced that tension in the shared leadership role of the the moderator and vice moderator. Many of us hoped it might reflect a model for how we could grow more united, even with our differences in many areas.

No, the resignation was the result of bullying and the decision of the leadership not to stand up to the bullies. We chose the order of the church and its business over one another. And no one on the leadership team stood to say, "No."

Martin Niemöller"s words come to mind: "First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I did not speak. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak for me." 

Seventeen abstentions did not speak...

I admit it. I have long hoped for leadership in our church made up of leaders who would stand and speak out against the bullying that has poisoned our process, even if it meant that their jobs were at risk. Yesterday, the opportunity to do so slipped away.

  • I wonder what it might have been like yesterday if the moderator had said, "No." 
  • I wonder what today might have been like had this church stood up against the forces that now pervade us, causing us to cower and cave. 
  • wonder what tomorrow and this witness might have been like for those who day in and out experience the impact of the bullies in our world.
  • What might it have been like had this assembly stood up to our own bullies, even if our jobs were at risk.
It did cause at least one person their elected position. But more, it caused us to be seen as elevating bullies in the Church of Jesus Christ, instead of saying get thee behind us...

Yesterday proved how, once again, courage will always be elusive unless we have the courage to say, "No." Yesterday, those who bully - not all those who disagree and love one another - but those who bully won the day.

Perhaps had their actions been a table in a temple we would have overturned it. One can still hope.