Connected

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While scrolling through Facebook this morning, I found links to two recent articles from the New York Times that had been shared by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. The first one, “Alabama’s Dangerous Defiance,” dealt with the absurd situation playing out in Alabama, with the State Supreme Court defying a Federal Court’s finding that the state’s refusal to grant same-sex couples the right to marry was unconstitutional. The second one, “States Weigh Legislation to Let Businesses Refuse to Serve Gay Couples,” deals with the current rash of state legislatures rushing to try to enact copycat laws that would permit private businesses – including not just wedding photographers and cake-bakers, who seem to be getting an awful lot of attention in these arguments, but pharmacists, doctors, real estate agents, bankers, etc.-  to discriminate against not just LGBTQ folk, but literally anyone who runs afoul of the individual’s “deeply-held religious beliefs.” This same attempt at legalizing discrimination goes even further in some states’ versions of the bills, including not just the private sector, but public employees, as well – from doctors to firefighters to teachers to clerks of court to bus drivers, any of whom could refuse service to you because of some perceived conflict between you and their personal religious beliefs.

I was born in 1960. The civil rights marches, protests, and violence that ripped our nation apart in that decade are things that were going on only on the vague fringes of my childhood awareness and memories – I knew there was something going on, but I was too young to really comprehend a lot of it or feel that it really had anything to do with me. As I got older, I came to understand more about its significance, and I wished that I’d been just a bit older and could have been involved in it – while at the same time, wondering if, at that time in my life, I’d have been on the right side of the debate. I want to think that I would have been, but I’m ashamed to admit that given the cultural soup we were swimming in during those years, I’m not absolutely sure I would have.

Now, fifty years later, not only are we seeing an erosion of some of the gains won during that movement, we’re also seeing many parallels between the current battles for LGBTQ equality and those earlier ones. The issues involved here are an ugly replay of the same kind of shameful bigotry and intolerance, not to mention Constitutional ignorance, that was fought against back then; in this particular instance, some of it is even being waged over the same geography. The idea here, that individuals, by way of the ballot box, have a right to violate other people’s Constitutional rights, and to have those violations shored up by state courts and publicly elected officials who claim the superiority of so-called states’ rights and sovereignty over the overarching federal Constitution as it’s interpreted by the federal court system, are some of the exact same arguments that were used to try to justify denial of civil rights to blacks, women, and other groups, and even to justify slavery itself.

When Abraham Lincoln helped to dedicate the national cemetery in Gettysburg in 1863, he talked about those soldiers who had been buried there, saying that they’d died in order for the nation to have a new birth of freedom, and so that we would remain a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people;” people who were created equally and who have equal rights. Lincoln said that it was the duty of us, the living, to dedicate ourselves to continue, and hopefully complete, their unfinished work.

Over the years, many have done just that, continuing to speak, and write, and protest, and die, in order for our country to live more fully into its founding principles. Now, in 2015, we’re fighting another ongoing battle in the same long war, having to push back against the exact same tired and hateful arguments that the federal courts have ruled time and again are unconstitutional in past battles. No, ballot boxes do not trump Constitutional rights. No, state courts and judges do not trump federal ones. No, religious freedom is not absolute. There is no inalienable right to engage in hatred based on so-called “deeply held religious beliefs” outside of one’s church doors. It’s wrong and immoral enough to do it inside those doors, but at least within their boundaries, you have a Constitutional right to be an intolerant bigot if you wish.

So now, in my fifties, I have the opportunity for a do-over of sorts. I wasn’t part of the historic struggle for equality that took place when I was a kid. Now I can be, and I am. Yes, this particular struggle affects me much more directly than the one fought In the 60s. Even if it didn’t, though, I’m glad to know that I would have chosen to be on the right side of both God’s love and history, and would have worked and spoken out for full LGBTQ equality in society, and in the church, even if I weren’t gay myself.

Roy Moore and George Wallace are connected in this battle. But I feel very much a part of who, and what, has gone before me, too.  I feel connected with those who stood up for the exact same issue In the past, whether the actual physical battlefield was Christopher Street in the West Village, or a Birmingham jail cell, or a Presbyterian Church in Seneca Falls, New York (google it), or Culp’s Hill in Gettysburg.

Or Alabama.

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Examined by Presbytery

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I’m not even sure how it originated, but sometime shortly after getting back from Chicago, I came to realize that if the church I’m working at would essentially just change my title, without changing anything else about the terms or responsibilities of my part-time employment, I would be eligible to be ordained, where I wasn’t eligible with my current title. Yes, I know that sounds odd, and I suppose it is, but the rules are what they are. So I figured that while I continued to search for the permanent, full-time installed position, I could at very least get this piece of the puzzle put in place. So we went through the bureaucratic process, got Session approval, and sent the whole thing off to the appropriate Presbytery committee to be approved and forwarded to the general Presbytery for a vote. At the same time, the Presbytery would conduct my oral ordination examination. This is the final step, after completing the M.Div., passing all the written ordination exams, and doing the parish field education, as well as a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. The format of the floor exam is this: the candidate has provided a brief autobiographical statement and a statement of faith, which is included in the information packets of all the voting commissioners of the Presbytery. After the candidate offers a brief introductory oral statement/presentation, the floor is then open for any of the 200-some commissioners to stand up and ask the candidate any question at all regarding the candidate’s understanding of theology and polity within the church. After questioning, the amassed Presbytery then votes the candidate up or down.

Of course, this final examination comes after the candidate has been in the process for a number of years, so s/he is a pretty well-known quantity to the commissioners by this time. While this is an important step, it is, to some extent, the candidate doing a bit of a victory lap after completing the long, grueling ordination process. Maybe most significantly, it’s a final validation to the candidate from these gathered individuals and a sign of emotional support.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t nerve-wracking, though. The truth is, you never know what some commissioner is going to come up with. Some floor examinations proceed without a hiccup; others can get contentious. At the end of it all, though, I’ve never seen a single candidate fail this final examination, which is a testament to the rigorous nature of the candidacy/ordination process, and should serve to calm the nerves of anyone about to be examined. Still, I was very nervous while I waited for my turn to be examined – I was the last of four people being examined in the midst of the rest of the Presbytery business last evening.

Everything went fine. I was nervous at first, but even from the beginning of the process, I recognized the large number of people in the room with whom I’d interacted during the whole journey, and how much so many of them meant to me. As I spoke, I could see their support in their faces and body language and felt the warmth that they seemed to be offering me. That energized me, so I just spoke from the heart, answered the questions as best as I could, and just enjoyed the moment. The actual vote was very quick, as they usually are – I barely had time to leave the room for the vote before I was called back in. I can’t tell you what a relief this ordination vote is.

Now, the next step is scheduling and planning the actual ordination service. This close to the Advent/Christmas season, I’m trying to schedule it for January 11, 2014. There are a lot of moving pieces to get aligned, but that date is looking good at the moment. So, how am I feeling tonight?

Moving Forward

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This past Saturday morning, the bridge crossing over the Monongahela River in Masontown, Pennsylvania, my hometown, was imploded. A new four-lane bridge, half of which is complete and which is already carrying traffic across the river, is in the process of replacing it. The old bridge dated to the 1920s, and was always a part of my experience of living in, and after moving away, returning to, Masontown. After the drive in from Columbus, I always knew when I came around the bend in the road and the bridge came into sight that the trip was just minutes from being over; the familiar ka-chunk………ka-chunk………kachunk……… of driving over the expansion joints on the bridge assuring me that I’d arrived “home.”

I couldn’t go back to watch the implosion, and I was lurking online Saturday morning, waiting for the first videos to pop up on Facebook, youTube, and the local news outlets. If, like me, you’re into demolition porn, you can see what I think are the two best clips of it here and here.

The old bridge was narrow and rickety and long past its prime. The new one is going to be much nicer from a driving standpoint, even if visually unremarkable – it will never be the kind of local landmark that the old one was. And it will be a nice feeling as I drive over the new one to know that my Dad is actually helping to build it. Still, its demolition comes with mixed emotions. As a kid, the bridge was just always a part of my life. You couldn’t think of Masontown without simultaneously thinking about the bridge. From my home, I’d hike to the bridge. I walked across it, hung out underneath it. As a teenager, it was part of the route that I’d take as a student driver, driving my grandfather to Chessie’s Fruit Market, and then taking the long way home through Greene County, back over the bridge in Point Marion, and back to Masontown, just for the driving experience. Those times driving with him are some of my favorite memories, and I thought of those drives, and him, every time I crossed that bridge. When our girls were little and we’d make family trips back to  Masontown, they’d always want to know when we were getting close to “the Green Bridge,” partly because they were always a little creeped out by crossing over it, and also because they knew that grandparents were just moments away. So while the new bridge leads into the future, there’s no question that there was also a real sense of loss when the old one dropped into the river below.

Just less than 24 hours after it did, I opened the last worship service as pastor of the Frankfort Presbyterian Church. I was there for just over six years. I entered the ministry in a somewhat unorthodox (you might even say ass-backwards) way – first studying and becoming a non-ordained, half-time “Commissioned Lay Pastor;” and then, beginning seminary and the full-bore ordination process – which, if you aren’t familiar with the Presbyterian Church, is extremely rigorous. I completed those ordination requirements as of last January and have been actively, aggressively, seeking a full-time ordained call since just before then. So my departure in one way or another from Frankfort was, at least in Presbyterian-relative terms, imminent, and no surprise. Not just imminent, but a positive development. Still, just as with the demolished bridge, my departure comes with a lot of sadness. Yesterday’s service was deeply moving to me. I’m amazed I got through the day without crying; I only came close once. It was an interesting service. Beyond the basics, it included a regularly-scheduled “Service of Healing and Wholeness” – don’t get the wrong idea here; I’m not talking about televangelist-type theatrics, just a time for people who feel in particular spiritual need of prayer come forward to receive it. It means a lot to the members who come forward, and especially yesterday, it meant a lot to me as I called each one by name, anointing them with oil and praying for them one by one, knowing that this would likely be my last contact with them. And, after anointing and praying with the last person, handing her the oil and kneeling down in front of her, having her do the same for me was deeply moving. The service also included a “Litany of Farewell,” providing a form of closure for our pastoral relationship in which we officially recognize the end of our covenant together. We thanked each other for the love and care we showed each other throughout the mutual journey. We also asked each other’s forgiveness for the times we didn’t live up to the other’s expectations, and we granted that forgiveness to each other in return.

After the service, I was so moved by the outpouring of love and support that the congregation offered me; the long line of people waiting patiently to shake my hand, offer a hug and a tear and a kind word. Saying goodbye to each of these people, who have meant so much to me was extremely hard. We’ve been through a lot together; more than I could or would detail here. And just as much as those memories of driving my grandfather to the fruit market will always be a part of me long after the old bridge is gone, these wonderful people are going to remain a part of me for a long time after I leave Frankfort.

But I have said goodbye – goodbye to the old landmark bridge that had been such a significant part of my hometown, and goodbye to people and a pastorate that, together, have been such a significant part of my life for the past six years. Those roads behind me are closed. And I wonder what’s up ahead, around the bend.