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Covenant Presbyterian: Champions Of Progress, Heroes Of Us

(ATLANTA - 8 June 2011) :: Before February 2010, I had little knowledge of the Presbyterian way of worship. I was basically *this side of atheist, with a generous, inquisitive spirituality but a combative, skeptical streak that usually kept me away from churches altogether.

Along came Jason. We met early last year on Compatible Partners, and since then, we’ve transitioned well into a couple; he’s helped awaken me to the generosity and kindness that can dwell in the halls and sanctuaries of our nation’s churches.

Covenant Presbyterian in Augusta, Ga., is an able example of that compassion. Jason, the church’s Director of Music and Organist for the past eight years, is active in the community as a singer, concertmaster, performer - and, at first, I found the idea of coming together with him daunting given how successful and established he was in his town.

I also wondered: “How could this church understand our relationship? How would they accept me, me with him, us together?”

I was pleasantly surprised, to say the least. For it was the church’s people - Diane and Joe, Kaye, Jennifer, Pastor Rob, Karla, Beverly, and so many others - who welcomed me and folded us in as part of the family, giving us time and space for our relationship to blossom into what it is today. They allowed for and supported a reimaging of who Jason is as a partnered person, giving him a chance to realize his dream of finding an able boyfriend. I will always be deeply grateful for the gracious and open treatment they afforded us.

While Jason and I were enjoying Covenant’s people and environs - including its stunning, sultry-sound sanctuary (pictured) - change was afoot at Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s national level. The question: whether or not to ordain openly gay men and women. Very often change is accompanied by lots of chaos, dissent and frustration - which was ever-present in the regional discussions on the topic.

‘You’re going to be late for lunch today’
Pastor Rob Watkins, leader of Covenant’s congregation, was party to these meetings - and had a lot to say one Sunday after suffering through some of those meetings with people of strident, divergent opinions.

Following that meeting, Pastor Rob delivered a rousing sermon on his frustration with the Presbyterian Church’s position and posturing on the subject of ordination. Some excerpts from the sermon:

“You can walk down the street and find churches that are ripping each other to shreds, because they have taken on the power of God, and decided who is right and who is wrong. I get annoyed when I go to Presbytery meetings. And I confess I am a terrible Presbyterian. Why? Because I can’t help but get annoyed. Who are we to speak for God? God gave us the work to do. You preach. You teach. And you engage in love. You engage in compassion. Anything else is extraneous. Anything else. What does that mean? That means that yesterday’s Presbyterian meeting for about five minutes, we were engaged in the work of God. The rest of the time we were wasting our time and wasting the time of every human being who was sitting there, because we were engaged in speaking for God. We had no right to do that. None. Zero.

God is in the midst of the chaos that roils all around us all of the time. God firmly plants himself in the corner of anyone who has need of him. In other words, the power of God is eternally present behind compassion. Remember that the apostle John wrote, “God is love,” but he wasn’t simply thinking of a Hallmark card. He was thinking in real, human terms. God is love, ironically, which means you find him in the presence of human love.

I apologize for anything I have said that makes you feel like I am not ready to be your pastor anymore. That was one thing I heard at the Presbytery meeting, that just about made me stand on my head … if we are so scared that someone is going to walk out the back door because we are going to act in compassion, then we are not who we ought to be. If they can’t handle compassion and they want to leave, bye. Because that’s who we are. That’s what we are. That’s how we are. We say it so glibly, “God so loved the world, that God gave his only son, and whoever believes it may not perish and have eternal life,” but then turn right around and smack somebody in the face. How can we do that?

Look at the spectrum that is sitting here in this room. Look at the spectrum that gathered here on Thursday for a funeral. Look at the spectrum that gathers as soon as you set foot outside these doors. Look at the spectrum that is gathered at McDonald’s after church. Look at the spectrum that is driving past you on the wall. Look at the colors that God paints with. Look at the shades that God paints with. And it’s all art, all of it. Who are we to divide ourselves up? It’s as if the Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre looks over at the Monets and says, “You’re garbage.”

You don’t do that. They are masterpieces, all of them. And you know what? I would argue that Leonardo de Vinci would look at Eden’s first scribble with a crayon and say, “That’s the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my whole life.” Why? Because Leonardo knew, knew what it was to have God’s creative will coursing through his bones. And when he sees a child pick up a Crayon and draw, he sees affirmation of that creative will.

Yes, you are going to be late for lunch today. Wait with me. You need to be late for lunch today. Because we are not celebrating the gift of a child with a Crayon, we are dividing each other up.Do I mean right here, specifically in this congregation? God I hope not. But I know all you have to do is step foot outside the door, and you are right in the midst of it. You are right in the midst of it.

I had my eyes opened 18 years ago to what love really means. I was working with a couple, one of whom was dying and it was a horrible death. It was a horrible, horrible death. And the spouse was there every day. Told their job, ‘I can’t come. I won’t come. I have to be here.’ And every day they started the day with a bath, because the dying could not wash themselves. And so with tenderness and mercy and care, the other bathed their spouse every morning. As things got worse, the dying couldn’t even lift a fork to feed themselves. So spouse stayed there and fed them every meal. Made sure they got every drop of water that they needed. You would think that they would have sat and cried all day long and wept, and been in misery and just been awful all day long, but they weren’t. They laughed. They smiled. Their love only deepened as they cared for each other. The one who was dying said, ‘Take my credit card. Go max it out. I am not going to be here to pay the bill. (laughter)

“‘Go buy whatever you want. I have worked hard to get a $20,000 credit limit. Go max it.’ John and Rocky taught me about love. Yeah. That’s right. Two men. In a committed, loving relationship that the State of North Carolina, could not, would not and did not recognize as marriage. They were more married than half of the heterosexual people I worked with in that church. Would you have cared as John cared for Rocky, as he died? That’s the question to ask yourself and I hope that you can say, Yes. And who then are we to say to John and Rocky your love isn’t real? Your love is a lie. Your love is sinful. When I saw as a pastor who had real struggles and real issues, that is what Christ requires, was right there… to bathe a dying body every single morning. To feed a dying man every single meal. To make sure that there was water to drink every single time he was thirsty. To make him laugh when it hurt to breathe… who are we to say that isn’t real? That isn’t right? Have you ever been face to face with love so powerful? And that’s the problem. We won’t go face to face. We won’t meet face to face. We will keep it out there in the spacious unknown where we can talk in philosophical terms without putting human beings before us. I am begging you, put human beings before you, before you say anything.

As I said, you are going to be late for lunch. Bear with me. This is too important. Put human beings first. I wasn’t expecting it until I sat through a Presbytery meeting yesterday. We cannot keep ignoring that anything that happens in our world involves human beings. Those are real people. They live. They breathe. They see. They ache. They hurt. They cry. They laugh. They dream.”

Pastor Rob’s sermon did not go unheeded - and the news from the national organization was good. Last month marked a milestone for the Presbyterian church - from the article in The Huffington Post:

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) passed a historic measure Tuesday evening allowing openly gay men and women in same-sex relationships to be ordained as clergy.

The move reflects a monumental shift in the 2.8 million-member church, which, along with other mainline Protestant denominations, has had increasingly contentious debates and struggles over issues pertaining to gay and lesbian members and clergy. A majority of the church's regional bodies, or presbyteries, defeated a similar measure to allow gay clergy two years ago.

Because Pastor Rob, Covenant’s members, et. al., weren’t only championing Jason and me - they were championing
all of us. Spurring greater understanding, provoking thought, expressing non-violent dissent, and accepting the “all that is” in the universe with which I’m so fascinated. Theology, philosophy and social progress are not obscured by religion; in great measure, they are enhanced by it.

Embracing the unknown
Just as Joyce said to me recently: “God knows what’s right.” However you conceive Him or Her to be, that particular power has been proven to be working, and working well, for everyone - no exceptions - in the “spacious unknown.”

a clip from HRC that shows Bruce Reyes-Chow acknowledging the historic change:

Faced with an emotional summer of transition and new beginnings, Jason will be departing Covenant in August to move to Atlanta and start school. Although excited by our co-habitation, my heart is heavy that we will be visiting Covenant less in the future, having to say so long (but definitely not good-bye) to so many great, gifted people. We have the entire family at Covenant - as well as our friends and family - to thank for their unwavering support of us. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life, and, I would imagine, so will Jason.

So, Triscuit will finally have her Jason close by, for many puppy kisses. And from now on, when asked, I’ll always opt for the late lunch.

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