Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Love Story

Here is my column in the current edition of "the Triangle," a new publication serving the LGBTQ community in the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area.

Great love stories share similar plot lines. A scene of early attraction when the lovers-to-be take note of one another. Declarations of mutual commitment once the relationship has moved into a serious stage. An obstacle to overcome, like the disapproval of a parent. Finally, the tragic ending when one or both lovers meet a premature death and we, the readers, are left heartbroken. From the dawn of time, or at least the dawn of writing, some version of this epic love story has appeared in many cultures.

The Bible, however, is a little short on tales of romantic love. The Song of Solomon is an extended erotic poem capturing the intense feelings of a man and woman. Needless to say, you don’t hear many sermons from this book. Many of the other romances in the Bible are clouded by a lack of detail, or to be blunt, a lack of love. Often the heroes of the Bible were not so heroic when it came to wooing someone. They took whom they wanted, when they wanted, and that just doesn’t make for a very good love story.

There is one exception. In the books of 1 and 2 Samuel we see a tale of love that follows the traditional plot line. In this story a prince falls for a commoner when the former witnesses the heroic actions of the latter. Once the relationship forms and deepens, the two profess their love in a covenant that they swear to uphold regardless of what may come. The obstacle appears when the king, the father of the prince, disapproves of his son’s love interest and tries several times to bring the relationship to an end. Finally, the prince is killed, but only after saving the life of his beloved. The grief of the surviving lover is captured in these words: “Greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” (2 Samuel 1:26)

What? You mean the commoner who was loved by the prince was a man? Yes, and not just any man. The surviving lover is David, the boy who saved his people when he slew Goliath and eventually would become the greatest king in Israel’s history. David is the most important figure in the Old Testament for many Christians because he is the ancestor of Jesus. But what is rarely talked about when David’s legend is chronicled is the great love of his life. No, not his multiple arranged marriages. No, not his tawdry affair with Bathsheba that led to all manner of ugliness. His great love affair was with Jonathan, the son of King Saul.

Most people of faith erupt in protest at any suggestion that David and Jonathan were gay lovers, but my interpretation of their relationship as such is not a new thing. For more than fifty years biblical scholars without a homophobic bias have noted the possibility. What would lead them to such a conclusion? They simply do what conservatives often insist that readers of the Bible do. They take the text seriously and pay attention to what it actually says.

One can understand why the church refuses to entertain the possibility that David and Jonathan were more than fishing buddies. To concede that one of the most important biblical figures, one often portrayed as a “man’s man,” was actually gay, well, that might cause a tear in the space-time continuum. Or at least change a few Sunday school lessons.

Why should we care about intramural squabbles over biblical interpretation? Because the rationale used by politicians to deny full civil rights to the LGBTQ community is often a biblical one. Push a homophobic legislator to explain his or her stance on marriage equality and other issues and you will usually hear some version of “the Bible condemns it.” We can scream that it is the Constitution, not the Bible, that is supposed to be the document legislators are interpreting when they make law, but it matters not. The flawed assumption that the Bible presents a clear denunciation of homosexuality is thick in our culture, and politicians usually mirror the culture.

David and Jonathan’s tale is the great love story in the Bible. Acknowledging this truth has important religious and political implications for our generation, but that is hardly the most important point. Their relationship is more than a footnote to the twenty-first century culture wars. The love and devotion they demonstrated to one another, openly expressed in the pages of the Bible, is filled with vulnerability and passion. Such a rare example of love inspires and moves us. Just like any other great love story.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Secret Life of a Pastor - Chapter Three

A regular refrain heard among ministers is: “I wish they had taught us this in seminary.” This phrase is applied to many different situations. “I wish they had taught us how to lead a committee meeting without it looking like we are leading the meeting.” “I wish they had taught us that the most psychologically unhealthy people are often the most powerful individuals in a congregation.” “I wish they had taught us how to baptize a 6’9’’ inch man in three feet of water.” And so on.

If I had to pick just one thing I wish I had been told before I became a pastor it would be this: “I wish they had told me how lonely it would be.”

Parish ministry is deceiving. Clergy spend much of their time with people and have a never-ending stream of meetings, counseling sessions, and social engagements. They cultivate the ability to be friendly and caring even on their worst days. All of which leaves the impression that ministry is anything but lonely. But it is. It can be brutally lonely.

The source of this loneliness is simple. Ministers have few true friends. We spend night and day with people in our congregations with whom we have close relationships, but these clergy-parishioner friendships have defined limits. I often despised these limits, but in my heart I knew they were unassailable.

For deep and abiding friendships to flourish several things must be present. There must be a sense of equality between the two people. If one person has power over the other, the seeds of sabotage are already planted in the friendship. Pastor-parishioner relationships are anything but equal. Even in the Protestant tradition where the priesthood of all believers is emphasized, such sound theology does not change this dynamic. Ministers have a spiritual and moral authority over their parishioners. And, in the Free Church tradition, the congregation has the power to hire and fire the minister. Both sides have a form of power, but it does not create anything resembling equality. Depending on the situation, one is always in a superior position.

Another feature of deep friendships is that neither person is expecting a specific benefit from the relationship. Close friendships are born out of the joy of being understood and appreciated by another. In a climate of openness and trust we share our hopes, fears, successes, and sorrows. No tangible benefit is desired or necessary in order for the friendship to thrive. We simply enjoy being completely ourselves with our friend.

Pastor-parishioner friendships are filled with intimate sharing and wonderful moments. Yet, they are also full of expectation. Ministers are expected to do and be certain things for the parishioner, and the parishioner is expected to sustain the minister in tangible ways. This is not a relationship born of the simple desire to be open and transparent with another person. There are obvious and assumed covenants that exist between a pastor and her flock that demand specific actions and results.

I used to fight about this issue with Brad regularly. Brad was a member of one of my churches and a good friend. I enjoyed his company and could talk to him about all manner of things. But there were some experiences I couldn’t mention to Brad. There was rarely a conversation I had with him where I did not censure myself. Why? Because while it would have felt good to unburden myself about my doubts regarding something at church, or some confidential piece of information that was gnawing at me, such sharing would have undermined my primary relationship with Brad. I was his pastor first and his friend second.

Brad hated this reasoning and thought I was intentionally limiting our friendship. And he was right. I abided by those limits as a fulfillment of my calling to serve as his pastor. But doing so left me sad and lonely at times, longing for friends with whom I could pour out all my best and worst parts.

I think it is this loneliness that weighs on clergy more than anything. The job is overwhelming and lay people struggle to understand it. As ministers we can talk around the edges of our experience, but there are always omissions. I could be open and vulnerable in the pulpit, but only to a point. My congregations benefitted from hearing that my marriage was not perfect and I struggled with the same issues they did in maintaining a healthy relationship with my wife. However, they didn’t need to know if we were in marriage counseling because of a serious conflict that had the potential to end our relationship.

Some pastors would disagree with me at this point. They would argue that complete openness and transparency about everything is the key to authentic ministry. The problem is that once you share every secret and private heartache with your congregation the church starts taking care of you. Or worse, they start avoiding you. If people know their minister is having troubles at home they may hesitate to call in an emergency out of fear that their problem will only exacerbate the minister’s troubles at home. You can see where this leads. Before long the pastor’s ability to minister and guide is undermined because he wanted to be completely open with his members.

The only antidote for loneliness is connection and understanding. For clergy that means finding one another in settings where we can be completely transparent without fear of reprisal. Clergy groups formed for such sharing are a lifeline for the lonely minister. It took me years to realize my need for such a group, but once I discovered it my longing for uncensured friendships was satisfied.

Yes, I wish they had told me how lonely the life of a minister could be. More so, I wish they had told me that the friends who could fill that hole were not in the pews but in other pulpits. After all, who could understand better than other lonely ministers longing for a friend?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Secret Life of a Pastor - Chapter Two

Of the six churches I served as pastor, three were small and rural. They were all white, both the buildings and the people. One was made up of the descendants of German immigrant farmers. Another was dominated by two brothers and their families. And there was one, I kid you not, that was featured in a Meatloaf rock video. The people of that congregation are still trying to figure out how decent parents could name their kid Meatloaf.

Naruna Baptist was the smallest and most isolated of these churches. It was also the most picturesque. Surrounded by ancient oak trees, you couldn’t help but smile when you drove up to it. The old cemetery beside it only added to its charm. This was what you imagined when you thought of a country church. I loved it the first time I saw it.

Inside was a different matter. There was a resistance to modernization that defined the place. The old-timers spoke fondly of the days when the outhouse, still standing out back, was in full use. Indoor plumbing was viewed as an unnecessary luxury by some veterans, though their children and grandchildren were quick to disagree. The church had no air conditioning, but it did have gas heaters on the sides of the sanctuary. Opening and closing the windows was the answer to any temperature issues that might arise.

Preaching at Naruna was weird. The pulpit was set on a platform a couple of feet off the main wooden floor of the tiny sanctuary. What made this strange was not how far off the ground you felt, but how close to the ceiling you were. There wasn’t a high ceiling like you find in most sanctuaries, and I often had the illusion that I might bump my head if I wasn’t careful.

Two members always caught my attention when preaching at Naruna. Duard was a deacon who sat on the back row to my right. On my first Sunday he had assured me that I should not be alarmed if I saw him with his eyes closed during my sermon. He insisted it helped him to pay attention if he listened without looking at anything. I never got the guts to ask him if the snoring we all heard from him also helped him listen better.

The other dominant personality was the matriarch of the church, Mrs. Vann. Nearing 90, she sat on the front left side next to one of the gas heaters. She had circulation problems and kept the heater on throughout the year. Even in the Texas summer, when the temperatures outside routinely topped 100 degrees, Mrs. Vann had her heater fired up.

It was on one of these summer Sundays that I had the only mystical experience of my religious life. I was at the pulpit offering a prayer after the sermon. And then something bizarre happened. As I spoke words of gratitude to God, I could feel myself leave my body. My soul or spirit or mind, whatever you want to call it, slipped up to the ceiling and watched from there. Now remember, it was only a few feet to travel from my body to the ceiling, but even so this was a stunning experience.

I have never felt so bifurcated in my life. As I continued to pray from the pulpit, I had the sensation that I was viewing me and everyone else from my perched position. Thoughts were flooding through my disembodied self. “Is this what the Apostle Paul meant when he said he had been to the seventh heaven?” “Am I reaching a new level of spiritual depth because I can now exit my body and look around even while I am praying below?” “Will these Southern Baptists fire me for having a Pentecostal experience?” As I contemplated all of this and more, I slowly felt myself descend back into my body. After saying a quick “amen” I stumbled off the platform and slunk into a chair, exhausted. Mystical encounters apparently are depleting to those privileged enough to experience them.

On the ride home that evening with KaKi, who was my fiancĂ©e at the time, I wrestled with what to say about my dramatic episode. Would she think I was mentally unhinged? Would she feel inferior because she couldn’t hover around the ceiling? I wasn’t sure, but my conscience compelled me to tell her about it. She had a right to know about the unusual spiritual abilities of her future husband.

She listened without interruption to my curious tale, but when I reached the conclusion of the story she blurted out, “Oh God, Jack, you weren’t having a mystical experience. Mrs. Vann had her heater on so high this morning that we were all light-headed. I almost passed out myself!”

Though her facts were incontrovertible, and I never again was able to float around during my public prayers, I still wonder if KaKi was just jealous.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Secret Life of a Pastor - Chapter One

Riding down the narrow two-lane road my mind is racing and my body won’t stop shaking. Don, the driver, is talking about livestock mating habits, deer hunting, and other inanities. Nothing he says is sticking with me. My anxiety is so high that my five senses feel on fire and shut down all at the same time.

I am the new minister at the tiny Naruna Baptist Church. At 20, I have become the latest in a long line of student pastors who have served this congregation. One of my best friends, Kip, was the pastor before me. When he graduated from our college, he recommended me to the church. It all seemed so simple. I would drive down on Sunday morning to preach, spend the day with one of the families, and then preach again that night. Preaching doesn’t scare me as much as it once did. I have been doing it for five years on an irregular basis. Sure, doing two sermons a week is going to be a stretch, but when your church is made up of a few dozen country folks, I assume the expectations won’t be exceedingly high.

But I hadn’t planned on this possibility. When I arrived at the church this morning, only my third Sunday as pastor, Don met me at the door and pulled me to the side. He is the music director who leads the hymns as his wife plays the piano. Don is about forty, a large man with a thick beard, and his gregarious nature is always on display. Only in this moment, he is strangely subdued.

Don explains that there has been a death in the church. The Barfields’ adult daughter, Susan, was found on the floor of her trailer the night before. Susan’s twin boys were in their cribs unharmed when her body was discovered. Don explains that we will need to visit the Barfields after lunch and plan the funeral.

I’m having a terrible time absorbing this rush of information. Someone with connections to the church has died, but it is not one of the elderly members who dominate the congregation’s demographics. It is a young woman in her early twenties, apparently the unwed mother of twin boys, and no one knows how it happened. Or no one will say it out loud. This will be my first, but hardly the last experience with the awkward silences around an apparent suicide.

As Don and I turn down the dirt road that leads to the Barfields’ home, he asks if I know what I am going to say. The question only serves to increase my stress because it crystalizes the fact that I have no idea what to say. I turn the question back to Don and ask if he has any suggestions. For the first time I realize this situation also feels overwhelming to him. No wonder he was chattering incessantly as we drove along. He hesitates before finally saying, “Reading some scripture is always a good thing to do. Psalm 23 is probably the best.”

The shades are drawn in the Barfields’ den and there is only a single lamp on. The darkness in the room matches the mood of the house, but these are nice people who seem to understand better than I the absurdity of this encounter. What does a twenty-year-old preacher boy know about the death of a child? They carry the conversation and Don sits oddly silent in the corner of the room. I clutch my Bible with sweaty palms wondering when the right moment will come to read. It never does. The longer I sit with the Barfields the more I understand there are no words, scriptural or otherwise, that can make a difference. Their daughter is dead and now, in their late forties, they are going to raise two baby boys.

After deciding on a day and time for the funeral, I offer a prayer that feels utterly useless. When I look up, though, there are tears in Mrs. Barfield’s eyes and she whispers “thank you.” Something I have said or done in these moments has touched her, though in my anxious state I can’t imagine what it could be. It will take years before I understand the simple truth that just showing up in times of tragedy is all we can do and all anyone has a right to expect.

The next day my anxiety returns as it dawns on me I now have to plan and conduct a funeral. I can remember only one funeral that I have attended, a Catholic service for our next-door neighbor when I was 13. Nothing about that experience seems relevant to what I am faced with now. Feeling completely inadequate for the task, I go see my New Testament professor, Dr. Rainey. He is a kind man, sweet in temperament, and he senses my panic immediately. He tells me about his first funeral and how overwhelmed he felt. Then he walks me through each element of a funeral, me taking notes furiously as he talks. This moment still ranks in my top five of nicest things anyone has ever done for me.

I skip class the following day to drive down for the service. I do exactly as Dr. Rainey told me to do. I hear myself saying lines, verbatim, that came out of Dr. Rainey’s mouth. It is almost as though he is leading the funeral and borrowing my body to do it. I don’t care. At this point plagiarism is the least of my concerns.

What I do notice is an odd deference being paid to me by my congregants. Up until this point I have been the new, young preacher who is getting on-the-job training before he heads to seminary in a year. Now, in a tragic circumstance for which none of us has an explanation, they are looking to me for comfort and direction. For the first time I actually feel like their pastor. It feels good. It also feels like an overwhelming burden.

Lunch is served in the fellowship hall after the funeral and Mrs. Vann’s individually-wrapped fried pies are the talk around the table. This is a disorienting transition for me. Moments earlier I was burying a young woman who may have taken her own life, and now I am discussing fried apple pie with my parishioners. Is this wrong? Is it disrespectful of the magnitude of the moment? In time I will learn that in the face of death, conversations about pie, football, and other trivial matters make as much sense as anything else.

My first funeral was for Susan, a young woman I never knew. Her tragic death was my initial experience of trying to be a pastor. I thought it would get easier after that. It never did.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Longing for the Light

Karen Waters has just started a newspaper called "the Triangle" that will be an LGBT resource for the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area. Karen has invited me to be a contributor to the paper. Here is my article from the May edition.

A recent Facebook encounter with an old college friend left me angry and depressed. This friend, let’s call him Doug, saw on my profile that I support same-sex marriage and have a pastoral counseling practice that is focused on LGBT clients. Doug was not happy to discover this about me.

He wondered if I had thought about the extreme judgment from God I was sure to encounter for supporting sinful behavior. In response, I sent him a Bible study I have led many times that takes issue with the Religious Right’s assumptions about what the scriptures say concerning homosexuality. It was on after that. Lots of judgment from Doug. Lots of barely contained snide remarks from me. Needless to say, we won’t be swapping pictures at the next reunion.

Having been a teenage evangelist and come out of the extreme fundamentalism that Doug still claims as his spiritual home, I shouldn’t have been surprised by this maddening conversation. I have many former friends and colleagues who pray for my lost soul. More power to them. Maybe if they are spending their time praying for me it gives them less opportunity to spread their bigotry.

What got me with Doug, though, is that he is a medical doctor who practices family medicine. He claimed to have treated “hundreds of homosexual people” in his years and was more convinced than ever that homosexuality has its “origins in sin.” Sheesh. I wonder what they are teaching in medical school these days?

All of this left me in a stew about the state of the Church when it comes to issues of human sexuality. If educated doctors still view their gay patients through the lens of “chosen sin,” and the Catholic Church still keeps confusing the abuse of children with sexual orientation, it makes you wonder if people of faith anywhere are open to the humanity and beauty of their LGBT neighbors.

When I came out of my funk I remembered that we live in just such a place. Right here in the Triangle there are many religious individuals and institutions openly supportive of their LGBT sisters and brothers.

Several years ago, when I was still pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, I got together with some other clergy to see if we could put a public face on a more progressive vision of Christianity. The result was a Web site called where almost twenty churches went on record as being welcoming and affirming of people regardless of “sexual identity.”

I also recalled that in 2004, when I and five others formed the North Carolina Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality, we went around the state to see how many clergy would sign on to a statement in support of same-sex marriage. To our delight, more than 200 religious leaders penned their name to the document.

What does this mean? At the very least it means that even in the South, where conservative religious viewpoints continue to suppress the civil rights of LGBT people, the hegemony of hate is showing cracks. More and more progressive people of faith are finding their voice and advocating for change in the Church. The tide is starting to turn.

My friend Doug will continue to pray for me to see the light and turn from my wicked ways. The thing is, I saw the light years ago when I recognized that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender folk are blessed and beautiful just as they are. May that light of love and acceptance spread to every dark corner of the Church.


About Me

former pastor who is now a pastoral counselor and consultant (; married with two teenagers; progressive in my politics and theology