Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Church of Rosacea

Those unfamiliar with rosacea might be romantically inclined to think “The Church of Rosacea” is named after a flowering plant, a distant province, or an obscure saint.  “Oh my, how lovely, the rosaceas are in bloom again.” “We visited the wineries of Rosacea on our tour of Europe.” “St. Rosacea was martyred in 1313 A.D. at the hands of a brutish king.”

I discovered rosacea firsthand during a contentious church business meeting. It began with a warm flush to the face that made me think I had happened onto male menopause. Though the hot flash passed, the ruddiness of my complexion did not. I could not claim, like Moses, that I had seen God’s backsides on Mt. Sinai and thus glowed from the experience. (Though now I wonder if Moses, given what he had to face with his own “congregation,” was perhaps suffering from one of the earliest recorded cases of rosacea.)

The dermatologist informed me that rosacea is a skin condition that could be triggered in otherwise healthy people by things I happen to love—wine, coffee, spicy foods, even rigorous workouts. Experimenting, I, in turn, gave up wine, coffee, spicy foods, and, though resistant to giving up my workouts, I toned down their vigor. Nothing worked, and I realized the true culprit was the one thing on the dermatologist’s list I did not like: stress. And stress is what I had in abundance at that church meeting.

I describe this to explain what I experienced this past Saturday as I faced attending a meeting of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, which would vote once again on whether to eliminate the clause in the Presbyterian Book of Order that prevents the ordination of openly gay and lesbian people. I have faced such church votes as this, in one form or another, for nearly 40 years, and you would think I’d get used to it. But, dressing for the meeting, I felt anxious, my hands trembled, and, lo and behold, I began to feel my face flush. Blessedly there is a cream I can use as a preventative, and I dosed my face to avoid my own version of the fiery furnace.

I needn’t have worried. The presbytery voted 262 to 157 to remove the prohibition, marking another victory for inclusiveness as presbyteries throughout the country continue voting for or against the ratification of the amendment. I couldn’t suppress the tears that came to my eyes as easily as I had the rosacea.

Jesus healed those with leprosy—what is now often translated as “virulent skin disease.” My hope is that the Church of Rosacea, rather than being the cause, might be the cure.     

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dolphins and Sharks

"Look, over there, there are dolphins in the water!"

Somebody shouted this to me as I began a several-mile run along a beach during a vacation. This stranger was absolutely right. Three dolphins playfully leapt up out of the water and, in tandem, we raced down the South Carolina shoreline for almost an hour. And most of that hour I reflected on that moment when the gracious abandon of a stranger, who might not otherwise have greeted me, alerted me to one of God's wonders.

Running for me is a time to meditate. Like a Buddhist walking meditation, its rhythm gives me peace and a place for thought. And what I thought was that this stranger had played the preacher-that this is the purpose of any exhortation-to awaken us to such wonders. Because I believe each one of us may serve as a minister, it occurred to me that this is our role, to shout,

"Look, over there, there are dolphins in the water!"

There's something about the shore that gives us permission to talk to strangers. I think it's the elation, even the ecstasy, that we experience in nature-whether manifest in shores or dolphins. It awakens the child in us that freely enters the commonwealth of God.

The stranger speaking to me about the dolphins was purely gratuitous, an occasion of grace. He had nothing to gain by it other than the thrill of sharing the experience. But I proclaimed his gospel to all I passed in my run along the beach,

"Look, over there, there are dolphins in the water!"

The next day, our last full day along the shore, it rained. And instead of wading into the Atlantic, I waded into all those e-mails I had avoided all week. It was sobering, to get back to business. There's nothing natural about sitting in front of a laptop, reading a screen and plucking keys on a keyboard.

And I had another thought. Earlier in the week on the beach, we had met a couple who alerted us to a shark in the water. It occurred to me that our job as "ministers" (remember, all of us) is not only to point out the dolphins, but warn others about the sharks.

Many of us got too many sharks growing up in our churches and too few dolphins. Like the preacher in the novel and movie Pollyanna, egged on by Pollyanna's stern and bitter aunt, we heard preachers who focused on the curses found in scripture rather than its blessings. Pollyanna, the orphan of missionary parents, who herself had every right to be bitter, pointed out to this preacher that there are many more blessings than curses in the Bible, many more dolphins than sharks.

Progressive Christians recognize the sharks infesting the waters of our faith tradition: biblical literalism, fundamentalism, prejudice, exclusion, patriarchy, condemnation, and so on. It's important that we warn others to stay out of these waters. But it's equally vital-or all the more vital-that we point out the dolphins of our faith tradition: grace, mercy, justice, compassion, inclusion, blessing, wonder, storytelling, and spiritual truth.

"Look, there are dolphins in the baptismal water!"