Oh how we need artists! They help us see the world differently. See ourselves differently. They stop us in our tracks. Remind us that the world is still beautiful. Or meaningful. Or that the world is broken. And while I love literature and books and poetry, sometimes I just want an image. No words. Just the image. The art itself. The possibility that something can be said without directly saying it. Said without words. Insight often enters through the side door of our consciousness. This week my office is a staging area for art, because six stunning photographs have been donated to First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. Photographs by Rick Nahmias and Andy Romanoff. They will be part of the Chapel Art Collection, permanently displayed at First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. The art will be hung this week. Both photographers will be in our worship service this coming Sunday and everyone can talk to them afterward as their work is unveiled. Sometimes at church we say words. A lot of words. And sometimes we skip the words, and simply turn to images, images that stay with us long after the sermon is forgotten and the readings have passed. Take a Breath today. And if you can, Take a Breath this Sunday at First Congregational Church of Los Angeles.
I’m not a curmudgeon. I’m really not. Plus, I’m on vacation this week and I’m in a pretty good mood. But I’ve decided that I’m not going to read the new Harper Lee novel – Go Set a Watchman. At least I’m not going to read it as a “new” novel from the famed author of To Kill a Mockingbird. As best I can piece together, this “new” novel was actually an early manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet, as often is the case with art, the book evolved. Artists make choices all the time. They change directions. Polish. Perfect. Tear down and start again. With the help of a strong editor, Harper Lee’s manuscript underwent a significant two year evolution before it was published. The story that started out with a bigoted Atticus Finch, became a story of a just and humane lawyer. The story that started out with a young adult Scout railing against her racist family, ended up as a story told by the young girl Scout, innocent but aware. It’s the way art works. It changes and evolves. And as far as I’m concerned, I’m not going to let anything dim To Kill a Mockingbird. Not even a so-called new novel by Harper Lee titled Go Set a Watchman. I’m not going to read it. (Well, not unless a copy mysteriously winds up on my desk.) But if you read it, I would love to hear from you. In the meantime, Take a Breath today. I’ll take one too. Maybe more than one. After all, I’m on vacation.
Every now and then something means something to us, and it may not necessarily be intellectually defensible or rationally explainable, but it still means something. I’ve been spending time with my granddaughter Caroline this week. She’s a peach. A peach and a pill. But mostly a peach. She was singing in the backseat yesterday while riding in the car, and she asked me to sing a song. “Sing a song Pop Pop.” I went blank. I couldn’t think of anything to sing. I began to scramble. The Beatles? Maybe. Van Morrison? Too complicated. Something from a Disney movie? You’ve got to be kidding. I haven’t seen a kids movie in forever.
The only thing I could think to teach her was an old hymn. The chances of any of you knowing it are slim to none, but it’s titled “I’ll Fly Away.” It’s a hymn about the end of life, which might not necessarily be age-appropriate for Caroline wanting to sing in the backseat of the car, but it’s all I could come up with at the time. “Some glad morning when this world is done, I’ll fly away. To a place on God’s celestial shore. I’ll fly away. I’ll fly away, old glory, I’ll fly away. (In the morning.) When I die, hallelujah bye and bye, I’ll fly away.”
Caroline was unimpressed.
To be clear, I have no idea what will happen to us after we die, and I don’t know what heaven or some version of it will be like, and I’m not sure if I’ll have a chance to meet Shakespeare, Nixon or my grandmother Agnes again. But this I know. I know I will die. I have faith that I will not be be abandoned by God when it happens, and frankly, that’s good enough for me. And so sometimes I find myself singing “I’ll fly away.” Does this old hymn perfectly capture my theology today? No. Not really. But just because it doesn’t make air-tight rational sense, that doesn’t necessarily make it nonsense either.
I found a version of this old hymn sung by Gillian Welch and Alison Krause. Take a Breath. Enjoy it. Don’t over literalize the lyrics. Just let it fill you up. The way the voice of a little girls fills the car from the backseat on a Monday afternoon.
Okay. Okay. I know. Enough with the celebration about Marriage Equality. Except this . . . for those of you who might not know . . . this is what it looks like . . . my friends James and Peter . . . their wedding at First Congregational Church of Los Angeles one year ago this weekend . . . a wonderful, moving, joyful occasion . . . not because they are straight (they’re not) or because they’re gay (they are), but because they love one another, and they love their church and family and friends, and because love is a gift of God, and because when we love we know God. I officiated their wedding and blessed them. In truth, they were the ones who blessed me. Take a Breath of history, dear friends, because for those of us who have worked and prayed and preached for the dignity and respect of all God’s children . . . well . . . this is called a good day.
Just to be clear: If the Christian gospel does not speak to our brokenness as human beings, including the brokenness of the world, then it is not the gospel. If the Christian gospel does not speak to the issues of our day, not another day but our day, not another generation but our generation, then it is not the gospel. If the Christian gospel does not link the insights from our past to the hopes for our future, then it is not the gospel. If the Christian gospel does not inspire both faith and doubt, answer and question, comfort and discomfort, then it is not the gospel. If the Christian gospel does not lift up all people, not some people but all people, then it is not the gospel. If the Christian gospel does not point us to something bigger than our personal wants or needs or ideas, then it is not the gospel. If the Christian gospel does not remind us that God is love, and that the way to know God is to love our neighbor, then it is not the gospel. I’m Taking a Breath today and maybe you would like to take one too. Because every now and then I just need to say it. This is who I am. This is what I believe. This is what I share with others.
I am so weary with gun violence in America, and I am so weary of violence that happens inside schools and churches, and I am so weary of perpetrators of violence looking more like children than adults, and I am so weary of writing blogs about the anguish of God and the need for human compassion in the face of tragedy. Tonight, I am saying a prayer for my brothers and sisters of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, South Carolina. I am asking you to Take a Breath and say a prayer for those families too. Say a prayer for devoted people who gather in the spirit of peace, wanting only sweet fellowship with one another and the study of their sacred writings. And if you can, say a prayer for a 21 year old man, who looks more like a boy, Dylan Roof, the alleged shooter inside that church. And while you’re at it, say a prayer for every child that somewhere along the line learns to hate. I am weary of it all, and can barely comprehend it tonight. I find comfort in this way: That alongside every fractured human tragedy, there are still flowers that bloom, there are still human beings who lend a helping hand, and there is still music and art and literature and dance and architecture and film and design and spirituality and books and education and drama, and all these disciplines bring beauty and meaning to our lives. Beauty does not right every wrong. I know that. It does however, at least for tonight, make it more it bearable.
As many of you know, I’ve written a great deal about the “new atheism” of the 21st century. I am a person of faith. I believe in God. But I also take seriously those people who do not believe in God. From my perspective, all people, including atheists, are children of God and deserve respect and dignity. It makes no sense to me for people of faith to demonize atheists. I cannot think of a more anti-Jesus thing to do. Jesus was about making room for one more person at the table, especially those people who might differ from him.
I was recently invited to participate in a national program designed to help people of faith better understand people who self-identify as atheists. I might also add, I think it’s important for atheists to understand and appreciate people of faith. And so I said yes! Consequently, on June 28 in the 11 am worship service of First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, we’re going to have an interesting, engaging, and in some ways, historic conversation.
My guest will be Mr. Richard Wade. Richard is a marriage and family therapist by profession, and he has spent a great deal of time over the past few years helping families when someone “comes out” as an atheist. Richard is a thoughtful, kind person, and someone not interested in debating but fostering a better understanding among all people. I am very much looking forward to our conversation.Just as I don’t think marriage equality threatens traditional marriage, I don’t think understanding the point of view of an atheist threatens sincerely held faith.
So, I’m asking for a couple of things . . . if you’re in Los Angeles on June 28, plan to be with us in worship at 11 am. If you you use social media, please help get the word out. If you know someone who might enjoy the service that day, then personally invite them to join us. If you can’t be with us, watch us online a few days later. I’m certainly looking forward to it and I think it’s going to be a good day for our church and an important day for the city of Los Angeles.
Every now and then people of faith need to Take a Breath, recognizing that the quality of our journey is measured, not by what we say, but by how well we listen and learn.
Here’s the wonderful thing about Facebook . . . even though you cannot attend an event . . . you can still feel connected to it. That’s how I’m feeling today. Last night was my 40th High School Class Reunion. Class of 1975. I never lived in my hometown of Salem, Indiana after I graduated from high school. There was college. And graduate school. And three kids. And job opportunities. And . . . well . . . and life. Yet through the many FB photos that have been posted this weekend by former classmates I have a few observations . . .
Most of all I have a feeling of gratitude. Even though I don’t see these folks and haven’t stayed in touch all that much, they are still with me. I started kindergarten with many of them and graduated from high school with them, too. Time passes, to be sure, but there’s something about their sweetness, and in some cases, brokenness, that I remember and cherish. Nothing can take these memories away. From what I can tell, those who were the life of the party in high school are still the life of the party. Those who were quiet, are still kind of shy and quiet. Something endures, and for me at least, what endures are these memories of people.
It’s also humbling to see the passing of time. Oh how our bodies have changed! (Though some look remarkably the same.) We’ve grown older. In some cases heavier, grayer, balder. It’s time and it’s a humbling reminder that life is always changing. It’s even more poignant when you discover that several classmates are no longer with us. I think to myself: How can this be? But it’s true. It’s a reminder that every single day is a gift. A gift to be enjoyed and a gift to be shared with people we love.
I don’t know, I’m feeling nostalgic today. I wish I could have attended the reunion. (I have this weekend job that keeps me pretty busy.) But I thought about so many of these people over the weekend, old friends that I find dearer a little bit more each day. We grew up in a nice little town. It wasn’t perfect. But it was a place of outstanding community support. I knew these people. I knew where they lived. I knew their parents and brothers and sisters.
I’m Taking a Breath of gratitude today for the Class of 1975. I’m hoping all of them, who aren’t too sore from all the dancing last night, will do so today as well.
Early morning Saturday dream fragment. I am at a party and Bob Dylan and Martin Sheen are there. We are talking. Bob Dylan, his hair wild, the way he wore it back in the day, says to me: “You’ve got to set the gospel. You’ve got to set the gospel, man.”
I’m not sure what he means. I’m puzzled.
Martin Sheen says, “It’s like when you’re fishing. If you get a bite, you’ve got to pull on your fishing rod and set the hook.”
Dylan says, “That’s it. Just like that. You’ve got to set the gospel.” That’s the dream.
I’m going to Take a Breath today and think about this dream. And tomorrow morning at First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, well, I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but if Bob Dylan tells you to “set the gospel,” then I’m going to try to do it.
We don’t know one another, but I live in Los Angeles and you’re in Malibu. I’m writing because I want to affirm the courage you’ve demonstrated recently by transitioning from man to woman. A lot of us, of course, just don’t get it. The reality of transgender is still confusing. We remember when you were an Olympic star and we admired your athletic ability. And then there was the whole “Keeping Up With the Kardahians.” That seemed pretty ridiculous to a lot of us.
Yet now it seems like you are doing something real. Strange that you would find something real just as you quit your reality TV show. Most of us can only imagine how much pain and loneliness you have suffered in life. If you are indeed a woman now, and that is how you wish to identify, then we send you our love and blessing and prayers. It takes so much courage to be yourself. Gay. Straight. Transgender. Young. Old. Male. Female. Doesn’t matter. Getting real and being real is no small thing.
Just so you know, I’m also the Senior Minister of First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. We’re one of those rare and wonderful religious communities that believes in loving people and accepting people just as they are. And so if you ever need a community, we’re here for you. And if someday you fall in love and want to be married, we’re here for you. And if the pressure becomes too great and the stress too much, just know you can drop by any Sunday. We’re here for you. You’ll love the music, you’ll hear a word of kindness, and the people will not treat you, not as a celebrity, but as another human being trying to make her way in the world.
Rev. Dr. R. Scott Colglazier / Senior Minister / First Congregational Church of Los Angeles