As the preachers are apt to remind us this time of year, December is the most contradictory and paradoxical of seasons. Between holiday hospitality and strategic gift-purchasing, they tell us, we threaten to turn deeper principles of love and grace from blessings to be celebrated to objectives to be executed, with holiday joy caving to grim perfectionism.
But that’s not how this blogger rolls.
If there’s any urge I can claim to transcend, it’s perfectionism.
For instance, I’m so stressed with closing down my fall semester, instead of, say, going to church, I’m writing a blog about the last time I went to church.
In a church three thousand miles from here.
And when you get down to it, I’m not so much writing this blog, when you get down to it, as cutting and pasting it. It’s based on a passage from the last chapter of my road trip memoir, The Whole Service Trip – the proposal for which will soon be sent to a publisher near you – and the Kaboom! art exhibit poster I made about that service. The exhibit challenged me to juxtapose the key images and phrases from my road experiences – and one scene that came to mind was my visit to Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco, a church with a long tradition of ministering to the LGBTQ community.
For many of us these days, the world is divided into Pre- and Post-Election, as if what happened before was a fairy-tale realm. But way back in June, folks at Glide had their own cause for grief – as they met on Pride Sunday in San Francisco, they were only two weeks removed from the mass shooting at what was known as a gay night club in Orlando. Glide is built on direct engagement and lofty goals, melting the Christian message down to its own version of perfection – Unconditional Love – and that particular Sunday had to be a time when that standard was most tested.
But coming to the rescue was a young man in Glide’s soulful and jazzy choir, a young man named, appropriately, Jonah – the prophet who went into the belly of the whale and lived to tell about it.
Below is the poster, and below that, in case you can’t read the text, the original passage.
Between those two announcements, however, comes the Community Prayer, led by a young bearded man named Jonah, who asks us to “please get connected” – and we do, my long arms stretched to their full length to connect the stocky man in the aisle to my right to a woman on my left. The woman in particular radiates a kind beauty as she smiles my way. Some sway to the rhythm of the subdued but beautiful electric keyboard accompaniment, a moving rendering of the gospel classic “I Can’t Believe He’s Brought Me This Far (To Leave Me).” Jonah prays aloud with pauses, as if reflectively and spontaneously confessing to his divine Friend.
“God,” Jonah intones, “sometimes we’re too difficult.”
“I know you know.”
It’s a phrase we use so often, signifying that we respect the intelligence of the listener, but here it takes on another meaning – even in the church without a cross, here’s this faith in an all-knowing God, the kind who knows what’s on our mind even before we know it ourselves.
Cross or no cross, here’s a man confessing his limitations in the face of a higher power. Only the limitations he confesses are failures to fully understand the reality of other human beings, failures of the empathetic imagination. “I don’t have any frame of reference for how vulnerable some people in our world are. I think sometimes if I were in Eastern Europe in the ‘30s or something, maybe I would know. Maybe if I was a refugee or immigrant in UK right now, I might have a little sense.” So no easy answers, no false assurances..
Then Jonah makes the move to the issue on our hearts today, the elephant in the room that, at Glide, is never ignored. “ … I’m … so sad about Orlando … and about the things that happened that cause that sense of vulnerability to be heightened. Anything that has potential to bring that fear into the world and turn us away from each other more.”
Then Jonah makes the healing cathartic turn toward hope, springing eternal, even here among the heartbroken and disillusioned. “And God I’m so grateful … so grateful for this beautiful place called Glide where it seems like every day is Pride Day, every day is for everybody, every day is a day to be free and safe and loved and welcomed … and we can all be together in that … “ and I feel the woman’s hand tighten around mine, and I tighten mine in return.
Jonah speaks louder. “So, Lord we’re going to celebrate you like we do here … We’re going to get out there and march, and we’re going to shout it out for every single creature on this planet.”
By now I feel like heading out the door this very second, but we’re not done praying yet.
“Thank you for all you’ve made … thank you for your pride in us.”
Then a surprising turn.
“Let us do our thing and make our mistakes.”
May we do the same things as this holiday season continues. To allow the re-energizing force of joy to do its work even amid our worries. To not let the barrage of holiday tasks get in the way of the spontaneous joy of the season. To “do our thing and make our mistakes.”
To, as one of the t-shirts created by a certain church in San Francisco reminds us, Glide Unconditionally.