Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Tracing Rainbows Through the Rain -- A Sermon

Tracing Rainbows Through the Rain
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 30, 2012

O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
--George Matheson

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
--Psalm 139-7-12


George Matheson was a Scottish theologian and preacher whose career spanned the latter half of the 19th century. He died in 1906. He was a liberal thinker who attempted to integrate faith with modern science. In 1885 he wrote a book entitled, Can the Old Faith Live with the New? or, The Problem of Evolution and Revelation. In it he argued that accepting evolution would not undermine the faith.

That was 1885.

He wrote a hymn, O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go. A line from that hymn is the title of today’s sermon.

This is what Matheson said about the hymn:
"The hymn was composed in the manse of Innellan on the evening of June 6, 1882, when I was 40 years of age. I was alone in the manse at that time. It was the night of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of the family were staying overnight in Glasgow. Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a day spring from on high.

There has been much speculation regarding the “severe mental suffering” that he was feeling. One story suggests that his suffering was due to a lost love. He wrote this hymn on the occasion of his sister’s marriage. At one point in his life he was going to be married. During that period of engagement he learned that he was losing his eyesight. There was nothing the doctors could do. His fiancĂ© broke off the engagement saying she couldn’t live her life with a blind man.

He went blind while studying for the ministry. His sister took care of him during the years. Now on the eve of his sister’s wedding, who knows, perhaps feeling the sadness of his own loss during a celebratory time, he wrote this hymn.

Others speculate that it was the anguish of perhaps losing his faith in the light of modernism and science, particularly the theories of Darwin, that inspired the hymn. We don’t know. All we have is speculation and projection of our own mental suffering onto him. Matheson himself said something happened that “was known only to myself.”

It is a beautiful hymn. I never really paid much attention to it. Rarely have I selected it for worship until about a year or so ago. After Zach’s death, these past three months, it has been close to me. This is the third verse:
O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

This is the heart of the via negativa,
that spiritual path of letting go and letting be.
It is a path.
It is a path of trust that loss and the accompanying pain
is not the absence of the Sacred but a path to the Sacred.

Thus rather than bury the pain,
or hide it,
or deny it,
or be ashamed of it,

this path is an invitation to embrace it,
to name it,
to write a song about it,
or a poem,
to talk about it,
to walk with it.

The hope is that in so doing,
we can move through it and beyond it
and in the experience be touched by the Holy.

This is the path of Krishna:
“If you get rid of your ego and become like a hollow reed flute, then the Lord will come to you, pick you up, put his lips and breathe through you and out of the hollowness of your heart, the captivating melody will emerge for all creations to enjoy.”

This is the path of Jesus:
“After he called the crowd together with his disciples, he said to them, “If any of you wants to come after me, you should deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow after me. Remember, if you try to save your life, you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life for the sake of the good news, you’ll save it.”
 And from the Gospel of Thomas:
Jesus said, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

Both Krishna and Jesus are offering invitations to trust. Neither is glorifying pain or suffering. They are not calling us to throw pity parties. They are inviting us to acknowledge what is real and offering the hope that staying with it and going through it will be the path of wholeness or wholeheartedness.

That trust requires heart. The word for courage comes from the Latin “cor” which means heart. This pain, this darkness, this rain, feels endless. It feels as though there is no possible good to come of it. It feels wrong, inappropriate, unjust, sacrilegious, even to hope or trust that there is a rainbow to trace.
I don’t want a freaking rainbow, I want my son back. I want my husband back. I want my mother back. I want my life back the way it was.

The open heart also known as courage is the willingness to live with that inner conflict, name it and not judge it. It is what Matthew Fox calls it, “cosmic anguish.” It isn’t tidy. It isn’t pretty. It is real.

But what if we weren’t able to feel the cosmic anguish? What if we quickly hid it away? Remember the song by the Beatles, “Hey, you’ve got to hide your love away.”
We don’t want to see that. Put it away.

We are a culture that demands that everyone be upbeat.

My first radio job was in Mountain Home, Idaho. It was a little AM station that played country music. We played records on the turntable. I read the news, the agricultural reports, and the town gossip. After I was there a few months, the station was bought by a Mormon family. They were nice folks. In fact, they were very upbeat. They changed the call letters and we had to identify ourselves as “Country Sunshine.” We disc jockeys had to play two upbeat songs for every slow song. That isn’t easy to do with country music. You have to really search for those upbeat ones. Not only that, but we were required to turn up the speed on the turntables to make the songs sound even more upbeat.

No rain allowed at 1240 AM Country Sunshine.

I get it. No one wants downer people. No one wants to listen to bummer man.
Hey, you’ve got to hide your grief away.

We know that.
We know that we need to put on the game face,
clean up and do our duty.
Fake it until you make it.

We need to know that there is a price for that. If we don’t recognize the cosmic anguish and if we are not attentive to what is behind the game face, we may not resolve our grief. For the sake of surviving this culture, we may stay on this side of our pain and never pass through it. It can forever haunt us. The via negativa is the spiritual path that invites to make time and to take time for those feelings that we may have buried or hidden. We give them their due so that we can let them go.

I am grateful today to and for George Matheson, that on June 6, 1882, he took off the game face that he needed to put on for his sister’s wedding, and for five minutes allowed his hollowed heart to hear the music of Spirit and put these words to pen and paper.
O cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust
       life’s glory dead,
And from the ground
       there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

Amen.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Pay It Forward

It is that time of year when congregations request that their members make a financial commitment to the work of the community for the upcoming year.  The chair of our stewardship committee, David Roane, wrote the following letter for the White Spire.  I thought it was so great, I decided to post it here:
Dear Friends,

I went to EarthFare for lunch last week, and built a really pretty plate of colorful vegetables that would make any cardiologist proud. As I got to the cashier, I was behind a woman who ordered a blended drink that would take a couple of minutes to prepare. So, she was still standing there when I started to pay for my lunch. The cashier weighed my plate and said, “That’ll be $7.44.” To my surprise, I found that my wallet was not in my pocket! But then to my relief, my checkbook was. I scrambled to write out a check for the amount, handed it over and heard the cashier say, “I need to see your driver’s license.” I told her it was in my wallet, to which she replied, “I can’t take your check without your driver’s license.” Well, shoot. This was awkward. I guess there was nothing to do other than to walk away, leaving my plate to be thrown out. The woman in front of me spoke up and took money out of her purse to buy my lunch. I let her. I was hungry and the cashier was just going to throw my food away. I told the woman, “Thanks. I’ll pay you back.” She said, “Pay it forward.”

“Pay it forward” is a phrase in vogue. It means to give as an act of pure generosity without any expectation whatsoever of being paid back, or even of being thanked. It’s a beautiful gesture. And it is in this spirit of giving that I want to introduce this year’s Pledging Campaign.

We’ll begin our annual Pledge Campaign soon. Several of us from the Stewardship Committee will be speaking to you, briefly, during our Sunday services. We’ll be encouraging you to make a definitive pledge to the church for the coming year. This is important. The church needs your generous financial support.
Your act of pledging serves two functions. First, making a pledge signifies a commitment of generosity on your part to support the financial life of the church. It gives you a goal to achieve. During the year, we’ll send you updates on how you’re doing in fulfilling your pledge. For some of us, these are helpful. Second, the pledge you make is used by the Stewardship committee to plan our budget for the coming year. We need to have an idea about what to expect so we can plan accordingly.

In the spirit of “Paying it forward”, please join in supporting our church. Pledge your best.

Thank you, and many blessings on you and yours.
David Roane

Thanks David!  This congregation is a blessing.  I have said this for the past seven years, but during this time of grief, we have felt it at the heart level.   This congregation fills a crucial need in this community.   We are thrilled that new members will be joining us on October 28th and we will celebrate that and we will celebrate all of those who have "paid it forward" at our annual Gratitude Dinner.

You are welcome to join us as our own Sandra Garrett will cook up something special!
Please join us after Worship on Sunday, October 28th as we celebrate the very special place that is FPCe! Once again the Stewardship Team and Session will be capping off the 2013 Stewardship Pledge Campaign with a "Gratitude Dinner." In addition to celebrating our gratitude for FPCe, we will celebrate one another, including our newest members, whom we will welcome in a special ceremony during Worship.

The 2011 Gratitude Dinner gave us a chance to explore some of the tastes of the Mediterranean with a Greek menu. This year we'll move slightly to the west, and explore Italy's cuisine. If you're thinking red sauce, think again! The menu will incorporate regional elements while also honoring the season of harvest and bounty - another cause for gratitude!

So, set aside the afternoon for food,fellowship, greetings and gratitude!


A Note for Family and Friends

My Lovely knows how to get things done.  I thought I wanted/needed to write a personal note to everyone who had offered an expression of sympathy.   I read all the cards we received with tears but finally realized that responding to each with a personal note was never going to happen.  Lovely drafted this letter, purchased cards, stationary and envelopes, and we sent cards and letters to those for whom we had addresses.  I know we missed people.   So many people responded with calls, food, hugs, practical expressions of help, and I hope you know you are treasured.

We put it in this month's church newsletter.  This is for you with our heartfelt gratitude.

Dear Family and Friends,

As John and Katy and I stumble on with the grieving over the loss of our Zach, we want you to know that we are so grateful for you.


We were/are so numb that we might not remember all of the kindnesses you bestowed on us. Please forgive us for not acknowledging each and every one individually. We want you all to know that we are so thankful and would not be recovering at all but for:

The vigil you kept with us during those first shock-filled days.
Your thoughts, prayers, love, hugs, friendship, laughter.
Food, Food, and........more Food!!!!
Listening ears, helping hands.
Lovely flowers, cards, photos and shared memories of Zach.
The beautiful memorial services you helped us create in order to celebrate his Life -
both private and public.
The thoughtful memorial gifts you have given in his name.
As summer turns to fall and our lives without Zach continue on (inexplicably), we will hold the memory of your support precious in our hearts and minds. None of us can ever remember being so blessed by human kindness.

Beverly O'Connor Shuck for the Shuck Family
Rev. John, Bev, and Katy



Thursday, September 27, 2012

Via Negativa -- Letting Go and Letting Be

The Fall 2012 worship guide is on the web page.  These are the themes through Christmas.   The path we explore during autumn is the via negativa or the way of letting go and letting be.    With Zach's death, this is a path I am on whether I want to be or not.   The wisdom is that it is a path, a way, a vehicle to the Sacred.    That is the courage part for me.   It is a path not of wallowing, not of grief for grief's sake, but to slog through it (I can hardly say dance) in order to at some point let go of it. 

I wrote the following in the guide:
Nothing is more painful than letting go.  Sometimes we have to let go what has been ripped from us. At other times we need to let go what is no longer meaningful but is still part of us. We may have to let go of our dreams. We may need to let go of habits or addictions or our values and beliefs.  And then there is loss. We experience a series of losses from the day of our birth.  Negotiating our way through these losses is the perilous journey of life.

The via negativa is a spiritual path. It is the path of letting go. It is the way of hollowing out, stripping away, and setting free. No one would be willing to let go if this were the only path. The way to survive this, to be courageous enough to let go, is to trust that letting go isn’t the last word. Creativity, the gift of life, and rebirth are also possible.

As the season of letting go, Autumn, approaches Winter Solstice, our various religious traditions anticipate the light that shines in the darkness. Another metaphor is the music that blows through the hollowed flute. This is the promise expressed by Krishna: 
“If you get rid of your ego and become like a hollow reed flute, then the Lord will come to you, pick you up, put his lips and breathe through you and out of the hollowness of your heart, the captivating melody will emerge for all creations to enjoy.” 
In the summer we explored happiness. This season we move deeper and embrace wholeheartedness. A helpful friend through this season will be Dr. Brene Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection: Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life.  Dr. Brown writes about what we need to let go in order to embrace who we are.

If you have created a poem, a piece of music, a dance, a children’s sermon, a meditation, a sculpture, a painting or other artistic work that fits the theme, contact me and I will create a space in the worship service for your creative element. You may also have hymns or poems you have run across that you think will be appropriate. We welcome you to sing in the choir, play the bells, or participate in an ensemble.

If you are near our mountain, join us for worship and invite a friend.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Carol Landis, Green Interfaith Network, Encore Presentation, September 27 - October 1

On the next Religion For Life, it is an encore presentation with Dr. Carol Landis, the president of the board of directors of the Green Interfaith Network. The Green Interfaith Network (GINI) seeks to "build a network of cool congregations" in our area.

Our Vision is to be a model for green faith communities in the Southern Appalachians and to become a spiritual voice for environmental sustainability in the Northeast TN and Southwest VA region.



Carol will be talking about the work of the Green Interfaith Network including its advocacy for Tennessee's mountains.

Listen via livestream...

Thursday, September 27th at 8 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Sunday, September 30th at noon on WEHC, 90.7.
Sunday, September 30th at 2 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Monday, October 1st at 1 pm on WEHC, 90.7.
Via podcast.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Grief Is Love that has Lost Its Object--A Sermon

Grief is Love that has Lost Its Object
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, TN

September 23, 2012

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Matthew 5:1-4

The four vias or paths of Creation Spirituality are just that—vias or paths. They are ways. They are not ends in themselves. Movement is the guiding metaphor. The movement is not just upward. They are not ladders to climb as much as spirals to dance.

Yesterday the calendar commanded that summer give way to fall. Even if the calendar refused and decided to deny the end of summer, it wouldn’t matter. The leaves on the trees surrounding Watauga Lake would begin to let go of their green anyway. Temperatures would begin to cool. Earth moves around the sun such that in our part of the planet it appears to go to sleep a little earlier each evening.  This happens whether or not we with our calendars, language, and reasoning manage to make sense of it or not. Life happens if we are ready for it or not. So does death.

It doesn’t matter if we like summer or don’t like summer. It passes. I suppose one could move around the globe so you never have to leave summer. It is always summer somewhere. You could follow it so that you never have to see the trees let go of their green or feel the temperatures cool or bid the sun goodnight until late at night every night.

That would be a path or via too. The via positiva all the time. Endless summer. As we disc jockeys used to breathlessly announce: “Nonstop music. One hit after another.”

Most of us are not quite so nomadic, following endless summer with our surfboards. We know the other seasons as well. We know Fall, Winter, and Spring. If we have been around long enough and been fortunate to have lived through a number of these seasons, we may have found in them some sense of significance. While summer might be free and easy, bright and cheerful, there is something to these other seasons too. While we may have a favorite, if we are intentional about it, we can find something to stir our soul in the others.

But we really don’t have a choice. The seasons change whether we are intentional about finding meaning and significance in them or not.

The spiritual path of the via positiva the way of awe and wonder may be the path of choice. It is the happy path. It is the celebration of life. It is noticing the blue heron as she flies just a few inches above the water. It is allowing her flight to inspire wonder and reverence for these magnificent creatures and for all of life.

She is going to do her blue heron thing whether or not I take notice of her and admire her or not. The via positiva only becomes a spiritual path for me when I allow it to be. The via positiva is not about what is. It is about the awe and wonder for what is.

We know that we can go through our day and not notice the miracle of our existence. That is why all spiritual figures, deep thinkers, interesting people, and wise sages have told us since stories began to stop and take notice. Our man, Jesus, said: “Consider the lilies.”

“Consider…” I think that wonderfully understated translation of that verb is the essence of the via positiva-- “Consider…” Don’t just ignore or take for granted or use, “Consider…”

Consider creation, say the sages. If you have a spiritual bone in your body, marvel at it. Question it. Puzzle over it. Try to calculate it with numbers and equations. Write poems about it. Sing to it. Paint it. Allow yourself to be taken by it, to fall for it, to love it, to fall in love with it.

That is what education used to be, you know. It wasn’t something you purchased so that you could learn the technical skills and receive the required paperwork to be a drone in some cubicle doing something of no interest to you so you could get a paycheck to buy stuff made by other drones.

Education used to be about the via positiva. Consider and marvel at creation so that you might get a glimpse of what it means to be a human being before your life is over. Human beings have a job. That job is to tell our story. We are here to tell the truth of what we see, hear, feel, consider….

The via positiva is the path of noticing this world. Mary Oliver is one of our teachers. This is her poem, Invitation:

Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy

and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles

for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,

or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air

as they strive
melodiously
not for your sake
and not for mine

and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude--
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing

just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,

do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

That is the via positiva. We notice. We fall in love.
Maybe in so doing we change our life.

Then we get the call in the middle of the night.
The one we love, the one we give our heart to,
The one we live our life for,
Is gone.

She is the mother who held us,
who sang to us,
who was our strength,
and now she sits in her wheelchair and cannot remember our name.

He is the husband who loved us with passion,
who laughed freely without reservation,
whose illness took him long before we were ready.

He is the son, tender, sensitive, smiling,
But whose pain was too great for him to bear.

She is the forest destroyed, the stream polluted, the wildlife vanished.

It is nearly impossible to go through this life without being cheated.
That which we love leaves.
That will happen whether we want it or not.
That love doesn’t end.
The love remains.
The object of our love--
the forest, the husband, the mother, the son--
leaves.
But it isn’t as though we can just turn off the love.
We can try, I suppose.
We can try to numb it, bury it, deny it.
It is still there.
Love when it loses its object does not cease.
It changes to grief.
It demands attention.
It invites the heart to be present.
It invites us on another spiritual path.
Not the one that considers the lilies or the blue heron,
No this path requires courage as well as consideration.
When love turns to grief it hurts.
It hurts badly.
It hurts for a long time.
The spiritual path, the via negativa, is to be attentive to the grief.
And not to turn away.

I turn to Mary Oliver again. From her poem, Love Sorrow:

Love sorrow. She is yours now, and you must
take care of what has been
given. Brush her hair, help her
into her little coat, hold her hand,
especially when crossing a street. For, think,

what if you should lose her? Then you would be
sorrow yourself; her drawn face, her sleeplessness
would be yours. Take care, touch
her forehead that she feel herself not so

utterly alone. And smile, that she does not
altogether forget the world before the lesson.
Have patience in abundance. And do not
ever lie or ever leave her even for a moment

by herself, which is to say, possibly, again,
abandoned. She is strange, mute, difficult,
sometimes unmanageable but, remember, she is a child.
And amazing things can happen. And you may see,

as the two of you go
walking together in the morning light, how
little by little she relaxes; she looks about her;
she begins to grow.

Amen.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dreams

For several nights a week I have been sleeping in Zach's bed in Zach's old room.  Over the past couple of weeks I have had some dreams.

***

I am in a funeral home.  It is an old funeral home in Gray, Tennesssee.  In real life I had been there for another funeral a few weeks ago.   In my dream, Zach is in the coffin.   Suddenly he sits up.   He starts looking around with jerky motions like in those zombie movies.   The funeral director is kind of wild-eyed and wild-haired, like the scientist in Back to the Future.  He is holding Zach and says, "Don't worry.  They do this all the time."  

Zach is trying to speak and he looks angry.  He finally says:  "My parents didn't understand my pain."

Then he starts mumbling all kinds of things that don't make any sense.  I realize there is there is nothing there for me and I leave.

***

In another dream, Zach isn't in it, but I know somehow it is about Zach.  With me is a little girl.  She wants to climb Rapunzel's hair.  But it is more like a hair rope.   The story is really Jack and the Beanstalk.   I tell her it isn't a good idea.  But she starts climbing and I reluctantly climb with her.  I know that if we start this we won't come back because everything is moving up too fast.   Different worlds appear to us.  She enters one and finds herself older, but in the same abusive relationship.   I realize the worlds are the same even as we may be different people in them.

***

Zach is a baby or maybe one or one and a half.  I am tickling him and saying, "Funny boy, funny boy."  He is laughing that gutteral, "Heh, heh, heh," he used to do.  I feel his body.  His stomach.  The soft skin on his shoulders.  We are happy.  Then I see he needs his diaper changed.   It is filled with tar black poop.   His sister knows where the "Wet Ones" are and I start to clean him up.   I have to clean him up on a white carpet.  It is a big job but I think I finally do it.

***

This morning I dreamt I was holding him on my lap.  He is about 9 or 10.  I can feel his muscular calves.   He is wearing those red shorts with the black stripe.  I was holding him around  his waist and pleading with him, "Don't leave us Zachy.  Don't leave us.  Please don't leave us."

I wake up crying.



Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Test the Waters!

Here is a great opportunity to meet some people and to learn about our congregation!

On Saturday, September 22nd, from 10 am to 1 pm, you can "Test the Waters" at First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton. Our deacons will provide a lunch. Childcare will be provided. You can spend some time learning about the mission and ministry of our congregation and meet some new friends.

You may even decide that FPC Elizabethton will be your church home as have many others!

I am pretty proud of this church. We are unashamedly progressive and we encourage free-thinking. We don't worry too much about beliefs, but we will respect your own path. We are involved in many social justice programs and we take a proud stand for inclusion of all people, regardless of race, sexual orientation, or ability. Check out our webpage if you haven't already.

We think it is important for our area to have an active congregation like FPC Elizabethton and I hope that you will find that this is a congregation where you can use your gifts to make the world a more just, peaceable, and loving place. I hope that you will find meaningful friendships here as well.

Let me know via e-mail if you can join us on Saturday, September 22nd.

Glad you are here!



Sunday, September 16, 2012

Glory to God--A Sermon (sort of)

In addition to musical offerings by our choir and by small groups of musicians, Music Sunday 2012 features selections from the soon to be published hymnal, Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal.  Last weekend Beverly Shuck, Don Steele, Gil and Carolyn Bailey and myself attended an event at First Presbyterian Church in Bristol. During this event we were introduced to the new hymnal. As we put Music Sunday together, we decided to recreate a little of that experience for you.

The congregation is singing today a dozen or so songs from the upcoming hymnal that are not in the current hymnal. We have grouped some of the hymns in three mini-hymn sings. I will offer a brief reflection before each section. This reflection will be the longest.

The session will be deciding over the next few months whether or not to invite the congregation to purchase this new hymnal. We will set up a workshop soon for the congregation to learn more about the hymnal and to sing more songs from it. Should the session decide to purchase the hymnal, the congregation will be invited to purchase them individually in memory or in honor of a loved one.

The hymnal has a central part in our worship experience. Each week I choose hymns that enhance the theme of the worship service. While at times I choose hymns from other sources, usually they come from the hymnal.

I am going to share a little bit about the history of hymn singing in the Presbyterian Church and the layout of this new hymnal. In so doing I will also share my understanding of what it means to be Presbyterian.

This past week, on September 13th, I acknowledged the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) I am proud of that. I don’t consider my work a job or even a career. I consider it a calling. I am honored that Presbyterians saw gifts in me for ministry and claimed me as one of their own.

I wasn’t born a Presbyterian. I married into it. I remember when I realized it was home. The minister of the church my wife and I attended, Rev. Francis Horner, at White River Presbyterian Church in Auburn, Washington, took me under his wing. One of the first sermons I remember him preaching was about evolution. He didn’t call it Evil-lution. He preached about other things as well. He was from South Africa. This was in the 1980s and the church was in the midst of the struggle against Apartheid. He talked about AIDS (again this was in the 1980s) and the importance of the church responding with compassion and justice to those living with AIDS.

When I approached him about the possibility of going into the ministry he tried to talk me out of it by showing me his Greek and Hebrew Bible and telling me it would take a lot of school. I was hooked. My introduction to Presbyterianism opened my mind and heart. It was Christianity that I hadn’t seen before. It was engaged in social justice, in conversation with science, and it invited me to participate in God’s kingdom on this side of the grave.

This congregation, First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, is probably the most progressive congregation in this region. We might share that designation with the Unitarian church. If the markers of progressive are socially engaged in terms of awareness and advocacy for our environment, civil rights such as full inclusion in church and society of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons, a celebration of different religious traditions, an embrace of science and psychology, and critical engagement with the Bible and the Christian tradition, then we are on the leading edge.

I suggest that we are that not in spite of but because of our Presbyterian heritage. That does not mean that other denominations do not have progressive congregations or that all Presbyterian congregations are progressive, by any means. I am just not surprised that the most progressive Christian congregation in our area is Presbyterian. Our stand for education, critical thinking, social justice, political engagement, and compassionate service is an outgrowth of the historic principles of the Presbyterian Church and Reformed Theology.

I think it is in the interests of our congregation to be intentional about our roots and our identity. It isn’t all who we are. Our mission statement says that we
Honor our Christian heritage while we explore the knowledge and wisdom of multiple religions, science, philosophy, humanities and psychology to deepen and enrich our spiritual journeys.

Yet we can be nurtured by our Presbyterian identity and we can contribute to our ongoing story. This congregation’s advocacy for social justice, freedom of conscience, critical thinking, theological exploration, and its work for peace is an important witness to the larger church.  We are not alone in that.

What does this have to do with the hymnal? The hymnal is Reformed theology set to music. It is part but not all of who we are. Here we find our rooted-ness and our connectedness to the larger church, its history, and its various trajectories.

There have been seven hymnals in our stream of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. The first was in 1831. This was the church’s first move away from singing only psalms in worship.

The next hymnal came in 1874 when the new school and the old school reunited.


The next was a hymnal published during the heat of the fundamentalist controversy in 1911.

The next was the green hymnal published in 1933.

In 1955 the red hymnal was published.

In 1972, this congregation started singing from the blueish gray Worshipbook. That was at the time John and Carolyn Martin arrived.

The Martins were here when the current hymnal was published in 1990. That is the hymnbook in the pews.

Since 1933, it has been about every 20 years or so, a generation, that the church feels the call to revise our "photo album." At the hymnal event last Saturday the speaker used the image of a photo album to describe the hymnal. There is only so much room. You need to add new pictures. What to do with the old ones? Some are keepers that you never want to lose. Some were interesting for a time but they can be replaced. When our Presbyterian family needs to update its “photo album” of hymns it wrestles with what hymns are our “heart songs,” that have been with us, what hymns are we as a new generation singing, and how do we put it together.

The formation of the committee for this new hymnal began in 2004. The new hymnal will be published in September 2013. None of the members of this committee, not one, is completely happy with it. What that means is that no individual person agreed with all of the decisions of what hymns to include and what to leave behind. Each of us would do better for our own selves in choosing our own favorite hymns! This congregation could not create a hymnal for itself that everyone would like. But, it isn’t about that. It is about the breadth of songs that speak to our hearts. It isn’t so important that I always sing my favorite heart song. It is of more importance that I am in community with the person next to me who sings a different heart song. If we each learn each other’s songs our hearts might be touched even more.

This new hymnal will have about 800 hymns. Half of them will be new, that is, that have not been in previous Presbyterian hymnals. About 60% of the 600 hymns in the current hymnal will be in the new one.

The order of the hymnal is such that the saga of the Christian story is seen in its fullness, so as we sing the hymns we sing the theology of the church.

Some of these hymns will be old hymns that this committee found and included. Three of those are in this first mini hymn sing. Growing up Baptist, we sang these first three. You may have known them as well.

Some songs will be new. People write hymns every day. We need to hear and sing new songs. Some will be from the global church. These are hymns from different cultures. These will have different rhythms. They will help us recognize that we all are neighbors.

Let us sing!

Here are the songs we sang from the upcoming hymnal.  Some are from the sampler and some were from sources presented at the hymnal event.  Here are the contents of the hymnal.   Here are the hymns we sang on Sunday:

God Welcomes All
Come and Fill Our Hearts
I Love to Tell the Story
What a Fellowship, What a Joy Divine
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud
Glory to God
Give Us Light
He Came Down
As the Wind SOng
Heleluyan We Are Singing
We Will Walk With God
 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sam Jones and Tennessee Transitions, September 20-24 on Religion For Life!

My guest this week on Religion For Life is Sam Jones who blogs at Tennessee Transitions. She is a community activist and advocate for transitioning our communities and our lives to the post-petroleum reality that is coming. She speaks candidly about the issues that we are facing as well as the importance of living simply.



Thursday, September 20th at 8 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Sunday, September 23rd at noon on WEHC, 90.7.
Sunday, September 23rd at 2 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Monday, September 24th at 1 pm on WEHC, 90.7..
Via podcast beginning September 25th.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ordination Anniversary

Now I know what is going on with me today.   September 13th is my 20th anniversary of my ordination as a minister in the PC(USA).   I was ordained September 13th, 1992 by Utica Presbytery at the First Presbyterian Church of Lowville, NY.

 
Earlier this year I had thought of making this a big deal then with Zach I forgot about it.    I served this congregation for eight years.  It is where Zach and Katy mostly grew up.  Michelle graduated from high school here.  


This is the first day of school 1992, probably a week or two before my ordination service. 



This is Zach and Grammy Elsa getting ready for the snow in our house in Lowville.  Notice the date of the photo is March 13th.  Winter lasts forever in Northern New York. 



Katy and Zach with Zach's best friend, John, from across the street.  You want a warm costume for Halloween.  That is usually when the first snow hits. 




Christmas in Lowville.



With John and his little brother, David.  


Playing cards with his sister.  

Thank you, Lowville, New York, for good memories.   Those were some happy times.



Eleven Weeks

Every Thursday and every 28th of the month will be a way to mark time.  I don't know if it will always be like that.   Eleven weeks ago our universe was altered.  Now I know why the biblical authors used apocalyptic language.  Like this from Joel:

Put on sackcloth and lament, you priests;
wail, you ministers of the altar.
Come, pass the night in sackcloth,
you ministers of my God!....

Alas for the day!
For the day of the Lord is near,
and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.
Is not the food cut off
before our eyes,
joy and gladness
from the house of our God?

The seed shrivels under the clods,
the storehouses are desolate;
the granaries are ruined
because the grain has failed.
How the animals groan!
The herds of cattle wander about
because there is no pasture for them;
even the flocks of sheep are dazed....

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
a day of darkness and gloom...

 The earth quakes before them,
   the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
   and the stars withdraw their shining.


I never thought I would write this but that is some damn good poetry.   

Zach would laugh at me because yesterday I cried when I heard Skeeter Davis.    How screwed up is that?


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Numbness



I am not in the fetal position.
I feel like I should be.
You may catch me smiling.
Don't be fooled.
Numbness is a defense
my body uses
so I can
move 
through
the 
day.
Don't feel sorry for me.
It is life
...and death.
But I do like to know
you're there.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

September 11th: Architects and Engineers Speak Out

This is the film released by Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, 9/11:  Explosive Evidence--Experts Speak Out.   It aired on PBS this summer and you can watch it all on YouTube right here.

In the film architects and engineers explain why the official story of the collapse of three New York City skycrapers on September 11th, 2001 is not credible.   The buildings could not have come down without explosives.

Evidence is one thing.   Shaking our worldview is another.   Beginning at 1:54:30, psychologists speak about that.



Read more about the film here

This is an article about it from Digital Journal

Read more about 9/11 from Journal of 911 Studies

Over 1700 architects and engineers have signed on to Architects and Engineers for 911 Truth

I have put my name on the statement, Religious Leaders for 911 Truth.

Still lighting a candle.



Monday, September 10, 2012

James Howard Kunstler, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation on Religion For Life, September 13-17

We are facing some huge issues, Peak Oil, Climate Change, and Environmental Crises, and according to my guest, James Howard Kunstler, we are addressing these events with magical thinking. The author of The Long Emergency speaks engagingly and honestly with me about our future, in his latest book, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation. The Independent writes: "If you give a damn, you should read this book." Likewise, you should listen to this interview on Religion For Life!





Thursday, September 13th at 8 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Sunday, September 16th at noon on WEHC, 90.7.
Sunday, September 16th at 2 pm on WETS, 89.5.
Monday, September 17th at 1 pm on WEHC, 90.7..
Via podcast beginning September 18th.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

On The Way--A Sermon

On the Way
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 9, 2012

“If I do not go to the hell to help the suffering beings there, who else will go? ... if the hells are not empty I will not become a Buddha. Only when all living beings have been saved, will I attain Bodhi.”



Today we wrap up the summer preaching series on happiness. It has been hard even to say that last sentence. Life has been lived in a fog since the death of Zach. I feel like I am living but not living. I am not exactly sure what the word “surreal” means, but it seems to apply. I am thankful for the mind and body’s natural defenses that only allow this shock of realization at intervals.

It has been jarring to continue this sermon series on happiness at a time when my family and I are going through the most devastating period in our lives. And yet amidst this injustice, the birds are oblivious and inappropriately, keep singing.

In that same inappropriate way, I preach on happiness. Yet oddly enough, it is appropriate.

The word happiness sounds so trite. It is like finally getting to meet the President and all you get are a few sentences and you waste them commenting on the weather. It is like sitting down for dinner and all that is served is candy.

Is it the word, “happiness” that is the problem? Would the word “joy” be better? Could be. Is there something too self-focused about the word happiness? Too much navel gazing? It is like skimming the covers of the tabloids in the supermarket aisle. The celebrities only have first names. Kate and Tom breaking up. Justin and Aniston getting engaged. Miley and Pink jealous of each other’s mohawk. If these celebrities with their looks, wealth, and connections cannot quite seem to corner happiness is there any hope for the rest of us? What is this happiness that we are chasing?

This summer we looked at the work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. He seemed to me to make as much sense as any. Happiness is pretty much something we are wired for or not. We can cheat and boost up our biological set point by meditation, possibly medication, and reframing our behaviors and outlook. Increasing the quality and quantity of our relationships can increase happiness. Plus discovering and using our strengths to do meaningful things can add to happiness.

There are other things he writes about that can add to happiness, like surviving adversity and working on those old fashioned ideas called virtues that our great-grandparents knew. Ben Franklin made his own list of 13 virtues. He made a chart and he would evaluate himself at the end of the day as to how well he did exercising his virtues. These virtues included humility, tranquility, silence, chastity, cleanliness, moderation, justice, sincerity, industry, frugality, resolution, order, and temperance. He said he wasn’t perfect by any means. But the discipline, he said, made him a better person. Ben Franklin was a pretty happy guy.

My first congregation was in upstate New York. I remember some of the Mennonite families would use the names of virtues to name their children. I found myself taken aback when I would run into someone named Temperance or Patience. I wonder if it helped. With a name like Patience you don’t want to be caught cutting in front of others in the line at the Wal-Mart.

Earlier this year Columbia University’s Earth Institute published the World Happiness Report. They made their conclusions based on a number of factors including health, job security, political freedom and so forth. They discovered that the happiest nations were Scandinavian countries. Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Netherlands topped the list. Following in order of happiness were Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, and then coming in at eleven was the United States. The authors of the report wrote:
"While basic living standards are essential for happiness, after the baseline has been met happiness varies more with the quality of human relationship than with income...Policy goals should include high employment and high-quality work; a strong community with high levels of trust and respect, which government can influence through inclusive participatory policies; improved physical and mental health; support of family life; and a decent education for all."

I appreciate that Columbia University is making an attempt at uncovering what social, political, and economic factors contribute to well-being or happiness and what we can do as communities of people to increase levels of happiness. They show that happiness or contentment or well-being is important to evaluate and to pursue. Happiness it appears is not so much a state or a goal, but a way or a path.

According to this report great inequality within a nation or community is one thing that serves to decrease the level of happiness of everyone, even those who appear to benefit.

It is an old lesson. If we wish to be happy, we would do well to increase the potential for the happiness of others. If meaningful work, education, good relationships, a comfortable income, good health, personal freedom, and so forth are available to me and make me happy that is good. But if my neighbors are not able to attain those things, my happiness actually decreases. That is only reasonable because that means I am a human being. Human beings cannot truly be happy in the midst of the suffering of others unless they are actively engaged in relieving that suffering. Happiness cannot ever be an individualistic pursuit. We can only be happy to the extent that we bring happiness to others.

That wisdom is at least as ancient as the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva is motivated by compassion to bring Buddhahood or enlightenment to all beings. The image is that the bodhisattva refuses to enter Nirvana, or heaven to use a Christian word, until all beings enter Nirvana. The idea that there would be heaven where the righteous experience bliss while others suffer in hell would be an anathema. Only a sociopath could be happy--if that is what you could call it--in such an existence.

It is impossible truly to be happy and at bliss knowing that others suffer. The bodhisattva devotes his or her existence to bringing others to enlightenment. The point is that this is a never-ending task. The deeper point is that it is in the doing of it, it is in the compassionate work of bringing others to enlightenment that the bodhisattva actually lives happiness. Happiness, or enlightenment, or contentment is not a state or a goal but a way.

Jesus Christ can be understood as a bodhisattva. This is the great hymn from Paul’s letter to the Philippians about the Christ:

I appeal to all of you to think in the same way that the Anointed Jesus did, who
Although he was born in the image of God,
Did not regard “being like God”
As something to use for his own advantage,
But rid himself of such vain pretension
And accepted a servant’s lot.

Since he was born like all human beings
And proved to belong to humankind,
He recognized his true status
And became trustfully obedient all the way to death,
Even to death by crucifixion.

That is why God raised him higher than anyone
And awarded him the title that is above all others,

So that on hearing the name “Jesus,”
Ever knee should bend,
Above the earth, on the earth, and under the earth,
And every tongue declare: “Jesus the Anointed is lord!”
To the majestic honor of God , our great Benefactor.  (Scholars' Version)

Paul, in reciting this hymn, is admonishing his friends to do the same thing, to share the same attitude. Even as Judaism and Christianity on one hand and Hinduism and Buddhism on the other come from geographically different places and from different cultures and developed differing languages and different symbolic expressions, at the deepest levels, their fundamental affirmations are similar.

Who is the happy person? Who is the contented, enlightened, and whole person? Who is the saved person? It is the one who realizes that happiness is not something to attain. Happiness is not a noun. It is a verb. It is a way of being for all beings.

The literature about the bodhisattvas is wonderful. There are billions of these beings and they appear to us all the time even as we don’t know it. Sometimes it is the cashier at the store. Sometimes it is an animal. They appear to us and do things to awaken us. You can’t just make people enlightened. People have to realize it on their own. The Bodhisattvas have to sort of, well, trick you into it. In those experiences in which you have had an increase in awareness or an aha! moment, a bodhisattva opened that path for you. You can have fun with this. You don’t have to take it literally, but the imagery of the universe filled with bodhisattvas in disguise seeking to make all beings happy and enlightened is a wonderful image. When feeling discouraged knowing that all these beings are on our side is comforting.

Now the thing is…that you are a Bodhisattva as well. You are that for others. Don’t be afraid to take that role. That is the deep wisdom. Now this same thing is in the Christian tradition. The Cosmic Christ is within and among us. As the risen Christ was with the walkers on the Emmaus road and they didn’t realize it until they all broke bread together, so the Christ is with us and is seen in the aha! moments, the breaking of the bread, the unexpected laughter, the act of compassion, the suffering shared. The point again, as Paul writes in Philippians, is that we are to be of the same mind. We are to be Christ for another.

You want to be happy? You are not alone. Billions and billions of bodhisattvas and little christs are conspiring at this very moment to help you.

The clincher is that you are one of them.

Amen.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Underground Presbys

For the past several years we have had a study group at the church.  We meet on Thursdays from 10:30 until noon.  The group is called "Thursdays With Jesus" even as Jesus has yet to make an appearance in any non-metaphorical manner.  I keep hope alive.

We have been watching and discussing a great Teaching Courses series by Bart Ehrman, called Lost Christianities:  Christian Scriptures and the Battles Over Authentication.   We are down to the last four lectures.  We watch two per week.  It has been well-received.

Beginning Thursday September 20th, Thursdays With Jesus goes underground.

We are going to read Robin Meyers, The Underground Church:  Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus.   Here is the blurb:

The Underground Church proposes that the faithful recapture the spirit of the early church with its emphasis on what Christians do rather than what they believe. Prominent progressive writer, speaker, and minister Robin Meyers proposes that the best way to recapture the spirit of the early Christian church is to recognize that Jesus-following was and must be again subversive in the best sense of the word because the gospel taken seriously turns the world upside down.

 
Robin Meyers is a good guy.  He granted me an interview for Religion For Life.   He will be coming up.  I have a bunch of interviews recorded.  I need to get into the WETS studio and produce them.   Good programs are on tap including:
  • Sam Jones of Johnson City who blogs at Tennessee Transitions about Transition Towns and practical ways we can adapt to Peak Oil.

  • Film director, Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct, Total Recall) is directing a film based on his book, Jesus of Nazareth.  Verhoeven participated in the deliberations of the Jesus Seminar and is presenting a film about his understanding of the historical Jesus.
Religion For Life is a lot of fun.   I am getting a lot of good response since that nice article in the Kingsport Times and Johnson City Press.  

Catch Religion For Life Thursdays at 8 and Sundays at 2 on WETS and Sundays at noon and Mondays at 1 pm on WEHC.    If you miss it live, catch Religion For Life via podcast and on iTunes!  Follow us on Facebook and Twitter

Feel free to join us for Thursdays With Jesus at your favorite underground church in the woods


Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Rev. Don Steele

Rev. Don Steele has moved to our area from Pittsburgh.  He and his partner, Jeffrey, and son, Davidson, attend our congregation.  We have given Don the title "Assistant to the Pastor" as Don has been helping me with ministry here especially since Zach's death.  Don is honorably retired and this is a volunteer position.

Don has requested that Holston Presbytery receive him as a member by transfer from Pittsburgh Presbytery. Our presbytery's Committee on Ministry has discussed this request and has voted.  Twice.  Both votes ended in a tie, which means no.  The COM decided to let the presbytery as a whole decide.   Yesterday at the September meeting, Don presented his Faith Journey and his Faith Statement (printed below) and verbally spoke to the presbytery about his sense of call.

I sent this email to my congregation today about the meeting:
I was proud and moved by Don's statements.  He also addressed the presbytery and talked about his ministry.   We broke into small groups and discussed what it might mean to welcome Don into the presbytery.  The presbytery will vote in December.    That vote will have no bearing on Don's relationship to our congregation.   He is part of our family and can serve here as he wishes.  It is, however, an opportunity for the presbytery to receive a gift.   Whether the presbytery votes to receive Don as a member or not, Don will be present in the presbytery and so will our congregation.

As I have been reflecting on the meeting, I thought how much I admire Don for his courage and for his vulnerability.   We are all gifts and we all have gifts.   While some may regard Don as a threat more than a gift, nevertheless, he truly is a gift in many ways, and one of those ways is his honesty with the church about his life.   His courage is a gift to other LGBT people who because of social prejudice must for their survival live in secret.   He offers hope that it will not always be that way.

It was good to see Holston Presbytery hear Don respectfully.  Even as people have different opinions regarding abstract notions such as "homosexuality" or "the authority of scripture" and while some people may never come to an acceptance of Don's sexuality, nonetheless, change happens.  As Myra Elder (our commissioner who really has the last name "Elder") reminded us in the car on the way home, "We didn't flip a light switch; we planted a tree."  

Of course, I am reminded how important this congregation is to this area, to Holston Presbytery, and to the denomination.   For that, I give thanks to you and to all who have journeyed with us along this path, planting trees of acceptance, wisdom, and strength. 
I asked Don for permission to post his statements on my blog and he graciously granted it.   I also post this picture of him when he marched with us in Kingsport's Martin Luther King, Jr. parade this January.   We love you, Don.


Faith Journey-Donald M. Steele
October 31, 2011

In the life of a 64 year- old, there are more stories than can be encompassed in one page, At the outset, I would simply note that for me as for most pilgrims, the journey is not so much the story of my growth in faith as in God’s faithfulness in the warp and woof of the weaving of my life. Along the way, I taught in a Catholic middle school related to the Schools of the Sacred Heart, whose founder, Saint Catherine Drexel, saw as the goal of education to see a student, “seriously begun.” I hope that at age 64, I am perhaps at last “Seriously begun” and trust that the “One who began a good work in me will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:6) Since there is so much to tell, I will try to describe the journey in strands for God’s weaving rather than chronological events.

Strand One- Illness
My earliest serious illness began during my first pastorate in Hinton, WV, where I was sent to the Mayo Clinic and hospitalized with my first severe bout with asthma. Other health challenges have included epilepsy, osteoporosis resulting in a broken back due to the seizures, and lymphoma. Later, a dangerous asthma attack in Chicago again hospitalized me and led to a prescription of a warmer, drier, less polluted climate, which opened a door to accepting a call to Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gallup, NM adjacent to the Navajo and Zuni reservations. My service there was interrupted by a serious stroke, which left me unable to continue due to partial paralysis and partial blindness. In 2011, advanced arthritis led to a knee replacement with complications prolonging the recovery during rehab. Through it all, I have experienced God’s presence as healer, companion, and comforter.

Strand Two – Social Justice
In many ways my parents laid the groundwork for my growing involvement in issues of social justice. As staunch members of the rural Presbyterian Church in middle Tennessee where I grew up, with their influence and that of my Scottish immigrant grandfather, who lived with us until his death, our home was very Calvinist in its practices with no cooking, sewing or movies on Sundays. We did not eat out or do grocery shopping on Sundays, and so we didn’t participate in an economy that required others to work on the Sabbath. It was an early lesson in putting beliefs into action for justice. My parents also did not support the negative images, language, or actions that upheld segregation at the time.

It was not surprising then that when my college choice took me to Southwestern at Memphis, now Rhodes College, I became very active in civil rights concerns and actions, especially in the garbage workers’ strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis and his death. This affected me profoundly as I viewed Dr. King as one who was “persecuted for righteousness sake.” During these years I experienced and began to follow my sense of call to ministry. At Union Seminary in Virginia, I became active in the peacemaking movement in response to the Viet Nam war. Following seminary, I understood my call to be to ministry in Appalachia, and I accepted the first of four calls in the region.

After Hinton, I served concurrently as pastor in Spencer, WV, as coordinator of CAM, the Coalition for Appalachian Ministry and as Special Presbyter for Appalachian Ministry for the Presbytery of Greenbrier. In these capacities I worked to address the social justice issues of the region including land use and abuse, mine and factory safety, and land ownership and control. With the blessing of my third WV parish in Charleston, I also participated in the WV Delegation of Witness for Peace in Nicaragua. Growing out of my regional work, I became increasingly involved in issues of national and world hunger, and after additional study at the Maryknoll School of Theology’s Institute for Justice and Peace, I accepted a call as Associate Director for International Relief and Development with the Presbyterian Hunger Program, and made on-site visits in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, as well as the U.S., monitoring and encouraging programs to address root causes of hunger. Health concerns dictated that I decline the opportunity to move with the national staff to Louisville, and instead, went to Graduate Theological Union to pursue a Ph.D. In Berkeley, CA., in addition to teaching pastoral theology, ethics, and spirituality at two seminaries, a middle school and a graduate school, I participated in the support for migrant farm workers.

During these years, I also had to come to terms with the personal issue that tested most profoundly my trust in God’s faithfulness, as after listening in counseling to numerous students who were struggling with their sexual identity, I came belatedly to understand my own orientation and to self-identify as gay. I had long since known that gay, like other human conditions, is a gift, but 24 years into a committed marriage and ordination in a denomination that did not allow gay clergy, I pleaded with God. “Could it please not be my gift!” God, on the other hand, already knew me and was big enough to handle my shame and grief at hurting my wife, who had shared so much of the journey. With the help of excellent therapy and many courageous and faithful gay Christian friends, I “came out” first to myself, then to my wife, and eventually to others in the church and institutions where I worked.

That process has continued to this time, but I was committed that no employer would choose me without first knowing this aspect of my truth, so they would not hear after the fact and wish they might have made another decision. This included my service at the School of Applied Theology in Oakland, at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, at Children’s Hospital in Chicago, where I was chaplain, at three ”More Light” congregations, where I was Parish Associate, and at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gallup, NM., where I was solo pastor. A disabling stroke ended my service there due to partial paralysis and partial blindness. The Presbytery of Santa Fe granted me the status of Honorably Retired. Despite my disability, Sixth Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh allowed me to serve as Parish Associate. In Pittsburgh I was also able to volunteer as a teacher in a faith-based, non sectarian college prep school for low-income minority students, which has sent all of its graduates on to college – the first in their families to do so. If I am received, I hope to serve in some meaningful ways in the Presbytery of Holston.

I am thankful that First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton is a More Light congregation as well, to allow me to worship with my deeply spiritual partner of 17 years, Jeffrey Watkins, who is also my nurse. In all these matters, it has been God who was faithful to me on the journey. Thus I can say with hymn writer, John Newton,” Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come, ‘twas Grace that brought me safe thus far, and Grace will lead me home.” Thanks be to God!

Strand Three – Ecumenical Relationships in Education and Service
Though Presbyterians played the largest role in my formal education in college, seminary, and graduate school, I have also been equipped and expanded by institutions, and programs planned and led by Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, National Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Jews. Not surprisingly, then, I have found great joy in being a brother in the ecumenical Franciscan religious order, the Mercy of God Community, whose core commitment is to work to “overcome the scandalous divisions within Christianity.” With the current national climate of distrust of other faiths, that commitment is expanding to include overcoming the harm done to others (both Christian and non-) in the name of Christ.

Strand Four - Family and Friends
All along the way, God has blessed me with wonderful family and remarkable friends. My afore-mentioned parents and grandfather helped me to get started. Cynthia, my former wife of twenty-four years, who remains a special friend, my adult son, Davidson, my brother, Lewis, nieces, Li and Claire and their families, extended family members and particularly my partner and skilled caregiver of 17 years, Jeffrey Watkins, have all been incredibly supportive and loyal through many joys and sorrows. They have been multiplied by many parishioners and friends beyond any deserving, who have sustained my hope, courage and faith along the way and witnessed to God’s steadfast love, forgiveness, and mercy. One Friend in particular, Baptist pastor and educator, the Rev. Dr. Brian Ammons of Durham, North Carolina, has accompanied me through many of the most difficult days.

Strand Five - The Future is open because of the Faithfulness of God
Just as “the past is prologue, “ So the future is God’s Finishing School to which I gratefully commit.


Statement of Faith - Donald M. Steele
October 31, 2011

In the beginning, GOD
Who created and continues to create the heavens and earth, the universe, all creatures and all humanity, including me. This God is revealed most clearly in the Scriptures, our unique and authoritative rule of faith and practice and entrusts to us the care and stewardship of the earth.

In the midst of life, (in the Fullness of time) GOD
Was incarnate in Jesus – Emmanuel, God -with- us – a Palestinian Jew, whom I have come to love and confess as the Christ or Messiah, who came as teacher, healer, reconciler, justice-seeker, prophet and Savior for all humankind. Jesus calls ordinary women and men into discipleship and the church catholic, eats with outcasts, teaches that all are children of God, heals the sick, and demonstrates the realm of God, and in his life, death on the cross and resurrection reveals the lengths to which God will go to in order to show mercy and bring life to all, to show that no one , absolutely no one is expendable. When Jesus returned to God, God sent the Holy Spirit as comforter and energizer who empowers the church to live as Christ’s body in the world today.

In the end, GOD,
Who like the prodigal Father runs to meet the children and welcome us home, and Who like a mother hen gathers us together and offers comfort and safety, and Who in Jesus goes before us to show us the way.

Here is an article featuring Don from July 2011 in a Pittsburgh newspaper.