A Letter from Pastor John D’Elia

(This letter was sent to our congregation on August 27, 2018)

Dear GPC Family,

As you read this we are away taking our son to start his first year of college. It’s a time of hope and new beginnings, even if there is a small amount of sadness as we mark another step in his growth into adulthood.

We have been celebrating the work of Stephen Finkel and Ashley Myers this summer. Our Houseboats trip saw several students become Jesus followers, while the rest deepened their faith and commitment to serving Christ and his Kingdom. Working with students is one of the blessings and holy tasks of local church ministry. It’s hard to imagine GPC without our students giving us energy and excitement and hope.

That’s what makes what we’ve heard in the news these past weeks so deeply disturbing. The abuse of children and the protection of the priests who committed those evil acts have led to criminal charges and some deep soul-searching among our Catholic brothers and sisters. Their agony is a good thing. No one should hear even the smallest details of this scandal without feeling their stomach turn and their heart break. It’s far too soon to feel anything but anger, revulsion, and a desire for punishment for those responsible, and for those who helped them cover their offenses.

It’s precisely at a time like this when we look to Jesus for guidance about how to respond. His sacrifice for our sins cools our reckless vengeance—we are reminded that it is our own separation from God that made a Savior necessary in the first place.

But we’re also compelled to remember that Jesus called for special protections for the children in our care. Jesus said: “If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea (Matt. 18:6). And later he added: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matt. 19:14).”

We are called to protect and care for our children.

I want you to know that our Presbytery requires that every pastor be trained to identify and report a wide range of abuse and harassment. I have completed this training, and will be sharing that information with Stephen and Ashley, who will in turn make sure that each person who works with kids is prepared to protect and serve them well. We are, as the law describes, “mandated reporters”, which means that we have a duty to stop and to report abuse whenever and wherever we see it take place.

I also want you to know that we already have safeguards in place to protect our kids. This is not new to us, and you can be confident that the team of leaders in our children and youth departments are up-to-date on policies and procedures. Still, we can always do more and better. (We will be happy to share our policies with you if you like.)

My promise is this: I will do everything I can do to make sure that our kids are safe and secure while they’re in our care. That’s a responsibility that I don’t take lightly, and our team will work hard to make sure that we are faithful to that calling.

In the meantime, please keep our Catholic brothers and sisters in your prayers. Pray that the victims will find both healing and justice. Pray that those responsible will never again be in a position to commit these crimes. Pray for churches and schools everywhere, because this isn’t a problem that is limited to any one denomination.

We will have some discussion about this among the staff and leadership of our church, and if necessary, we’ll take this conversation public. It won’t be easy or comfortable, but comfort and ease were never promised to any of us.

We’re going to learn to be vigilant without being afraid. I believe that’s just how God wants us to approach these issues.

Blessings to you and yours, and I’ll see you soon.

In Christ,

Pastor John

Lent Blues (Already?)

Here I am a week after Ash Wednesday, and already I’m feeling as though I’ve lost any momentum for Lent. There are challenges in my life that make me feel less than spiritually switched on, and then there’s my own heart, which feels a little bruised and resistant to introspection.

How do I slow down and take hold what Lent is offering?

Each year I struggle to read through Henri Nouwen’s Lent reader, Show Me the Way. One entry is forcing me to re-think my expectations of what this time of the year means and teaches. I hear the words “reflection” and “repentance” and I promptly give in to the temptation to make Lent about me—about my sin, my needs, my struggle to live a life of hope. I step into Lent and feel as though I’ve simply given my self-absorption a new, fancier name…a spiritual, church-sanctioned name, no less.

See what I mean about losing steam for Lent so soon?

The first sentence of Nouwen’s reading says: “A life of faith is a life of gratitude—it means a life in which I am willing to experience my complete dependence upon God and to praise and think him unceasingly for the gift of being.”

Oh, boy.

The very first line pierces me to the heart. Is my life of faith a life of gratitude? In my living and praying and studying and working and loving—in all of that, am I aware that it all revolves around being thankful to God?

The rest of the sentence helps me make sense out of where I want to be this season. I really am grateful to God for my life. I’m thankful for my family. I’m amazed at the friends and colleagues God has given me. I still wake up most mornings a little surprised that I get to be the pastor of a church and president of a small seminary, places that I love with people who are teaching me far more than I’ll ever be able to give back. I really am thankful, when I take the time to think about it, that God’s grace reaches into the darkest parts of my life, turns the light on and says, “I think we can do something with this mess.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

The reminder today, as we look ahead to the Lenten season, is to be grateful to God for the gift of our very being. Whatever prompts you to “praise and thank him unceasingly”, I encourage you to make that the focus of the time between now and Easter. Whatever else you might do during this season of Lent, remember to pause and be thankful as often as you can.

We might just survive these 40 days after all.

Welcome to Lent

This is my favorite introduction to the season of Lent, taken from a book by Henri Nouwen called Show me the Way. Lent is a hard season for us because it represents a call to repentance, reflection and a handful of other things we’re not so good at. Still, taking 40 days or so to think about Christ’s work in our lives before we dive into the happy hymns and chocolate bunnies of Easter can’t be a bad thing. Here’s the quote:

“God’s mercy is greater than our sins. There is an awareness of sin that does not lead to God but to self-preoccupation. Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failures and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in a paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that says: ‘I am too sinful to deserve God’s mercy.’ It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride.

Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: ‘Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God’s mercy any longer and hanged himself, or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?’

The season of Lent, during which winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance, helps us in a special way to cry out for God’s mercy.”

Isn’t that beautiful and haunting and challenging all at the same time? I tend to think so much of my own failures that I forget that my sin is not the point. God’s grace, given to us through Jesus Christ, is the true point of my life’s story, and yours…and yours…and yours.

We live out that struggle between the seasons on a daily basis, between the cold and death of winter and the restored and rediscovered life of spring. Between the awareness of just how far we stray from God, and the shock at what he has accomplished in order to draw us near. Lent is our time to pause and take notice of what is happening around us and in us. It’s not just for self-reflection, though that’s a key part of it. Lent is a time to sharpen our focus on Christ and his world, on the needs of people around us, on the gifts we’ve been given to meet those needs, and to discover all over again the hope that we have because of the Easter miracle.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Easter will come, but for now we try to re-create the sense of conviction that being in God’s presence prompts in each one of us. To repent and ask for forgiveness. And to anticipate that day when life wins the battle once and for all.

Welcome to Lent.

Neck-Deep in Privilege

Let’s get into it.

The events in Charlottesville deserve the special attention and sense of immediacy they’ve provoked over the past week or two. Why? Because the issue of racism in America is persistent and destructive, of course, but also because so many of us have the option of turning our face away when it doesn’t directly affect us. Maybe that’s the most important new lesson I’ve learned in this—I may bristle at the jargon that litters the rhetoric of social activism, but I have no doubt about this one fact:

My life is an example of what it means to be a privileged white American.

I’m a 54-year-old white guy from a nice suburb. In the dictionary under “privileged”, there could be a picture of me with my family. A few months ago I was pulled over for speeding while driving with my teenaged son. As the officer came toward the car I showed my son what he should do if this ever happened to him—I put my hands on the wheel and I narrated everything I did before I moved a muscle. When the officer went back to his cruiser I told my son that black dads had to have a very different conversation with their sons—that a simple ticket for speeding could lead to some pretty awful outcomes. I tried to communicate how unfair that was, which doesn’t always ring true when you’re on the lucky side of unfair. But it’s more than that.

The simple fact that I can turn my focus to something else if I choose is what the concept of privilege is all about. As a seminary president and pastor of a church, if I chose tomorrow to launch a series of talks or articles on what it means to be a Christian, without reference to the call to take up the cause of the marginalized and oppressed, the overwhelming majority of the people I serve would be just fine with that.

The essential privilege of being a white American is the freedom to choose what outrages me, and to look away from the rest.

It’s not enough for me to say that my privilege is accidental. Of course that’s partly true, just as it’s true for those who are born tall or smart or pretty or strong. But my accidental privilege has its roots in something intentional and evil. We still need to be reminded that the African-American experience in this country is different from other immigrant narratives. My grandparents came to America from Italy to build a better life and to escape from the Second World War. Most blacks in this country are the descendants of men and women who were kidnapped, sold (and re-sold), and bred for lives of brutal slavery. It’s for that reason alone (though there are others), the only proper Christian response to being unfairly privileged is to recognize it and wherever possible, surrender it. At the very least I believe the call on me is to exploit my privilege to benefit someone else.

All of this is rooted in the Christian faith. We believe as Christians that the person we know as Jesus existed eternally with the Father and the Spirit as an expression of God. The choice to become human—the Incarnation—was also the choice to give up the benefits of being God; in Jesus, God “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant”, and through that sacrifice showed what God was really like—who God really is. (See Philippians 2:1-11)

It is the Christian’s task and calling to show the world what God is like. We share the words he spoke and we try to live by the ethics he taught, but we can’t in the process forget the example he set. Christ emptied himself in order to love fully and to restore completely. Our calling is the same.

Faithful Christians have been trying to address these issues for years. Back in 1973 a group of evangelicals reaffirmed the Christian responsibility for creating a more just and loving America. At the heart of the statement is this critical line:

“We deplore the historic involvement of the church in America with racism, and the conspicuous responsibility of the evangelical community for perpetuating the personal attitudes and institutional structures that have divided the Body of Christ along color lines.”

I know that it’s hard to reconcile the evangelicals who wrote that sentence with the odious vandals who desecrate the faith in our own cultural moment. But they were real and that confession is every bit as true today as it was 44 years ago. Where the church of Jesus Christ—you know, the one who gave up being God for us—when the Church of Jesus is responsible for dividing the faithful by color, it’s tempting to want to tear the whole thing down and start over. But that would be missing out on what the transforming power of the gospel can do in our churches and in our lives.

It’s not enough to deplore our sinful history. We’re called to repent that sin and allow God to show us a better way. That begins with learning to see the world through another person’s eyes. It’s about asking questions—it’s about reading people you might not normally read. It’s about letting your guard down long enough to hear someone else’s story. It’s about surrendering the choice to turn your attention—and your heart—away.

It is astounding to me that there are still white supremacists in this country, and that their history is tolerated as casually as it is. The thing is, it’s been easy to ignore them because, well, they weren’t coming after me. But maybe they are. Maybe when a Confederate flag waving hatemonger attacks my black neighbor, my Jewish neighbor, or my Muslim neighbor, that violence is being done to all of us.

Until I learn to see it that way, I will be living neck-deep in my swamp of privilege.

Remembering V-E Day

Today (May 8th) is the 72nd anniversary of V-E Day, commemorating the end of World War II in Europe. The war in the Pacific would drag on for another four costly months, but on this date in 1945, citizens and leaders of the Allied nations celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany. Part of me wants to write something about this, but it occurs to me that anything I might say will be from an enormous distance of time and experience. I never had to join the military. I never had to put my life on hold or give it up completely, in violent conflict.

But I benefited in some ways from those who did, and so I can’t let this day go by.

So I’d like to give the stage to two of the leaders who faced their enemies and made decisions that I can neither fathom nor judge. On May 8th 1945, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman addressed their nations and the listening world to announce the end of the war in Europe. I haven’t edited these speeches…they deserve to be heard in their own time and form. Thousands of people…both military and civilian…from America, Britain and Japan…would die after this celebration ended, and both leaders speak with an eye toward the task still at hand.

And yet each is beautiful…and appropriately terrible…in its own way. I invite you to give them a read, and also to heed President Truman’s call to prayer. Today is a day for sober reflection and moderate celebration.

Blessings to you this V-E Day.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill
May 8, 1945 London

My dear friends, this is your hour. This is not victory of a party or of any class. It’s a victory of the great British nation as a whole. We were the first, in this ancient island, to draw the sword against tyranny. After a while we were left all alone against the most tremendous military power that has been seen. We were all alone for a whole year.

There we stood, alone. Did anyone want to give in? [The crowd shouted “No.”] Were we down-hearted? [“No!”] The lights went out and the bombs came down. But every man, woman and child in the country had no thought of quitting the struggle. London can take it. So we came back after long months from the jaws of death, out of the mouth of hell, while all the world wondered. When shall the reputation and faith of this generation of English men and women fail? I say that in the long years to come not only will the people of this island but of the world, wherever the bird of freedom chirps in human hearts, look back to what we’ve done and they will say “do not despair, do not yield to violence and tyranny, march straightforward and die if need be-unconquered.” Now we have emerged from one deadly struggle-a terrible foe has been cast on the ground and awaits our judgment and our mercy.

But there is another foe who occupies large portions of the British Empire, a foe stained with cruelty and greed-the Japanese. I rejoice we can all take a night off today and another day tomorrow. Tomorrow our great Russian allies will also be celebrating victory and after that we must begin the task of rebuilding our hearth and homes, doing our utmost to make this country a land in which all have a chance, in which all have a duty, and we must turn ourselves to fulfill our duty to our own countrymen, and to our gallant allies of the United States who were so foully and treacherously attacked by Japan. We will go hand and hand with them. Even if it is a hard struggle we will not be the ones who will fail.

President Harry S. Truman
May 8, 1945 Washington DC

THIS IS a solemn but a glorious hour. I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day. General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly over all Europe.

For this victory, we join in offering our thanks to the Providence which has guided and sustained us through the dark days of adversity.

Our rejoicing is sobered and subdued by a supreme consciousness of the terrible price we have paid to rid the world of Hitler and his evil band. Let us not forget, my fellow Americans, the sorrow and the heartache which today abide in the homes of so many of our neighbors-neighbors whose most priceless possession has been rendered as a sacrifice to redeem our liberty.

We can repay the debt which we owe to our God, to our dead and to our children only by work–by ceaseless devotion to the responsibilities which lie ahead of us. If I could give you a single watchword for the coming months, that word is–work, work, and more work.

We must work to finish the war. Our victory is but half-won. The West is free, but the East is still in bondage to the treacherous tyranny of the Japanese. When the last Japanese division has surrendered unconditionally, then only will our fighting job be done.

We must work to bind up the wounds of a suffering world–to build an abiding peace, a peace rooted in justice and in law. We can build such a peace only by hard, toilsome, painstaking work–by understanding and working with our allies in peace as we have in war.

The job ahead is no less important, no less urgent, no less difficult than the task which now happily is done.

I call upon every American to stick to his post until the last battle is won. Until that day, let no man abandon his post or slacken his efforts. And now, I want to read to you my formal proclamation of this occasion:

A Proclamation–The Allied armies, through sacrifice and devotion and with God’s help, have wrung from Germany a final and unconditional surrender. The western world has been freed of the evil forces which for five years and longer have imprisoned the bodies and broken the lives of millions upon millions of free-born men. They have violated their churches, destroyed their homes, corrupted their children, and murdered their loved ones. Our Armies of Liberation have restored freedom to these suffering peoples, whose spirit and will the oppressors could never enslave.

Much remains to be done. The victory won in the West must now be won in the East. The whole world must be cleansed of the evil from which half the world has been freed. United, the peace-loving nations have demonstrated in the West that their arms are stronger by far than the might of the dictators or the tyranny of military cliques that once called us soft and weak. The power of our peoples to defend themselves against all enemies will be proved in the Pacific war as it has been proved in Europe.

For the triumph of spirit and of arms which we have won, and for its promise to the peoples everywhere who join us in the love of freedom, it is fitting that we, as a nation, give thanks to Almighty God, who has strengthened us and given us the victory.

Now, therefore, I, Harry S. Truman, President of the United States of America, do hereby appoint Sunday, May 13, 1945, to be a day of prayer.

I call upon the people of the United States, whatever their faith, to unite in offering joyful thanks to God for the victory we have won, and to pray that He will support us to the end of our present struggle and guide us into the ways of peace.

I also call upon my countrymen to dedicate this day of prayer to the memory of those who have given their lives to make possible our victory.

A Rant for Today

In the discussion over so-called “religious liberty”, the point has been made that I should be more tolerant of the views of Christians who are more socially (though arguably NOT biblically) conservative than I.

I’ve been wrestling with that because the argument is compelling, at least on the surface. But let’s consider the story below, excerpted from the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“When Bob Huskey’s health began to deteriorate, his husband, Jack Zawadaski, knew time was short. Jack made plans with the funeral home to transport and cremate Bob’s body. He prepared himself for the inevitable. He signed the paperwork. He said goodbye. But the day Bob died, the funeral home refused to transport his body. It told Jack it doesn’t ‘deal with their kind’.”

Now I’m being asked to be tolerant of the actions of the funeral home because they claim that their behavior is rooted in their Christian faith. We’re going to examine that assertion in a moment, but for now I’m wondering if that logic would hold for other variants of belief, Christian and not. Would I feel the same instinctive revulsion under other circumstances? For example:

If an atheist funeral director denied a Christian the same services that were denied to the gay couple in the story?

If a racist Christian denied service to a black customer, presumably of any faith?

If a Democrat told a grieving Republican that she was not welcome in his business?

Part of me wants to say that the market should be allowed to correct this over time. People who behave like this are asses who lack the compassion we expect as a part of the social contract. But macro-answers aren’t adequate for the individual wounds this practice would cause in the meantime. The more basic question at hand is this:

Does being tolerant include being tolerant of these cruel kinds of acts?

I don’t think it does, at least not from my understanding of Christian faith. From a Christian point of view there is no valid expression of our faith that calls for incivility toward those we perceive as faithless or (more on point) enemies.

Much has been made of the bakery that denied service to a gay couple. In practical terms, there is nothing about denying someone a cake with a rainbow on it that rises to the level of “freedom of religion”. Worse, you can bet those bakers aren’t denying too many pastries to customers who are gluttons, something with a lot more biblical proscription behind it.

No matter what one believes about homosexuality, there is nothing even tangentially Christian about being a jackass to gay people. In fact, there is an overwhelming biblical witness that argues precisely the opposite, including words from the savior of the universe himself. I have to say that the real intolerance on this issue is using the gospel of Jesus Christ to defend one’s refusal to bake a cake with a rainbow on it.

And that’s the root of the problem for me. I can understand committed Christians who struggle with homosexuality on biblical terms, but those same biblical texts are absolutely crystal clear on how people of Christian faith are meant to interact with others—the Bible calls them “neighbors”—who hold different or even opposite views. Let’s look at what the Bible actually says, not about any individual sin, but about how we’re meant to treat each other.

Matthew 5:43-48 seems pretty on-point, with Jesus saying the loving one’s enemies is a God-like behavior he’d like us to have.

In Luke 10:25-37 Jesus turns our ethical models upside-down when he uses a culturally unacceptable person (a Samaritan) as the hero in a story about understanding who our neighbors really are.

In John 4:4-14 Jesus meets another Samaritan, this time a woman (another cultural no-no) and shares a drink of water with her.

These are not miraculous stories of Jesus, rather they are prescriptive texts for Christian behavior. Each of them (and others) demonstrates that faith in Christ calls us to tolerance for the other—and frankly, it doesn’t sanction shrill calls for tolerance of us when we fail in our Christian ethics.

That’s important, because what we have now is a group of Christians who are failing in these most basic Christian behaviors, and asking the secular government to protect them in the name of “religious liberty”.

Now I would never say such a thing, but I can imagine Jesus asking just who in the hell they think they are.

For now, though, we’re left with this accelerated erosion of Christian witness in the public square. Don’t get me wrong—it happens plenty on the left, and the point of this whole blog is to call out both when needed. But today and under the current Administration, it is the Christian right wing that is embarrassing the faith. It is the conservative wing of the church that overwhelmingly supported a cruel and thoughtless man for president, and is using him to further non-Christian objectives in the name of Jesus himself.

I take it back. Who the hell do they think they are?

Welcome to Lent

Below is my favorite introduction to the season of Lent, taken from a book by Henri Nouwen called Show Me the Way. Lent is a hard season for us because it represents a call to repentance, reflection and a handful of other things we’re not so good at. Still, taking 40 days or so to think about Christ’s work in our lives before we dive into the happy hymns and chocolate bunnies of Easter can’t be a bad thing. Here’s the quote:

“God’s mercy is greater than our sins. There is an awareness of sin that does not lead to God but to self-preoccupation. Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failures and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in a paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that says: ‘I am too sinful to deserve God’s mercy.’ It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride.

Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: ‘Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God’s mercy any longer and hanged himself, or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?’ The season of Lent, during which winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance, helps us in a special way to cry out for God’s mercy.”

Isn’t that beautiful and haunting and challenging all at the same time? I tend to think so much of my own failures that I forget that my sin is not the point. God’s grace, given to us through Jesus Christ, is the true point of my life’s story, and yours…and yours…and yours.

We live out that struggle between the seasons on a daily basis, between the cold and death of winter and the restored and rediscovered life of spring. Between the awareness of just how far we stray from God, and the shock at what he has accomplished in order to draw us near. Lent is our time to pause and take notice of what is happening around us and in us. It’s not just for self-reflection, though that’s a key part of it. Lent is a time to sharpen our focus on Christ and his world, on the needs of people around us, on the gifts we’ve been given to meet those needs, and to discover all over again the hope that we have because of the Easter miracle.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Easter will come, but for now we try to re-create the sense of conviction that being in God’s presence prompts in each one of us. To repent and ask for forgiveness. And to anticipate that day when life wins the battle once and for all. Welcome to Lent.

In the Scottish Book of Common Order there is a prayer designated for today, for the beginning of the Lenten season. Make it yours as you begin this sober journey that leads to the Cross, to the empty tomb and beyond.

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made, and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent. Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, we may receive from you, the God of all mercy, perfect forgiveness and peace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.