Friday, September 28, 2012

A Note for Family and Friends (originally posted September 28, 2012)

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 (originally posted September 27, 2012)

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.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Grief Is Love that Has Lost Its Object--A Sermon (originally posted September 23, 2012)

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
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--
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.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dreams (originally posted September 19, 2012)

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.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ordination Anniversary (originally posted September 13, 2012)

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 (originally posted September 13, 2012)

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 (originally posted September 12, 2012)

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
Don't feel sorry for me.
It is life
...and death.
But I do like to know
you're there.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

On the Way--A Sermon (originally posted September 9, 2012)

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.


Wednesday, September 5, 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.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Still Searching (originally posted September 2, 2012)

Still I am searching.   Searching for sense from no sense.   I am gathering up photos of Zach perhaps thinking that somehow I will learn something, but more than that, change something.   I know it is absurd, yet I do it.   This is a photo I took on my phone.  I think this was taken on Father's Day, the last day we saw him.  He was sitting under his high school portrait.  His right arm is in the same position as in the portrait.    I thought it was funny so I teased him and took his photo.

Here is another day in which I tortured the children with my phone camera.  That is my job isn't it?   

I miss you, Buddy.

Religion For Life in the Kingsport Times News

Thanks to the Kingsport Times-News and to Wes Bunch for this article on the front page of today's Times-News, "Religion For Life": Show Strikes Chord with WETS-FM Listeners.  Today's Johnson City Press also included the article.
Nearly nine months ago, the Rev. John Shuck hosted the first episode of his show, “Religion for Life,” on the airwaves of public radio station WETS-FM.

In the 30 or so episodes he has recorded since then, Shuck has interviewed a variety of guests on topics ranging from how science and religion can coexist to one-onone interviews with local leaders of various faiths.

Shuck, who has served for the past seven years as pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, said the show — whose subtitle is the intersection of religion, social justice and public life — is not designed to act as a sermon, but to educate listeners about religion itself and all that it entails.

“The idea is to look at the influence of religion, which is a huge topic, in terms of how it affects the way we think, our culture, our religious practices, our politics — all kinds of things that fall under the heading of religion,” Shuck said. “So we look at religion from a variety of perspectives, both positive and negatively.

“A big part of it is to introduce some of the voices in our community that we may not know about from different religious perspectives, whether it’s Muslim or Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu.”

Shuck added: “My show’s goal is not really to promote religion, or one religion in particular even though I happen to be a Christian minister. I really want to have voices critical of religion as well.”

Episodes of “Religion for Life” — which air on Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons on WETS-FM 89.5 in the Tri-Cities and on WEHC-FM 90.7 in Southwest Virginia — have featured interviews with the Rev. Jacqueline Luck of the Holston Valley Universalist Unitarian Church and Dr. Jay Mehta of Kingsport’s Regional Indian-American Community Center. Shuck said he hopes to one day host Muslim Community of Northeast Tennessee Director Taneen Aziz.

While exploring different faiths and beliefs is an important part of the 30-minute show, Shuck said he also uses it as a platform to have discussion topics, or groups, that are tangentially related to religion.

“There are faith groups that are interested in a lot of different types of things from a social justice aspect, or environmental or economic aspect, that are interesting to talk to as well,” Shuck said.

One of those guests was Anthony Flaccavento, the Democratic candidate for Virginia’s 9th Congressional District, who discussed the role of religion in creating sustainable economies. Others have included controversial religious figures like Bishop John Shelby Spong, or authors like Sarah Sentilles, and even doctors and scientists.

The key to conducting a good interview, Shuck said, is to find a subject with an interesting take on a topic that many people can relate to, whether they realize it or not.

One example of a compelling interview, Shuck said, was his discussion with “Breaking Up With God” author Sentilles.

“That was more of a theological book and about her struggle with religion,” Shuck said. “She was going to become an Episcopal priest, and through the course of it she said ‘I don’t really believe in God the way it was presented to me.’

“The reason she was interesting is she was very engaging as an interviewee, but she also talks about a topic that I think is really on people’s minds in terms of what do we mean when we talk about God today and looking at faith. The most interesting guests are the ones that touch on a topic that many people feel who might not have voiced them yet.”

No matter what the topic of discussion is, Shuck said his goal is to provide his guest with a forum to share what religion means to them.

“It isn’t an adversarial show, and I don’t come at it that way,” Shuck said. “The model that I look to is someone like Bill Moyers who talks about religion and public life in a lot of positive ways. I really admire him. Also on NPR, Terry Gross and ‘Fresh Air,’ I like her style of things. It isn’t a talk show where they get up there and yell at each other. It’s more of a conversation, and I really want to hear what these folks are saying — what their view is.”

Shuck said the fact that the show is recorded and produced by WETS is one of the main reasons he is able to touch in depth on such a wide array of topics.

“They’re really great at WETS. They don’t tell me anything about content,” Shuck said. “I just go with who is of interest to me and go with it from that. The goal overall was to make it educational instead of a sermon. But it gives you some real freedom to talk about different things. It’s only a half hour, but even at that level it’s more than the three- or fiveminute clips you get from the news.”

WETS Program Director Wayne Winkler said locally produced content like “Religion for Life” and “Your Weekly Constitutional,” which is hosted by Appalachian School of Law professor Stewart Harris, are not only a natural outgrowth of a two-year-old format change to news programming, but also help carry out the station’s goal of providing quality radio to its listeners.

“I believe that local content is essential, especially in a public radio station,” Winkler said. “I believe it would be a misuse of our license if we didn’t try to do something that reflected our local community , some of the ideas, or a local take on national issues. We do have a great number of people here who do have expertise and knowledge in a wide variety of topics, so we want to capitalize on that whenever we can.”

Winkler, who produces the shows, said they both have been well-received in their relatively short histories, with listeners providing lots of positive feedback and the longer-running “Constitutional” even finding its way to new markets.

“(‘Religion for Life’ is) a great program and is one that brings us lots of attention, and it’s something that people talk about,” Winkler said. “So we’re really pleased with both of our locally produced programs because they are of a quality that people would expect from a radio station in a much larger market.”

“Those two programs probably get more comments than even the NPR programs too in terms of listener feedback,” Winkler continued. “It tells you that people are listening, and we are getting a surprising level of feedback on those two programs.”

While the sometimes controversial nature of religious topics has drawn some detractors, Shuck said he too has received largely positive feedback from his listeners and congregations.

“I get emails and calls to the church, several a week, from people who listen to it,” Shuck said. “Some people don’t like it. I’ve had a couple of negative ones.... But that’s okay, as long as they’re listening. But then one day we had a gentleman come into the radio station and say ‘Here’s $100. I really like that show “Religion for Life.”’ And he wouldn’t give his name or anything.

“So I think what the show does is it gives a voice to people who have these ideas but haven’t really heard it said in a local setting.”

Cronies of Jesus--A Sermon

Luke 7:31-35
What do the people of this generation remind me of? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you wouldn’t dance; we sang a dirge, but you wouldn’t weep.’ Just remember, John the Baptizer appeared on the scene, eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He’s possessed.’ The Human One appeared on the scene both eating and drinking, and you say, ‘There’s a glutton and a drunk, a crony of toll collectors and sinners!’ Indeed, Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.’”

The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar wrestled with this saying attributed to Jesus. It is also found in Matthew’s gospel, but not in Mark. If Mark is written first and Matthew and Luke each copy Mark and add to it, where did the sayings and deeds of Jesus originate that Matthew and Luke share in common but not in Mark? The hypothesis is that these sayings and deeds are from a separate source. Scholars call this hypothetical source “Q” which is the first letter of the German word “quelle” that means source.

Did this saying originate with Jesus? The Fellows voted and it received a gray vote. This can mean that it sounds like Jesus but there are some problems. The problem is this label “Son of Man” or “Son of Adam” or as the Jesus Seminar translated it “the Human One.” The Gospel authors use the phrase “son of man” to refer to an apocalyptic figure who will come to establish the kingdom of God. They applied that designation to Jesus. Did Jesus think of himself as such or did he think there was another “son of man” yet to come or is Jesus here using that phrase as a parallel to “yours truly” and speaking about himself in the third person? The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar couldn’t agree.

This is from The Five Gospels published by the Jesus Seminar:
Most Fellows were convinced that Matthew, Luke, and Q understood this phrase in a messianic sense, in which case the saying cannot be attributed to Jesus. Other Fellows argued that son of Adam was Jesus’ way of referring to himself in the third person. The difference between a pink and a gray designation hangs on the thread of that single expression. P. 303

But they did agree that this sounds like Jesus. This sounds like the difference between Jesus and John the Baptist.

John the Baptist is like the children who play the dirge and Jesus is like the children who play the flute. John the Baptist tells people that the kingdom of God is coming and that the wrath of God is as near as the axe at the root of the tree so repent! The basic message of John is to stop behaving unjustly toward your neighbor.

Jesus sees things differently. He tells people that they are the light of the world and the salt of the earth, that the kingdom of God is not coming, but is already within them. Dance.

As the comparison continues, John is an ascetic. He takes no pleasure from wine or food. Jesus, on the other hand, is a party animal. He is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. John the Baptist tells the sinners to repent. Jesus parties with the sinners.

If this saying does go back to Jesus, Jesus is scolding the religious leaders. They call John possessed because he is an ascetic. They call Jesus a drunk because he celebrates with his cronies. The religious leaders aren’t happy with either one or with either message. They won’t mourn when John plays a dirge. They won’t dance when Jesus plays his flute. All they do is complain.

Jesus is saying there is no way to communicate to you. John couldn’t and neither can I. Both John and Jesus were trying to communicate the kingdom of God or the presence of God, in their own distinct way. The religious leaders would have none of it.

Both Jesus and John were in their own ways holy fools. John wore his camel skin and leather belt, eating locusts and wild honey in the desert. John challenged the powerful, including the king to repent of their injustice to their neighbors. This is the content of John’s sermon according to Luke:
The crowds would ask [John], “So what should we do?”

And he would answer them, “Whoever has two shirts should share with someone who has none; whoever has food should do the same.”

Toll collectors also came to be baptized, and they would ask him, “Teacher, what should we do?”

He told them, “Charge nothing above the official rates.”

Soldiers also asked him, “And what about us?”

And he said to them, “No more shakedowns! No more frame-ups either! And be satisfied with your pay.”

That is John the Baptist. He is playing the dirge. He is the prophet crying out in the wilderness calling on people to do justice.

Jesus’ approach was a bit different. This is how Luke reports Jesus’ first sermon. Jesus goes to the synagogue in Nazareth and reads from the scroll:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to announce pardon for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind;

to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s amnesty.

He puts the scroll down and he says that he is going to be doing these things not in his hometown but elsewhere. Jesus plays the flute.

Jesus wanders the countryside healing, telling stories, casting out demons, befriending the friendless.

Different approaches. Different messages. Different ways of understanding God and the way God acts in the world. They are not mutually exclusive. It isn’t that one was right and the other wrong. They are both calls

to awaken,
to open mind and heart,
to crack the hard shell of cynicism and prejudice,
to feel the pain of the neighbor as one’s own pain.

That is the role of the holy fool. Both John and Jesus played this part. The holy fool calls attention to himself or to herself for the purpose of challenging conventions or to communicate wisdom.

Saint Juniper is an example of a holy fool. Listen to this description:
Saint Juniper, an early follower of the Franciscan order, was known for taking the doctrine of the Franciscans to the extreme. Whenever anyone asked for any of his possessions, he freely gave them away, including his clothes. He once even cut off the bells from his altar-cloth and gave them to a poor woman. His fellow Franciscans had to watch him closely, and strictly forbade him from giving away his clothes. While such behaviors were embarrassing to his brothers, he was also recognized as a pure example of the Franciscan order and thus esteemed.

John and Jesus as well as other holy fools each in their unique way invite us to uncover the vulnerable, sacred quality of life. They encourage us to remove that protective layer of propriety or status and discover the human within us and embrace that human being, that beloved you. When we are able to discover that holiness within we can connect with others at the deeper level of feeling. We can connect with people quite different from us, or who we thought were different from us.

The political contests are so shallow whether they are the contests of secular or church politics. They are little more than people covered in heavy armor hitting other people who are covered in heavy armor. Even as we might participate in it or observe it, we feel cheap, sickened and used at the end of the day. There is no content, no humanity, no vulnerability, no holiness.

When that becomes normal, when beating each other while wearing our armor is all that life has become, the holy fool has to play a dirge or play a flute, something, anything, to create feeling once again. The holy fool breaks convention, regards the outcast as royalty, pokes fun at pretentions, calls the righteous “sinners,” and the sinners “saints.”

“Mourn, dance, do something!” pleads the fool.

To be a holy fool can be a dangerous calling. John the Baptist was beheaded and Jesus was crucified. People don’t like it when you try to remove their protection. If you take a risk to remove your armor someone might attack you when your defenses are down. That does happen. I would be lying if I said it didn’t. Nevertheless, what is life if we never take off our armor? What is life if we never see another person without her or his armor? What is that life? It is lonely. And it is never-ending war.

What gift can we offer another or ourselves? What if we could be a person, or if we could create a space, or could form a community that was safe for people even if just for a little while, to remove armor and to be human with one another?

I think we can and I think we have. I have seen this community be that. It is something that cannot be taken for granted and that needs nurture and attention. It takes a courageous person to be the first to remove the helmet, put down the sword and shield and step out of the armor.

It takes a courageous, holy fool to say:
“This is who I am.
This is where I hurt and this brings me joy.
This is what I fear and this is what I hope.
Tell me about you.”

It is risky. There are no guarantees.

The religious leaders, “this generation” as Jesus called them could neither mourn nor dance. I understand it, but I find it sad nonetheless. There must be more to life than polishing our armor. I think we all deserve better than that.

May you heed the call of the holy fool,
     to take a risk and find your heart.
May you find other cronies of Jesus
     who will give you the gift to be yourself.
May you find the courage to remove the armor,
     even if just one piece at a time.
May you find yourself mourning and dancing
     in the company of sacred and holy fools.