Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Peter Gomes dies: The passing of a giant

Sad news today: The Rev. Peter J. Gomes, a spiritual giant well beyond the confines of his pulpit at Harvard Memorial Church, has died. He was 68.

His obituary in The New York Times today describes his powerful preaching, his leadership in fighting for tolerance, his influence on a generation in how to read the Bible, and his courage in coming out as a gay man. From the Times article today:
“Religious fundamentalism is dangerous because it cannot accept ambiguity and diversity and is therefore inherently intolerant,” he declared in an Op-Ed article for The New York Times in 1992. “Such intolerance, in the name of virtue, is ruthless and uses political power to destroy what it cannot convert.”
I met Pastor Gomes only once, and only from afar. It was at a crucial moment in my own discernment of my vocational path. At the time, I was very much taken with his best-selling book about the Bible, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. Gomes' book freed the Bible for me from rigid fundamentalism and opened a way to read and hear the words as truly filled with God's abundant grace. I still highly recommend the book.

As I say, I met him only once, in 1994. We spent a week visiting friends who were on a year-long Nieman journalism fellowship at Harvard. At the time I was struggling with whether to leave journalism and enter the ordination process for the Episcopal priesthood. Would I be any good at this? How would I pay for the education? What if I had to move somewhere? What if no one called me to a position? What if...? What if...? I had a zillion questions, and not many answers.

One day while on our visit, I went to Harvard's church for morning prayers, hoping to hear Gomes preach. He did not disappoint. He spoke about how we must hear God's call and act even though we may have many questions and not many answers.

I thought he was talking directly to me. It was a major turning point in my discernment.

May Peter Gomes rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon him.

In the Good Book, he wrote this, and perhaps it was a good epitaph about his life and work:

"The hope of the Good Book, the conviction of those who have sought to understand it with mind and heart, is that it will help us in the good life, the life that brings us nearer to God and to one another. Such a hope animates us and, indeed, encourages us to use our minds and trust our hearts."

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