Can These Bones Live? Part 2

Last week I ended part one of this post with the following:

“Here’s a thought. When asking the question “Can these bones live?”, why not consider the answer, “God only knows.” I’m not implying we should just throw our hands up in the air, sit back and “watch God work,” either. To me that’s not faithfulness, that’s laziness. So what do I mean when I say consider the answer ‘God only knows?’”

In part one I was specifically referring to churches. At the same time, I think you can take the following thoughts and apply them to any number of scenarios.

First, however, I want to back up and stir the pot a bit. When considering the question, “Can these bones live?” I think its important for us to be clear about what it means to “live.” And that definition most likely changes from person to person, relationship to relationship and church to church.

For some people, a church isn’t “alive” unless it’s a certain size, has inspirational music, worship and preaching (and the definition for “inspirational” changes from person to person–trust me). For others, a church isn’t alive unless it has a vibrant social justice ministry. Other folk find “life” in thought-provoking educational programs. For others, a lack of children and youth programming is a sure sign of impending death. For still others, a living church is full of the “Spirit.” In some of these scenarios, this spirit is evidenced through very loud and demonstrative worship, music and preaching (shouting, speaking in “unknown tongues,” running the aisles of the sanctuary, etc.). Without these demonstrations on a regular basis, the church in question is soon deemed spiritually “dead.”

So, think about it. What does it mean to YOU for something to “live”?

Perhaps “living” for one church means meeting in homes for study and support, and then living out their faith through participating in various community projects; while living for another church means worship that rivals a Broadway production. Life for one group may mean an education program that produces some of the best available contemporary theological thought and published works; while for another life means occupying anything and everything that seeks to exclude and oppress anyone. Some communities live through their care and education of the young, while others find life in their care of the elders in their midst. And some communities even manage to do a little bit of all these while not focusing on any one element of community life.

In deciding what it means to live there is only one rule: No one community of faith, religion or denomination defines for anyone else what it means to live. We can offer our thoughts and experiences; still, we don’t issue stone tablets to anyone. After all, remember what happened the last time someone tried that?

Second, I think the answer “God only knows” is somewhat a faith-based response. That is, we admit we don’t know. Rather than assume if only we pour our whole heart, soul and mind into a worthwhile endeavor God will bless us with amazing success, we admit that we don’t really know if the scattered bones of a weary relationship, career or community of faith will fully come back to life. Like the story in Ezekiel the bones might come together. We might even get some muscle and skin on those bones. Yet, is that real life? Still we pour our whole heart, soul and mind into the endeavor–whatever it might be–because we believe its worth the time and effort.

And what happens if the relationship does indeed end, the career path reach an impasse, the church close its doors? Did we fail?

Well, it depends on how you define “failure.” If failure to you means not achieving the desired outcome, then yes, you failed. Failure, however, can carry the seeds of future success–if we learn from our experiences. And if we choose to learn from those experiences, have we really failed? I don’t think so.

Can these bones live? God only knows. Whether or not those bones (be they a relationship, career, church or something else) live, remember these words of wisdom:

“The only real failure in life is the failure to try.”–Unknown

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”–Winston Churchill

Blessings on your journeys!

 

 

 

Can These Bones Live? Part 1

There’s a vision story in the bible’s book of Ezekiel chapter 37 in which the prophet Ezekiel–at God’s request–prophesies to a valley of dry bones (symbolic of the house of Israel at that particular time in its history). As he prophesied, the bones began to do the old “shake, rattle and roll” and came together. Once the bones came together, muscles and then skin formed on them. Still, they did not really live. It took another round of prophesying from Ezekiel before the now corpse-like multitude actually “lived.”

One thing I like about this story is it can be interpreted as a vision of community renewal that occurs in stages. That is, Ezekiel didn’t just say a few words, wave his hand, sprinkle some holy water on the bones and voila–instant healthy, living, loving community! Scattered bones; then connected bones; then muscles; then skin; then life–and it didn’t happen all at once.

Something else I like about this story is what appears to be Ezekiel’s honest assessment of the community. When asked, “Can these bones live?” he replies, in effect, “God only knows.”

Ever have one of those days in your life?

So as I read the story, Ezekiel, while perhaps not totally convinced, was still open to the possibility of his community’s renewal. Starting with “good bones,” so to speak, Ezekiel began the work of renewal. Things began to come together. The community grew stronger and things were looking good (let’s face it; compared to scattered dry bones, flesh and bone bodies–even inanimate ones–were a big improvement), Still, he didn’t stop prophesying until real life was evident in the community.

And I would like to believe the prophesying continued well beyond the initial renewal. It most likely took a different emphasis, too; after all, they were a different community than before their renewal. Perhaps they learned that many of their old ways of doing and being together led to their initial “death,” and that in renewal, they were going to have to change–if they wanted to live, that is.

Can these bones live? It’s a good question for churches of all types to ponder. Citing the growing number of people who claim no religious affiliation, the decline of Christianity of all types (at least in the United States), there is no shortage of articles and books that have already pronounced the church dead–it’s just a matter of time.

Can these bones live? Faced with this question, rather than say, “God only knows,” many religious folk immediately say, “Of course! All we have to do is change our music…or order of worship…or education program…or pastor. We have to learn how to be “cool” so young people will fill our seats. Let’s hang a few rainbow flags and become open and affirming of LGBT folk.”

Or… “Of course! All we have to do is throw ourselves on the mercy of an angry and jealous God because we aren’t paying enough attention to him (and this god is ALWAYS a him). We need to make sure we are doctrinally pure! We have to kick the queers out of church! (unless they’re closeted, musically talented and substantial financial contributors, that is). We have to get “back to the bible.” (whatever that means).

Here’s a thought. When asking the question “Can these bones live?”, why not consider the answer, “God only knows.” I’m not implying we should just throw our hands up in the air, sit back and “watch God work,” either. To me that’s not faithfulness, that’s laziness. So what do I mean when I say consider the answer “God only knows?”

Stay tuned…

Blessings on your journeys!

Whose Religious Freedom?

“While these Christians (the majority in a recent poll) are particularly concerned that religious freedoms are being eroded in this country, “they also want Judeo-Christians to dominate the culture,”―David Kinnaman

Most people are now at least aware of the alleged “religious rights” bill awaiting Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s signature or veto. I understand both senators and one of the bill’s original supporters want her to veto the bill, as do a large number of major businesses and–get this–religious people of all types.

Of course Arizona isn’t the only state that has considered this type of legislation. According to an article by Jaime Fuller in the Washington Post, there is a flood of similar “religious freedom” legislation in various stages from dead to close to passing both bodies of state government. Fuller even missed a few states in the article like Indiana, Georgia and Missouri. With that in mind, my best estimate is that “religious freedom” legislation in one form or another has been or is being considered in at least 15 states. Why?

From Fuller’s article:

“As states and federal courts have slowly expanded gay rights, groups pushing for increased religious protections have tried to coax momentum in the other direction, through both law and lawsuit…The catalyst for the recent flood of religious exemption legislation seems to have been a number of court cases that were decided in favor of LGBT clients who were denied wedding services.”

I agree with this assessment. In fact, I’ll take it a bit further. I think religious conservatives know that they have most likely lost on the issue of marriage equality. Their world is changing rapidly, and they are desperate to maintain any semblance of control they think they might have on society by playing the “religious freedom” card.

Supporters of such legislation insist it isn’t about discrimination but about protecting freedom. While I strongly disagree with these people, I want to take this conversation in another direction.

For me, “religious freedom” legislation isn’t about religion at all. It isn’t even about Christianity. As I pointed out earlier, there are many faithful Christian people who oppose this type of legislation. No, this type of legislation is meant to legalize the bigotry of a small, twisted branch of conservative Christianity to whom politicians desperate for attention pander. Impotent to govern on the larger issues of healthcare, the economy and so forth, they focus on an issue they think they can control.

If you disagree with me, from Fuller’s article, consider these words from Mississippi state senator Hob Bryan, where the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” has passed the Senate, but not yet the House:

“State Senator Hob Bryan said he was worried because the legislation’s expansive decree would protect all religions during floor debate on the bill. “This bill applies to all religions, including Islam, Buddhism and New Age religions,” he said soon after the bill made it through the Senate, according to the Associated Press. “We need to think carefully about the implications of it.”

Did you catch that? the good senator is concerned because their proposed religious freedom legislation would protect all religions. Of course the funny thing is I haven’t read about large numbers of non-Christian religious people who support this type of legislation anyway. Can you imagine, however, the uproar if a Muslim business owner refused business services to a conservative Christian based on religious objections? Or better yet, what if a liberal Christian refused business services to a conservative Christian based on religious objections?

I recently read a quote attributed to one of our founding fathers, John Adams:

“This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.”  

And if the religion to which he was referring is the type protected by “religious freedom” legislation, all I can say is, “Amen, brother!”

We’re better than this, folks. Let’s show the world the beautiful side of religion–whichever religion(s) you choose to practice. For such religion needs no government protection.

Blessings on your journeys!

Woogie Church

One of the things I love about moving to a new area of the country is all the new “fun facts” you learn. For example, since moving to Northern Virginia, among other things, I’ve learned: 1)Highway 66 is its own little special slice of hell–day or night. In fact,  66 made me briefly re-consider the possibility of hell being a real place. 2) Avoid the Beltway as often as possible–unless you have an E-Z Pass–and even then beware.  3) If it snows more than one inch, work from home–period. 4) Before leaving home make sure the gas tank is full and your bladder is empty.

My education, however, has not been limited to traffic flow–as nerve (and bladder) saving as that education has been. My vocabulary has increased, too. I’ve already shared my thoughts on one new word: Christian-ish. Today I’m sharing a recently new (to me) word: “Woogie.”

I learned this term from yet another colleague (I have such fun and interesting colleagues!).  Unlike with Christian-ish, this time I asked for a definition. Are you ready? From my colleague: “I don’t know that  there is any official definition. For me, I suppose…maybe it would be what would happen if “Weird and “Spooky” had a kid…out there.”

Of course, as is the case with beauty, woogie is in the eye of the beholder.  What is cool, creative and perfectly fine for one person is woogie to another. And to me there is no better example of the “great woogie divide” than church world.

Historically conservative traditions (Church of Christ, most forms of Pentecostalism, Baptists and the Anglicans for example) consider the more liberal traditions (i.e., United Church of Christ, Episcopalians, Evangelical Lutherans and some Presbyterians) rather woogie. And then some (yet not all) of those liberal counterparts point to the Unitarian Universalists and the denomination where I serve–Metropolitan Community Churches–and say to our conservative friends, “You think we’re woogie?  Consider the UU’s and MCC. Now they are woogie!”

Of course the more conservative folk among us don’t think they’re woogie–they prefer to think of themselves as “the faithful remnant.” And let’s be fair, OK? We religious liberals don’t usually like to think of ourselves as woogie, either. We prefer “cutting edge.” Plus we tend to think of our conservative counterparts as pretty woogie, too.

So what makes a church woogie–in a good way? Well, as there is no official definition of woogie, neither is there an official “woogie characteristics list.” So here are my thoughts.

Consider my colleague’s definition; “weird”; “spooky”; “out there.” Using those descriptors, woogie can have a negative connotation, or it can simply represent something quite different–perhaps even in a good way. One thing woogie is not, however, is neutral. Neither, do I believe, is woogie always fashionable. With those thoughts in mind, let’s return to our question, “What makes a church woogie–in a good way?”

For me, woogie churches are inclusive. Inclusivity includes welcoming agnostics, atheists and people of different faiths into full, healthy participation in our churches, as well.  Inclusivity includes the embrace of a variety of social justice issues as resources permit. Inclusivity means an openness to other theological perspectives–whether or not we ultimately accept those perspectives. And just so I’m clear, woogie churches aren’t inclusive to be fashionable and/or increase their attendance and improve their financial positions–although those things could happen.

Now, you may be read this and think, “Wait! Doesn’t that mean you’re neutral–anything goes?” Not at all. Every church has its own culture–its own “vibe,” if you will. And different communities appeal to different people. For example, I pastor a church that is considered culturally Christian; yet we are not neutral in our position that everyone without exception is welcome to participate in positive ways in our church. Most of our folks are not big on cross imagery or atonement theology.  We love Jesus and read from the bible each week in our services. And we read from the writings of other faiths as well as other sources and incorporate those ideas in our reflections.

While we’re culturally Christian, we do not require baptism or a confession of faith in order to receive communion or to become a “voting” member of the community. We feed hungry and homeless people. We march for justice and contact our legislators. We raise money to fight HIV/AIDS. And we don’t do these things to be fashionable. We don’t do these things to punch our tickets for a sweet afterlife or to avoid eternal damnation, either. These–and other–characteristics are simply part of our communal identity. And as much as I love our community, we are far from perfect and realize we can’t be all things to all people. We’re too Christian for some people; we aren’t Christian enough for others. And for other folks, we’re just “right.” You could say we’re both Christian-ish and woogie.

And to me, that’s a good thing…

Blessings on your journeys!

Christian-ish

“I think you have every right to cherry-pick when it comes to moving your spirit and finding peace in God. You take whatever works from wherever you can find it, and you keep moving toward the light.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, “Eat, Pray, Love”

“Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words
and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have a colleague who self-identifies as “Christian-ish.” I’ve never pressed them for a formal explanation of the term; but based on what I know of this person, I have a pretty good idea of what it could mean. My colleague loves the teachings of Jesus, and at the same time they find beauty and wisdom in the teachings and practices of other religions. In other words, they take whatever works from wherever they can find it so they can keep moving toward the light.

And if we were honest, I think most of us would admit we do the same thing.

Consider this. Religious conservatives who oppose marriage equality often point to the “sanctity” of marriage, and insist that allowing LGBT people to legally wed would somehow destroy that sanctity. At the same time, a January 21st article in the Religious News Service points out that divorce rates tend to be higher among conservative Protestants than their more religiously liberal counterparts. This, despite the teaching of Jesus in Mark chapter 10 that basically forbids divorce. In Matthew chapter 19 Jesus allows a loophole for “immorality”–but only for the guys.

In the Old Testament, religious conservatives point to a verse in the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus, and they misinterpret the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to “prove” how unhappy God is with homosexuality. Yet, when presented with all the other prohibitions in that same Holiness Code, some of these folks are quick to reply that the dietary and other prohibitions were part of the Ceremonial Law and the arrival of Jesus negated those laws. But that verse about a man lying with a man as with a woman? Oh, no! That law is part of the Moral Law and the Moral Law is forever.

Of course, those of us who identify as religious liberals do the same thing. For example, we love Jesus’ teachings about peace and turning the other cheek–until someone actually slaps us, that is. We like quoting the bible’s teachings about our responsibility to care for “the least of these” in the world. Yet the story of Jesus and the Rich Young Man (Matthew chapter 19 and Mark chapter 10) where Jesus instructs the young man to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus causes religious conservatives and liberals to jump through all kinds of interpretive hoops. And that story in Acts 2 where the earliest communities held everything in common? Nice story; at the same time, just how do you think that would work in the 21st century? After all, we religious liberals do tend to like having our own stuff and “space” as much as any religious conservative.

So let’s be honest, OK? None of us–liberal or conservative–really believe and follow everything to the letter that’s written in the bible. As a matter of fact, some of those stories are horribly offensive–at least to me. So what do we do?

I think Ralph Waldo Emerson has a great idea. Why not consider making our own “bibles”? Why not take the wisdom and practices of the world’s religions, humanism and science–wisdom and practices that help us move forward toward the light of love and peace and that deepen our connection to the Universal Presence many of us call “God?”

Or better yet, why not strive to make our lives “living bibles”–reflections of the best the world’s religions, humanism and science have to offer?

Just something to consider…

Blessings on your journeys!

Just in Time for Christmas–the Jesus Collection!

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that my beliefs and opinions regarding the nature of Jesus and the purposes of his life and teachings have changed over the years. As a matter of fact, a few folks have expressed genuine concern that in my journey I have somehow “lost” Jesus. I respect those viewpoints, too—and I disagree with them. While I’m open to the positive and challenging teachings of many faiths, I’m a big fan of the human Jesus and his teachings—although he and those teachings admittedly work my nerves at times. In fact, I’m such a fan of Jesus that I even have a Jesus collection!

I guess I should clarify that last statement by saying I have a Jesus statue collection.

Actually, this collection wasn’t intentional. I received my first Jesus statue when I was in Georgia. A friend of mine with whom I used to work in Houston learned I was preparing to become an ordained minister. So she sent me a hand-painted ceramic Jesus—white, light brown hair, full vestments, visible bleeding heart surrounded with a crown of thorns—the works. Although I’m not a fan of these particular images of Jesus, this statue was her way of seeing Jesus; and since she made it herself, it meant—and still means—a great deal to me. So “White Ceramic Jesus” has traveled with me from Atlanta to Corpus Christi to Brookfield, and now resides in my church office in Virginia.

Then one Christmas in Brookfield, a congregant presented me with a PINK, flocked Jesus bank with a funny note attached regarding how Jesus “saves.” I love “Pink Flocked Jesus” so much he now resides next to “White Ceramic Jesus.” Both statues have been great conversation pieces throughout the years, too.

The following Christmas Richard and I opened our Christmas presents late Christmas evening. There was a package I had brought home from church with just my name on it and no indication as to the giver. I opened the package to find a SILVER GLITTER Jesus bank—and another humorous note about Jesus’ fashion sense. So if you drop by my office one day, don’t be surprised if you see my trinity of Jesus statues.

“OK,’ some of you may be thinking, ‘are you just TRYING to get struck by lightning?” Not at all. You see, for me, these three very different statues of Jesus remind me that there are different aspects to Jesus, and it is important for us to hold those aspects in creative tension. Please allow me to explain.

“White Ceramic Jesus” reminds me that there is a very serious side to Jesus. Let’s face it; it wasn’t easy being Jesus—preaching peace, equitable distribution of wealth and challenging the oppressive status quo (religious and societal)–even when it meant rejection and crucifixion. “White Ceramic Jesus” reminds me that we who call ourselves followers of Jesus are called to continue his work—and that being a follower of Jesus will sometimes involve a certain amount of rejection, change and challenge.

“Pink Flocked Jesus” and “Silver Glitter Jesus” bring smiles to my face as I remember that the life of Jesus was also full of colorful people and included parties and celebrations. I believe Jesus fully lived and loved life. “Pink Flocked and Silver Glitter Jesus” remind me that we who call ourselves followers of Jesus are also called to live, laugh, and love fully.

So, as we move through the “white ceramic,” “pink flocked,” and “silver glitter” times of our lives, may we also rest in the assurance that God is both with and within us in each of those times, just as God was with and within Jesus–and Buddha, and Mohammed and, well, you get the point.

May we learn to live, laugh, and love fully.

Blessings on your journeys!

Performance Anxiety

“I get to be a person for a living. A person who every morning thinks about her quirky little church and prays, Oh God, it’s so beautiful. Help me not fuck it up.” Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve prayed a version of Rev. Bolz-Weber’s prayer. OK; I don’t use the “explicit” version, and not from a fear of divine retribution, either. I simply don’t care for the word. I think Nadia would appreciate that, too; she impresses me as very supportive of people speaking from a place of authenticity and integrity. And while her book and prayer is written in the context of pastoral ministry, you don’t have to be a pastor to pray the prayer.

Come on, admit it; most of us have prayed this prayer–or at least a version of it–right? Some of us may use only the second part of the prayer without invoking any deity; still, we pray it. Think about it. We start dating a great person, and as we check our appearance before heading out to meet them we take one last look in the mirror and say, “Please don’t let me (insert favorite action verb here) this up.” Or perhaps we begin our dream job and do the same thing.  Go ahead and imagine your own scenario.

This prayer doesn’t always come from a negative self-image, either. Often we have a good sense of ourselves and our abilities.  We just want to make a good impression by presenting our best selves, by performing to the best of our abilities. We’re aware of our good fortune; and we want to show appropriate appreciation for that good fortune.

There are, however, times when this prayer does come from a negative self-image. Humanity, while possessing the potential for doing great good, also possesses the potential for doing great harm. The horrific stories of bullying we read in the news are testament enough of this potential–and those are just those stories of which we’re aware.

I was a victim of bullying as a child and teenager. And while I don’t think anyone deserves to be bullied, I will admit I was a bit of a “goody two shoes”–well, most of the time, anyway. I was a staunch soldier for Jesus–again, most of the time. I was smart and loved school. I hated guns and hunting–and in rural Kentucky that’s just unnatural. Being somewhat effeminate didn’t help matters, either. My only saving grace was I loved basketball (a religion all its own in Kentucky), and I managed to make the starting lineup in middle school. The bullying I endured, however, was nowhere near the severity level of some of the bullying we read about today. Besides, I thought God was on my side as I fought the minions of Satan incarnate in the form of my tormentors.

While I’m opposed to bullying of all types, there’s a specific type of bullying that angers me most of all–religious bullying. As a young person there was a time when I prayed the last part of Rev. Bolz-Weber’s prayer almost every day–again, without the “f” word, because that was a one-way ticket to hell. I prayed it because I was taught that any infraction not confessed before I died meant I would go from being a soldier for Jesus to being a “crispy critter” for all eternity. I mean, really, who does that to kids?

At the time I bought the explanation that my pastor and Sunday School teachers tried to scare the hell out of us (so to speak) only because they loved us and were concerned for our souls. I still believe these folks meant well, and I feel no animosity toward them. You have to admit, though, dangling a young person’s feet over the flames of hell is a pretty effective way of  convincing them to toe the line.

As a matter of fact, it’s still a pretty good tool to use to keep some adults in line, too. Only today religious bullying tends to be far more political in nature, and “hell” usually takes the form of losing political office–and possibly being denied communion and/or admission to church. Who does that to people, anyway? Religious people who are afraid of change and who have to resort to playing on people’s fear of death and the unknown in order to prevent the changes they fear from happening, that’s who.

Of course, I still suffer from performance anxiety from time to time– I think most of us do, too. The good news is fear of upsetting God, getting kicked out of church, losing my job or losing the love of family and friends for speaking from a place of authenticity and integrity, or burning in hell are no longer part of my motivation for being the best person I can be. In fact, it’s when I started to release these fears that I was able to begin really living.

May we all learn to release unhealthy fears and the performance anxiety they cause. May we learn to travel both light and in the light of Divine Love.

Blessings on your journeys!