Monthly Archives: January 2012

Membership Has Its Privileges

“Membership has its privileges” is an advertising slogan made famous by American Express. You may remember some of the commercials full of exotic vacations, multi-course gourmet meals and the like. The commercials would usually end with the slogan “Membership has its privileges.” The implication, of course, was certain things were available only through the use of the American Express credit card. So if you wanted to get in on all the rewards, you had to be a “member.”

Some of you already know where I’m heading, don’t you?

Yes, some religions/churches/denominations/associations/movements–pick your favorite term or add one of your own–tend to treat membership in their communities much like American Express. “If you want to go to heaven–and avoid hell–we’ve got what you need.” “If you want freedom of religion, we’ve got what you need.” “If you want freedom from religion, we’ve got what you need.” “If you want rockin’ music, we’ve got what you need.” “If you want that “old-time religion” complete with the “smells and bells,” we’ve got what you need.” “Heck, we’ve got both rockin’ music and smells and bells in the same service.” “If you want the most intelligent/thoughtful/caring/entertaining pastoral staff around, we’ve got what you need!” Then based on these and other considerations, people make their decisions as to whether or not to join these communities.

And then we wonder why many of these folks act like consumers once they “join the club.”

What I mean by that last comment is that in a desperate attempt to increase our numbers and cash flow, some churches don’t share–as Paul Harvey used to say–“the rest of the story.” For me, the rest of the story is simply the privilege of being a member of any community of faith is the responsibility which comes with learning how to live, love, learn, and “be” together, as well as do our part to transform our communities and world as part of that particular community of faith. For it is through those very processes that we, too, are transformed.

That’s right; the privilege of membership in any community of faith–“official” or not–has nothing to do with reserving our sweet seats in the afterlife by saying the “right” words about God and Jesus, baptismal vows, confessions, having voice and vote in congregational matters, dropping a few–or several thousand–dollars in the offering plate, or even holding elected offices in the church. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with holding beliefs about God, Jesus, an afterlife, baptism, or confessions. And Goddess knows we need spiritually and emotionally mature people to help fund, guide and make decisions in our communities of faith.

At the same time, being part of a community–any community–is not a spectator sport. There are times when we need rest, support and healing, and there are times when we provide opportunities for rest, support and healing for others who need it. There are times when we are fed, and there are times when we do the feeding. There are times when we need to be held in our pain, and there are times when we hold others in theirs’. There are times when we want to share our successes with others, and there are times when we celebrate the successes of others.

To me, this type of giving and receiving is what it means to live authentically in community, and it has the power to transform not only us, but the world as well. And the privileges of membership don’t get much better than that, now do they?

Besides, if there is an afterlife, something tells me God doesn’t take American Express…

The Illusion of Inclusion

“All are welcome!” “Wherever you are on your journey, you are welcome here!” “Open and affirming!” “Come as you are, believing as you do!”

These are just a few of the phrases communities of faith use in their (mostly) sincere attempts to welcome diverse groups of people to their communities. I say “mostly” because I think it is fair to say some congregations use these phrases primarily as marketing tools. That is, facing declining numbers, some conservative and liberal religious groups are tweaking not only their orders of worship, music, “clerical drag” and programming; they are also tweaking their advertising techniques to boost attendance numbers and financial support. I understand this desire for survival. Still, the challenge is, after people arrive–if they haven’t given up on religion altogether already–they eventually learn there is often some “fine print” attached to those messages. In other words, there are some exclusions in the inclusive message.

For example, one friend of mine started attending a large non-denominational Christian church that proclaimed everyone without exception was welcome there. This group had amazing music and programming as well as positive and uplifting messages. There was a lot of Jesus–just without all that annoying discipleship business–well, with perhaps the exception of financial discipleship, that is. He attended a membership class and liked what he heard. Then my friend spoke with the facilitator after the class. He told the facilitator he is gay and asked if that would be a problem.

The facilitator of the class was obviously flustered and said, “Well, yes. I mean, you can come here and all, but you would have to commit to celibacy or repent and convert to heterosexuality before you could be a member.” Then, to add insult to injury, he placed his hand on my friend’s shoulder and said, “I don’t have a problem with homosexuals personally. See? If I did, I wouldn’t be touching you like this.” I’ve lost touch with this friend over the past few years; so I don’t know if he ever darkened the door of any church ever again. I can’t say I would blame him if he didn’t.

Now, not all churches that claim to be inclusive and welcoming are like the one I’ve described here. And sexual orientation is just one example of the “fine print” in some welcoming congregations. Another example is women (“Of course you can serve–just not in leadership that includes supervising or teaching men.”).  I’m sure you can think of other examples, too. At the same time, there are many, many communities of faith that strive to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible. I know because I am honored to be the pastor of one such group.

The challenge remains, however, that there is always fine print–either spoken or implied. You could call this fine print “boundaries,” too. Some are healthy; some are not.

I’ll use the congregation I serve as an example. In our Inquirer’s classes I now identify as a Unitarian Universalist Christian at this point in my life journey. I go on to explain that while this is how I identify, no one is required to share that identification in order to be a member of our church. People can be as creedal, conservative, born again, “washed in the blood of the Lamb” as they choose–or not. At the same time, they aren’t going to hear creedal, conservative, born again, “washed in the blood of the Lamb” music in our worship services or that theology in my reflections. So, if they absolutely need to hear affirmations of things like virgin birth, bodily resurrection, Jesus as God, blood atonement, hell, the bible as literal word of God and the like, they may not be comfortable at our church.

Again, I emphasize everyone is welcome at Holy Covenant and–like our Unitarian Universalist sisters and brothers–we affirm every person’s free and responsible search for truth. Yet I can see how a moderate to conservative Trinitarian Christian (straight or gay) could feel excluded at our church. And people who aren’t “Jesus-centric” probably wouldn’t be too comfortable with our focus on the teachings of Jesus and other biblical teachings, either. In other words, our church has “fine print,” too. And while I believe our fine print represents some healthy boundaries for what people can expect to see and hear at our church, others might see us as “exclusive.”

So the more I consider what I call “the illusion of inclusion,” the more I think some of us in “church world” stress out far too much over who we’re not, rather than celebrating–and not just affirming–the wonderful parts of who we are. Every religious community has a culture of its own; and while every community of faith has room for healthy growth, challenge and change, rarely does everything about those communities need an overhaul. Besides, when we try too hard to be something we’re not in any area of our lives, we can cause more hurt and pain to others and ourselves than any good we hoped to accomplish.

In the end, perhaps the best we can do is take the advice of St. Francis de Sales who was quoted as saying, “Be who you are and be that well.” That “who” may very well evolve and change over time, too. Besides, organisms (including churches and religions) that don’t evolve usually die anyway. Still, healthy change (boundary shifting)–either individual or communal–cannot be forced, even with the best of intentions and advertising campaigns. Healthy change takes time, “prodding” from the Divine within each of us, and our willingness to listen to and act upon that prodding.

After all, we cannot be all things to all people. So, “be who you are and be that well.”

And be at peace.

Honor Thy Father and Mother

Three years ago our mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Fortunately my sister caught the symptoms early enough that Mom’s doctor was able to place her on medication that has–at least until recently–helped her have more good days than bad days.

Then came the strokes. Not many, but enough to affect her ability to properly care for and express herself. The strokes led to a few falls–no serious injuries, just a few stitches here and there–but naturally a cause of concern for my stepfather, sister and I. Mom’s temperament makes caring for her challenging at times, too–even at her diminutive size. At the same time, given the deterioration of her health and loss of independence, I can understand the frustration and anger she probably feels. After all, I don’t know of anyone who looks forward to spending most of their retirement years not being able to care for and express themselves.

Our stepfather has been absolutely amazing through all of Mom’s health challenges–caring for her every need, listening to her angry outbursts, everything. If anyone deserves sainthood, my sister and I agree its him. At the same time, we could tell caring for Mom 24-7 was wearing him down. Different people offered to help; but he always said they would be fine and not to worry. If they needed anything, he would call.

That call came in December a few days before Christmas.

Our stepfather had a heart attack in the middle of the night. Fortunately he was able to call a relative to come take him to the hospital. My sister came and took Mom into her home. Richard and I traveled from Illinois for our stepfather’s open heart surgery and to help with Mom for a couple of days. Richard returned to my sister’s the following week to help for a few days while she went back to work and I returned to Chicago to work.

The good news is our stepfather is doing great. He is now recovering at my sister’s; he walks daily, cares for himself with almost no assistance and is following doctor’s orders. We’re amazed and thankful for how well his recovery is going.

Mom, on the other hand, continues to deteriorate. As hard as it is to witness, we accept this deterioration as part of her disease process. No one is blaming God for what is happening; and fortunately no one has said they believe this is all somehow part of God’s plan for my parents’ lives–at least not within earshot of me.  I know this part of her journey has to be hardest on Mom; still, our stepfather watches helplessly and does what he can to make sure she is comfortable–which at this point in his recovery is very little.

This past week I made another trip home to help my sister and to sit with her and my stepfather to have what I call “the nursing home discussion.” The harsh reality is our mother is not able to care for herself, and we believe our stepfather risks her safety and his health if he tries to take her home and care for her. While he is now willing to accept help from family members, another harsh reality is none of us can quit our jobs and provide the care Mom needs–especially at night when she decides she wants to get out of bed and watch television–and lifting her when she falls is definitely not something our stepfather will be able to do again.

My sister and I thought we were doing our best to honor our parents’ wishes for us to care for them. My sister had already completed research on local nursing homes; and as a medical professional she has excellent contacts in the area. She had called our parents’ primary physician who agreed it was time–actually past time–for us to make this decision. We had worked together to determine our parents had the finances necessary to fund this option as well as support our stepfather. Mom would receive the 24-7 care she needs, and our stepfather could continue his recovery while visiting her as often and as long as he chose. Family members would also visit and check on both of them on a regular basis.

The conversation went well–or so we thought. Our stepfather agreed our proposal made sense. At the same time, he hated the thought of placing Mom in a nursing home. “I promised to take care of her and not do this unless I absolutely had to,” he said. I told him we knew that and were grateful for all he had done for our mother; still it was time. It was absolutely necessary now. He said, “You don’t have to thank me for taking care of your Mom; I love her.” By the end of the conversation we had all agreed on a plan as to how to proceed once our stepfather was cleared to drive by his doctor.

The following afternoon I left to return home. 20 minutes into my drive my sister called to let me know our stepfather was reconsidering our plan. The next day he had decided to take Mom home once the doctor cleared him to drive. My sister reminded him of our conversation as well as of the risks involved with his decision. He understands everything, and still wants to move forward with his decision and–as frustrating as it is for the family–it is his decision to make.

So next week my sister and I will honor our stepfather and mother by helping them move back into their home in the country. My sister and other family members will visit regularly and check on them. I will visit and help them financially as I am able.

I will be honest and say I don’t like this idea at all. I think my parents are taking some very dangerous risks. Then again, maybe my stepfather is risking everything out of love for our mother. I have to say, too, that I understand my parents’ tenacity for independence and a semblance of control over the direction of their lives. After all, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.  So perhaps–just perhaps–the best way my sister and I can honor our stepfather and mother is to allow them as much independence and control over the direction of their lives as possible.

Who knows? Maybe they will prove us wrong and be able to live out the rest of their lives in their cozy little home in the country.

It’s a nice thought isn’t it? Risking everything for love.