Monthly Archives: February 2012

What Are You Looking For?

In her article, “The End of Church,” Diana Butler Bass eloquently states her case for the end of the conventional church as we know it. In her closing paragraph, Butler Bass states:

“The end of conventional church isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Christianity after religion, a faith renewed by the experience of God’s spirit, is closer to what Jesus hoped for his followers than the scandalous division, politics, and enmity we have now. Will there still be Christianity after the end of institutional religion? Yes, there will be. But it is going to be different than what Americans have known, a faith responsive to the longings of those who are expecting more spiritual depth and greater ethical integrity rather than more conventional church. Indeed, I suspect that the end of church is only the beginning of a new Great Awakening.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this article from the Huffington Post; and I am also looking forward to reading Butler Bass’s latest book, “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.” As much as I agree with her points, however, I would like to speak from the perspective of someone who has had several conversations over the years with people who have those “longings” Butler Bass mentions in her article.

For these folks, a question I often ask is, “OK. If you aren’t getting what you need here, what are you looking for?”

Most often the responses to my question are not so much about seeking a depth of spiritual growth, integrity and service they see lacking in institutional religion, as much as it is about personal preferences regarding things like music, the order of worship, social activities, and the like. And believe it or not, even a few liberal religious people really do want to be given the “bottom line;” that is, they want to be told the path of least resistance that leads to sweet seats in the afterlife.

There are, however, people who really are longing for a depth of spiritual growth, integrity and service in their lives; and unfortunately what they experience are communities of faith that are–as Butler Bass says–“caught up in political intrigue, rigid rules and prohibitions, institutional maintenance, unresponsive authorities, and inflexible dogma.” Still, when I ask these folks what they are looking for, most often the silence is deafening, or I hear a quiet, “I really don’t know.”

This statement is an honest response; and I think it is one church leaders should honor and simply let be while gathering other such seekers for some intentional, honest conversations about not only institutional religion, denominations and associations, but also about what it means for their particular groups to “offer pathways of life-giving spiritual experience, connection, meaning, vocation, and doing justice in the world” as Butler Bass mentions in her article.

Now, here’s a question to ponder: “Do we really want to have these conversations?” What if those conversations led to a decision to eliminate Sunday morning worship in favor of feeding hungry people, working at the local homeless shelter, or performing some other act of service and social justice? What if worship meant gathering in small groups for discussion, socializing, prayer, meditation and communion, rather than coming together once a week to pay our respects to an empty cross hanging on the wall, drop a few bucks in the offering plate to pay the bills and catch up with our friends’ lives?

I’m not saying traditional/contemporary/mixed–whatever–Sunday morning worship is wrong, either. Good things happen in worship services every week all over the planet. And as someone who is a church leader (and pastor), I’m all in favor of paying the bills. What I am saying, however, is if we are serious about spiritual transformation, if we are serious about following Jesus (or the other prophets of our faith(s) of choice), we must be willing to put everything out on the table for honest and respectful discussion.

So, do we really want to be transformed?

Just something to think about…

A View from the Top

Does anyone else remember actually wanting to do chores when you were a child? For some people, this behavior might sound a little strange; still I’ll bet some of us have seen small children push around pint-sized brooms and vacuum cleaners because they want to help Mom and Dad clean the house. Some children have tiny tool boxes to pull out on a moment’s notice to help Mom and Dad in the wood shop or to help with those pesky household repairs. Some of us couldn’t wait until we were old enough to mow the yard, work on the car, use real tools around the house, and use the stove and oven to prepare meals people could actually eat.

In the area of transportation, many of us started with a tricycle, moved to training wheels on a bigger bicycle, and then it was a HUGE day when we lost the training wheels. From bikes we moved to motorcycles and/or cars. Remember not being able to wait until you got your driver’s license?

And then there was the magical age of 18 when we became REAL adults and our parents could no longer tell us what to do; that is, if we could afford to move out of their house. Because I don’t know about you, but in my family the mantra was “Our house, our rules—regardless.” Shortly after 18 came 21 when we could go to clubs and drink alcohol—only legally this time. I personally loved turning 25 because my car insurance dropped by over half.

When it came to education some of us couldn’t wait to get out of kindergarten and into big boy and big girl school—1st grade! Middle school kids can’t wait until junior high; junior high kids can’t wait until high school; high school kids either want to finish school and be done with it, or join the military or head to college for freedom.

All these behaviors are normal. They are all part of our drive to become adults—to somehow succeed in life. And people define success differently, too. For some folks, it isn’t enough to have a roof over their heads; it has to be a particular kind of roof in a particular location. For some people, being at a healthy weight isn’t enough; they want six-pack abs, tight glutes, and a chest that turns heads. Other people don’t stop until they have the corner office or top position in their chosen profession–a view of life from the top, if you will.

One word for this type of behavior is “ladder climbing,” and it can apply to every area of our lives. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting these and other markers of success. As one writer says, however, “the problem with finally getting what we want is that then we’ve got it!” That is, the longed-for prize can become just another new responsibility, another step on the ladder. REAL success is still somewhere else. Or as an old French proverb puts it: “You not only have to want what you want, but you have to want what your want leads to.”

History is full of ladder climbers, even in the Bible.  Take Peter, James and John, for example. In one gospel, James and John ask Jesus for the best seats in the afterlife—one to sit at Jesus’ left and the other at his right—and in another gospel it’s James and John’s mother who is said to have asked for this favor for her sons. And Peter? Well, Peter—the one Jesus called “Rock”–was always putting his foot in his mouth. Most people believe Jesus called Peter “Rock” because of the words attributed to Jesus about Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” Who knows? Maybe Jesus called Peter “Rock” because he was so hard-headed. But, that’s just me.

So considering the personalities of these guys, you can imagine what a feather in their caps it was for them to be invited by Jesus to spend some quality alone time with him away from everyone else. Imagine a supervisor you really admire inviting you to join a hand-picked small group of people to go on a mountain retreat—all expenses paid. And what’s more, everyone in your immediate group of colleagues knows about the invitation because the supervisor offered it to you right in front of them! We might think to ourselves, “Yes! Finally I’m starting to move up and be recognized.” We might even start humming the theme song from that old sitcom “The Jeffersons,” “Movin’ On Up.” Do you remember the words? “Well, we’re movin’ on up to the East Side, to a deeeluxe apartment in the sky!” Only in Mark’s gospel (9:2-9) it’s to the top of a mountain—a place where the ancients believed God’s presence could be found.

So Jesus, Peter, James, and John head up the mountain to pray. While there, Jesus’ clothes begin to glow brighter than bright. Now that would be strange enough, but the situation gets even stranger when Moses and Elijah show up and start talking with Jesus.

Peter, James and John are understandably quite frightened. After all, it isn’t every day your rabbi’s clothes suddenly begin to glow and two of your tradition’s greatest—and long dead—prophets also show up and start carrying on a conversation with your rabbi.

I’ve always thought it somewhat strange that the first words out of Peter’s mouth weren’t something like, “Jesus, with all due respect, this is all just a bit weird, OK? I mean, why are your clothes glowing, and just how is it that Moses and Elijah are here? After all, our scriptures DO tell us there was never a body found after these guys died.”

No, Peter speaks up and says, “Hey, Jesus! This is great! Let’s build a memorial for each of you!” Of course he was probably shaking in his sandals; but, hey! Never let ‘em see you sweat, right?

Now there has been all kinds of speculation as to why Peter would say such a thing. Maybe he just couldn’t handle the silence and awe of the situation and spoke out of pure fear. Perhaps he wanted to honor these great prophets.

There is, however, at least one other possibility…

Have you ever considered Peter’s idea might have been another step up on the ladder of respectability for the Jesus Movement? Remember, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tries to fly under the radar sometimes, telling people to keep quiet about what they’ve seen or experienced. In fact, he does it again in today’s story.

Not Peter—noooo! Peter wants to burn down the Jesus Closet. And what better way to do that than to commemorate this experience by building three memorials on the top of a mountain—a place where God’s presence is revealed? What an attraction! What a way to fund their movement! Of course, repeating the whole glowing clothes and dead prophet moment might be a little tricky. And who was there to witness it all? Peter, James and John—Jesus’ own inner circle! Yeah, finally some concrete evidence to back their claims about the unique and superior nature of the Jesus Movement!

Peter’s vision for a mountaintop Jesus attraction, however, was not to be. At the same time, note how Peter was not rebuked for this idea. God doesn’t say, “Seriously, Peter? Three memorials? How lame is that?” More importantly, Jesus says nothing at all about the idea. No, Mark’s version of the story records God saying, “This is my dearly loved Son. Listen to him,” followed by the disappearance of Moses and Elijah. Then they head back down the mountain, but not before Jesus tells the guys to keep quiet—for now.

Strange little story, isn’t it? It’s called “The Transfiguration.” I don’t see the Transfiguration as literal history, but as a story about focusing on what is important. See, Peter, James and John—while faithful in their own ways—were also easily distracted by a multitude of things—most often their desires for position, authority and success.

In this story we also see the validity of past tradition and other prophets represented by Moses and Elijah. They, too, however, can become distractions. Who knows? Maybe that’s the reason for their disappearance in the story. Like Peter, we, too, can be distracted by the desire to build memorials to traditions and past prophets, rather than truly honoring them by focusing on what they taught and doing our best to follow those teachings in our own ever-evolving contexts.

And once again we have that annoying directive from Jesus to remain quiet—at least for now. Why? Well, I think it’s possible Jesus knew what would probably happen if Peter, James and John were allowed to build those memorials and start claiming their versions of the experience as authoritative for everyone—and you know all three of them would probably have different versions of the same story, right?

And then what would happen? That’s right! People would start investing their time and money honoring and maintaining those memorials—those institutions—and only listening  to a select few “apostles,” seeing them and their descendants as the only way to experience God’s grace, rather than focusing on following the teachings of Jesus by putting those teachings into action and experiencing the presence of God already within them for themselves.

My point here isn’t that respecting institutions and their leaders is wrong. It isn’t. Yet, for followers of Jesus, these institutions, leaders, and traditions were never meant to be the primary focus of our attention. In fact, I don’t think these things and people were ever meant to be the focus of any faith tradition. For followers of Jesus, actively following his teachings was—and still should be, in my opinion—our focus. And why is that focus so important?

Well, like James, John, Peter and yes, even Jesus, we can’t indefinitely stay on the mountain top. The view from the top might be fabulous; but we can’t live there forever. From the top, however, we can obtain a clearer view—a clearer focus–of what it means to be successful in life in new, exciting, and challenging ways–ways that focus on service, peace, grace and justice. And trust me, when we come down from the mountain and mix it up in the joys and challenges of everyday life. we’re going to need all the strength and focus we can get. Amen?

So let’s focus, and in so doing, may we perhaps experience a whole new and much less stressful way of being successful on our life journeys.

Blessings to all!

And Jesus said, “Seriously?”

From “The Message” (Mark 9:38-41)

John spoke up, “Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him because he wasn’t in our group.”

Jesus wasn’t pleased. “Don’t stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally. Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.”

My first pastorate was in Corpus Christi, Texas. At that time, MCC of Corpus Christi was one of three churches that openly welcomed LGBT people into full participation in our community life. The other churches were affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Please note I said, “openly welcomed.” There were a few other groups who had no real issues with LGBT folk; it was just their denominations didn’t officially sanction the openness of these groups.

Early in my pastorate, I learned from one of our UCC friends that shortly before I arrived there was interest in forming a local interfaith group who would focus on poverty issues in South Texas. I asked how we could learn more about how our church could be part of this group. See, our church was located in the second poorest neighborhood in Corpus Christi. Daily we saw first-hand the impact of poverty and an immigration system that didn’t–and still doesn’t–work.

My friend grew quiet then said, “Well, in one of our organizational meetings I said this was a social justice issue and MCC would be a natural ally. The leader of the group (the leader of a very influential conservative group) said, “Anyone but them.”

I could just imagine Jesus shaking his head and saying, “Seriously?!?”

Isn’t it amazing sometimes how the bible imitates life–or how life imitates the bible?

To me, these two stories are examples of what I call “religious territorialism.” That is, “You aren’t part of our group; and since we own a copyright on the the truth, you aren’t welcome in our club. Oh, and by the way, no good works you do count anyway. So cut it out!”

Have you ever wondered what the disciples in Mark’s story were afraid of? Maybe they were afraid of losing their influence. After all, if just anyone could bring healing and hope to the world by simply accessing the power of all that is just, holy, and peaceful, what makes them so special? How would they be able to build a huge following? Perhaps more to the point, how would they be able to cash in on that following? And if you think I’m too far off track, just pick up a bible and read in the gospels how many times Jesus provided attitude checks to his closest followers.

Now, here’s a potentially disturbing thought: “Are some of us afraid of losing our influence?”

By that comment I mean, “Are some people of all faith traditions so wrapped up in protecting the truth claims of our various traditions that we’re missing the big picture?” While we argue about who we believe is a real Christian/Muslim/Jew/Buddhist/Humanist, etc.–who is part of our groups and who is not–people who need healing, hope, justice and mercy–people who need a cup of cold water in the name of all that is holy–continue to go thirsty.

And Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, Krishna and all that is holy said…



I am far from a Facebook pro. I post quotes, make the occasional comment and read about what’s going on in the lives of my family and friends. Rarely do I spend more than 10 minutes once or twice a day on Facebook. Like a lot of people, I haven’t met or even spoken with all my Facebook friends. I read the friend suggestions and sometimes send a friend request to certain people. Other times people contact me asking to be my friend. I’m careful about who I “friend,” and normally I look for mutual Facebook friends before approving friend requests. Oh, and I make a point of avoiding theological debates on Facebook.

Until this week…

A Facebook friend I’ll call “John” (not his real name) pastors an independent Pentecostal church whose members are primarily lgbt. Theologically, he is very conservative, and many of his posts remind me of the theology I grew up with in the Pentecostal church of my youth. At the same time, while I strongly disagree with much of his theology, I respect his path and search for truth.

This week he posted an entry calling for the lgbt community to work with churches rather than against them, stating that there are many churches who are open and affirming. He asserted the community’s wholesale dismissal of Christianity can lead people to fall into doctrinal errors like Universalism. His disapproval of belief systems that do not agree with his was made apparent when he placed the word “Christians” in quotes; as in, so-called “Christians.” He closed the post by stating we should be about love and inclusion—period.

Unless you happen to be a Universalist, I guess.

So I respectfully replied that true inclusion should include Unitarian Universalist Christians like myself. My reply was not well-received, to say the least. By the tone of his reply, I sensed “John” felt threatened. He asserted UU-ism is not Christian, Jesus is the ONLY way to heaven, and so on. I replied again, stating that I respect his chosen path, and that UU-ism was actually born of Protestant Christianity. I went on to say I was raised in the Pentecostal church, and my experience was that it is not inclusive. I wished him well and thought that would be that. I thought we would simply agree to disagree.

Boy was I wrong…

One exchange later I received a terse note stating that I did not get to define “inclusion,” how dare I say he isn’t inclusive, and obviously I knew nothing about the Pentecostal church, because it was far more inclusive than many of the mainline churches today. He closed by saying I was “talking a lot of bologna, he was tired of it,” and then in all caps GOOD-BYE.

I honestly wasn’t sure what I said to cause that level of anger; so I clicked on the “See Comment Thread” button on my computer screen to review my comments. Apparently I had unintentionally offended him, and I wanted to apologize. Lo and behold, I no longer had access to his page.

Yep, my “affirming” and “inclusive” Facebook friend had “unfriended” me.

Some people might say I’m fortunate to have lost this “friend.” After all, lgbt people of faith have enough trouble dealing with angry religious fundamentalists without experiencing the same behavior wrapped in a rainbow flag. Besides, we never met or talked other than this one encounter on Facebook. So why should I care?

I care because whenever people of faith cannot at least reach a point of agreeing to disagree on a variety of issues–especially in public forums–we only perpetuate the negative perceptions some folks have of those of us who claim to be open-minded people of faith. And we really don’t need more bad press, now do we?

In the meantime, wherever my former Facebook friend may be–and on the very remote chance he reads this post…

Blessed be, my brother.