Category Archives: Religion

Excruciatingly Neutral

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” 

Elie Wiesel

Last week I had the privilege of attending a clergy luncheon for People of Faith for Equality Virginia. The guest speakers were LGBT students who shared their experiences–both positive and negative–of being out as LGBT in their high schools. Living in northern Virginia–the blue slice of an otherwise very red state–most of the experiences with their peers were, fortunately, positive.

At the same time, when asked about their experiences with teachers and staff, one student said, “Excruciatingly neutral.” She explained that while most teachers and staff didn’t harass them, neither did they take an active stand for LGBT students. It was as if these adults were afraid of being seen as “too supportive” of LGBT students or perhaps as LGBT themselves.

And when it came to their church homes? You guessed it–excruciatingly neutral.

The churches they attend are welcoming enough. Some of them even fly a rainbow flag to let LGBT folk of all ages know those congregations are welcoming and safe spaces. The challenge in these congregations is there is little to no active advocacy for LGBT students–and especially for “T” (transgender) students. So what seems to be the issue?

I think part of the issue is the tendency of progressive/liberal communities of faith to be “excruciatingly neutral” in general. That is, we don’t want to be seen as exclusive; we want to genuinely welcome everyone into our communities. And if we’re serious about extending such a radical welcome, that means we can’t afford to go too far in any one direction, right?

Well, yes and no.

First, regardless of what we may think of the exclusive theology and practices of many conservative communities of faith, we have to admit that at least we know where they stand. You either agree with them or you’re somehow an agent of “the Enemy.” In progressive/liberal communities of faith, such exclusivity is the enemy. We try to make room for a wide variety of opinions on any number of issues. That position makes active advocacy on many issues a challenge because, well, “some people” may not be ready to move forward. And being the good progressives we are, we want to give people time to make informed decisions–hopefully in agreement with our desires, of course.

While such sensitivity is admirable–and I believe, necessary–in our communities of faith, it is even more vital for us to not allow that sensitivity to prevent us from living out our missions and visions. So if part of our mission and vision is active support of LGBT issues, we actively support LGBT issues through as many appropriate avenues as possible–and that includes advocacy for LGBT youth. If feeding the homeless and addressing poverty issues are important to us, then we actively work in those areas. You get the point.

We are never, however, excruciatingly neutral.

“But what about those who aren’t on board?” you might ask. “What if you offend people? What if big donors leave?”

Well, those are good questions and they represent real possibilities. I’ll admit I try not to purposely offend people with my views (although I still manage to do so at times); and I’m willing to listen to different and respectfully presented points of view (note: I have no patience for negative drama and triangulation). And let’s face it, like many of my clergy colleagues, finances are almost always a part of the fabric of community life. It’s just the way life works.

At the same time, if an excruciating neutrality on critical issues is necessary to ensure our survival, haven’t we missed the point of being a community of faith altogether?

Blessings on your journeys!

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It’s Not You; It’s Not Me; It Just Is

For the past five weeks, three of us from MCC NoVA have been part of an online class, Renewal 2.0 taught by The Center for Progressive Renewal. The  primary instructor, Rev. Michael Piazza, has a successful history of renewing and growing Protestant churches. One of our webinars also featured another United Church of Christ pastor who has led a successful church renewal, taking the church from an average weekly attendance of 25 to about 150 over a five-year period.

I’ve heard several of the suggestions for renewal offered in this course. Heck, I’ve tried more than a few of them, too. The research regarding the rise of the “nones” (those who claim no religious affiliation), and the overall decline of the mainline church wasn’t new, either. Still, I’ve learned some things; and I’ve really appreciated the honesty of both pastors and our course book Liberating Hope: Daring to Renew the Mainline regarding the challenges of church renewal–especially in progressive communities of faith like ours.

The weekly discussion postings have given me a lot of food for thought, too. These postings also confirmed I’m not alone when it comes to the overload of mind-boggling information out there on the subject of church renewal. Use Facebook and Twitter! Don’t use Facebook and Twitter! Hang a huge rainbow flag on your building to let folks know all are welcome! No, the rainbow is SO overdone and can be seen as exclusive of straight people! Use artwork and non-religious music! Young people today want more ancient liturgy and order–the praise band days are on their way out!

So I guess there’s more than a little truth in Rev. Piazza’s statement: “One size fits some.”

After reading all this information and our weekly class discussion posts, I posted some of my own thoughts and decided to build on those thoughts here. First, I think its fair to say people have experiences of the Divine/Holy/God outside of religious gatherings of all types. Many people also know they can be good, moral and ethical without setting a foot inside any of these communities. Beyond that, most people know they can find healthy community outside of religious community, too.

These realities are challenging enough for most communities of faith. Still, for progressive/liberal communities the challenge is even greater than for far more conservative faith communities. See, unlike many conservative communities, we don’t tie service attendance, financial support and the adherence to specific doctrines or dogmas to the promise of a blessed afterlife or the threat of eternal damnation. While these positions provide people with great theological and spiritual freedom, they also give folks the freedom to “experience God” and make a positive impact in their communities in a variety of ways–all without setting a foot inside a church, synagogue or temple.

This information isn’t new to progressive and liberal people of faith–or at least it shouldn’t be. Now that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fearlessly examine the governance structures of our communities of faith (both local and denominational); re-evaluate our preaching, worship and programming (both internal and external) in order to remain relevant and provide safe spaces for spiritual growth and transformation. If we really believe we have “good news” that can transform lives and bring hope to people, then it is up to us do to our best to share that good news in ways which will encourage people to both embrace it and share that good news and hope with others.

At the same time, I think its fair to say that the fact so many people no longer regularly attend and/or support communities of faith in general sometimes has nothing at all to do with them OR us. That is, not everyone who doesn’t attend church is hostile toward religion. And sometimes their lack of presence and support has nothing at all to do with our preaching, music, worship or programs. They know who we are. They know where we are. Heck, they probably see us out serving in the community, too. They just aren’t interested in what we have to offer.

In other words, it’s not you; it’s not me; it’s not them; it just is.

While I believe there will always be a place for progressive faith and liberal religion, I think it’s past time for us to consider the possibility that our future might be smaller than our past. Sure, there will always be some large progressive/liberal congregations of all faiths–and that’s great. At the same time, for most of the rest of us, I think its time to stop obsessing about the size of our communities. Indeed, maybe its time to stop obsessing about our survival. After all, isn’t Jesus quoted in the bible as saying those who are willing to lose their lives are the ones who will find them?

Instead, why not focus on doing our best to offer relevant and relational communities that are safe places for people to explore their faith and spirituality–places where people can experience transformation in their lives–as well as communities that reach beyond themselves to positively impact the world around them? Sure, it may require “losing our old lives;” still, if we’re willing to do so, can you imagine what we might become?

Blessings on your journeys!

Polite or Welcoming? Part 2

A couple of weeks ago I posted an entry in which I shared my thoughts regarding the difference between being polite and welcoming. I based this entry on an experience Richard and I had with a social club here in D.C. where the group was indeed polite, yet when it came time to make room for us, no one seemed especially moved to do so. They already had their internal groups of close friends; and we formed the impression that, if we wanted to join this group, that was fine; we would just have to find our own way. Again, the head of the group and the social director were very nice–just what you would expect. At the same time, we felt rather invisible. So our search for a non-church related social group continues.

I compared this experience to church world. Often we are very polite to newcomers–and that’s how it should be. Pastors and other leaders try to make sure new people don’t feel invisible–just what you would expect from church leadership. At the same time, throughout my 40-plus years of church history–the last 13 as a clergy person–I’ve noticed many of our communities (whether we realize it or not) operate much like this social club. That is, we have our close friends; so when church is over we tend to hang out together–or we leave very soon after worship to eat lunch together or simply go our separate ways.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this behavior, either. In fact, it’s quite normal. We hang out with the people with whom we feel most comfortable. Sunday tends to be one of those days we like to be alone, too–especially if we’ve had a rough week. We come to church, receive some spiritual nourishment and go home and relax. And let’s be honest; not everyone has that extrovert gene which enables them to approach complete strangers and invite them into the group. So my intention with that post was not to beat up on church folk; it was to simply draw attention to this behavior in hopes that a few folks would notice that behavior in themselves and then make a sincere effort to go beyond “polite” to “welcoming” when they see new people in their midst.

There is, however, another side to this coin…

Sometimes new people like to fly under the radar. These are the people who are polite during the hug fest we call “Passing the Peace;” they listen intently to the music and the sermons; many even come forward for communion. And then, without speaking a word to anyone, they rush out the door as soon as the last “amen” is uttered. And while at MCC NoVA we don’t have an official “reception line” where people must greet the pastor, I do stand at the door between the sanctuary and social hall in order to greet anyone who desires that greeting. Even with a low-key approach, sometimes new people have purposely avoided making eye contact with me as they head for the door as quickly as possible–again not speaking a word to anyone.

I can’t tell you how many times that when I’ve witnessed this behavior I’ve rehearsed the entire service over and over in my mind. Was it the sermon? Was it the music? Did someone cross a personal space boundary during Passing the Peace by hugging the person when they didn’t want a hug? Was it something else?

What I’ve learned is you will drive yourself crazy if you obsess on why a new person bolted for the door immediately following a service. The truth is, while it could be any of the reasons I’ve mentioned above, some people don’t come to church for close  human contact. They prefer to observe, hopefully receive a blessing of some type from the service and then leave. Some people have social anxiety challenges, which means it probably took every ounce of strength they had to walk through our doors.

In the end, perhaps the best we can do is to be aware of our own behaviors. That is, let’s try to move beyond politeness to offering a sincere welcome. At the same time, if people don’t respond to our welcome, that’s O.K., too. Respect that choice, let it go and be at peace.

Blessings on your journeys!

 

 

 

 

 

Polite or Welcoming?

If you are anywhere near the leadership of a place I like to call “church world,” you’ve heard about the unwelcoming attitudes of many of our communities of faith. And this attitude isn’t limited to the intolerance of theologically conservative groups toward LGBT or other liberally minded folk; nor is it limited to the intolerance of theologically liberal groups toward conservative folks, either. Sometimes, apparently, we just plain aren’t welcoming–regardless of our theological persuasion.

Now, people like me take these criticisms seriously. After all, I’m considered a leader in this place called “church world.” And since the church I pastor is far left of traditional Christianity and just oh-so-slightly right of Unitarian Universalism, we really want to make sure everyone knows they are welcome in our community–whether you are a “believer” or not. I take care to make sure new people are introduced to at least one other person–preferably a board member–who in turn knows I expect them to introduce new folks to other congregants. Still, we aren’t perfect; and I’ve heard comments about the cliquishness of our church (apparently we’re a lesbian feminist congregation who just happened to call a middle-aged white guy as their pastor). Like many leaders in church world, I just didn’t get why people thought we’re not welcoming.

Until tonight, that is…

When I moved to Virginia, Richard and I made the conscious decision to develop friendships outside of our church. Of course we love the folks at MCC NoVA; at the same time, there are times when I don’t want to be seen as “Pastor;” and for that to happen, we have to develop friendships where I’m not seen in that role.

With that goal in mind, we found a social group for middle-aged (and beyond) gay and bisexual men in the D.C. area. There are special activities for members; yet there are weekly dinner gatherings at a neighborhood bar and restaurant that are open to everyone. Just before Lent, Richard and I attended one of these weekly gatherings. Because we were too early, however, we decided to have dinner at the bar area and join the group for drinks before they headed to the dining room. The president of the group was very friendly and introduced us to a couple of men. The rest of the group, however, was focused on their own internal smaller groups. We returned later in the month for a Sunday afternoon gathering, which was much smaller. The two or three nice men we met before were there, and we enjoyed a good conversation with them.

Lent meant our Wednesday nights were taken; and the two most recent Wednesday nights included stormy weather. So tonight was our first night back in D.C. The president of the group was out; yet the social director was present and–as always–was very welcoming. When it came time for everyone to move to the dining room, however, it was every man for himself. Members selected their seats and saved others for their partners and friends. By the time I made it into the dining room, there was one seat left, which meant Richard and I had nowhere to sit together.

No one offered to move. No one said, “Let’s ask the waiter for another few chairs and make some room.” The attitude was more or less, “Sorry, there’s no room for you.” I quietly left the dining room and explained to Richard (who was at the bar ordering a drink) that the room was full. We sat alone at a table just outside the dining room and enjoyed a great dinner before heading home. And even though a few men came out to order drinks to take back into the dining room, no one invited us to join them. After all, the dining room doors were now closed–literally.

Now, I want to be perfectly clear here: Not one person was rude to us.

That said, however, I had an epiphany. Perhaps we in church world are equating being polite with being welcoming. I can tell you that tonight Richard and I felt anything but welcome at this public gathering. Again, no one was rude. A few people spoke to us. Yet when it was time to come together around the table–so to speak–there was no room at the inn. Not only that, no one seemed especially concerned with making room (and this is a group whose mission it is to provide welcome and social opportunities for older gay and bisexual men).

We aren’t angry at anyone, either. We have no reason to be angry; after all, no one was rude to us or otherwise mistreated us. We just felt invisible. And when you’re new to a group and wanting to make friends, invisible is not a good feeling.

Oh, and while no one was rude to us, we don’t plan on joining this group, either. Not only that, we don’t plan on making time in our schedules for their weekly or monthly open gatherings. If we have nothing better to do, perhaps. Then again, we’re blessed to live in the D.C. metro area. Chances are we’ll find something better to do.

Now, what ever could this have to do with church world?

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!

Who Deserted Who?

Well, it’s now official: I am the new senior pastor-elect of MCC of Northern Virginia (MCC NOVA).

Richard and I are both excited about the future; at the same time we’re both grieving the losses associated with our pending move. We’ve immensely enjoyed our time in the Chicago area. We’ve made wonderful friends, and the community at Holy Covenant MCC (HCMCC) has been good to us. We don’t expect to lose these friendships, either. At the same time, since MCC policy requires us to maintain a healthy distance from HCMCC to enable everyone to move forward with their lives, we know those relationships will change on a certain level. So while we are happy and excited with the decision to move and feel it is the right decision for this time of our lives, it isn’t easy.

I estimate about 95% of the people at HCMCC are happy for us. While some have cried and said they are not happy about the move, they qualify those comments by adding they understand and are happy we have this opportunity to move forward and grow. A few folks don’t understand why we feel it is time for us to move on; yet they aren’t angry. And another (very) few folks–while making it very clear they still love Richard–are nonetheless quite angry with me.

On one level I understand the anger. A relationship you felt was good and strong is changing through no fault of your own. This type of change is something that different people process in different ways. Some folks are able to understand that in Protestant Church World pastoral transitions are–while not always welcomed–normal. In fact, some statistics report the average Protestant pastorate is four (4) years. So at six (6) years plus, some people might say HCMCC and I have done well in our relationship.

For others, pastoral transitions tend to bring their often suppressed abandonment issues to the surface. Again, some people see these issues for what they are and are able to make the adjustments necessary to navigate the discomfort that comes with pastoral transitions. In fact one person has teased me about how my pending departure has done just that–raised their abandonment issues–yet they are looking forward to being part of the future movement that is HCMCC. Responses like these give me hope for the Protestant church.

Others, and for whatever reasons, are not able to make these adjustments as smoothly as their fellow travelers. These are the folks who throw words like “bailing,” “betrayal” and “desertion” at the departing pastor–and my situation is no different.

Again, on one level I understand. Different people process uncomfortable changes in different ways. What really bothers me about this reality in Protestant Church World, however, is usually the people making such charges have abandoned the church long ago. They attend church and participate in its activities when it suits them. If the aesthetics change and are no longer to their taste (see “Tealight Theology”); if they cannot get along with some of the people in the community; if the church service time is no longer convenient for them; if the order of worship changes, etc. they disappear until such time the changes they require are made. Oh, and if they do decide they need you in between those times, however, you had best be there for them–otherwise, and in their opinion–the church has abandoned them.

In these cases I ask the question, “Just who has abandoned who?”

While discussing this topic recently, Richard asked me a very pointed question: “Do you have abandonment issues when people treat the church like a commodity they can take or leave?”

The answer is, “Yes, I do.” When people leave the church, I usually question if there was anything I could have done differently within reason to encourage them to stay. Most often I’ve found the answer is, “No.” Life happens. People leave the church. Yes, pastors should do what they can to address the sincere felt needs of their congregants. At the same time, we can’t make everyone happy. So be it.

Something else I think is important for people to understand is that–whatever else it may be–professional ministry is just that–a profession. It is a job, folks. Make no mistake about it, either. Most days I love what I do. And like everyone else with a job they love there are days when I don’t love it as much. I’ll bet Jesus had those days, too.

What I’m saying here is that in most professions people realize there is–as Ecclesiastes reminds us–a time for everything, and that includes a time to move forward. It’s not always a reflection on the pastor who is moving on, nor is it always a reflection on the community they are leaving. It’s simply a part of life.

And to my clergy colleagues, let’s be honest about our abandonment issues, too. Sometimes people leave. It’s not always a reflection on us; nor is it always a reflection on them.

Sometimes life just is.

Blessings on your journeys–wherever they take you!