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!

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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!

The Time In Between

A lot has been happening in my life recently…

In May, Richard and I decided to take the plunge and build our “retirement” home in North Georgia near Richard’s family and our grandchildren. Of course I have no plans to retire for at least another 12 years; but we’ve decided over the past year that it is time for Richard to spend more time with his family. He’s 11 years my senior; and at this time in our lives it is especially important for him to have quality time with both his children and our grandchildren. We’re secure enough in our relationship to live apart for extended periods of time as necessary; and we’re financially blessed enough that we can afford two modest homes (OK; one modest home and one very small studio apartment–but you get the point).

During the past year, and while having these discussions regarding our future destination, I also started getting that “feeling” about my current position at Holy Covenant. If you’re a pastor, you know the one. That is, everything is going OK. No huge drama. Things are moving along rather smoothly. It’s quiet–almost too quiet. Then you start having this nagging feeling that you’ve done all you can do in this particular place, position and time. Slowly you realize it’s time to move on. Yeah, that feeling.

And I hate that feeling.

After all, we have it good in Brookfield. I can walk to work; we can walk to the commuter rail that takes us into downtown Chicago for our date nights. We can walk to local restaurants and bars. We’re out to everyone in this little conservative village (to give you an idea of just how conservative Brookfield is, Paul Ryan won the Republican primary here during the last election cycle). Yet we’ve never felt mistreated by anyone. In fact, we feel quite welcome here. The folks at Holy Covenant are supportive and loving. So what the heck was this feeling all about?

At the end of the day, you really can’t explain it. You just know. Something else I knew was I would not water down the spiritual and theological transformation that has taken place in my life over the past few years. I am theologically Unitarian and Universalist (which I’ve also discovered during the past year is different from being a Unitarian Universalist). I am also Christian in that I choose the path of the human Jesus as my path of spiritual transformation. So any church considering extending an offer to me would have to at least know and accept these things about me–whether or not they were on the same theological page as me.

Some colleagues who are familiar with my spiritual journey recommended MCC of Northern Virginia (MCC NOVA) as a congregation who would be a potential excellent fit. So beginning in mid-May, I began the extensive application process. Then in late June the Pastoral Search Committee (PSC) selected me as the candidate for the next settled Pastor of that congregation. One the same day the search committee at MCC NOVA announced me as the candidate for settled pastor, I notified the congregation at Holy Covenant that I would be candidating at MCC NOVA in early August (I spoke with the board the day before), effectively giving a 2-month notice for a position that has not yet been offered to me. No pressure there…

Now Richard and I are in this “in between” time. Ground will be broken for our Georgia home later this week. We will put our house in Brookfield on the market by September 1st and hope like crazy that it sells before the house in Georgia is finished. We are headed to Virginia this week for my 4-day candidacy interview/meet and greet; and we will know by August 4th whether or not we’ll be heading to Virginia in late September–Richard part-time and me full-time.

While I feel great about my chances of being selected as the settled Pastor of MCC NOVA, nothing is really settled at this point–other than the fact we know we’re going somewhere. I have no doubt we will be OK no matter what happens; and we’re both excited about our future possibilities, while simultaneously grieving the pending loss that comes with leaving a community of people we truly love.

Well, so much for things being quiet…

Blessings on your journeys!

Playing God

Miss Cleo was one of our three cats. She started acting strangely on a recent Saturday night. By Monday morning Cleo was so weak we rushed her to the vet for tests. We learned Cleo  had serious kidney disease. So serious, as a matter of fact, the vet told us her numbers were “off the charts.” The vet flushed her system to ease her pain from the phosphorus build up, then sent her home with us with some special food and medication.

Within 24 hours Cleo wasn’t any better, but worse. She wasn’t eating, barely moved and her cries told me she was in pain. I called the vet who asked me to bring her back to the office. A few hours later I received a call from the vet who suggested we discuss “quality of life” issues. Translation: We should consider euthanizing Cleo.

Richard and I had already had the “quality of life” discussion when Cleo was sick three years ago with liver disease. As a matter of fact, we thought this latest episode was another liver issue and we were prepared to let her go if that was the case. So when Richard arrived home later that afternoon we had “the talk,” and drove to the vet’s office to say goodbye to Cleo.

I approached this event with a matter-of-fact attitude. After all, Cleo was a cat, right? She was in pain. The vet explained that Cleo’s readings were so high that bringing her back to the “old Cleo” wasn’t feasible, and what life she would have left would most likely be compromised in quality. She also explained how Cleo would feel no pain, death would be a matter of possibly a minute, she might lose control of any remaining bodily functions, and her eyes would remain open. All that said, I thought was I duly prepared to see Cleo off.

I wasn’t even close.

Cleo was gone in less than 30 seconds; and while her bodily functions remained in tact, her eyes did indeed remain open. I will never forget those eyes looking at me. I couldn’t decide whether she was saying, “Why are you doing this to me?” or “Thanks for stopping the pain.” Yeah, I know; pet owners think weird things like this when our “kids” die.

Richard and I went home, toasted Cleo and cried. Friends and family shared condolences and told us that, while euthanasia is a tough decision to make, in the end it is in the best interest of the animal because no quality of life remains. A week or so later we received a card and note from the two vets who saw Cleo. They shared their condolences and said we made the right decision for Cleo. Good to know we had the support of the professionals, right? As right as that decision was, however, it doesn’t make us feel any better about making that decision.

As strange as it sounds, since Cleo died I’ve been thinking a lot about people who have no quality of life. I’ve wondered why we sometimes treat our pets better than we treat one another. Yes, I know there is  a huge difference in the ability of pets and humans to make end-of-life decisions. Still, why do we allow our fellow human beings who are in vegetative states to waste away in institutions while hooked up to machines? Some of these folks can’t even breathe on their own; and as far as we know they will never have any quality of life; yet we do everything we can to keep them breathing (note I said “breathing” and not “alive”).

Why?

I respect that sometimes people make these choices themselves before they enter vegetative states. That is, they want everything possible done to keep them on “this side of the grass,” as I’ve heard it said. Other folks–like me–make sure everyone knows we do NOT want any extraordinary measures  performed to keep us alive and we put those wishes in writing. Of course, I’ve seen people disrespect the wishes of their family members, too. Still, when you’re comatose or otherwise unable to enforce your wishes,  there isn’t much you can do about your loved ones’ desire to play God.

Of course, some people might say folks like me are trying to play God by instructing caregivers and family members to let us go when it is apparent that, while we are breathing, in reality, we are no longer living. Fair enough. Still, as I’ve told people who disagree with my choice to be cremated, “My body, my life, my choice. I respect your choices; please respect mine.”

Something I’ve found interesting about end of life decisions, however, is how often it is people of faith who are the ones who do everything in their power to keep their loved ones on “this side of the grass.” If you believe your loved one is bound for heaven or an otherwise blessed afterlife, why would you prolong their pain on this side of that blessed existence? And if you are afraid they are bound for eternal damnation, again, why prevent the inevitable? Suffer here, suffer there–what’s the difference?

I understand my thoughts sound cold and harsh to some people; and in all honesty, I don’t mean to hurt anyone or make light of their decisions. I’ve had to make those same decisions for people I love, too.  At the same time, I’ve watched so many friends waste away and die (including my second partner), that I just cannot fathom why anyone would prolong that experience waiting for a “miracle” that in all probability isn’t coming. And that last comment isn’t so much a denial of God as it is an affirmation of the circle of life.

Here’s a thought: maybe the miracle occurs when we are able to make the well-informed decision to let our loved ones go to whatever existence may or may not wait for them beyond this life.  Maybe the ultimate healing comes when they are released from the pain of so-called “life” on “this side of the grass.”

When it comes our time to choose–and trust me, that time will come–may we choose life.

And remember “breathing” doesn’t always equate to “living.”

In love and respect,

Danny

Christian Persecution Complex

As most people know by now, Jason Collins came out this week as the first active gay athlete in the NBA. In fact, if I understand correctly, he is the first active openly gay athlete in any of the major sports leagues. His announcement was met with an amazing amount of support–even from the President himself!

Of course not everyone was happy with Collins’ revelation–especially many conservative Christians. That’s OK; we’re all entitled to hold and respectfully express our viewpoints. At the same time, some of the commentary from “Christians” has been anything but respectful; in fact, some of the commentary has been quite hate-filled. And to be fair, not all of the commentary from “progressives” has been civil, either.

Something I don’t understand, however, is how some Christians have taken Collins’ announcement and turned it into a big pity party with Christian persecution as the primary theme. One post that landed on my Facebook page stated it was OK to profess being gay in the military, but professing your Christianity could get you discharged. And while I am still dubious of the validity of this post, I checked out the link for this claim, and the word used is “proselytize,” not profess. In other words, no religious conversion therapy allowed. Another post read: “Tim Tebow gets bashed for professing Christianity. Jason Collins gets praised for professing homosexuality.” Then there was a scripture reference from Isaiah about the dangers of calling evil good.

Chicago Tribune political cartoonist Scott Stantis added his two cents, as well. This week he published a cartoon that in the first frame depicted Tim Tebow telling the media he’s a Christian, and the media tells him to keep it to himself. The second frame is a depiction of Jason Collins telling the media he’s gay, and the media calls him a hero. You can see the cartoon and accompanying commentary at:  http://newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/taking-a-stantis/2013/04/collinstebow-and-the-media.html.

Stantis states: ” This cartoon is a comment not so much on either Tebow or Collins but,  rather, on the media and the culture we live with today. The fact that  we seem to care more about what a high-profile athlete does with his  privates versus what they believe. Faith often informs a person how to  treat themselves and others around them. In Tebow’s case his profession  of faith was often met with derision.”

First, there is absolutely no comparison in the stories of these two athletes. Tim Tebow is a white, heterosexual evangelical Christian male–not exactly an oppressed minority in the United States. He is not the first professional athlete to profess his Christianity. He is, however, probably the first to apply for a trademark for his prayer pose (otherwise known as “Tebowing”). And let’s not forget the nickname some folks gave him when he played for the Denver Broncos: “The Mile High Messiah.” He received a hero’s welcome when he moved to the New York Jets, too. Although if you want to carry the Messiah imagery forward, Denver was like a Palm Sunday party and New York resembled Good Friday.  And so far, no resurrection. Tebow’s brand of Christianity received far more positive media exposure than it was ever bashed. And I’m fairly certain there aren’t many young men struggling with the decision of whether or not to be “openly Christian” for fear of not being able to play the sport of their choice.

Jason Collins, on the other hand, is a member of two historically oppressed minorities. He is the first active professional athlete to come out as gay. And we all know there are young LGBT people out there who struggle with the decision of whether or not to come out–and not being able to play the sports of their choice is often the least of their concerns. So, yeah, to me Jason Collins is a hero.

The only thing I can see these two men have in common is they are both Christians. Unless, of course, you agree with ESPN analyst Chris Broussard’s definition of Christian–a definition that excludes Collins and a host of other folks, including me. Actually, I consider that kind of exclusion a compliment.

Adding to the whole Christian persecution complex was National Organization for Marriage president Jennifer Roback-Morse, who told Lutheran Public Radio on Tuesday that it takes no courage to come out as gay. Something tells me she hasn’t read the homeless statistics for LGBT youth who are thrown out of their homes once they come out. Roback-Morse went on to say she believes it took more courage for Chris Broussard to say  he’s a Christian and that he believes “sex belongs in marriage and it belongs in man-woman marriage.”

Yeah, it sure takes a lot of courage to profess you’re part of the religious majority, doesn’t it?

Here’s a thought. Maybe it isn’t as much the profession of faith as it is how that faith is shared that turns people off. Just because some people object to what largely amounts to Christian proselytizing–again, not profession of Christian faith–doesn’t mean Christians are being persecuted in the United States. Not praying in schools or before athletic events doesn’t mean anyone’s religious freedoms are being violated, either. And I don’t really care what words are on our currency. Given the war, poverty and various forms of oppression and abuse in the world, do you really think God cares whether or not the word “God” is on our currency?

As I’ve seen it expressed in other places, freedom of religion doesn’t mean just your religion. Or mine.

So let’s all take a step back and relax. No one is trying to steal anyone’s religious freedom. Then let’s get out there and feed some hungry people, clothe folks who need it, house people who need it, and profess our faiths in ways that make a real difference in the world.

Blessings on your journeys!

Flyin’ Our Theological Freak Flag With Pride

The congregation where I serve as pastor, Holy Covenant MCC, used the reflective season of Lent this year to consider our primary theological and spiritual identity. We began the process by using a survey I designed to address our beliefs regarding God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, atonement, heaven, hell, other faiths; what is most important to us as a community of faith and so on. The primary purpose of the survey was to set a foundation for changes in our mission, vision and programming. A secondary purpose for this survey was for us to start a discussion about what we mean when we say, “Well, of course we’re a Christian church.”

Or whether we should make that claim at all…

Yeah, I know the whole thing sounds quite dry. I mean, really, a survey? At the same time, the results of that survey have led to some very interesting observations and conversations in our community. So would you like to know what Holy Covenant learned about itself?

Well, we don’t fit into the mainstream of Trinitarian Protestant Christianity–and the predominant LGBT orientation of our congregants has little, if anything, to do with that fact. 82% of the survey respondents (and 70% of our congregants responded to the survey) have what is best called a Unitarian/New Thought view of God and Jesus; that is, God is of one nature (and that nature–in our congregation–is predominantly non-theist); and Jesus had one nature: human. Not only that, we’re all expressions of the One Reality or Source many people call “God.”

We’re quite Christian Humanist, too. Basically, for us, Jesus is very important as an amazing teacher, prophet and healer. Most of our congregants don’t focus on the later supernatural claims attributed to Jesus’ birth, life, resurrection and second coming. What I’m saying here is most of our folks don’t outright reject these claims about Jesus as much as those claims are not why they think Jesus is important, especially since we cannot prove them. For most of us, Jesus “saves” through the example of his life and teachings. We take the bible seriously, but not literally; and the holy writings of other faiths as well as the knowledge we gain from science is critical to the formation of our worldviews.

We are very Universalist, too. By that comment I mean we see all peaceful expressions of faith as valid paths to the Divine; and as far as hell or other forms of eternal damnation go, well, the response was “Hell? No!” Prayer is important, and we pray in different ways (mostly non-theist).

Communally, we value an open communion–everyone without exception–is welcome. And we are ready to open our doors wide to everyone who wants to be a positive part of our community–Christian and non-Christian–and yes, that is full participation including voice, vote, sitting on the board of directors, etc.

Was I surprised? No and Yes. No, because I’ve suspected for some time that we are more theologically liberal than we present; at the same time, I was surprised at just how not Trinitarian Protestant Christian we are. Is everyone happy with the results? No. A very few are concerned they are too conservative to remain at Holy Covenant. They have told me, however,  they know they are welcome and are not angry at all at the results of the survey. Many people have mentioned how happy they are we took the time to go through the survey process. As one person said, “We should have done this a long time ago.”

So, are we “Christian” at Holy Covenant? Well, that depends on how you define “Christian.” Someone even asked me if we should just keep all this quiet from our denominational leadership in case we get in trouble for not being “Christian” enough.

My response? “Not at all. There are many ways to be MCC. I say, ‘Let’s let our theological freak flag fly high with pride!”

Blessings on your journeys!

Going Out in Style

Last week I made the monthly trip to western Kentucky to visit my mom in the nursing home where she now lives. Our stepfather is by her side eight hours a day, if not more; yet, she becomes very agitated when he has to leave for any reason. Her behavior breaks his heart, of course; yet my sister and I–and the rest of our family–insist he has to take of himself. Mom receives excellent care and attention; and while I love her, our family also knows our stepfather has spoiled her with his undivided attention. He probably realizes this truth, as well; still, who are we to question how he expresses his love for her?

This trip included a quarterly Care Team planning meeting with the nursing home staff. Mom recently experienced another stroke; so her vocabulary is now even more limited than before the stroke. Mom’s health continues to deteriorate; this reality is a natural, yet disturbing part of her disease process. Most forms of therapy are now discontinued either because Mom has reached her insurance cap–don’t get me started on the inequities of our healthcare system–or because she simply isn’t responding to the therapies.

After that meeting and lunch, my sister and I met our stepfather at the local funeral home to plan both of their funeral services, as well as make burial arrangements–at his request. The funeral home Director is a hometown guy who knows our family well. My sister and I did most of the talking because our stepfather asked us to handle everything for both of them–which we are more than willing to do. We stopped frequently during the planning process to ask for his opinions only to hear, “You go ahead and do what you think is right; whatever you do for your mama, do for me. I have to get back to the nursing home pretty soon. Your mama is gonna be throwin’ a fit if I’m not there before long.”

The part of the process that disturbed me the most was picking out my parents’ caskets. As nice as the funeral home Director is, hearing the words, “OK, let’s go to the casket show room,” made me want to ask to the question, “Oooh, are there any clearance sales good for today only?” Yeah, I know; totally disrespectful; but really, a casket showroom?

Do you have any clue how many colors, varieties, etc. of caskets exist? Again, the funeral home Director is a great person; he didn’t pressure us at all. Based on our choice of a concrete vault to protect the casket from water damage, he recommended some possible selections. We chose a model available in a medium blue tone–affordable, nice, and in Mom’s color of choice. Then our stepfather tells us Mom wants to be buried in a light blue dress. Well, that is an issue because all the liners for this model are light blue. Mom is very slight now; her hair is white; she will “fade out” in a light blue dress in a casket with a light blue liner. All I could think was, “SHE WON’T KNOW WHAT FREAKIN’ COLOR OF DRESS SHE’S WEARING!” What I actually said, however, was far more professional and polite.

After all was said and done, my sister and I left together while our stepfather rushed back to the nursing home. I finally asked my sister, “OK. Most of our family believes when we die, the body decays and the soul immediately departs to either heaven or hell. Is that right?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“OK. Then why do we make such a fuss about what color dress or suit or anything else people are wearing? Why do we care whether or not the casket is water-tight? I understand respecting last wishes and honoring the body–I really do–but if you believe a person’s soul is either eternally blessed or eternally damned…”

There was no real definitive answer.

My grandma Carrie (my mother’s mother) always said she didn’t want a bunch of people staring at her dead body. She told her children to do whatever they wanted to do regarding funeral, burial etc. because they would whatever they wanted to do anyway. She didn’t want a public viewing because–as she said–“Some of those people never spent time with me when I was alive. What’s the big deal about seeing me when I’m dead?” Of course grandma was right; the kids did what they wanted to do; there was the usual public viewing, funeral procession and service at the graveside. It was beautiful, too; don’t get me wrong; it just wasn’t exactly what Grandma Carrie wanted.

At the end of the day, maybe this post is part of my grieving process. I don’t cry often; so maybe these words can represent my tears. Who knows?

One thing I DO know–I am so glad I’m being cremated.

Blessings on your journeys!

Theological “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

“Don’t Ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was the official United States policy on gays serving in the military from December 1993 until September 2011. The idea behind this policy was to allow closeted LGBT personnel to serve in the military without fear of harassment and discharge. Even without addressing the total lack of moral integrity of DADT–there is nothing remotely moral about forcing people into the closet in order to serve the country they love–this policy never worked. There were still several cases of unauthorized investigations and harassment of LGBT personnel. It has now been a year and half since DADT was repealed, and none of the doomsday scenarios and mass breakdown of military morale predicted by some people have occurred. I can even imagine that without the stress of discovery and discharge hanging over their heads, some LGBT service personnel are performing at even higher levels than they did before DADT was repealed.

There are all kinds of DADT policies out there, too. Most of these policies are not in writing; you just know its best to keep your mouth closed about certain issues. And in my opinion, institutional religion is one of the biggest proponents of various DADT policies. There is, of course, the glaring example of the child abuse cover ups in the Catholic Church which are now increasingly being brought to our attention. Those atrocities, as painful and sad as they are, however, are not the subject of this post.

I’m talking more about theological DADT policies. For example, I remember a conversation I had with three colleagues a few years ago. One was Roman Catholic; one was Presbyterian (PCUSA); the third was Evangelical Lutheran (ELCA). We were discussing a variety of theological subjects over lunch; feeling safe with this group, I shared a few of my more “unorthodox” beliefs. Imagine my surprise when all three of them said that, for the most part, they were on the same page as me! One of them said, “I agree with your comments. I just can’t say those things in my congregation.” The other two clergy persons agreed.

Huh?

Now I do understand the concept of not intentionally upsetting congregants for shock effect. After all, if some congregants have issues with the church colors not being “correct,” can you imagine what would happen if you told them you don’t believe Jesus literally rose from the dead? Also, if you’re going to share some potentially unsettling theological insights either in a class or from the pulpit, you’d best be prepared to cite your sources and share how your reasoning has led you to those conclusions. Beyond that, I believe a pastor and/or teacher should do their best to walk with congregants through any theological disorientation their teachings may bring to these folks. Of course, even after we do our best to walk with these people, some may simply shake their heads and walk away–and that’s OK.

What is not OK is teaching and preaching what we do not believe just to keep the peace–and our jobs. What I’ve learned is, if I preach and teach using a combination of head and heart–if I preach and teach from a place of personal integrity–and if I give people plenty of room to agree to disagree–to believe and to be who they are with their own sense of integrity–things tend to work out because people feel safe, and they trust they aren’t going to be drummed out of the community simply because they don’t agree with the pastor.

I also think it is time we stopped playing DADT within our various denominations. I applaud reconciling congregations within the United Methodist Church; More Light congregations within the PCUSA; and all other openly LGBT affirming groups within various faith traditions. These congregations are doing what they can to say “NO!” to the policies of their denominations which offend their sense of theological integrity and belief.

Beyond policy issues, however, I think–no, I know–some of us feel a certain level of discomfort with the unspoken theological DADT policies in our denominations/associations. For example, we toss the word “Christian” around and write it into our bylaws like it means the same thing to everyone in a particular congregation/denomination/association. It doesn’t–and we know it. So why aren’t we talking about this issue?

Could it be…fear?

Fear of losing our jobs; fear of losing our leadership roles; fear of losing our lifetime membership in Club Christendom? I think it’s all that and perhaps a bit more. Let’s face it, folks. If you’re a pastor in a liberal and very diverse congregation, chances are you’re doing your best just to hold it together week to week. Sure, the journey is exciting and full of possibilities. You feel honored and in awe to be entrusted with the responsibilities of leading a congregation. I know I am.

And then there is all that day-to-day mundane stuff that must be handled. There are multiple personalities with whom we must learn to work–and them with us. Add some serious theological debate and the denominational politics that go with that debate and, well, who has the time? Mulitply that reality by the number of people in your congregation who most likely have some of the same questions as you, yet who are afraid of “rocking the boat.” Now, multiply that reality by the number of congregations in your denomination/association, put yourself in the seats of your senior leadership and, well, you get the point.

Still, I think we’re risking a lot by not having these conversations; and not just between like-minded colleagues at retreats and/or at church conferences. I mean trusting our congregants enough that we can have these conversations and still be communities that follow the spiritual paths to which we’ve been called. I mean trusting the senior leadership of our denominations/associations enough that we can say, “This is the spiritual path our congregation is following. It doesn’t fit your bylaw requirements, either. Can we talk?”

Well, can we?

Blessings on your journeys!

Hangovers

Although I still love a good Pinot Noir, it has been several years since I’ve experienced a serious hangover–and I don’t miss them. I don’t make these comments out of any sense of “holier than thouness;” I just enjoy good wine without the pounding headache the following morning (although it took some time for me to figure that one out).

Ever have a hangover? Not pretty, is it? Headaches for some folks; nausea for others–and if you’ve really tied one on, both;  a real sense of feeling like (fill in your favorite hangover adjective here). Regret for some; a “whatever” attitude for others. (I’ve found the “whatever” attitude tends to be most prevalent among the younger, more resilient set–it was for me back in the 80’s). And some people, unfortunately, seem to live in a constant hangover cycle.

We know better. We know what’s going to happen if we overindulge. Still, for whatever reason, we overindulge anyway and…hangover. Gee, how’d that happen?

It would be great if I could say that once I became serious about my religious commitments that I never had another hangover. It would be great, and it would be dishonest. You see, I think God–or at least our perception of God and/or God’s representatives and institutions–has been the source of many, many hangovers. And not all of them involve alcohol and drugs.

First there was the Constantinian hangover. I’m sure the earliest church leaders enjoyed being courted by the Emperor and debating theology at his seaside estate in Nicaea. Let’s face it, folks; compared to being lion food, there was no contest. At the same time, by coming out of the houses and tombs and into the public square, I think the church lost a lot of its early edginess–things like divergent theologies, scriptures, women leaders and more of a sense of God’s kindom in caring for the poor and outcast in the community. I think we can safely say that none of those council trips were free; the church paid–and sometimes still pays–dearly. Big hangover!

Then there was the Reformation hangover meant to address the Constantinian hangover. As leaders, women for the most part were still out; but at least “common folk” could read and interpret scripture for themselves. No pope. No priests. No Holy Roman Empire. Of course with such diversity of thought comes a whole new set of issues with which to contend; and therefore, denominations were born, each with its own hierarchy and take on what it meant to be a “real” Christian. Then there were those pesky Quakers, Unitarians and Universalists who largely refused to play by the established rules of either Catholic or Protestant Christianity. These–and other–groups took what they needed from Christianity and left the rest.

Denominationalism turned out to be quite the hangover inducer itself.  Seeking respectability, each group–even the Quakers, Unitarians and Universalists (who merged in 1961) shored up its own structure and sense of “orthodoxy”–although some groups went much further than others in their processes. Please don’t misunderstand me; I love good organization, structure and order–just ask anyone who knows me. Still, I believe overindulging in these things has caused quite the hangover for our churches today.

So to address that hangover, sometime during the 1990’s non-denominational groups (or groups with very loose denominational ties) became more prominent than in past years. I believe Rick Warren’s book “Purpose Driven Church” drove a lot of the interest in this movement; and while I do not agree with Warren’s theology, he does have some great ideas about church structure, organization and so on. Warren and others tapped into the current culture and its need for entertainment and convenience. Co-opt the music styles, fashions, and language of the current culture, mix it with some simple, black and white conservative theology, offer multiple services on various days and boom–the mega church is reborn! This formula worked for a long time, too. In fact, in some areas of the country it still works–although perhaps not as well as it did in the past.

Now we have what I call the “Cultural Convenience Hangover.” That is, as the cultural music styles, fashions, language, time commitments, etc. continue to rapidly change, a lot of churches are struggling to keep up with these changes. And if they don’t keep up, the stakes in members and money can be very high. Some leaders might even feel they’ve somehow failed God by not bringing enough people to Jesus. You see, we’ve overindulged in cultural convenience. And we all know what happens when we overindulge, right? Hangover!

I recently experienced the effects of the Cultural Convenience Hangover. In April our church is going from two services at 9 and 11 a.m. on Sundays to one service at 10:00 a.m. There’s been no church drama, split, etc. to drive this change. Realities like kid’s soccer games and other activities on Sunday, professional relocations, etc. have resulted in lower attendance in the past year. Our sanctuary can now accommodate the average attendance of both services. While new people are attending church, they have not fully made up for those who are now occasionally attending our church due to other scheduled commitments. So our board voted unanimously to move to the new schedule. We’re trying it for a few months, and as I explained to the congregation, should the need for two services arise due to consistent increased attendance, we will promptly address that need.

Fortunately there hasn’t been a huge outcry, which speaks to the maturity of most of our congregants. At the same time, there are a few folks who have said they will no longer attend after Easter due to the new schedule. Why not? The time is no longer convenient. That’s it.  Job obligations are not involved. Other important commitments are not involved. It is simply a matter of convenience–and we are no longer convenient for them. I respect their decisions; and at the same time those decisions frustrate me. Guess that’s what I get for being so “liberal,” huh?

Let me be clear. Religiously speaking, I am quite open . I make sure everyone who comes to our church knows that all peaceful expressions of spirituality–Christian and other than Christian–are welcome. Atheists, agnostics, humanists–everyone–is welcome at our church and they are invited to fully participate in the life of our church (and that includes receiving communion, if they are so inclined). For me, such inclusion is part of what it means to follow the teachings of Jesus.

All that said, the church–any church–is not here primarily for our convenience. Or as that great theologian Pink once said, “I’m not here for your entertainment.” Church–for me– is largely about community. And in community we do our best to work together; and that means we all have to make individual sacrifices at times for the good of the whole. And while all the world’s great religions emphasize love, there is also a very strong component of communal responsibility and accountability in these traditions.

Who knows? Maybe that lack of communal responsibility, sacrifice and accountability has been at the core of all our ecclesial hangovers. That is, we’ve overindulged in convenience–in the forms of Constantine, Luther, Warren, etc.– to the point when we can no longer sustain the high convenience brings, the hangover kicks in.

Maybe it’s time for a bit of recovery…

Blessings on your journeys!