Tag Archives: Christianity

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!

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The Illusion of Inclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And be at peace.

Exile as Freedom

First things first. Welcome to Losing My Religion and Keeping Faith: Musings of a Believer in Exile. This is my first blog; so I ask for your patience while I learn my way around all the particularities of design, navigating the dashboard, etc. I also hope the posts I share encourage fruitful discussion and wisdom sharing on a variety of topics related to religions, spiritualities, and life in communities of faith.

With all that said…

I owe a portion of the subtitle of this page, “Musings of a Believer in Exile” to retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong. His book, “Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile” was one of the first books I read as I began to question much of what I was taught–and was then preaching and teaching others–about God, Jesus, and Christianity. This book, as well as Spong’s “Jesus for the Non-Religious,” “Eternal Life: A New Vision – Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell,” John Dominic Crossan’s “Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography,” and Robin R. Meyers’ “Saving Jesus From The Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus,” made me feel less alone in my then-closeted questioning.

It would be nice if I could say I calmly read each of these books, reflected, journaled, prayed, etc., and then arrived at a comfortable decision regarding my spiritual path as it stands today.  It would be nice, and it would be dishonest. In his own way, each author encouraged me to question everything I have ever believed, professed, preached and taught about God, Jesus, the Bible, the afterlife, the Holy Spirit, and Christianity itself.

As a result of my reading, reflecting, private conversations with trusted colleagues (Christian and not Christian)–and yes, even through my spiritual and theological hand-wringing, at times–I can now say that, at this time on my spiritual path, I hold a non-theist view of God (Paul Tillich’s God as Ground of Being, for example); I affirm the unity of the nature of Jesus (human, not divine in the Trinitarian sense of the word); and I believe everything (and everyone) eventually returns to its Source through death. I also agree with Robin Meyers’ view of the bible as a conversation–not the literal word of God.

Even though I’ve reached this place on my journey through study, reflection and conversations, the statements above are my beliefs. I have no empirical proof for any of them–and I’m fine with that. I also know these beliefs may change over time–and I’m fine with that, too. Some people might say I’ve become a heretic. Some people might say I’ve deserted God and Jesus–or at least Christianity. Some people might say I’ve lost my religion (which may not be such a bad thing, after all). Spong might say I’ve entered the exile.

Exile is usually considered a bad thing–a punishment of some type. And it can be quite the painful experience, too. While this particular exile has had its painful moments, in the end, I don’t consider it a punishment at all. As a matter of fact, I am beginning to feel spiritually freer than I have in a long time.

And the best news is, I know I’m in some amazing company.