Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Glad to Be a Disciple!

By Rev. Delesslyn A. Kennebrew

Greetings!

My name is Delesslyn A. Kennebrew and I am glad to be here!  In August 2012, I began my journey on staff at the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis, TN.  Our church is one church in two locations and I was hired as the Director of our East Campus.  I will be very honest with you.  I had no intentions of joining “The BLVD” or any other Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation.  I cannot recall any friends or former classmates who served in this denomination but I was at a place on my journey where I was just open.  I had resigned from a church just shy of one year before I transitioned onto the staff at The BLVD, which was going through a major transition itself.  Dr. Frank A. Thomas, was heading for retirement in the first six months of my tenure.  Now, he did meet with me to tell me that he would be retiring and left it up to me as to whether I wanted to follow through with their employment offer.  I told him that I do respect his decision to be up front with me and I appreciate it, but I was not coming to this church to just work under his leadership.  I was coming because I really did believe that God sent me to this place and this was my next divine assignment.  And on August 13, 2014, I walked through the doors at 70 N. Bellevue Ave. as a full-time employee at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church.  

As I said, I had no intentions of joining “The BLVD.”  I was primarily interested in doing an excellent job in fulfilling every aspect of my job description.  This was a kingdom assignment and church membership was not required.  Actually, most people probably did not know or even care if I was a member or not.  There were a few who asked but since it was not a condition of my employment, my membership was not raised as a point of concern.  After about one year on staff, I was promoted to Associate Pastor of the East Campus and pastoral care and other pastor-like responsibilities were expected.  This meant hospital visits, and counseling, and wearing a robe, which I am still not fond of, and other things as requested.  For the first time in my life, I was called Pastor Delesslyn.  

This was such a significant “title” for me because I was raised in a denomination that does not allow women to preach or enter the pulpit to speak, much less acknowledge or assign or call them (to) “Pastor.”  I was deeply honored and I knew that this was God’s way of continuing to open my eyes to serve in the Kingdom in this way.  I was not convinced that I needed to “join” the church.  I was just serving and loving the Lord with all my heart in this place until my next shift.

But then, a shift happened.

On the last weekend of June 2014, I attended the Quadrennial Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  I was invited to facilitate a workshop there and I was very prepared to lead it but I was NOT expecting what happened for me as I participated in this gathering.  I had been on a 21 day fast leading up to the Quadrennial, fasting and praying that the Lord would prepare me as I led this workshop and to keep me focused and grounded as I walked through the various changes I was witnessing at home in Memphis.  So, when I arrived in Atlanta, GA, my Spirit was just OPEN to hearing and seeing something I had never heard or seen before but would bless me without a doubt.  

On the first night of Worship at Quadrennial, I was in a room full of women from all over the world who gather every 4 years for a "revival" of righteousness and justice and service.  I saw the intentionality of the worship to include many different faces and voices.  I heard an inspiring word from the General Minister and President of the denomination, Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins.  And I felt at home in this space, amongst these women.  I was so excited to be there and I was ready to learn and to grow and to get connected.  I returned to Memphis, TN with a new sense of commitment and personal conviction to the larger ideals of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  I felt like I was one of “them.”  

I felt such a sense of revival for this new home in the larger denomination and on my birthday, August 10, I joined Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  I joined because I wanted to be connected to this larger movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.  I wanted to be a part of a denomination that takes seriously the open table where all can find love and grace.  I wanted to be a part of a “family” that loves and accepts me just as I am - a thirty-something full figured African American woman, with sister-locked hair, a personality that is bold and energetic, clothes that are colorful and heels that are high, confidence that is undeniable and grounded in Christ.  I believe that I am welcome and I will remain open to the myriad of ways I can work to make this the best Church that she can be. 

My name is Delesslyn A. Kennebrew.  I am a disciple.  And I am glad to be here!


Delesslyn A. Kennebrew, J.D, M.Div. has nearly 10 years of pastoral leadership experience.  She currently serves as an Associate Pastor at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis, TN where she leads the multi-site ministry, young adults, and welcoming system.  Delesslyn loves to write, travel, sing,  teach, preach, and pray.  Check out her blog, Salvation and Stilettos at www.spiritedconcepts.net and her weekly radio spot "Kids Korner" every Sunday at 4:15pm/5:15pm online on AM 1570 WIGO. (Twitter @AudraSunshine)


No Telling What God Could Do

In the wake of the recent resolution (GA-1327 Becoming a People of Welcome and Grace to All) at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), we're going to offer over the next few days some of the sermons preached by Disciples ministers who are attempting to confront the difficult conversations that will inevitably ensue.
You didn't burn the beer.jpg

No Telling What God Could Do

(Luke 10:38-42)

Last week, some of you may recall, was the parable of the Good Samaritan.  And it’s important to recall that the parable of the Good Samaritan was a response to the questions: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?”  

The lawyer, who approached Jesus to ask those questions, demonstrated his knowledge of the content of the life of discipleship.  He got the words right: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  

Jesus told him that he got that part right, and that he ought to begin to live that knowledge out.

The point, I think—at least on a very basic level—that Jesus was trying to make was that it’s possible to know the right stuff without ever having to go to the inconvenience of actually living it.  

But the church isn’t principally concerned with having us know more about Jesus; what we care about is helping us to look more like Jesus.  Discipleship means getting in the game and getting our hands dirty, not just knowing the rules.

It’s not enough to know the right thing, following Jesus actually means doing the right thing.

I want to suggest to you that the story of the Good Samaritan and today’s story about Mary and Martha are placed back to back on purpose.  

Why do I say that?  Well, what’s the story of Mary and Martha about?

Pretty simple, really.  Jesus goes to Mary and Martha’s house.  While Martha’s in making the congealed salad and deviled eggs, sister Mary’s in the billiard room with the boys.  

Apparently, she’s forgotten her place—which is where?  In the kitchen.  “She’s supposed to be in here peeling potatoes, not in there chewing the fat.”  At least that’s Martha’s position.  And, if you listened to the story of the Good Samaritan last week, you can hardly blame her, can you?  

You’ve gotta walk the walk, right Jesus?  It’s no good just talking about it.  You’ve got to get in there and get your hands dirty, right Jesus?  It’s not enough to know it, you’ve got to live it.  

You can understand how Martha’s a little confused.  Didn’t we just go over this?  She’s just living out the truth of the previous story Luke told.  “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her to quit passing by on the other side of the road, and get in here and help me.”

Wasn’t that what we said Jesus was pushing for?  No more sitting around talking about it.  No more sitting around studying it.  It’s time to get in the game.  We want to see the fur flying.  We’ve had enough of this egghead stuff.  Let’s get to work.  Isn’t that what Jesus was saying?  

It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re in there doing something.  We don’t need any more navel-gazing.  Let’s get busy.  Good Samaritan.  Lazy lawyer.  Right Jesus?  Tell her to get her to get her body in here and start sprinkling paprika on the deviled eggs.  Talking ain’t gonna get the banana pudding made.

And what does Jesus say?

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

What?  What is that all about?  I thought you just said, get busy.  Get in the game.  Quit thinking about it, and start living it.  What’s Luke doing—besides offering paradoxes, which only give navel-gazing clergy-types something else to help them avoid doing real work?

Well, let’s look at Mary and Martha for a minute.  Jesus seems to be contradicting his wisdom from the Good Samaritan, doesn’t he?  

If the point of the exchange with the lawyer that led to the telling of the Good Samaritan was—it’s not enough to know about the life of discipleship, you’ve got to live it—then the point of Luke’s telling of the story of Mary and Martha is that it’s not enough to do good works, you have to spend time reflecting on the good.  

Jesus as much as says this to Martha, doesn’t he?  Relax a little.  Take it easy.  Don’t work so hard.  The most important thing to do is think.

Is that what he’s trying to say—that thinking is more important than doing?  Well . . . sort of, but not exactly.  

What exactly does that mean?  

It means that doing is not nearly as important as knowing why and on whose behalf we’re doing it.  And you can only know that after you’ve sat at the master’s feet.

Why?  Because we often confuse busyness for faithfulness.  If it’s not enough to know the life of discipleship without practicing it; it’s not enough to do good works without knowing why or the one for whom you’re doing them—because if you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, it’s not always possible to tell if work is good or not.  

Remember, following Jesus and the things he asks from us are more often than not counter-intuitive, crazy sounding—loving our enemies, doing good to those who persecute us, going after one lamb while the other 99 sneak off to Atlantic City.  

Discipleship isn’t just common-sense niceness—it’s radically subversive dependence on God to meet the needs everyone else tells us we ought to be meeting on our own.  In this story, once again, Jesus is telling us to do something that’s a tough sell in our busy world.  He tells Martha, “Don’t just do something.  Stand there.”

How do we know that’s what this story’s driving at?  

Look at the context.  Where does this story take place?  In Martha’s house?  

So what?  What difference does that make?

The very fact that you could ask that question locates you at a certain point in history.  Our modern, liberated views about women haven’t been held by all people in all places.  

Most of history has understood women as nothing short of the head chef and nanny, something to do on a Saturday night when the poker game’s been canceled.  Typical understandings of women throughout history have called for female exclusion when it comes to business or education.

Parenthetically, the church, as often as not, has contributed to this hidebound view of women as the “weaker sex.”  We must confess our sins—that we’ve often been the problem and not the solution.  The church certainly has much about which it must repent with respect to its treatment of women.

But here in our Gospel, Jesus went to a woman’s house, and he was teaching a woman.  

Now, that might not sound like a big deal to you—and frankly, I’m glad we’ve moved beyond some of that diminished view of women.  But because we live in liberated times, we aren’t nearly as shocked by this story as we ought to be.  Jesus crossed some pretty profound sociological lines to go to the home of a woman, and teach another woman.

Do you see?  

But what does that have to do with what you said about it’s not enough to do without knowing why and who you’re doing it for?  Now I’m confused.

Let me see if I can bring this home.  What Jesus does in taking this radical step of meeting with and teaching women is to highlight the fact that what’s important in the service of Christ—is Christ.  

Why?  

Because we’re always prone to thinking that what we need is to do something, anything.  We’ve often acted as though the success or failure of the work of God rises or falls with us—so we’d better get busy.  

Enough sitting around, thinking, praying.  We need to get in the game and do something.  Otherwise things might fall apart.  We’ve convinced ourselves that we need to find the right program, the right youth leader, the right minister—then we can insure our success.  Who’s going to hold things together, if we don’t?

But what Jesus points out to us in our frantic efforts to secure our own future is that he doesn’t require much in the way of personnel to get the work of the kingdom done.  He doesn’t need movers and shakers to accomplish his purposes.  He can use folks that the rest of the world would never consider to do his bidding: a Samaritan, and a couple of women.  

Why?  Because it’s about him—not us.

What about this church?  What about DBCC?

What’s at issue here is not our abilities, our competence.  What’s at issue here is whether we seek to discern God’s will together, and then to do it.  

Our prayer isn’t, “God, make us bigger or more successful,” or “God, give us some more young families and help us to look the way we think we ought to look.”  

Our prayer is, “God, give us the strength to be faithful, and the courage to allow you to do with us what you will.”

Because God, in the final analysis, is responsible for what we’ll eventually look like.  We’re responsible for trying to discern where God is moving in the world, and then working our tails off to be there—with full minds and dirty hands.

We never know where the train’s going.  We’re just praying to be on it when it leaves the station.

This past week, for example—due in part to the vision of this congregation in the Highlands as the first sponsors of the resolution we passed at General Assembly—our denomination has spoken publicly about the need for the church to welcome and affirm all people, regardless of race, gender, age, nationality, ethnicity, physical or mental ability, political or theological perspective, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Because of your work and a lot of other people’s, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) now calls on the church to become a people of welcome and grace to all.

Listening to God, struggling to understand God’s will and then to be faithful to it, and a handful of people on the corner of Douglass Blvd. and Bardstown Road have helped to make history and change the world.

Here’s the thing: the juxtaposition of these two stories in our Gospel for this morning forces us to see that doing and reflecting are indispensable to discipleship.  It’s not enough to think without doing, or to do without thinking.  

Why?  

Because the real juice behind it all is God—not us.  

But God we’re afraid.  We’ve worked long and hard—us and the generations that came before us—and we don’t know where this is heading.  We’re worried about what will become of us.  We’re afraid that one day we’ll wake up and we won’t recognize the church we’ve known and loved.

God whispers gently to us, “I know.  I know of your service, your dedication.  I hold you and your work close to my heart.  But there are even more people out there I want to hold close to my heart, and calling them to come home will require perhaps some different work than what you’ve done before.  But don’t worry, my family is held together by my love—and not by anybody’s work (no matter how good).”

Trusting God to make of us what God wills may not be a formula for success the way we’re trained to think of success.  But, then, God’s always doing crazy things.

None of this should surprise us, though.  We serve a God who, as Martin Luther said, can ride the lame horse and shoot the crooked bow.

We serve a God who thought nailing a guy to a tree would turn out to be a good idea.  

And if God can pull a miracle out of that particular hat, there’s no telling what God could do with us.

-Amen.

  

GA-1327 Becoming a People of Welcome and Grace to All (Video)

The General Assembly calls upon the Church to recognize itself as striving to become a people of grace and welcome to all God's children though differing in sexual orientation or gender identity, affirming that neither are grounds for exclusion from fellowship or service within the church, and calling upon all expressions of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), as a people of grace and welcome, to acknowledge their support for the welcome of and hospitality to all.

 

The Thin Line Between Authority and Fear

By Lee Yates

I grew up in the Church. Not just any Church.
I grew up in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It is what I know.

I am too young to have scars from the “restructure” era conflicts.
I have always understood my church as a denomination.

I am too optimistic to have felt really threatened by other “re-“ something movements.
I have always understood my church to be united at its core.

Now, I find myself scared.
And I know I’m not alone.

Listening to friends and family in the Church, I hear lots of fears expressed.
Fears of change
Fears of theological difference
Fears of lost identity
Fears of division
Fears of intolerance
Fears of apathy

So, what am I afraid of?

Confessional time….

I am afraid that my personal racism keeps me from non-biased theological reflection.
AND
I am afraid that my fear of being racist also keeps me from holding true to what I believe.

I have been struggling with the issue of diversity.

My heart leaps for joy when I participate in an ethnically diverse event.
I know how hard it is to build trust and community across cultural lines.
Our work as a pro-reconciliation / anti-racism church has been transformative.
While we are no where near done with this work, I can see its powerful impact.
The Church I grew up in has changed!

Looking back, I give thanks for God’s open table…
The table that welcomed my mother and wife as ordained clergy.
The table that welcomed me as a youth, who many thought should remain silent.
The table that welcomes my children today.

It is this table that continues to call us to welcome others.

In that spirit, we have put amazing efforts into creating a diverse and open table.
In that spirit, we have tried to make sure every voice is heard and affirmed.

Now, when we celebrate the “Lord’s Supper”, it takes more colors than Lenoardo DaVinci ever imagined to paint our picture.

So, why am I scared?

I’m scared that our more diverse table has become less open.
I’m scared that the very openness that brought so many of us together is being lost.
I’m scared that the theological differences inherent in our diversity will forever change…

Oh crap! I just admitted to being afraid of CHANGE!!

This is where the conflict in my heart (and I believe in our life as Church) gets complicated.

What happens when our focus on diversity brings people to the table who do not hold the same values?

-Ordination of women
-Weekly communion
-Importance of education (faith and reason)
-Unity as a common vision
-An OPEN TABLE.

To me, these are not negotiable.
They are part of our historic, theological, and communal identity as Disciples of Christ.
They are told in our common history in the Stone-Campbell movement.

To others, these are still up for debate.

Don’t believe me?
Talk to those who interview candidates for ministry.

For me, this raises some important questions:

1. How do we navigate theological issues that divide us without making it personal, cultural, ethnic or stereotypical?

2. How do we move forward in our quest for unity with all God’s people without breaking relationship the rest of God’s people?

In realty, we have been wrestling with the second one for generations. Unfortunately our answer seems to have been division. In our quest for unity we have simply divided, leaving in our wake mistrust and disappointment.

And I’m back to my fear of CHANGE!

Some might think I’m just bashing the theological voice of our constituency groups.
That is not the case. I am so thankful for the gifts that diversity has brought us.

Disciples NEED to be reminded that the Spirit moves in unexpected ways.
Disciples NEED to be challenged to make passion and emotion part of their faith.
Disciples NEED to reclaim words like witness, testimony and evangelism.
Disciples NEED to be reminded that we are not a finished produce. God is still at work!

I am thankful for the gifts of our diversity.
I am also thankful for my fear of being a racist.
-Sometimes it makes me listen again to a perspective I want to ignore.
-Sometimes it makes me listen again to my own words and biases.
-Sometimes it makes me think before I speak.

I don’t want our Church to enter another time of division.
I don’t want our Church to loose the identity that means so much to me.
I don’t want to lose the diversity we have gained in the quest for more diversity.
I don’t want to stop seeking more diversity just because I’m scared of the conflict.

So, in my mind, I’ve boiled all this down to issues of authority.
-Traditional (OK, Caucasian) Disciples value the reasoned study of scripture.
-Others challenge us to respect tradition and interpretations of scripture it holds.
-Others challenge us to let experience of the spirit’s movement guide us.
-Others challenge us to hold tight to “no book but the Bible.”

While these differences might be evident in our ethnic groupings,
they are also seen in EVERY congregation!
We seem to work it out there (with varying degrees of success).
Why does it seem so overwhelming within our denominational family?

So, I come back to fear… my fear and yours.

To my friends with whom I disagree theologically:
I’m scared of your authority and feel attacked by it.
I know you also feel judged by mine and I apologize.

To my friends with whom I agree theologically:
I’m scared of your certainty in our authority and feel like you are judging others with it.
I know you feel confused by my lack of conviction and I apologize.

I’m scared.

I’m guessing Stone and Campbell had the same fears when they joined together.
I’m guessing the Christian Women’s Missionary Society had the same fears when they merged in with other mission bodies.
I’m guessing the National Convocation had similar fears as God led them into full union with the Disciples of Christ.

I think of the angel speaking to Mary, “Be not afraid.”
Yeah, right!!

So, what do I suggest we do about this tension?
What way forward do I recommend?
Well, I have LOTS to say about that… but… I’ll leave all that for later.

Right now, I just feel called to name my fear.
Right now, I just feel called to claim my fear.

Right now, I just ask for prayers, that an angel might greet us all and say,

“Be not afraid.”

We Need Each Other: Acting for Justice in a Fragmented World

By Erin Miller Cash

If you search the NIV for the word “justice,” you’ll find 134 references.

Some of them are helpful, and some are not.  Some say things like “the tribe of Dan will provide justice.”

I read each one of those 134 verses.  A few resonate with me more than others.

Micah 6:8

[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.

Deuteronomy 16:20

Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the LORD your God is giving you.

Psalm 103:6 

The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.

Psalm 106:3 

Blessed are they who maintain justice, who constantly do what is right.

Amos 5:24 

But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Matthew 12:18 

"Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.

From the earliest texts of our tradition to Jesus himself, we find God at work pursuing justice for the oppressed.  Often justice and love or justice and righteousness go hand-in-hand in the Biblical texts.

We are called to be a people of justice.

We are to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, who ate with the outcast, touched the unclean, stood up to the Religious Leadership.  Jesus was killed because he wanted radical inclusion of everyone in the kingdom of God.  Everyone.

The filthy.

The sinner.

The broken.

The abused.

The powerless.

The betrayer.

Our Denomination strives to be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.”  We believe valiantly in our causes: for some that is an issue of homosexuality (sin or nature), for some it is an issue of immigration reform (needed or not), for some it is pastoral education (required or optional), for others it is worship style (contemporary or traditional).  We are a people who are passionate about many things.

One of the things I love about being a Disciple is the fact that we hope to live into the words “in essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.”  The quote can be traced back as early as Augustine; the church has been trying to do this for centuries.

As Disciples, we tend to let one another speak about our particular passions, but we rarely come together to work.  Someone may believe that LGBT persons need to have full inclusion in the ministries of the church, but she doesn’t see that this matter of justice is similar to the matter of justice surrounding immigration.  In both cases a minority population is being subjected to the will of the ruling majority population (even if that population’s opinion on the matter is divided).  Justice is justice.  And justice is righteousness.

Can we be the model?

Can we be the generation that begins to show our unity to the world?

Can we be a movement for wholeness?

If we would stop bickering with one another over which issue is most important and start acting in love, we might be able to accomplish some incredible things for the neglected in our midst.  What if we agreed that justice is justice and we worked together to enact change on several fronts?  What if we embraced one another in charity where we disagree on a non-essential?  What if we were able to come together around the table instead of storming out of the room?

A pastor I respect very much once said to me, “I fear for who is next.”  As a government and as a religion (I’m speaking here generally about the church as a whole, not as individual denominations or local congregations.), we have notoriously excluded someone from power.

African-Americans.

Native Americans.

Asians.

Women.

Criminals.

Irish.

Hispanics.

Catholics.

Protestants.

LGBT persons.

Immigrants.

The Handicapped.

Children.

The list can go on if we want to dig deeper into our history.  The more we look, the more we find the truth: someone has always been an outsider in our nation and in our religion.  We don’t like to admit that, but it’s the truth.  We largely define ourselves by who we are not.

The Scriptures I cited above don’t say to enact justice for those who deserve it.  The scriptures say to act in kindness, love, righteousness, and justice.  It doesn’t say to condone every behavior, despite your personal convictions.  It says to work for justice.  It says to love kindness.

Someday I may find out that I was wrong.  I may come to find that the justice we chose to pursue was a tragic mistake.  I may put people in situations where the tradition we’ve known is compromised.  I don’t think that will happen, but I could be wrong.

I’m ok with being wrong.

I’m not ok with being unfair.

I would rather work to make sure every person who wants to work alongside me is able to live into their calling than to exclude someone for my personal beliefs.  I would rather embrace “the sinner” in love than insulate myself from her.  I will always choose kindness.  I will always choose love.

I cannot control the actions of another person.

Keeping someone out of the fellowship will not change their behaviors.

It will only change me.

It will harden me and my community of faith to the outsider.

It will allow prejudices to form.

It will make space for judgment in our midst.

I don’t want to be that kind of minister.

I don’t want my denomination to be that kind of place.

I want us to come together.

I want us to work together.

I want us to love together.

I believe we have the power to make transformative change in our churches, our government, and our lives.  I believe that as we champion our respective causes we can support one another.  I believe that if you are passionate about welcoming immigrants and I am passionate about LGBT rights, we need one another.  I believe justice is justice and love is love.

I will choose to love those who believe I am wrong.

I will choose to love those who refuse to engage me in conversation.

I will choose to love those who others will not.

I will choose love.

Always love.

Will you?

Will you join me in working for justice for all people?

Will you come alongside me to proclaim that all anyone really wants is to feel accepted and valued for who they are?

Will you allow yourself to make space for everyone?

Will you find your voice in the midst of a group?

Will you help someone else find theirs?

The kingdom is a place where God leaves no one out.

I need your perspective, and you need mine.

We need one another if we’re going to make changes.

We need to put aside our judgments and welcome one another.

How will we ever welcome the outsider if we can’t embrace each other?

Let’s talk.

Calling the People of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to Be a People of Grace and Welcome to All

What follows is the latest copy of the resolution that has been submitted for consideration at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Orlando, July 13-17.  It is a resolution Calling the People of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ to be a People of Grace and Welcome to all . . . regardless  of "race, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, or physical or mental ability."  This iteration of the resolution has undergone a number of revisions.

Since there continues to be much speculation about what such a resolution might look like, we thought it might be helpful to release the resolution that has already been submitted for consideration by the General Board, with the understanding that because of the process such a resolution must go through, it is fairly certain that some revisions will be made to the content.   However, this is the text of the document submitted by the congregations listed below.

Additionally, here is a link to a Description of the Need for a Resolution, along with some FAQs.  

~ (Derek Penwell)

WHEREAS, we, the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), understand ourselves to be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world, called to welcome others even as we have been welcomed by God [1] and to practice hospitality to one another,[2] as well as to strangers;[3]

WHEREAS, Holy Scripture affirms that all people are created in the image of God and share with all others in the worth that comes from being unique individuals,[4] which has been reiterated at past General Assemblies (2001, 2005, 2011);

WHEREAS, we affirm that as Christians we are many members, but are one body in Christ.  We are members of one another, each with different gifts.[5] We affirm that each of us is called by Jesus to love our neighbors as ourselves,[6] and that we are called to the ministry of reconciliation and wholeness within the world and within the church itself;    WHEREAS, Disciples affirm baptism as the primary call to ministry, and offer baptism to all who profess their faith in Jesus Christ as Savior;

WHEREAS, Disciples profess that the nature of Christian discipleship is profoundly informed by a common table, which is central to the act of worship. This emphasis on communion calls attention to the radical nature of the hospitality extended by Jesus, who welcomes all to be received at the Lord’s table of grace. In centering our worship on the Lord’s table, Disciples  recall that our very birth as a movement came at Cane Ridge in reaction to limitations being placed on this welcome;

WHEREAS, Disciples emerged as a movement centered on a call to Christian unity as our “polar star.”  We recognize that cutting off anyone who seeks the hospitality of the Lord’s table is an act of disunity;

WHEREAS, Disciples have been engaged in a process of discernment on the question of the participation of all Christians regardless of sexual orientation and/or gender identity in the life and ministry of the church since 1997 with mixed results; WHEREAS, we know there are people who are devalued and discriminated against within society, and more sadly within the church, because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity;

WHEREAS it is also recognized that we find our identity around the table, holding each other dear even when we disagree; and that the church from its beginning has understood that God’s Spirit leads congregations to differing interpretations of scripture, but that each are called to transcend our difference and to claim one another in unity;

AND WHEREAS, it is understood that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) operates with a congregational polity whereby local congregations have final say in matters of conscience;

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the General Assembly calls upon the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)  to recognize itself  as a people of grace and welcome to all God’s children–inclusive of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, or physical ability;

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the General Assembly calls upon the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to affirm the faith, baptism and spiritual gifts of all Christians regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and that neither are grounds for exclusion from fellowship or service within the church, but are a part of God’s good creation;

FINALLY, BE IT RESOLVED that the General Assembly calls upon all expressions of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), as a people of grace and welcome, to acknowledge their support for the welcome of and hospitality to all Christians, regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, physical or cognitive ability.

[1] Mark 12:31 [Statement of Identity of the CC (DOC), Disciples.org]

[2] 1 Timothy 5:10; 1 Peter 4:9

[3] Romans 12:13; Hebrews 13:2

[4] Genesis 1:26–7

[5] 2 Corinthians 5:18–20

[6] Matthew 7:12

Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Louisville, KY)

Midway Hills Christian Church (Dallas, TX)

Chalice Christian Church (Gilbert, AZ)

Fireside Christian Church (Denver, CO)

Little White Chapel (Burbank, CA)

First Christian Church (Eugene, OR)

Tapestry Ministries (Berkeley, CA)

St. Andrew Christian Church (Olathe, KS)

Lafayette Christian Church (Lafayette, CA)

First Christian Church (Concord, CA)

University Christian Church (San Diego, CA)

First Christian Church (Vallejo, CA)

New Covenant Community Church (Normal, IL)

First Christian Church (Lynchburg, VA)

Central Christian Church (Indianapolis, IN)

First Christian Church (Orange, CA)

Open Hearts Gathering (Gastonia, NC)

Bethany Christian Church (Tulsa, OK)

Pine Valley Christian Church (Wichita, KS)

Foothills Christian Church (Phoenix, AZ)

GLAD-Pacific Southwest Region (Irvine, CA)

GLAD Alliance

Authenticity: Goal or Sign?

Authentic is a word I have heard and have used to describe church.  However, when you look up the definition you will find the definition to be very specific.  That is, something claiming to be authentic can be proven, such as what one would see on Antiques Roadshow, "this is an authentic 17th century vase" or" first printing" of whatever favorite comic book (or graphic novel, as you may prefer).  However, we use this word for humans and human institutions such as church, and it is far from specific or able to be demarcated. So how do we know if we are moving toward authenticity as a person of faith and especially as a community of faith?  I am not positive, yet when I have experienced it I have known it, such as when viewing art--you just know.

I believe that there are at least four signs that authenticity is close, which are the following:

Passion—is there enthusiasm, excitement, and optimism about the community?

Vision—can everyone concisely name what the community has and continue to discern what they are doing for God’s culture on earth as it is in heaven?

Mission—is the love discerned coming out as action and not simply good thoughts and feelings?  Are there actual goals of the vision being completed?

Laughter & Tears—are the people in this part of the Body of Christ able to laugh and cry together?

These signs are important to the church but they are not the legalistic definition of authenticity.  Probably the greatest sign you are on the right direction is if you are not worried about being authentic.

I remember during college going to the co-op coffee shop with two other great friends.  We would drink coffee and tea and read and write (paper and pen), two to three times a week.  We had no idea we were observed by anyone else, but one night a young person came up to our table and said something about us being cool, just being there visiting with friends and studying and discussing the topic of the evening.  We were shocked at this individual’s need to say something, yet we were not quite sure if it was sarcasm or truly a compliment. That night we spent about a second discerning why this person shared with us and left quickly.

That story reminds me that authenticity is not determined by those outside, and that coffee house table of comrades was truly being authentic and did not let an outside observation, be it positive or negative, affect our behavior.

To know if we are being authentic, we cannot make that a goal--it is truly a sign of a healthy community or person of faith.

Is authenticity the goal, or the sign we are following the Divine?

Finding Our Voice

The church has a problem.

The trend in American public life over the past few years is undergoing a seismic shift. Acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer people has begun to reach a tipping point. According to a leaked memo by Republican pollster, Jan van Lohuizen, the increase for those favoring something like same gender marriage was steady at 1% every up to 2009. Since 2009, however, support for same gender marriage has gained momentum, increasing by 5% every year. Mr. van Lohuizen’s memo announces that recent polling now indicates a 10% difference in favor of those who support same gender marriage.

For something less controversial than same gender marriage, like acceptance of gays and lesbians, the numbers jump to nearly two-thirds (64%) in favor. Even in a state like Kentucky, with a reputation for being socially conservative, over 8 in 10 people polled agreed that LGBTIQ people deserve workplace protections against discrimination, equal access to housing and public accommodations.

When it comes to the demographics of age, the numbers become even more revealing. Millennials, those roughly between the ages of 18 to 29, 62% favor same gender marriage, compared to 31% of those over the age of 65. 69% of Millennials support the rights of gays and lesbians to adopt, compared with 36% of seniors.

This demographic information is important because Millennials have reached distressing conclusions about the church’s handling of this issue. Indeed, according to the Public Religion Research Institute’s findings, nearly 7 in 10 (69%) Millennials believe “that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.”

The situation is particularly serious for those Christians who care about the mass exodus of young people from the church. The Barna Group, an Evangelical polling organization, asked young people, ages 1- to 29, what words or phrase best describes Christianity. The top choice of 91% of those who self-identified as non-Christian? “Anti-homosexual.” As one might expect, among young Christians, the number who thought the words or phrase that best identified the church as “anti-homosexual” dropped … to 80%.

The church has a problem. While the culture has shown an increasingly amazing ability to adapt to the notion that LGBTIQ folk have every right to live the kind of flourishing lives God created them for as their heterosexual sisters and brothers, the church has, in many cases, not found a way to address this as an issue of justice. In too many cases the church has failed to lead.

More specifically, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) finds itself in the awkward position of wanting to say something, but not knowing how to do so—whether because it feels like opinion is too divided, or because there is no mechanism in place to find the consensus its leadership feels is necessary before advocating publicly for a position—either for or against.1

However, if Disciples are to have a place at the table of justice, we need to Find Our Voice.

If Disciples are to be, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. not the thermometers of culture, but its thermostat, we are going to have to Find Our Voice.

To that end, the GLAD Alliance is sponsoring an endorsement page to allow Disciples the opportunity to begin the difficult process of gathering voices together to demonstrate the shift that is taking place, both within the culture and within the church.

The need for an endorsement page is explained:

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ) people have suffered, often most egregiously at the hands of the church. This suffering has come as a result of outright violence in word and deed and, perhaps just as damaging, through silence in the face such injustice. As a denomination that proclaims itself “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) must accept a special responsibility in actively finding ways to bring wholeness and offer healing, in particular to those whom the church has had a hand in harming, as well as to those whom the church has failed to stand beside in the face of the harm perpetrated by others.

Unfortunately, our denomination—which has officially engaged in a process of discernment with respect to this issue since 1997, achieving mixed results and no definitive statement—continues to have difficulty finding its voice when it comes to the inclusion of LGBTIQ people in the life and ministry of the church. Because of the congregational polity that characterizes the organization of our denomination’s common life, many have argued that the CCDOC will never speak with one voice about extending hospitality and affirmation to our LGBTIQ sisters and brothers.

Given the nature of that denominational structure, leaders (the General and Regional Ministries, clergy, and laity) among the CCDOC occupy a crucial role not only in reflecting denominational self-understanding, but in helping to shape it. The pastoral role of ministry requires a willingness to stand out front and point the way forward in the presence of divided convictions about which way is more faithful. No one denies that a prophetic stance will be difficult; if it were easy, it would be neither prophetic nor necessary.

Moreover, a prophetic voice has been found in recent times among Disciples, a voice to call us beyond our division and into a more just and equitable future.

At the height of civil unrest in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when the country remained violently divided on the issue of race, Disciples stood up and spoke with a clear voice at the International Convention of Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) in 1968 “to address the sin of racism through resolutions and direct action.”

In 1973, when only 4% of the of professional church workers and 9% of seminarians were women, and congregations were divided over whether women should be allowed in ministry, the General Assembly in Cincinnati, Ohio found its voice and passed resolutions urgently seeking to address the inequities of gender discrimination posed by excluding women from serving the church in the same capacity as men.

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is in need of such a voice today to speak courageously against the exclusion of LGBTIQ people from full participation in the life and ministry of the church. However, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has taken shape over the last two hundred years with a particular ecclesiological bias toward the notion that ministry is a function of baptism and not ordination. Consequently, any progress toward a realization of our identity as “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” that welcomes “all to the Lord’s table” will necessarily derive a great deal of its energy and authority from people who express their passion without benefit of institutional sanction. If things are going to change in our denomination in a way that offers a more expansive welcome to those who have been forced to the margins, it will come as a result of committed lay and clergy voices joining together to speak about the demands of justice and the possibilities of the grace signaled by the coming reign of God.

The question that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will continue to contend with is the extent to which it can claim to be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” that welcomes “all to the Lord’s table,” when in practice it defends or is silent in the face of a brokenness that excludes people from that table.

Therefore, we call on all within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—those within the General and Regional Ministries of the Church, those clergy, who help to organize and shape the course and direction of ministry, and finally, those lay leaders, who inspire and often provide the passion and wisdom that result in faithful ministry—to find their voices and speak out publicly against the injustices visited upon LGBTIQ persons.

As an aid to gathering together these disparate voices in one place, GLAD offers an endorsement page inviting a public endorsement of a commitment to the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer people in the life and ministry of the church.

If it’s not clear to you by now, I think the church needs to move on this issue. And this is one way to begin the process.

Follow this link to help the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Find Our Voice!

Follow updates on Facebook at www.facebook.com/FindOurVoice and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/find_our_voice (@find_our_voice)


  1. Once again I find myself having to be clear about how I am framing this plea. If you don’t believe LGBTIQ folks should enjoy full inclusion in the life and ministry of the church, the purpose of this article isn’t to argue you into submission on this issue. If, however, you do believe that LGBTIQ people have been created by God this way and ought to be allowed to bring their gifts to the life and ministry of the church, the purpose of this article is to argue that the need for the church to take a position of advocacy on this issue is urgent. ↩

Father's Day Dreams of Dance

I have so many dreams for my son: theologian and New Testament scholar are on the list as well as swimmer and ballet dancer.  The first two are because that’s the family business, since my wife and I are both ministers.  The swimmer is because he loves the water and he has flippers for feet.  The dancer is because he loves music and loves to dance, and spends hours in front of his reflection trying to get the choreography (sometimes his own) just right.  To be completely honest, I am also a very big fan of the ballet, not that I ever was a dancer, but I like to dance.

I was pondering these dreams for my son as I rode my motorcycle to a clergy gathering, and then pondered how the ballet dancer has something to say about the role of clergy.  As an ordained minister I am constantly reading and discussing the Bible and theology-- it is my vocation, just as a dancer lives and breathes dance.  Good dancers train and have great discipline, as do good clergy.

I want to be clear that the art form of ballet is not the same mission as the church.  It is quite different, yet the art of dance is something we all should do in some form.  We do have professionals that give their whole life for the performances.  Many of are influenced by music and great themes within humanity, and some even by the Bible.  To this day, my favorite interpretation of Luke 15:11-32, “The Forgiving Father” was created by George Balanchine with the music by Sergei Prokofiev and titled the “The Prodigal Son.”

As a fan that is moved by such powerful performances by the dancers and choreographers, I am influenced to dance in my own life as well, to read body language and to move to the music, all of which is important to life.  I would be so proud if my son became a ballet dancer.

Without these professional artists we would not have the great performances that remind us of the great beauty of the human body and music.  That is one role of the clergy.  We are to demonstrate the beauty of the divine--but I do not simply mean during worship, as if it is a performance.  While I am pretty proud of my latest sermon and worship service, my greatest work last week was being with a woman who died with her family and friends surrounding her.

I was present and demonstrated love of God, mainly with the help of the Spirit, but my words and stance help me open to the Spirit: it is a dance. I must admit these pastoral moments are very emotional and very difficult, and the more I experience and even practice for such events the more graceful I become.

I think of the dancer’s pointe shoes.  The first time, she (or he, but usually a woman) wears pointe shoes, the pain is probably the only thing she feels.  Slowly it becomes part of them and they are able to dance and experience the grace and movement greater than the pain.

As ministers (laity and ordained) we are called to demonstrate the Grace of God despite the pain of life and death. I can picture the “Father” God of Luke 15 dancing to his son, the same God at the table where everyone is invited. Our ministry must be on pointe, that we need to show grace and affirmation to everyone, which includes the LGBTIQ community, for the church has caused much pain, stayed silent to many deaths.  We need to move beyond casually observing to actively participating in the dance, and to participate means to include everyone.   It may be painful for the clergy to say this (we may be afraid of losing membership, financial contributions, or other fears) but we must lead the church to the Grace of the Table, now.

My dream is to see my son dance.

The Pastoral Letter on Homosexuality: A Response to the Response

Since receiving the pastoral letter on the denomination’s stance with respect to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer folk last week from the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, I have witnessed a great deal of thoughtful discussion. I want to try to clarify why I think Dr. Watkins’ letter, given a certain set of commitments to the priority of maintaining unity, is read by many as a retreat from the issue rather than as an engagement of it, and why certain forms of reaction to it strike me as troubling. In her letter Dr. Watkins made an appeal to the church to remember that, regardless of one’s theological commitments on this issue, Disciples have historically championed an open table, where “people of both points of view—and everyone in between—[is] welcome.” She entreats Disciples to remember their historical commitment to gathering around a common table at which the guests often fail to agree with one another on important issues.

Dr. Watkins makes an important point about the radical inclusiveness inherent in Disciples table theology. In fact, the radical nature of Disciples witness to a broken and fragmented world is manifest in our commitment to gathering around a table not because of, but often in spite of the fact that we so often fail to agree. That we insist on calling one another brother and sister in the face of our frequent failure to come to a common theological understanding on many issues bespeaks our commitment to unity rather than unanimity. This dogged determination to remain in community, as Michael Kinnamon has so often reminded us, is a special gift we give to a world so persistently inclined toward division and violence.

Moreover, Dr. Watkins rightly expands the scope of our responsibilities beyond the theological commitments of a single denomination by raising the issue of the “one body of Christ.” In true Disciples fashion, she points out that our unity is not an idiosyncratic denominational fixation, but a profound expression of the heart of the gospel. This unity, which requires a kind of hospitality that transcends human moral achievement, is itself a sign of the in-breaking of God’s reign.

I want to be understood as, in many ways, affirming the irenic thrust of Dr. Watkins’ letter. As “head of communion,” which is to say, the primary theological and ecclesiological voice of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—a denomination with ecumenical commitments and an exceedingly congregational polity—she has the thankless task of trying to speak to and for a religious movement noteworthy for its thoroughgoing devotion to great latitude in matters of interpretation. Addressing such a wide range of theological positions is fraught with the distinct possibility that anything one might say will necessarily anger some constituency. I think it should be understood in advance that her willingness to speak to the issue of the inclusion of LGBTIQ people requires courage, since whatever she could possibly say will strike a wide range of people as insufficient or offensive.

Many have supported Dr. Watkins’ attempt to address a knotty issue. In trying assiduously to hew to a middle course, many have said, she strikes a perfectly Disciples’ tone of catholicity and openness. On the other hand, many of those (on both sides) who disagree with her attempt to negotiate such a moderate course, argue that in an effort to satisfy the broadest range of people, she has succeeded in disappointing everyone—except, of course, those whose primary concern has more to do with avoiding the kind of conflict that can lead to division. I tend toward the latter, but certainly understand the former.

That Dr. Watkins’ chose a middling path on the issue will surprise no one. She has staked out a pastoral identity on this issue that does not include loud prophetic statements guaranteed to offend. She faces an almost impossible situation that few would be brave enough to confront.

My bone to pick here is not so much that she failed in her letter to speak more prophetically—though, I think that is an area ripe for analysis. My problem is the reaction to her letter in some quarters, the thrust of which is something like: “We don’t have the kind of polity that would stand for prophetic statements about justice. So, what else could she say?”

At least one inference we can draw from such a reaction is that, given the weak hierarchical nature of Disciples’ polity and a potentially hostile audience, the highest priority of the GMP is necessarily one of peace-keeping. Taking into account the historical commitment to an open table that makes “room for whoever will come at Christ’s gracious invitation,” it is seductive to believe that unity ought to be maintained at any cost. In my estimation, this high premium placed on maintaining unity, however, can lead to a couple of serious theological hazards.

For one thing, a church (local, regional, or general) that regards the maintenance of unity as its highest priority is always in danger of misunderstanding unity as a human achievement rather than as a divine gift. In his great “high priestly prayer” in the Gospel of John, Jesus prayed “not only on behalf of” the disciples, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one” (17:20-1a). The unity of the church on this account comes as a result God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer, not because humans manage to muster up the stick-to-itiveness to avoid falling out over fundamental disagreements. All of which is to say, the unity of the church is not ours to achieve; it is a reality with which Christians must align themselves. Either we swim with the current on this one, or we swim against it. What we don’t do is create the current, then mandate its direction.

This emphasis on maintaining unity above virtually any other concern can lead to another potential pitfall—that is, the mistaken belief that true unity can be present in the absence of true speech. Christian unity is not a consensual non-aggression pact that requires participants to refrain from speaking truthfully so as not to roil the ecclesiological waters.

What do I mean?

If you believe that LGBTIQ people are sinning, and which sin (if unrepented) is an insuperable obstacle to faithful participation in the life and ministry of the church, a tacit denominational agreement not to make offensive statements on the issue is will probably appear fairly unsatisfying, since this is an issue of faithfulness. I respect your convictions. I do not agree with them, but I respect them as hard won. My purpose in this piece is not to persuade you to change your mind—a feat that would esteem my own thoughts too highly and your beliefs too little. You are not the intended audience for these reflections.

Instead, I seek to address myself to that portion of the church that believes that LGBTIQ people have an equal place at the open table without having to forfeit the identity and gifts with which God created them, but who believe that pressing the issue of inclusion is of secondary concern, and who are therefore satisfied with Dr. Watkins’ pastoral letter. A few of the reasons given for simultaneously supporting both the moderate position evinced by Dr. Watkins’ letter and the theoretical inclusion of LGBTIQ people are:

“We must be patient. We can’t let single issues like this divide us.”

. “There are other more important issues the church faces.”

. “This is only one issue that affects a relatively small number of people.”

I understand the objections. There was a time in my own pastoral life when I made those same kind of arguments for a cautious approach to this matter. As it stands, I can no longer bring myself to deny the urgency of the situation.

A few days ago I met a young gay man who had just recently undergone reparative therapy to “repair” his sexual orientation. Among the accounts of psychologically damaging statements about the fact that he was a “broken” young man—broken in places where straight folks are presumably “whole,” in virtue of their “natural” constitution—were stories of therapies that included beatings, needles, and electric shock. I don’t want to be misunderstood to be asserting that the treatment this young man received is the norm. I will extend the benefit of the doubt to those who both seek and administer such therapy that on balance the intentions are good. However, I have heard enough horror stories told by people who have been the recipient of these “good intentions” to know that great damage is being done to people, often at extremely important and formative stages of their lives.

I have also heard the stories of those people who have been the recipient of bad intentions, who have undergone great suffering at the hands of bullies (physical, psychological, and theological). Stories like that of my good friend, a minister, who was almost beaten to death for having the temerity to eat supper with his partner in a public restaurant. Or the story I encountered a couple of months ago when I sat with the father of a young girl attracted to both boys and girls who killed herself because “bad intentions” rained down on her every day as she tried to negotiate the uncertain waters of life in a public middle school.

But much more common, and almost as vexing as the good and bad intentions of people who think LGBTIQ folk are broken and in need of fixing (at best) or eliminating (at worst), is the silence of those who ought to know better. Christians who don’t believe anyone should be mistreated because of the way that person is created, but who say nothing in the face of such mistreatment—for whatever reason—bear an extraordinary responsibility for maintaining not unity, but an atmosphere in which being terrorized is viewed as preferable to making waves.

If you happen to think (and admittedly many do not, and again, are not the intended audience of these reflections) that the exclusion of people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity rises to the level of the civil rights abuses surrounding race, it is difficult to read Dr. Watkins’ letter without immediately thinking of another letter—one written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. while seated in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. If you happen to view the current crisis surrounding the inclusion of LGBTIQ people through the lens of injustice—an injustice that impinges on the revolutionary claims about the love and hospitality present in the reign of God—then calls for the church to have more patience, or to overlook the sin of unjust systems in favor of “keeping the peace,” or to concentrate on more positive and less controversial issues, cannot but be heard as the moral equivalent of the “moderate white clergy” of Dr. King’s letter.

Whether you agree with the way I have framed the issue or not, it is at least important for me to point out why those who do frame it this way find letters that cede ground to those wielding the “good and bad intentions” responsible for the many forms of violence against LGBTIQ people or the response to those letters that result in calls to be patient so frustrating. Dr. King said: “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

Again, I’m not saying here that you must agree with me on the equating of the exclusion of LGBTIQ people and racism. All I’m saying is that if you do, it is important to understand the full implications of those convictions and how they are heard by those who are, in many cases, fighting for their dignity, if not for their lives.

I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen …

.

There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

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But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

—Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Church with No Forwarding Address

I have been called by Bellevue Christian Church to be their pastor and planter.  The latter is of course very new territory that has no physical address, and at this time, the possibilities are endless, making vision the first goal.  However, I am writing not about the plant but about the exciting existing congregation: Bellevue Christian Church.  I met this congregation in person a month after they sold their wonderful physical facilities. The building was too big and too expensive to maintain for this “graying” congregation.  The decision must have been difficult and gut-wrenching, but these heroes did just that.  This group of Christians did the unthinkable--they sold the building. Σπλαγχνίζομαι (Splanchnizomai) is the word that comes to my mind when I think of Bellevue Christian Church.  The root of this word it splangchna, “pity” or more literally “bowels.”  Specifically, it was used to refer to the organs removed in a blood sacrifice prior to the Christian context, when it started being used to refer to being moved to compassion from the gut.[i]  As I wrote above this decision was gut-wrenching, and their decision was based on self-care.

Splanchnizomai is the word Jesus uses for the hungry crowds (Matthew 15:32; Mark 8:2).  It is wonderful that Jesus refers to this feeling of pity coming up through his “guts.”  Thus it should be also when the Body of Christ (Church) should also feel and act.  To truly understand compassion it is important that the empathy is from the gut.  Even when you are part of the crowd and the Body of Christ, even when it’s about your local congregation, you need to search your gut for the way.

Bellevue acted on this compassion, and left their building.  They have funded some great things with the sale, but what is important is this congregation still exists.  They are currently visiting a local UCC congregation for Sunday morning worship, which may or may not be a new home, and may or may not be 50% more people to the congregation.

It may have felt like, and still is, a sacrifice for some of the members. It is also self-care.  They could have kept the church in the building, renting it out more, developing programs that would attract a family or two.  However, in their collective gut they knew what was compassionate.  And just as Jesus was moved to feed the thousands with limited resources, they opened up many resources for scholarships, multiple plants, regional ministries, and their own authenticity.

Their own authenticity is going to be their greatest gift to themselves, as well as part of their new vision.   Instead of worrying about the building or growing, we will be worrying about our spiritual practices, about each other, and we will grow.  However, I don’t know where.

Tickets Please?

AJ, my three-year-old son, and I went to the museum in Fort Worth recently, because his mom (my wife) was out of town.  We got to the entrance and purchased our tickets and I asked about the children’s section.  The woman helping me probably assumed AJ was older as per his height and certainly did not know about his autism.  I politely listened to her talk about an exhibit that I knew was beyond AJ’s attention and comprehension.  So we went onto to the children’s section, and to my disappointment most of the items were too complicated for his interest, but he seemed happy to be among the energy of the children.  He does not interact with other children but he does enjoy the energy.  We then went to the water area, and if you know anything about AJ, water is as exciting as letters and numbers.  AJ ran around in circles and got soaked.  AJ was ecstatic and so was I.

After I got him into the dry clothes I decided to go by the exhibit that was recommended.  I bet we were the quickest through as it was all much too complicated for this tall non-communicative three-year-old.  So we went on to the store where AJ was again happy to be among the energy of a crowd.

I share this story because I have read many discussions about what the church should or will look like in the future.  I believe it is an important conversation--a conversation that has occurred since Paul.  We all know there is no formula for church success, and if one thing works for a specific community, it will not necessarily transfer to another, even if the communities look similar.  I am sure most reading this are saying that I am stating the obvious--I am because I keep running into people who write or talk about church as if they were the ticket sales person at the museum.  The generalizations and assumptions seep in even to the best intentions.

I must admit for a moment out in the water area, I felt awkward because AJ did not play with any of the water things properly.  I then noticed his smile and heard his squeals of joy as he splashed in the water.  Those moments are wonderful, such are the moments when he writes letters and words, and recites the alphabet.  These are not normal for his age, but it is what we utilize with his teachers and specialists to encourage better communication.  We go through a lot of hard work to truly share these happy moments with him, for he now lets us into his enjoyment and we have great hope.

As church, we need to do the hard work of discernment and research for each community, new and old.  We need to encourage each community to work for its own vision, finding its joy, its specialties, and work as a community to discover God’s vision for each community.  It is hard work, especially because it is too easy to see programs working at other congregations, especially in churches that look similar, or too easy to depend only on leadership, be it pastor, board, or just the key active lay leaders, to “sell” the vision to the congregation.  New church plants are clearly individual and unique, but humans often look to others for ideas, and that is fine for established and new church starts, if you are honest about your community’s vision from God.  What are your community’s unique gifts and joy?  The answers will lead the church toward the work needed for discernment, and it will be fun.

It will be hard and unique work and the result is a vision that truly calls out of the normal, secular, world, and the Body of Christ will run around influencing the world, for we will be following the “happiness” that surpasses all understanding.

Putting on Christ

It has not been cool enough to put on a jacket, but I am sure looking forward to doing just that. I hope to find a five dollar bill in a pocket, I certainly will find a receipt or a business card from the last time I wore the jacket. I will take this item out and recall the event that brought me to save said item in the pocket. Often I remember it quite well, yet my memory was jogged by the discovery. Would I have remembered the event without finding the item, perhaps, but I obviously forgot about the item tucked within the jacket. The Christian canon, we refer to as the Bible, is not something we can read from Genesis to Revelation in one sitting. Well that is if you have any other responsibilities in life, and fitting three books in a week is hard enough, making sixty-six very difficult even if some are as short at Philemon. Of course, no one expects someone to read the entire Bible between Sundays every week. However, even those of us that have read the entire Bible once is not enough. We must return to the scriptures every day. Yet I know many Christians who concentrate on certain scriptures, and there is certainly reasons to hang around the familiar, the friendly, and favorites, for they confirm and comfort. That is important.

We must also read the passages we find less familiar, for we will find things we forgot. Our memories will be jogged by our discoveries, even memories that were not ours individually. We are all part of the one body as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:12 “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” Therefore, our individual discoveries are assisted by others. Pastors, theologians, commentaries, scholars, church mothers and fathers, have all left important knowledge, be it in writings, sermons, actions, and questions, and all of them must be part of one’s Bible reading experience. We read the Bible and read the comments in our respective Bibles. We read old and new scholarship. We are in it together thus we go to Bible Studies and help each other. We do not simply have people tell us the truth, we together as Christians discover the truth of God’s Love and Grace, together. Every time we open our Bible we open it together as church, and we have personal epiphanies, assisted by our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Knowing the Bible is not done in a day and it is not done alone. It is done with a jacket that has many pockets, with many depths and textures. We read our Bible with this jacket of Christ’s that we share and explore all pockets of the truth united by the Holy Spirit.

Church in the French Ponderosa

I love Ben Cartwright for many reasons: he is a New Englander living in the West, and he is very loving to his sons and to everyone around him.  The greatest line I heard him say was in response to the sheriff saying, “Don’t you want the rope for that lady killer?” and Ben responded, “I want justice,”  as he was squelching the posse’s mob mentality.  Now I know it is just a show, and a show that even has the heroes using the fist or gun to solve the problem, and the problem is always solved by the credits.  I just know when I watch that show and most American films the good guys win by being morally good.  I will even admit to tearing-up at the end of the movie “Cars,” knowing that the wonderful message of the film is lost in the real world.  The perfect ending does not neatly happen for most of us. I enjoy these plots that wrap up and are so very moralistic, and yet it upsets me how the world does not match the silver screen; the world is not The Ponderosa.  The world is more like a French film.  I love those films as well for when the credits roll, I do not feel upset that the world does not match up, for often the plot was not truly resolved. Dieu est grand, je suis toute petite was just one of those French movies I enjoyed, enough that I watched it again with my wife.  When we arrived at “fin” my wife was very upset it was not wrapped up neatly.  Even today when I mention that movie she gets angry that the film did not resolve the story.  I find that refreshing, the story is the story.

Church needs both narratives.  Both.  We are however used to the former; we understand the neat stories in our congregations that end in plaques upon walls, stories repeated over the years, building dedications, and miraculous events.  These wonderful stories of success, and of failure, are how we learn about ourselves and about God, and they are important to church.  Honestly, we want all church narratives to fit in these perfect scripts in which we learn.  For instance, have you heard the story about the church in the good old days?

The reality is we need to also need to be able to sit with narratives in which we do not know the ending.  I do hear lip-service to that idea when people say we are “planting seeds.”  However, in the year book there is no place for seeds.  Just the other day I went to an area pastor’s gathering and the main question I received from all the clergy (whom I did not know well) was how many members do we have or what was my average Sunday attendance.  I do not deny that these are things to know and observe, but I think clergy of all people may be so inclined to ask about the seeds, the narratives happening in the church.

Jesus tells us not to worry about tomorrow, but as you know that is easier said than done.  However, it is the ending of Mark that speaks the most to me for this blog.  You know, the original ending of Mark, not the two add-ons.  Mark ends, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” ( 16:8).  The scene is not resolved, and actually in the Greek it is truly an incomplete sentence.  At some point there were two additional endings to create a neater story, but Mark is telling us something.  For me it seems to ask the question:  The Resurrection happened, and what are you going to do in response?

If a Gospel writer was so confident that the story does not need to be so neatly ended, perhaps we can be more confident in thick meta-narratives that do not all fit neatly together, as opposed to the thin narratives at how church works.  The thin narratives promote syndication of the same which works on the television and movie sets, but we need to realize that God is big and we are not, thus it will take all our stories and narratives to help us approach the large Divine narrative that is Love.

As another favorite fictional New Englander, Hawkeye, once said, “Ours is not to question why, ours is not to let them die.”  Let us as church walk with each other and we will discover eternal life together is not neat for…

The Path is Wide!

I read a wonderfully interesting paper called “Religious Belief Systems of Persons with High Functioning Autism.” I believe the authors of this paper have scratched at the surface of a new field, as they state in their abstract, and I am open to more work in this field of cognitive science of religion.  People have often jumped to one negative conclusion that would fit in that field, with the statement “religion is the opium of the masses.”  This statement has me welcome the study of psychology of religion, for I am confident the researchers will not discover opium.  This is because I work in church and live as one who confesses faith.

The paper specifically interested me because my three-year-old son has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and we hope it will be high functioning.  “We” are his parents, and are two ordained ministers, thus we are invested in the faith.  I encourage everyone to read the paper and understand, especially those that are active in a faith and love a person with special needs, that these authors are not attacking nor are they praising people with high functioning autism (HFA).  This is simply a paper based on two studies by researchers truly interested in this growing field.  Within these writings there are certainly important information for psychologists and neurologists, but I want to explore and reflect on what this may say to theologians and the church.

Church is sadly not always different from the secular world. Church is somewhere people feel different just as they would feel different in the secular world.   That is to say, our hospitality at church is not as developed as we would hope.  If a child and family do not feel welcome at church, or if it is a struggle to worship and learn with special needs, it will affect the relationship with the Divine.  I would be interested in the second study that asks about history and if it was asked about how church was experienced.  Was Sunday School welcoming?  Were people tolerated when they were a toddler with HFA, or did they start later? How were their questions handled by pastor, teachers, and family?  These are examples of  important questions about how church was, and therefore, how God was experienced, introduced, and sustained for these children of God with HFA.  Therefore, these are the questions the body of Christ, the church, need to ask constantly, and not wait for a study.

Upon reflection, perhaps apologetics has a greater place in theological discussion.  I enjoy C. S. Lewis, and not just because he goes by his initials.  However, I am someone who does not worry about faith being logical and reasonable.  I find many contemporary apologetics forget the great mystery and thus I do not share their conclusions when sharing my faith.  They seem to want to describe the lighthouse, where I am comfortable seeing the guiding light.  Perhaps as a pastor I need to be encouraging to those who explain God’s existence without the word “mystery,” as well as what works for me.  We must be aware of the many paths to confession of faith.

The most important message to theologians and the church is that people who do have HFA have thinking styles that are different.  Part of the difference may incline more people with HFA to embrace no confession of faith.   This is an important insight for us who do want to share the peace that surpasses all understanding we know as Love, that we call “God.”  The night before I started writing this I was at an event for Christian Piatt’s new books, “Banned Questions about the Bible” and “Banned Questions about Jesus.”  I bought both books and had them signed; I had one signed to my wife, and was going to have the second made out to me.  I then realized that I bet my three-year-old who (not unlike me) will want to ask the questions contained in these books, for many are very blunt and reasonable questions.  I know that some of the essays will answer with the word “mystery.” This realization made me ask that the other book to be signed to A.J.  So even though I read the paper on the two studies, I already worked on an assumption that the paper concludes, that people with HFA are going to look at religion differently and with preference to reason and logic.

I am reminded that Paul had an issue with a certain group of preachers who taught there was only one way to believe in Jesus, the way they had experienced Jesus.  For Paul, Jesus was the fulfillment of the History of Israel; and Paul knows who Jesus is because of his understanding of the Jewish faith, and thus he writes:

“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14)

Emphasizing the relationship with Jesus is essential; it is not essential how he got there and so we should not force others into the same mold.

So the real lesson of this study is that people are going to come to faith differently, and we should be aware of the various paths.  We have been aware that there are people who are much more comfortable with theology than others.  I just hope the church continues to be a welcoming place for all, from logic to mystery, and everything in between.

The Table Reveals Us

Table talk is common among Disciples. To say that communion is central to our identity would be an understatement of the obvious. By observing how we come around the table you can see who we are and who we want to be. Simply put, table reveals who we are. At our best, Elders preside at the table, symbolic of their role as spiritual leaders in the church. Deacons serve, symbolic of their role as servant leaders in the church. Everyone is welcome to partake, revealing the unity we seek in Christ.

Some churches extend the invitation to children, even before they are baptized. This says something about the way these congregations view children. The table reveals who we are.

Some churches have the same elders praying the same prayer every week. This says something about the life of these congregations. The table reveals who we are.

Some churches have clergy at the table and others won’t let a minister near it. This says something about the dynamics of these congregations. The table reveals who we are.

While much of our church rhetoric includes the table, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our casual conversation around the table. When people complain that worship is too long, we often point to how long it takes to serve communion. When we plan a Youth Sunday there is concern about how the kids serve, making sure they know the proper way to line up. Deacon and Elder training is often about where to line up and when to move. Unfortunately, much of our conversation on being church follows suit.

We talk about numbers and programs. We talk about what music will attract people to our buildings. We talk about what program will bring people to our church. We talk about how to structure committees to better be the church. We talk more about the institution of church than how to better live out our faith. We worry about numbers and structure more than passion and purpose. Again, the table reveals who we are.

For Disciples, if something new is going to emerge, it will probably come up at the table. Who are we breaking bread with? Who is inviting us to share a meal? Who are we serving with when we set a table?

When have you accepted hospitality from another? When have you reached out beyond your comfort zone? When have you set a table for friends, strangers, enemies?

The table reveals who we are. It can also remind us who we are called to be.