Welcoming

Coming Out as a Christian Liberal

By Rev. Mindi

I attended and graduated from a small, liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest, a college affiliated with my denomination.  In my first year, I became involved in all of the different Christian organizations on campus, ranging theologically from middle of the road to conservative. The few theologically liberal Christians on campus that I knew (that admitted to being Christian) didn’t attend most of the Christian organizations’ events or kept quiet about being theologically liberal most of the time, as I did for my first year.

But by my sophomore year I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. I didn’t like hiding part of myself just so I could feel like I belonged and fit in to Campus Crusade or any of the other groups. I grew up in a congregation that was Welcoming and Affirming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning folks, and there was a group on campus that was the equivalent of a gay/straight alliance. In addition, my pastor had recently written a book about his journey as an evangelical pastor coming from a place of “love the sinner,” to full acceptance and affirmation of gay and lesbian people. I wanted to share this book with the group and hopefully find a place where I was welcome with my liberal Christian theology.

I attended my first meeting and after about a half hour, I finally introduced myself. When I mentioned I had brought copies of my pastor’s book for free, I heard a collective gasp as people’s eyes grew wide. I suddenly realized they thought I was there to condemn them and I quickly had to assure them that was not the case.  Once they knew I was not only an ally but convinced by my beliefs that God’s love meant a full inclusion of all people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, the tension left the room.  Following the meeting, several people stayed and we chatted about our religious backgrounds.

What followed was story after story of rejection. A Missouri Synod Lutheran who had faithfully attended church with her grandparents until she came out at seventeen and when the church rejected her, she rejected the church and Christianity. A Catholic who now identified as spiritual but not religious. An evangelical Christian who was now an atheist because she had not experienced love from Christians in the way she imagined love was supposed to be.  Story after story after story. 

And finally, a story of acceptance.  After almost everyone had left, a woman who identified as a Quaker and attended the local Friend’s meeting spoke to me. She spearheaded change in the food purchases by the campus cafeteria in regards to migrant worker’s rights and was involved in raising awareness of social issues on campus.  She shared that it was her trust in Jesus’ teachings in why she was involved so much in the local community.  But as far as I know, she never shared about her faith in that way outside of this small gathering, with the few who had not left.

It’s time for liberal Christians to come out and stand up. This week, Jason Collins came out (and I had to look up who he was because I’m not an NBA basketball fan). Sixteen years ago yesterday, Ellen DeGeneres came out on live TV. I was in college, junior year, at a “coming out” party put on by the student group and the one fraternity on campus that did not discriminate based on sexual orientation.  Every day, people come out to their families, to their pastors, to their bosses, to their friends.

How many liberal Christians still hide their beliefs, because they don’t want to rock the boat? How many liberal Christian pastors stay quiet when a member says a derogatory slur, making the excuse that “they are a long-term member, I can’t offend them,” or some other excuse? How many liberal Christian leaders say nothing because “the issue hasn’t come up in my congregation”? 

How many more stories will we continue to hear of people who have been rejected by their church, so they have rejected their church, their religion, or God, altogether?

It’s been seventeen years since I sat in that campus room and came out as a liberal, welcoming and affirming Christian. After that moment, I didn’t hold back from my friends my views. Eventually I dropped out of most of the campus Christian organizations, except for one, the Student Chaplain’s group. My junior year also marked the year I was not alone. While I had known a few other liberal Christians on campus involved in the different organizations, they had kept quiet in public about their views. But my junior year, two others from the Student Chaplain’s joined the gay/straight campus alliance group. And one eventually came out about her sexuality as well.  And that all happened because one night I was hanging out with members of the alliance group and these two Student Chaplains came up to me and I introduced them and invited them to join the alliance group.  

It’s been seventeen years, and yet I know so many pastors still afraid to come out as welcoming and affirming or open and affirming today. It’s long overdue, friends. Come on out. Stand up for equality and justice for all LGBT folks. Even if you don’t think your church is ready to join O&A or W&A yet, they aren’t going to get there at all unless they know their pastor will help lead the way. And you never know what youth is hanging on by a thread, needing to know not only that God loves them, but that God’s representatives in their community—their church and especially their pastor—love them too. Otherwise, I fear that more college campus alliance groups will be filled with the same stories mine was—stories of rejection and loss, instead of stories of Christ’s love, faith, and hope.

Vision and Branding

By Rev. Mindi

I had a really awesome talk with a local advertising agent for our local news blog just this morning (Monday as I write this) and it has me thinking that we in the church still are so, so far behind in so many ways.

We are so good in the church about saying “We are not a business.”  But then we go and act like a business with a board that runs like a corporation and congregational leaders that act like CEO’s.   We draw up budgets and we crunch the numbers. We put resources into staff positions and maintenance and cut outreach and education and mission. We get smaller and smaller and so we cut all “non-essential” budget items like continuing education and health insurance, cut salaries and positions down to half-time or less, and finally, we are left with nothing to cut and we close. We are a failed corporation.

That’s where our problem is: we say we are not a business, but then we act like big business.  Rather, we have a lot to learn from small businesses (and yes, not every business is the same, not every small business is the same).  Many new start-up small businesses are based on a passion, a dream, that is driving the business: a vision. Many people start up their own business because they love doing what they are doing and dream about doing it, whether it be a restaurant or a bakery or a used book store, a consulting firm or jewelry shop, just to name a few of the small businesses in our town on one street. But here’s the thing: they are local, and they begin with a dream, a vision.

They also have to compete with the big box stores or big firms or big chain restaurants, but don’t worry too much about the competition from them because they are local, they offer personal service, they don’t mind you taking time and they will take time for you when it comes to making decisions on purchases or transactions of services.  Of course, the church is not a place where we exchange money for services, but the personal service, the attention to detail, and the time given for decision making are all good aspects we can take into the church, on top of the notion of dreams and passion: a vision that moves people forward.

Now here is where branding comes into play. I know of a church whose slogan on its sign is “Something For Everyone.”  Except it doesn’t really offer something for everyone and if it did offer something for everyone, I would expect it to be much, much larger than it is. Even my current church is using a slogan that is a bit too broad and too open for interpretation.  We do this all the time in smaller churches that want to grow: we don’t want to limit our possible outreach, we don’t want to say no to anyone who comes in, so we try to say “yes” to everyone. The truth is we can’t be all things to all people.

So that’s where my talk with the advertising agent comes in. She (an active member of another church) told me something I’ve known for a while: you have to brand yourself.  That’s the marketing term: branding.  What is it that makes you stand out, what makes you unique?

Translation for the church: What is your vision? How do you make your vision known?

I have been leading my church in a vision process for the past six months, and I led my previous congregation in a similar process.  First, we looked back at our past. We had a day where we shared memories by the decades (I started with the 1950’s but people had memories further back than that). We wrote them down on big sheets of paper, decade by decade. What was it that brought you to church way back when? What was fun? What was exciting? What made you want to keep coming back? We wrote it all down and then put it up the next Sunday for everyone to look at, and fill in a memory if they weren’t there or had remembered something later.  We talked about our memories. More specifically, we talked about the feelings we had, and we talked about the movement of the Spirit in the life of the church. The conversation turned from “what we used to do” or “how we used to do it” to “what was it that helped us feel alive, engaged with God, in relationship with Jesus, moved by the Spirit,” etc. 

The next month we talked about what was important to us, as individuals and as a church (this part is core to the vision process—what is it that we value?)  The following month, we talked about what we were ready to let go of—past assumptions, long announcements, etc. This is a time for venting the negative energy, the things that we do but we don’t know why we do them.  The next gathering we focused on the three core parts of the vision process: Values, Words, Actions. We’d already done the Values part, now we focused on what it was that we said about ourselves and what it was that we did. Do our words, actions and values line up with who we say we are, or is there is a disconnect? 

We’re nearing the end of this part of the process: we are going to be forming a vision statement.  A vision statement is not the be-all and end-all of the process, but it helps point the way. This vision statement will say something about who we are, who we want to be, and how we are being. This statement will go with our church logo, will go on our website, will be the branding that we use. 

For churches, I think (or would hope) that it is less about competition and more about saying who we are to those that don’t know us, and at the same time, reminding us of who we are and where we are going.  Habakkuk 2:2 says “Write the vision… make it plain so that a runner may read it.”  In other words, keep it short, make it easy to know, make it something that everyone can memorize and recite to those who want to know about who you are.

Lastly, so you don’t fall into the trap of “Something for Everyone,” be a little more specific. If you are Open and Affirming or Welcoming and Affirming, say it. Put a rainbow flag up, or a handicap accessible sign, or an Autism puzzle piece on your logo, or something else that symbolizes you are welcoming, open and affirming to a specific population. That doesn’t mean you’re not open and affirming of typically developing children, straight people, or people who don’t use a wheelchair! But it lets people know that your congregation thinks about these things and is concerned about the inclusion of others.  Most of us don’t want to limit ourselves so we either say nothing, or have a very, very long non-discrimination or inclusion statement.  The statements are great—and should be on your website and your welcoming information. But your vision statement, your branding, your logo, your identity statement—however you want to put it—should be shorter, something everyone can memorize and recite, and needs to contain something that makes people say “If they welcome these people, they probably welcome others as well.”  

So as I said, my current church is still in the process. We haven’t gotten there yet. But I’m very hopeful about the process and where we are going, and through this process, we are recognizing our need to be more specific in our welcome and inclusion of others. We are learning that we need to share our dreams, our passion, through the process of vision, remembering the spirit that once filled us before, and we are finding that spirit again. We are also learning more about who we are as individuals, and how we welcome one another is integral to our church.  The spirit is still there, and in the words of Habakkuk, there is still a vision for the appointed time.

Get Out of the Office

By Rev. Mindi

In my last two pastoral positions, I was an office worker, or I worked from home once my son was born.  I did emails, prepared sermons, counseled members, met with people and did most of my work from the church office. 

This time, I wanted to be different. I wanted to get out of the office, which is in an out of the way place on the church property, and away from the church building, which is in a residential area behind a school and not something most people see and notice.  I wanted to read and do work in a public space, where I might engage in some pleasant conversation that might lead to an invitation to my church.

I’m in the Seattle area, so of course the coffee shop seemed the natural place to go (If you want coffee in Seattle, all you have to do is point and walk a block or two in that direction).  I have friends who love doing their work in the local coffee shop, and they know their baristas by name.  But the coffee shop I went to was too sterile for conversation—people were engaged clicking away on their Macbooks or reading magazines I had never heard of.  The few that were talking were in private conversations or talking about gossipy news.  I was able to get work done, but I was not able to engage others in conversation.  Staff were always busy behind the bar and working the drive-through.  Plus, I saw I wasn’t the only one with the idea.  One time, a man was sitting at his table with a very large Bible open, which he pretended to read and then scan around the coffee shop hoping someone would engage him in a conversation. I’m quite certain that had I attempted to, I would have heard more about the Bible’s “plan for my life,” and would not have actually had a theological discussion but a one-sided lecture.

Then I heard a story of a pastor who would set up in a local bakery once a week in the morning with a sign reading “The Pastor is In” (think Lucy from Peanuts).  I thought the bakery in my town might be more of a suitable location.  After indulging in chocolate croissants and cookies, though, I also found it hard to engage others in conversations.  Again, staff were always busy, often having to work in the back to prepare the delicious food that was served, and most customers did not stay long.  I still go there now and then, but more for a publically private place to read and work.

Then I found the diner. The hole-in-the-wall, greasy spoon dive place.  Where the booth seats squish down and do not spring back up.  Where there are bowls of creamer and bottles of Tabasco sauce on every table.  I brought in a couple of books to read and some light work to do. The hostess begins a conversation about what her horoscope says. The waitress asks me about what I am reading.  Every time I am in there, I see the regulars—lots of seniors who come for a cup of coffee and conversation, some truck drivers and other workers who gather for breakfast every morning, and some young couples, just off the night shift, getting in a good meal before they go to bed.  It’s a mix of class and culture, with a table of women in scarves and dress shoes next to a table with two fresh-out-of-high school workers on a breakfast date with paint on their pants.  Across from me sits Jack, who must be in his 80’s and has old faded tattoos on his arms, who comes every Tuesday to meet his Navy buddy, and at the next table another man also introduces himself as Jack, and he is a local pastor.

In one hour of having breakfast and reading at this diner, I made more ministry connections and new relationships than I had in the first four months of my ministry here.

It’s important to get out of the office.  While there may still be some who expect their pastor to be in the office, most understand that we need to be out in the community.  Sure, there are times we need to buckle down and get some things done in the office, but more and more, we need to be out and about, making connections and engaging in conversation, getting to know the people. 

Find your space in the community: a diner, a bakery, a coffee shop, a pub or an ice cream parlor (another friend I know holds office hours at an ice cream shop!).  Find the place where people more naturally engage in conversations with strangers. Get to know the regulars and the staff. Bring some work, but understand that by being a customer there, you are engaged in ministry already.  Enjoy it!

RECLAIMING CHURCH - REDUX

(Blue Text is an internet link)

(The first version of RECLAIMING CHURCH was published June 3, 2010) (It was the first [D]mergent article by Doug Sloan)

(all scripture references are NRSV)

Have you seen or used the following sermon illustration?

Firmly, I place my hand on the wall of the sanctuary. Loudly, I proclaim, ......"This is not the church!" ......"The building is not the church." ......"It is the people who are the church." ......"Amen."

Do we have any idea what was really just said?

Do we have any idea what it really means?

If the building is not the church, then why do we spend so much time and effort dealing with this physical structure? If the building is not the church, then why is the building so important to us? After our hand-on-the-wall proclamation, have we ever taken a far look in the direction we just pointed? What happens when we extend that thought even further?

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, ......where moth and rust consume and ......where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, ......where neither moth nor rust consumes and ......where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, ......there your heart will be also. ........................Matthew 6:19-21

No one can serve two masters; ......for a slave will either ......hate the one and love the other, or ......be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. ........................Matthew 6:24

As he was setting out on a journey, ......a man ran up and knelt before him, ......and asked him, ............Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Jesus said to him, ......Why do you call me good? ......No one is good but God alone. ......You know the commandments: ............You shall not murder; ............You shall not commit adultery; ............You shall not steal; ............You shall not bear false witness; ............You shall not defraud; ............Honor your father and mother.

He said to him, ......Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ......You lack one thing; ............go, sell what you own, and ............give the money to the poor, and ............you will have treasure in heaven; ............then come, follow me.

When he heard this, ......he was shocked and went away grieving, ......for he had many possessions. ........................Mark 10:17-22 ........................Matthew 19:16-22 ........................Luke 18:18-23

What do capital campaigns and 6- or 7- or 8-digit mortgages (or any mortgage amount) and sanctuaries with high vaulted ceilings and proper acoustic resonance and stained glass windows and basketball courts and dining halls and fully equipped kitchens and sculpted altars and carved pulpits and custom-built communion tables and decorative carpet and imported floor tiles and comfortable color-coordinated congregational seating and vast paved parking lots and meticulously manicured lawns and lavish landscaping have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

What do multiple annual fund-raisers and all the accompanying effort and bother and stress and time and finding workers and managing schedules and obtaining gaming licenses and liquor permits and additional liability insurance have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

What do praise bands and church orchestras and bell choirs and octaves of tuned bells and multi-rank pipe organs and grand pianos and synthesizers and drum sets and adult choirs and children choirs and choir auditions and choir robes and music folders and the search and review and selection analysis and purchase of new music and multi-line PA systems and multi-screen video systems and live broadcasts and recorded broadcasts and hours of rehearsal time and church bulletins and church bulletin art work and church bulletin paper and designer fonts and newsletters and mailing lists and advertising and advertising placement and multi-media web sites and visits by unique IP addresses and the use of and the presence on new media and follow-spots and theatrical lighting and entertainment values and spectacular presentations have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

What do membership drives and attendance numbers and baptism numbers and tithing pledge totals and expected bequests and sustaining endowments and liturgical employees and non-liturgical employees and salaries and benefits and committees and committee meetings and committee responsibilities and church boards and church board agendas and church board votes and the consequential and unavoidable church politics have to do with living and sharing the Good News? – Nothing.

Much of what we call successful church and successful worship and being a successful congregation has nothing to do with living and sharing the Good News.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and ......began to drive out those who were selling and ......those who were buying in the temple, and ......he overturned the tables of the money-changers and ......the seats of those who sold doves; and ......he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.

He was teaching and saying, ......Is it not written, ............My house shall be called ............a house of prayer for all the nations? ......But you have made it a den of robbers. ........................Mark 11:15-17 ........................Matthew 21:12-13 ........................Luke 19:45-46

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and ......the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, ......he drove all of them out of the temple, ......both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and ......overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ......Take these things out of here! ......Stop making my Father’s house a market-place! ........................John 2:13-16

Once we begin to think of our faith in terms of largeness instead of largess; once we begin to think of our faith in terms of measurable success or significant achievements or community stature or statistically significant gains or business models or congregational models or appropriate budget processes or cash flow direction or generally accepted accounting practices or independent audits or administrative requirements or procedural transparency or proper leadership roles or managerial responsibilities and boundaries or membership trends or effective organizational structures or current and accurate and relevant identity/purpose/vision/mission statements or strategic and tactical plans or valid and useful performance metrics – at that point, we have become money changers and temple authorities, we have deformed from a community into an industry that requires exclusionary individualism. At that point, we have lost our faith and our spiritual direction and we have wandered off the narrow path. At that point, we are colluding with and siding with the Empire instead of the Kingdom of God and we deserve to be rebelled against and driven away for we are neither living nor sharing the Good News. We have become that which the Good News opposes and seeks to replace.

But if it is by grace, ......it is no longer on the basis of works, ......otherwise grace would no longer be grace. ........................Romans 11:6

Yet we know that a person is justified ......not by the works of the law ......but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, ......so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, ......and not by doing the works of the law, ......because no one will be justified by the works of the law. ........................Galatians 2:16

But God, ......who is rich in compassion, ......out of the great love with which he loved us ......even when we were dead through our trespasses, ......made us alive together with Christ – ......by grace you have been saved – ......and raised us up with him ......and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, ......so that in the ages to come he might show ......the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness ......toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, ......and this is not your own doing; ......it is the gift of God – ......not the result of works, ......so that no one may boast. ........................Ephesians 2:4-9

Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I needed it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors. ........................The Shack”, William P. Young, pp. 188-189

The Good News has 3 inseparable messages: 1) The universal accessibility of 1)..the personal and persistent unrestrained love and unconditional grace of God; and 2) The feeding quenching clothing healing visiting welcoming compassion and 2)..the reparative rehabilitating restorative justice of the Community; and 3) The inclusive hospitality and joyous generosity and healthy service of the Individual.

By living the Good News: We promote and provoke the unrestrained love and unconditional grace of God. We search for and find the .....hungry .....thirsty .....naked .....ill and hurting .....lost .....oppressed and enslaved .....excluded .....imprisoned and, both immediately and permanently, they are .....fed .....quenched .....clothed .....healed .....found and rescued and restored to participatory liberty .....freed .....invited and welcomed and included .....provided justice with a life repaired through rehabilitation and restoration ..........and, it is critically important that this is always included, .....all who are served are treated as members of the Community. We define ourselves as Individuals with .....inclusive hospitality .....joyous generosity .....healthy service to others "healthy service" means we understand and engage in .....healthy rest .....healthy nourishment .....healthy education .....healthy solitude .....healthy worship .....healthy relationship with those we serve ..........which does not include suffering or participating in or enabling ...............war ...............murder ...............abuse of others ...............self-destructive behavior ...............enslavement ...............the satisfaction of useless whimsical requests. In this way, we choose, join, become, live, share, and exude the Kingdom of God here and now.

What would happen if church universal assets – every congregational and regional and national property, every seminary, every camp – was sold and the net proceeds were consolidated with church investments and church cash to establish a trust fund endowment to support the services we provide to those whom we are called to serve?

When you want a new status quo – a new status quo so different that the current status quo will be relabeled as "old" – you are asking for revolution. When you desire radical counter-cultural transformation – you are asking for revolution. When you want to end the oppressive Empire ethos of piety, war, victory, peace - you are asking for the Empire to be dismantled and replaced with the Good News, you are asking for revolution. When the church is consumed and possessed by mortgages, capital campaigns, membership numbers, qualifications for membership or deacon or elder, the variety and format of financial reports, redecorating, ordination policies, the proper delineation of committee responsibilities, the aggregation and strengthening and protection of church hierarchical authority, the preference for political associations and prominence instead of being a voice and influence for justice and compassion, seasonal vestment colors, the abandonment and refusal to acknowledge congregations who dare to be excited by their proclaiming and provoking and living and sharing the Good News, the continual choosing and preoccupation with better organization over better outreach, or what styles of worship are to be offered – then it is time for an earth-shaking, stone-rolling, curtain ripping, hurricane-strength, fiery and noisy transformational revolution that will resurrect the Good News in the body and spirit of communities and individuals.

"Doing" has to be the new sole definition of faith. A "new definition of faith" will not be statements of identity/purpose/mission/vision or offering a variety of worship styles at various times and days or hosting church fund raisers that have achieved the status of popular civic events. "Doing" our faith will not promote isolation from people in need or from the present time or from planetary stewardship by valuing hope for an escape into a future post-mortal existence instead of being the response to the divine call to be justly and compassionately involved in the present reality of life. "Doing" our faith will not be glossy advertising campaigns; bigger capital campaigns; better communication and contacts between congregations and local, regional, and national governing boards; on-line seminaries and colleges; common language licensing/ordination policies; new carpet; or more affordable baptistery maintenance contracts. It will be specific activities; specific ways of gracious and grace-full living that are the new definition. Participating in CODA or LifeLine or Habitat for Humanity or Meals on Wheels or the Mental Health Association will not be an outreach activity; it will be what we do and it will be definitive of who we are. Supporting a free health clinic or a food pantry or a shelter for the homeless or hosting a community garden will not be the focus of an annual fund-raising event; it will be part of our continuously active and visible theological and spiritual DNA. Taking a publicly visible and vocal stance of opposition against and non-participation in institutional or legislated injustice will not be an exceptional or cautious action; it will be a bold and expected response arising from a communal personality that yearns for and demands justice and compassion from all public institutions. Worship will be whenever and wherever 2 or 3 (not 200 or 300, not 2,000 or 3,000, not 20,000 or 30,000) are gathered to live, study, and contemplate the Good News - and it will be no less true and no less sacred because there are only 2 or 3 - and it will be no more true and no more sacred because there are more than 2 or 3. Indeed, "doing" will be about living and being the Good News. Worship can be and should be less of a scheduled repetitive activity and more of a community gathering to share and become better acquainted with the presence of God and to mutually seek a better understanding of the Good News.

"Doing" our faith has to be seen as a radical, counter-cultural, defiant, fearless way of living. Our faith is not to be institutionalized. Our faith is not to be measured by or expressed as largeness, cultural pervasiveness, political influence, authoritarianism, or a social or managerial hierarchy. Our faith is not to treat people with: conditional inclusion, tolerance, shame, scorn, ridicule, shunning, rejection, exclusion, or condemnation. Our faith is not to hate people. Our faith is not to ignore people or God. Instead, our faith is to value the presence of God and to value all people and to value God and people together as one community or, better yet, as one family. Our faith is to value knowledge over ignorance and value compassion over knowledge. The way we embrace and treasure and grow our faith is personal and intelligent and loving and divine. The way we "do" our faith is to be personally and intelligently and lovingly and divinely humane. Our faith is to be constantly centered in the love and grace that is the persistent presence of God. The ancient writings of our ancient faith ancestors are to be regarded as human expressions arising out of human experiences with the divine and the profane and the ordinary. Those ancient writings are to be neither considered worthless and ignored nor considered controlling and obligatory. Those ancient writings can be considered instructive and inspirational; providing examples of living either to emulate faithfully or to avoid strenuously; a foundational starting point upon which we build, reach out, move on, and grow beyond the original ancient understanding. Our faithful "doing" is to be rendered and delivered person-to-person, face-to-face, one-to-one – not by an invisible faceless remote committees or collectives. “Doing” our faith can be accomplished only with more personal involvement and presence and not with more communication technology that is newer, faster, more pervasive, more invasive, environmentally expensive, and is used to increase personal remoteness and detachment and decrease personal involvement and presence.

As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; ......and he had compassion for them, ......because they were like sheep without a shepherd; ......and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, ......his disciples came to him and said, ............This is a deserted place, ............and the hour is now very late; ............send them away so that they may go ............into the surrounding country and villages ............and buy something for themselves to eat.

But he answered them, ......You give them something to eat.

They said to him, ......Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, ............and give it to them to eat?

And he said to them, ......How many loaves have you? ......Go and see.

When they had found out, they said, ......Five, and two fish.

Then he ordered them to get all the people ......to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, ......he looked up to heaven, ......and blessed and broke the loaves, ......and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; ......and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; ......and they took up twelve baskets ......full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men. ........................Mark 6:34-44 ........................Matthew 14:14-21 ........................Luke 9:12-17 ........................John 6:4-13

In those days ......when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, ......he called his disciples and said to them, ...........I have compassion for the crowd, .................because they have been with me now for three days .................and have nothing to eat. ...........If I send them away hungry to their homes, .................they will faint on the way— .................and some of them have come from a great distance.

His disciples replied, ......How can one feed these people with bread ............here in the desert?

He asked them, ......How many loaves do you have?

They said, ......Seven.

Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; ......and he took the seven loaves, ......and after giving thanks ......he broke them ......and gave them to his disciples to distribute; ......and they distributed them to the crowd. They had also a few small fish; ......and after blessing them, ......he ordered that these too should be distributed. They ate and were filled; ......and they took up the broken pieces left over, ......seven baskets full. Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. ........................Mark 8:1-9 ........................Matthew 15:32-39

They devoted themselves ......to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, ......to the breaking of bread and the prayers. All who believed were together and had all things in common; ......they would sell their possessions and goods and ......distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, ......they broke bread at home and ......ate their food with glad and generous hearts, ......praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. ........................Acts 2:42, 44-47

Now the whole group of those who believed ......were of one heart and soul, and ......no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, ......but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony ......to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and ......great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, ......for as many as owned lands or houses ......sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, ......and it was distributed to each as any had need. ........................Acts 4:32-36

This way of living as a community of mutual sufficiency and support did not originate with the early church. It was a very old idea - first described in the written Torah.

There shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you. ........................Exodus 12:49

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; ........................Exodus 22:21-23

If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate. ........................Exodus 22:25-27

You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness. You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing; when you bear witness in a lawsuit, you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit. When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free. You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and those in the right, for I will not acquit the guilty. You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. ........................Exodus 23:1-11

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. ........................Leviticus 19:9-18

The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land. If anyone of your kin falls into difficulty and sells a piece of property, then the next of kin shall come and redeem what the relative has sold. If the person has no one to redeem it, but then prospers and finds sufficient means to do so, the years since its sale shall be computed and the difference shall be refunded to the person to whom it was sold, and the property shall be returned. But if there is not sufficient means to recover it, what was sold shall remain with the purchaser until the year of jubilee; in the jubilee it shall be released, and the property shall be returned. If anyone sells a dwelling house in a walled city, it may be redeemed until a year has elapsed since its sale; the right of redemption shall be one year. If it is not redeemed before a full year has elapsed, a house that is in a walled city shall pass in perpetuity to the purchaser, throughout the generations; it shall not be released in the jubilee. But houses in villages that have no walls around them shall be classed as open country; they may be redeemed, and they shall be released in the jubilee. As for the cities of the Levites, the Levites shall forever have the right of redemption of the houses in the cities belonging to them. Such property as may be redeemed from the Levites—houses sold in a city belonging to them—shall be released in the jubilee; because the houses in the cities of the Levites are their possession among the people of Israel. But the open land around their cities may not be sold; for that is their possession for all time. If any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you, you shall support them; they shall live with you as though resident aliens. Do not take interest in advance or otherwise make a profit from them, but fear your God; let them live with you. You shall not lend them your money at interest taken in advance, or provide them food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God. ........................Leviticus 25:23-38

Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, so that a slayer who kills a person without intent may flee there. The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, so that the slayer may not die until there is a trial before the congregation. The cities that you designate shall be six cities of refuge for you: you shall designate three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. These six cities shall serve as refuge for the Israelites, for the resident or transient alien among them, so that anyone who kills a person without intent may flee there. ........................Numbers 35:10-15

“I charged your judges at that time: “Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien. You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. Any case that is too hard for you, bring to me, and I will hear it.” ........................Deuteronomy 1:16-17

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. ........................Deuteronomy 10:17-19

As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you. Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake. Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed. Of a foreigner you may exact it, but you must remit your claim on whatever any member of your community owes you. There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today. When the Lord your God has blessed you, as he promised you, you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow; you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you. If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” ........................Deuteronomy 14:27-29, 15:1-11

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” ........................Deuteronomy 15:7-11

You shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes, in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall render just decisions for the people. You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. ........................Deuteronomy 16:18-20

When you make your neighbor a loan of any kind, you shall not go into the house to take the pledge. You shall wait outside, while the person to whom you are making the loan brings the pledge out to you. If the person is poor, you shall not sleep in the garment given you as the pledge. You shall give the pledge back by sunset, so that your neighbor may sleep in the cloak and bless you; and it will be to your credit before the Lord your God. You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death. You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this. ........................Deuteronomy 24:10-22

These are only some of the verses from the written Torah that are concerned with and advocate and demand and require inclusion, justice, forgiveness, and compassion. These are not the only verses – the entire scriptural collection, the Jewish Bible and the Christian Testament, repeatedly speaks of the same concerns, avocations, demands, and requirements. In this light, the scriptures are constantly calling us forward to a better and enlarging and more inclusive and maturing understanding of the will of God for us and for this world. God is always calling us from Exodus to the Promised Land. God is always calling us from Exile to return home.

The “will of God” – what God wants for us – is for us to: ......Be Free and Independent ......Think ......Be Curious ......Be Intelligent and Wise ......Value Knowledge over Ignorance and Compassion over Knowledge ......Be Creative ......Grow and Mature ......Live Long Healthy Satisfying Lives ......Live Non-Violently Without Vengeance ......Be Hospitable ......Be Generous ......Do No Harm ......Provide Justice as Healing and Rehabilitation and Restoration ......Be Forgiving ......Promote and Provide and Protect Reconciliation ......Be Good Stewards of all Resources ......Live Here as One Family ......Live in Loving Relationship with Grace-full God ......Be Transformed through Resurrection ......Be the Kingdom of God here and now

So how do we reclaim the Good News as the sole purpose for church? How do we reclaim the church for and as the Good News? How do we reclaim the church as a community and not as a scheduled activity with secondary social consequences? How do we reclaim the church as a community and not as an Empire organization based on and filled with hubris, sloth, and idolatry? How do we reclaim church as a place where people expect to grow and thrive emotionally, intellectually, theologically, and spiritually? How do we reclaim church as a community with a culture of love, grace, justice, compassion, affirmation, and encouragement for each individual?

There was a time when our choir, after singing the anthem, would leave their seats at the front of the sanctuary, move out into the congregation to be with their family, remove their full-length choir vestments, and sit down. A common tongue-in-cheek observation was that we were the only church in town (county? state?) where you could go to a worship service and watch people disrobe in public.

One way that the church can reclaim the Good News is to strip down to the bare necessities (deliberate song cue) - to start again with only God, Community, and Individuals. Remove burdensome structure - both administrative and physical. Remove all ecclesiastical hierarchy and all religious institutions. Remove all authoritarianism. If only for a month or two, meet for worship as a small group in the home of a member - and each week meet in the home of a different member. Collect offerings only for outreach. Eliminate the church governing board and board meetings. As detailed by Derek Penwell in Killing Church Committees and Other Reflections on Church Organization, eliminate committees and committee meetings. It is time to seriously consider eliminating: musical groups and instruments and rehearsals, fund-raisers, capital campaigns, financial systems, buildings, properties, employees, clergy, and membership rolls. This is not a denial of their "practical" benefits - it is an acknowledgement of how they too easily, even inescapably, become worldly consumptive replacements for the fulfilling and regenerative divine Good News - of how they too easily, even inescapably, become fatal distractions to our living and being the Kingdom of God.

Regardless of the physical and organizational implementation of church reformed and redefined...

Always Imagine Church as worship, studying, sharing in word and service to each other and to the world.

Always Imagine Church as always living and being the Good News as individuals and as community.

Always Imagine Church as the Kingdom of God in this world here and now.

Amen