spirituality

Unfortunate Assumptions

By Rev. Mindi

“You have to be in community in order to experience God.”

“You have to be in a covenantal relationship in order for true community to be upheld.”

“To be spiritual but not religious is just a cop-out.”

“We welcome everyone who welcomes everyone.”

All four of these sayings I have heard uttered by more than one progressive, liberal, open and affirming, postmodern pastor or church leader.  All four of these sayings, sadly, make assumptions that actually keep people from wanting to go to church, which I am sure is not their intent.

“You have to be in community in order to experience God.”

When we look at the Bible, we do find many examples of community: the early house churches, the Disciples, the communities of the Hebrews after the exile, Israel and Judah, the twelve Tribes, the band of wanderers in the desert—even going back to Jacob’s family, or Abraham and Sarah and their entourage—there was a community.  However, the statement implies usually that those outside of the church seeking spirituality are not in a community. All too often, we assume someone is not part of an existing community. And I’m not talking a church or Bible study. I meet people all the time who are in community, even spiritual community, without necessarily setting foot into a church or existing church community: book groups, 12-step programs, coffee shop gatherings, the local diner where the locals gather, the Farmer’s markets, the picket lines—there are plenty of places where community happens that has spiritual components. I’ve been part of many communities outside of church where prayer, questioning, meditating, social action, concern and care take place. We need to strip away the assumptions that those outside of the church are not in community already.

“You have to be in a covenantal relationship in order for true community to be upheld.”

What that sounds like to someone who doesn’t use covenantal language on a daily basis (and trust me, fewer in the church actually do than we think they do, but I digress…) is that there is some sort of contract, some sort of membership clause that makes everything official, and if you don’t sign on the dotted line, it’s not official. I’ve had pastors argue this with me all the time. We need to unpack what it means to be in a covenantal relationship. When God makes a covenant with the people of Israel in the wilderness, God does not require them all to sign a contract. Rather, they make an affirmation of faith in the community, together. I’ve seen some churches do this better—a yearly affirmation of the covenant, rather than a one-time membership course and public declaration of membership.  But the assumption is again that people on the outside of the church aren’t in a covenantal relationship, or that those who visit church but haven’t joined aren’t ready for that kind of commitment. They may be ready for that commitment, but don’t want to join through an outdated “you’re in the club” membership system that too many of our churches use.

And there’s also the assumption that some kind of commitment needs to be made verbally or in writing. More and more often, I am meeting couples who are choosing not to get married, or choosing to wait to get married. Like it or not, this is happening more often.  There is a culture shift about what that kind of covenantal relationship means. For some, it is a way of not making such a deep commitment without serious thought and time to be sure this is what they want. For others, they don’t have the same need for themselves to make a legal, binding, contractual commitment—they see their relationship commitments differently. We need to understand this cultural shift, because it also applies to whether or not people want to join a church or any other organized way of being in spiritual community.  While I still uphold the tradition of covenantal relationship in the church, I also understand that others do not have the same need for making a commitment in the same way to an organization—they prefer to be in the group when their heart is in it, and to move on when it is no longer living up to what it claimed to be or fulfilling their needs. 

This attitude is not new—how many members are on your roles who never come to church?  Just because we may claim that covenantal relationship is key for true spiritual community doesn’t mean we’ve been particularly good at it ourselves.  We may need to reexamine what we mean by all of this commitment business anyway.

“To be spiritual but not religious is just a cop-out.”

Our saying this publically is not going to get those who feel spiritual but not religious to engage in any kind of conversation with those who claim to be religious. While you might roll your eyes at the “spiritual but not religious” claim, you’re not doing anything to invite those who feel that way into a conversation.  What we might do is ask them what it means to be spiritual for them, and if there are spiritual practices they engage in. Make a few friends who are spiritual but not religious. In my time as a pastor, I have found them to be my very best friends—people who understand my faith but don’t want to be part of organized religion. They are the ones I can confide in, turn to with my own questions and wonderings. And sometimes they see that we on the religious side can be spiritual, too.  And you might just find that SBNR folks do gather together in their own communities, or come together at prayer vigils, book groups, and other such gatherings.

“We welcome everyone who welcomes everyone.”

In other words, we welcome those who think and look like us. Yup. I’ve heard this from so many liberal/progressive leaders over the years who don’t seem to hear what they are saying. There is no discussion, there is no room for dialogue. And I’m not talking about only welcoming people who disagree with me, but also welcoming people who have been abused and wounded by the church. They may not be the most welcoming people. They may not ever feel comfortable setting foot inside a church. In the SBNR discussion, one thing that gets overlooked is just how many people have been hurt by the church in general. So many of my friends who claim SBNR grew up in a church where they were taught to be ashamed of who they were, where they were made to feel guilty for choices they made as a teenager, who experienced the loss of trust of a leader, who were the victim of gossip and lies in the church.  I know one experience where a child’s parents were divorced in the church, and the gossip and backstabbing that happened in the life of the congregation discussing her parent’s divorce has made her adamant to never set foot in such a place again.

So what do we do?

For one, I think we have to stop speaking such assumptions. I think as church leaders, we need to become more involved in the community around us, specifically finding who and where the SBNR folks are around us. Secondly, we have to stop the public judging. Third, we need to simply stop making assumptions about why people don’t go to church, because those assumptions are what drive every single program designed to reach the “unchurched,” every single change that a congregation makes that is not something they would normally do but in hopes that it might bring in younger people who don’t go to church.  Those changes and programs do nothing but burn us out even more in the long run.  Fourth, we have to have vision.  And that vision has to include the very real possibility that church as we know it, church the way we grew up with it, isn’t going to exist in the next generation.

This is not easy. But I think the stripping away of our assumptions is the first step towards moving forward in this new world as the people of God, followers of Jesus, Christians. If church truly is a people, as the old song says, and not the building, the steeple, the resting place, the programs, the worship service, the coffee hour, the youth group, etc., then we must go and be with the people, and we must listen and learn from them. In order to do that, we must let go of our assumptions: about what people are looking for, about why they don’t come to church, and also, the main assumption that we know better than they do. Because if we did know better, we wouldn’t be in this place, would we?

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.

Growing Peace

By Rev. Mindi

I lived in the Boston area for ten years, attending seminary in Newton, just blocks from the Marathon route on Comm Ave (Commonwealth Avenue for non-Massachusetts peeps).  For the first six years I could walk to the same spot where Centre Street crosses Comm Ave and watch for the runners I knew. One year the youth of my church and I made posters for one of our members running the race, staying until we spotted her and could give her our high-five blessings of encouragement.  My last four years, I lived in Framingham, Massachusetts, closer to the start of the race, and I would drive to downtown Framingham early before the road was closed, park my car at the Assembly of God church and meet my friend, Pastor Bob, and we would set up our chairs along Rt. 135, near the Dunkin Donuts.  But it was in my first visit to Boston in 1999, when I was checking out seminaries, that I first saw the small tortoise and hare statues that grace the end of the Boston Marathon in Boston on Boylston Street.

I am still recovering from Newtown, so I don’t feel like the weight of what has happened in Boston has fully hit me yet. A colleague remarked to me after Newtown that many of us were “walking around with PTSD.” With social media, 24/7 news coverage, instant photos (whether real or fake)—the bombarding of information so quickly, the plethora of connections we now have (many of us know someone now, perhaps through friends or family, or maybe a Facebook friend of a friend, for example), we all feel like we know someone there, whether we do in our day-to-day life, or not—more of us are experiencing closeness to these events, to these people who have suffered loss.  In turn, we are suffering collective PTSD.

Of course, whenever something like this occurs, there are reminders that many others in the world live with this kind of terror on a more regular basis. Whether its suicide bombers in Palestine and Israel, drone strikes in Pakistan, IED’s in Afghanistan, or car bombings in other parts of the world that barely register a blip on U.S. news, if at all, there are probably many more people around the world who suffer from collective PTSD on a more regular basis. 

And just like after Newtown, some of the first articles of advice on dealing with violence are geared toward how to talk with children about the events. Good stuff. We need those resources and I’m glad they are there, just as I’m glad that the quote from Rev. Fred Rogers keeps resurfacing about looking “for the helpers.”  We all need those reminders, not just children.

But we need more. We need to do more than just talk to our children about this. We need to do more for all of us. 

I believe, as followers of the Prince of Peace, we have got to live out God’s ways of peace. There’s just no other way.

We need to work on eliminating the language of violence from our vocabulary. We need to work on practicing peace in our daily lives, with our family, friends and neighbors. We need to live into the ways of peace by being aware of where the products we buy come from, how they were harvested or mined, and what happened to the people who worked for those products.  All of the little things we can do.

And then we need to get beyond ourselves. We need to grow our churches into peace churches. We need to say that in the name of Christ, we will no longer live into the violent ways of our world. We will no longer allow violence to have power, to have the final word.

By becoming peace churches, we have the opportunity to transform our communities through education, service and outreach—all the same things we always try to do for our own church growth, but instead, now we are doing it for God’s Shalom.  We have the opportunity to partner with other peace and justice organizations. We are doing this because we want the world to be transformed. 

So I urge you to check out the peace resources offered by the Disciples Peace Fellowship or the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America or other Christian Peace organizations, and work towards growing a peace church. Peace isn’t just something we teach to our children; we still have much to learn ourselves, and there is much for us to do in the work for peace, together.

Music and the Journey of the Soul

By Grant Jacobs

As I'm sure is the case with any individual who has felt compelled to write an article or opinion based essay the first statement is the hardest.  I'm often reminded of the scene in “Finding Forrester”, where after sitting down to work Forrester responds to his pupil's question as to how to start writing:

“No thinking—that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is to write, not to think!” 

So too is the case with my attempt to narrow focus for this article down to a single topic, theme, motif, idea, concept, purpose. What on earth can I say that will matter to anyone out there in cyberspace particularly—where the information and opinions available to us are seemingly limitless? 

I'm lucky enough to have a writer friend who often says, "you write what you know" … “Write what you know”… What do I know? … I know music.

“Not just albums” as my writer friend so bluntly puts it.  He says I can talk “music—not records, not artists, not songs—music.  What it means to be a musician.”

So what does it mean to be a musician? (Aside from the constant worry of going broke.) What does it mean to me? What did it mean to Miles Davis or Leonard Bernstein? What does it mean to my former professors from the School of Music at University of Louisville? What does it mean to them? 

These are all questions that deserve answers. 

I'm reminded of the first song I ever heard that I directly related to a girl I loved, specifically the third verse (in Portuguese):

Quero a vida sempre assim,           I want a life like this forever,

Com você perto de mim,                 With you near me,

Até o apagar da velha chama,          Until the final flicker of the old flame,

E eu que era triste,                          And I was sad,

Descrente de sinismo,                     Cynical about cynicism

Ao encontrar você eu conheci,         When I found you, I knew

O que é Felicidade, Meu Amor          What happiness is, my love

Absolutely beautiful.  Antonio Carlos Jobim's Corcovado. I know the version with Stan Getz best.  

Point is, among the most notable memories of my life is this song.

The first concert I ever performed with an orchestra in college we played the Enigma Variations by Sir Edward Elgar, and when we got to the variation movement entitled "Nimrod" (arguably the most well known movement, and for good reason) I cried.  I wasn't alone.

The first time I heard the opening track “Acknowledgement” to John Coltrane's album "A Love Supreme" I was 16, had just checked the album out from the public library, and was frustrated over having gotten into a shouting match with my high school music teacher earlier that day (mostly ignorant The perfect time.  

“Acknowledgement” … Seven minutes and forty-three seconds that will introduce you to God if you let it.  Listen to it loud, alone, with your eyes closed, and keep breathing deep.  

After the first statement of the main motif by the Double Bass, Coltrane launches into solo...attacking the notes with intensity beyond his normal intent.  After blistering through scales and phrases, screaming out through his single reed, the song ends with giving up the fight and simply singing out the phrase “A love Supreme” to the tune of the original bass statement.  

I've heard his sound of this period described as “wanting to fight his way out of the box”—out of the box of tonality, out of the worldly constraints placed on him and his saxophone.

John Coltrane was a prophet: whereas Mohammed used his (inspired) words, Coltrane used his horn.  His sound fought for freedom—freedom from tonality, freedom from constraint, both musically and spiritually. Freedom from organized musical form and freedom from limitations on not only his sound, tone, and notes, but his spirit, his emotion, his purpose, his life, his search for God. “Acknowledgement” is a perfect title for this song because after multiple minutes of struggling, he acknowledges all he can do is sing and pray for “A Love Supreme”.  

This is the reason people say music isn't the same as it used to be when they hear Taylor Swift or Justin Beiber.

For musicians and non-musicians alike, regardless of genre, we can all admit to having been transported to another place emotionally by the music we were lucky enough to listen to at the time.  Not “hear”… “listen to”… there IS a difference.  You “hear” the smooth piano tune in the elevator on your way to the doctor’s office, you “listen” to the song sung at your father’s funeral.  

This emotionality, this recollection of feeling, this sometimes indescribable sensationalism we have all hopefully been involved in in one capacity or another is not entirely unlike the sensations one may feel when reading their religious text, taking the holy communion with a previously unbelieving friend for the first time, praying for the health of the driver whose car just got hit directly in front of you as you swerved out of the way to safety.

These are all spiritual moments.  

“My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being” 

-John Coltrane

In my own search for faith, for knowledge, and being—or for a way off what Dr. Derek Penwell described once as the "treadmill of Samsara"....Musical moments have consistently provided me with a glimpse of what could be waiting for not just myself, but for all of us, as we eventually pass the threshold to what may or may not be on the other side of death, a glimpse of nirvana, heaven.

In growing up in the Episcopal diocese of WV, attending summer camps, youth retreats and other "happenings," my favorite parts of any gathering or service we had were the times we were all singing together.  Smacking the beat on the pews of those sitting in front of us.

In college, I needed to find a way to supplement my income that was also conducive to my crazy schedule of music, education, and core curriculum classes.  I also desired a church home, because though my own faith was going through one test after another, it just felt right.  Going to church had always been part of my life and though I didn't know what I believed anymore specifically, swimming in my own personal pool of agnosticism...I figured I should fake it till I made it, I needed the structure.

Early in my sophomore year I was invited to audition to play bass with my friend, Barrett, at his church. They would pay me a little bit too!  I found a church home in The Catholic Community of Epiphany.  I was making money to play my bass, and I had a church community I could grab onto for support in the coming years.

Over my remaining four years of school my faith would be tested internally. Losing a guy from my orientation class to suicide, losing communication with the girl I loved, hearing of friends being arrested, having multiple relatives pass in short spans of time.

These are things that test faith.  

All the while I was reading Christopher Hitchens and he keeps telling me that there's no God.  That the reason as humans we are so intuitively inclined to need (and in the opinions of some—create) a God is because of some need for a parent figure later in life—derivative I suppose in many ways of the Freudian argument that we all need a mother or father figure, that we all want somewhere inside ourselves for there to be a God because we need it to tell ourselves that there's a reason we do the things we do beyond just helping our fellow human beings.  To tell ourselves that we will be rewarded for our prayers, for our good intentions, like a child receiving candy or a teenager being paid for good grades.

Are we all just creating a God because we’re looking for an “attaboy?”  

So in a single phrase...I was going through some spiritually turbulent times.  Going through hell.   My oldest friend regularly quotes Winston Churchill—“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

That's what I did.

And this is my point—in all those time of questioning and struggle I kept going....but what kept me going? 

Reliance on the routines and joyful moments involved in the development of my musicianship.  Along with the realization that some of my peers, though self-identified as agnostic or atheist, were the most spiritual people I’d ever known due to their unyielding love for music.  

This is why I decided to pursue music education—to lead young people to these oases of spiritual and sensational moments.  So if they should find themselves in a place where one day they question the existence of God, the existence of purpose, (or validation if you’re Freud or Hitchens), they can rely on the routine of practice, the cold sweats of pre-performance jitters, and the exuberance of applause for their innately human need for sensationalism.  In a single thought—the routines and sensationalism provided by musicianship can supplement those of organized belief when needed.  

Musicianship has continued evolving within the context of the church.  Among the earliest changes in thought to how music was to be presented to “the glory of God” was the publishing in 1581 of Vincenzo Galilei’s (Galileo’s father) a “Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music.”  In this text, Vincenzo argues against the use counterpoint (multiple moving independent melodic lines which support each other and harmonize).  Instead, he proposes the use of a single melody sung by a single voice, using the natural voice inflection of this singer to express the melody and text of the song.  

But why did he do this?  His argument was that the use of multiple voices in large choirs with multiple moving melodies and texts would essentially “distort” the message that was trying to be given up to God.  He argued instead for a single voice and melody because the message being given to God would not be lost in the confusion of instrumental accompaniments, complex harmonies, and multiple voices all singing with slightly different inflections.  

My point in using this example is this: human beings have always struggled with how musicianship and spirituality can most effectively support each other.  It is my belief that the modern-day church would look nothing like it does without the coinciding development of musicianship and the spirituality of historical musicians.  

We see it today, as mega churches often opt for a “praise band” format over traditional hymns or choral music.  These churches are asking themselves the same question Vincenzo Galilei did—how do we most effectively use our musicianship to support faithful spirituality?  

I’ve been lucky to have performed with a symphony orchestra, jazz combos, punk bands, dance bands, on solo recitals, for Catholics and Unitarians alike, and for parents with students I’ve taught.  All of these experiences have generated in me a host of emotions and feelings, from panic and doubt to unfiltered and limitless joy. The common trait these emotions share with my spiritual journey (we all have one) is that to ride the roller coaster of spiritual and musical emotionality is a fundamental part of being human. 

So I encourage you to embrace your sensational moments, embrace your spirituality (or lack thereof) and question it, and if (when) you find yourself lost in the woods of uncertainty remember you can always embrace music to help you find the road.    

How?  

 

Two Prayers

By Rev. Mindi

Two prayers I learned during my summer as a Clinical Pastoral Education intern were:

“Lord, help me not to run,”

and

“Lord, shut my mouth.”

I carry these two prayers with me into my ministry. 

There are plenty of days when I want to run. When the umpteenth person calls or rings the doorbell to tell me they are down on their luck, need gas money or food money, and how they can’t get help from social services for one reason or another or they are just short until the end of the month and will pay me back.  When a church member tells me of all the problems they are facing: relationship struggles, financial struggles, mental health struggles, and it all just seems too much for them to bear and now I have been drawn in.  When someone calls and is mad about the church lights being left on one night, or a building user is upset because the piano was moved, or something is broken or missing and immediately another group is blamed for it.  I want to run.

I want to run instead of going into the hospital room to face the family that is not ready to see their loved one go and just believes if we say the right prayer God will answer.  I want to run when the alcoholic parent tries one more time to make amends and set their life straight and wants me to try to talk to their estranged family.  I want to run when I’m told once again we’re behind in the budget and we’re going to have to cut something.  I want to run.

But I pray that prayer, breathe, and go on. Sometimes I go rather slowly, but I go on, by the help of God, I go on.

And then I pray that second prayer.

I shut my mouth when I am tempted to give the easy answer.  When someone tells me their personal struggles with faith and with the church I listen. When the waitress at the diner tells me about her faith journey I listen. When the elderly woman goes on and on about her dogs as if they were her children I listen.  I listen because it’s the most important thing I can do.

I listen when the pastor in the next town calls me up to try to get me on board with a movement I don’t agree with. I listen when a man tells me how I can’t be a pastor because I’m a woman. I listen when the person laughs that I am a minister and tells me what’s wrong with organized religion.

I listen because it’s not only what I’m called to do, but I pray for the strength to do it.

In my time as a pastor, I have found that one of the most precious gifts we can give to those in need is of our time and of our ears to listen. I have also learned for those who have axes to grind that listening is one of the most disarming things we can do. I’m not advocating for listening and taking in hate speech, but for someone who is looking for an argument, a person who simply listens can dissipate the intensity. Sometimes even listening can change someone’s mind.

When I was a CPE intern that summer, I was called to a room on a floor that never called in the chaplains, even laughed when we checked at the front desk. But this morning I was called in because a patient had requested spiritual support.  But it turned out she had not. What had happened was that she was a talker and the nurses were tired. And it also turned out she was an atheist and the last person she wanted to see was a chaplain (the nurses had failed to mention to her that they had requested the chaplain nor bothered to ask her if she wanted the visit).  But she did turn out to be a talker, and so I prayed for the strength to listen.  I maybe got in 5 sentences in 2 hours of conversation. But by the time they were taking her away for tests, she asked me to pray with her, and so I did.  When I returned the next day she had been discharged, but I believe that was one of the most powerful days as a chaplain. I simply listened.

And I carry those prayers with me on days like today, where I listened to the diner patrons complain about daylight savings time and the government. I prayed not to run when someone called me about a difficult conversation they needed to have with me. I prayed to listen instead, and I believe it went well.

Extravagant Community

By Tim Graves

I cringe when I hear Christians respond to the "spiritual but not religious" by extolling the importance of community. Yes, we all need community for spirituality. We are social creatures. 

But, while there is truth in this response it is based upon an unproven assumption. That is, that the "spiritual but not religious" lead the lives of hermits never talking with friends about their faith journeys. The community-defense also assumes that community must take an organized form. It does not.

[caption id="attachment_1067" align="alignright" width="358"] They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Acts 4:35 NRSV Photo by Tim Graves[/caption]

More troublesome about the community-defense, however, is that it allows followers of Jesus to avoid our own failings. Too often churches are not places of community. Community is about caring for one another in deep ways. It is about assuring that everyone has their basic needs met. The reality is we spend more time worshiping consumerism and capitalism than we do sharing with our neighbor--even those within our churches. 

Too many churches have within their midst those struggling in very real ways while others live in relative laps of luxury. Aside from this being contrary to the teachings of our purported savior, the attitude of the relatively wealthy community members disturbs me. In my experience, when help is provided it comes with strings and pettiness. We reflect the resentment of a culture that elevates rugged individualism to idolatry.

Within this context of blaming the victim, we operate not out of extravagant love but out of begrudging duty. We do not believe that Jesus fed the whole crowd with a few loaves and fish. We fear that if we give too much to someone, even someone within our own community, there will not be enough for us. 

Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Mark 12: 29-31 NRSV (Read in context.)

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: 32-35 NRSV (Read in context.)

Trustworthy God of Abundance,

You give extravagant,

   undeserved grace.

We give out of love,

   limited by our human fears and worries.

Help us to trust in your abundance,

   help us to love you as you love us.

Help us to give lavishly to others,

   within the koinonia,

   and to the whole human family.

RECLAIMING THE FAMILY OF GOD

Us, not ThemHere, not There Now, not Later

A Sermon by Doug Sloan, Elder Terre Haute Central Christian Church Sunday, May 6, 2012

I want to begin by thanking Dianne Mansfield and Phil Ewoldsen for their participation in a very important and successful meeting that took place yesterday, Saturday, May 5, 2012 at Central Christian Church in Indianapolis. This congregation [Terre Haute Central Christian Church], through its board and elders, is one of four congregations [now five] sponsoring a resolution to change the ordination policy of the Indiana Region. Elders and representatives of those four congregations met with the pastor and an elder of the Oaktown congregation, which has deep reservations and sincere concerns about the resolution. The meeting was serious – most of the time, we are talking about a gathering of Disciples – and spiritual. I came away from the meeting feeling hopeful. New ground was broken and a path was cleared for similar conversations elsewhere in the region that involve congregations with the same reservations and concerns as Oaktown.

Also, I want to thank my wife, Carol, for “encouraging” me to stop and think and – in this case – step back ten yards and punt. I can’t help wondering how much better off the history of the church and how much easier Christian theology would be if Paul had been married. Imagine the difference there would be in all of Christianity if Paul had been married to a woman who had looked at him with equal amounts of disdain and concern and said, “Paul, honey – KISS.*”

Being family is not always easy.

My father was quiet and laid back. My mother was gregarious and active. My younger brother, Dennis, was a jock. I was not. In high school, I was in choir, plays, and on the speech team. Dennis ran cross country and played trombone in the band – with band, especially marching band, being more for social enjoyment than satisfying any musical ambition.

Dennis also liked to ride his 12-speed bicycle. Dennis and his riding buddies thought nothing about jumping on their bikes and pedaling from New Castle to Muncie and back between lunch and supper. Muncie is approximately 25 miles north of New Castle – a round trip of a good 50 miles. You have to understand, they would return from these little jaunts with no signs of having exerted themselves.

One day, a trip was planned to our Uncle’s house on the southwest edge of Muncie – and I decided to join them. How hard could it be? The trip to my Uncle’s house was a great ride – we took county roads and stayed off the state highways. We had a nice visit with our Aunt Marjorie and Uncle Kenneth and our cousin Joy Ann and her boyfriend, Phil – and the girl who lived next door to Phil.

Well, the time came to return home. We jumped on our bikes and started pedaling home. A few miles south of Muncie, it happened – my lack of experience with long-distance bicycle rides caught up with me and hammered me with the great-granddaddy of all leg cramps. Every muscle in both legs, above and below the knees, tightened into an unbreakable searing knot. Whatever fantasies I ever had about being “the man of steel” – this wasn’t it. The ride came to a screeching stop in front of someone’s house – to this day, I don’t know who those poor people were. Dennis knocked on the door to ask to use the phone to call our parents. Meanwhile, I had hobbled to the porch to get out of the sun where I promptly collapsed in excruciating pain which I expressed without restraint at the top of my lungs. Eventually, my father arrived and took me and my bicycle home. I never took another bicycle trip with my brother – and my brother has never harassed me about it or held it against me.

Being family is not always easy.

I hear that it has been this way for a long time.

When King David died, the crown went to his son, Solomon. When Solomon died, the crown went to his son, Rehoboam.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin is the author of an encyclopedic book titled, “Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History.”

Rabbi Telushkin has this to say about King David’s grandson: "Rehoboam has three bad traits; he is greedy arrogant, and a fool." (p. 84)

From I Kings 12, here is a summary of what happened after the death of King Solomon. King Solomon had imposed high taxes and forced labor to build the temple. After the death of Solomon, the people approached Rehoboam and asked, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now, therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you.” Rehoboam told them he would have an answer for them in three days. His father’s advisors, who are older, suggest kindness and moderation and thus gain the eternal allegiance of the people. The younger advisors, who had grown up with Rehoboam, suggest a ruthless denial of the request. Rehoboam listens to his younger advisors. When the people return in three days, Rehoboam informs them that he will be even tougher than his father. And the people said, “We’re outta here.” [Hoosier translation of the original Hebrew] Ten of the twelve tribes form their own kingdom and Rehoboam is left with the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The ten tribes name their kingdom, “Israel.”

208 years later, Israel is destroyed by Assyria. 136 years after the destruction of Israel, most of Judah is exiled to Babylon.

Here is the rest of the story. When the Assyrians destroyed Israel, some of the people escaped to Judah, formed their own province in the north of Judah and called it Samaria.

Take a breath and change gears – we are jumping to the United States in the 1860s. Think about the animosity between the North and South just before the Civil War. Now, think about that animosity between the North and South and no Civil War. Instead of Civil War, there is only the constant animosity. That is the relationship between Judah and Samaria in the first century during the ministry of Jesus. Back to the United States; what kind of stories do people in the north like to tell about southerners? What kind of stories do people in the south like to tell about those damn yankees? It was the same way between Judah and Samaria. Remember the animosity and the stereotyped jokes that had to have existed the next time you hear the story of the Good Samaritan or the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.

NRSV John 4:7-21 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, .....and Jesus said to her, ..........Give me a drink. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, ..........How is it that you, a Jew, ...............ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria? (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, ..........If you knew the gift of God, and ...............who it is that is saying to you, ....................‘Give me a drink,’ ...............you would have asked him, ...............and he would have given you living water.

The woman said to him, ..........Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. ..........Where do you get that living water? ..........Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, ...............who gave us the well, ...............and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?

Jesus said to her, ..........Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, ...............but those who drink of the water that I will give them ...............will never be thirsty. ..........The water that I will give ...............will become in them a spring of water ...............gushing up to eternal life.

The woman said to him, ..........Sir, give me this water, ...............so that I may never be thirsty or ...............have to keep coming here to draw water.

Jesus said to her, ..........Go, call your husband, and come back.

The woman answered him, ..........I have no husband.

Jesus said to her, ..........You are right in saying, ....................‘I have no husband’; ...............for you have had five husbands, ...............and the one you have now is not your husband. ..........What you have said is true!

The woman said to him, ..........Sir, I see that you are a prophet. ..........Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, ...............but you say that the place where people must worship ...............is in Jerusalem.

Jesus said to her, ..........Woman, believe me, ...............the hour is coming when you will worship the Father ...............neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. [END OF SCRIPTURE]

Two interesting observations about this story.

The first observation is this: Jesus would go the synagogue of whatever village he was visiting. The custom of the day was to invite such a visitor to participate in the worship service. This gave Jesus the opportunity to share his message. Yet, only a couple of stories exist about his synagogue visits. All of the other stories about his ministry – about the teachings and interactions of Jesus – take place outside the synagogue.

The second observation is a question and a challenge: With whom did Jesus interact? Go home and explore the four Gospels; start with Mark, then Matthew and Luke, and finally John. With whom did Jesus interact? Here is a hint: anyone. The early church heard this message and followed it.

NRSV Acts of the Apostles 8:26-40 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ..........Get up and go toward the south ...............to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, .....a court official of the Candace, .....queen of the Ethiopians, .....in charge of her entire treasury.

He had come to Jerusalem to worship .....and was returning home; .....seated in his chariot, .....he was reading the prophet Isaiah.

Then the Spirit said to Philip, ..........Go over to this chariot and join it. So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ..........Do you understand what you are reading? He replied, ..........How can I, unless someone guides me? And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.

The eunuch asked Philip, ..........About whom, may I ask you, ..........does the prophet say this, ..........about himself or about someone else?

Then Philip began to speak, and .....starting with this scripture, .....he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.

As they were going along the road, .....they came to some water; .....and the eunuch said, ..........Look, here is water! ..........What is to prevent me from being baptized?

He commanded the chariot to stop, .....and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, .....went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

When they came up out of the water, .....the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; .....the eunuch saw him no more, .....and went on his way rejoicing.

But Philip found himself at Azotus, .....and as he was passing through the region, .....he proclaimed the good news to all the towns .....until he came to Caesarea. [END OF SCRIPTURE]

The eunuch, because of his incompleteness, would not have been allowed to participate in certain acts of worship at the temple in Jerusalem and there were parts of the temple where he would not have been allowed to enter.

Both of these stories were clear messages of inclusiveness to and by the early church. Additionally, a very clear attribute of the ministry and message of Jesus and the conduct of the early church was that ministry and message occur out there, not in the synagogue. While ministry and message are public, they are not to be overtly offensive, not in-your-face abuse, and they do not demand change as a requirement to hear the message or to receive ministry. Change can occur and it happens through the resurrection and transformation that is experienced when the ministry and message of Jesus is embraced and internalized.

We speak of being children of God, of being in the family of God. We speak of how this includes everyone, that it is a global perspective. We gladly talk about having an open table where all are invited. Really?

We are open and affirming – we welcome anyone regardless of sexual orientation. What about the homophobic? They, too, are children of God.

We happily talk about welcoming all regardless of race, color, or ethnicity. What about the racist, the Neo-Nazi, the KKK? They, too, are children of God.

We would welcome attorneys, judges, police officers, prison guards – anyone involved with law enforcement. What about the car thief, the burglar, the robber, the home invader, the child molester, the rapist, the murderer? They, too, are children of God.

Would we welcome the invisible people? The illegal immigrant, the homeless, the people who have chronic mental illness and are receiving little or no mental health service? They, too, are children of God.

Being family is not easy. There are 4 terrible prices to be paid if we truly accept and embrace this radical ridiculous notion that there are over 7 billion of God’s children on this planet.

1) If we accept each other as real brothers and sisters, then we are going to have to overlook a lot – and that includes stupid disastrous bicycle rides. For example, just in this room, it means affirming that in our worship service, there are no mistakes. [I have lost count of how many times this act of grace in worship has saved my butt.] When applied globally, the price to be paid is: There is no “them”, only us.

2) If we accept that we have 7 billion brothers and sisters, then we lose “there.” The Republic of Congo is not there, it is here. Syria and Iran and Pakistan are not there, they are here. Mexico and Venezuela are not there, they are here. They are as much here as we are in this room.

3) If we accept that we have 7 billion sisters and brothers, then we lose “later.” If Dennis phones from his home in Churubusco saying that he has an emergency that requires me to be there, I’m outta here. I know – We know – that the same is true between many of us in this room. It should be true for all of us who are here – all 7 billion of us. How do we respond “now” [?] – because “later” doesn’t exist.

4) The most terrible price to be paid is that in the presence of evil, we cannot be silent and still. In the presence of evil, we are called to shout, “This is wrong!” and we called to move against it. Evil exists. Evil is when a person is murdered, abandoned, or excluded from their rightful place in life because of prejudice or ignorance. Evil is when people are treated as “them” “there” and we decide that their need for justice or compassion can be dealt with “later.”

Consequently, if we accept that we have 7 billion siblings – and if we accept that “we” are “here” “now” – then we are going to settle our differences in vastly different ways. We are going to settle our differences as family. We are not going to settle our differences as winner-take-all antagonists and not as an act of conquest. We are going to change the way we intervene in conflicts and feuds – and we are going to intervene. We are going to change the way we intervene in harmful practices such as genocide and slavery and exclusion based on prejudice and ignorance – and we are going to intervene. We are going to change the way we intervene in the oppressive practice of living in empire instead of community – and we are going to intervene.

Being family is not easy.

My apologies to those who have already heard this story. I am telling it again because it is the only one I have to end this message.

At one point during his short troubled life, my son, Chad, was arrested and incarcerated in the Greene County jail. Having neither the emotional nor financial resources to pay his bail, I rationalized it as an example of “tough love.”

At 4 o’clock in the morning there was a knock on the front door. There stood my brother, Dennis, with Chad. Chad had phoned Dennis, who at the time lived in Muncie. Dennis had made the 3-hour drive in the middle of the night, from Muncie to Bloomfield, and bailed Chad out of jail and brought Chad home, and then Dennis made the 3-hour drive back to Muncie.

My question to Dennis was something along the line of “What were you thinking?” My brother’s response to me was “What else was I to do? He’s family.”

Being family is not easy. The Good News is that there is no other way than – all of us here and now – be the family of God living in the Kingdom of God – and respond to each other one-to-one with generosity and hospitality and healthy service – and as a community provide justice and compassion – and that we be and live and share the Kingdom of God by embracing and exuding the unrestrained love and unconditional grace of God.

Amen. _________________________________

* In this case, KISS = Keep It Short and Simple

Hope in Wholeness

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="213"] Photo by Tim Graves[/caption]

Article by Tim Graves

When I get too focused on protesting or on politics, I become discouraged and cynical. I see evil behind every human frailty; I see conspiracies at every turn. I see a battle of good versus evil. Eventually, I become a miserable person. I feel betrayed, impotent, and angry. Hopelessness descends. Despondent, I give up.

Focusing on the One whose love envelopes me and connects me to each grassy blade, each sea anemone, and each human being, results in optimism. I find hope in wholeness. That wholeness -- that for Christians emanates from the Table set by Jesus and manifest in love that overcomes death -- is powered by the extravagant love of the Divine. When I focus and respond to that loving grace, I am compelled to act for justice, love with abandon, and strive to be my best self. 

Attuned to the divinity that coarses through you, me, and all of creation, I see see goodness despite human frailty. Filled with hope, I strive to do my part for the whole knowing that I am not alone. Goodness is within every annoying bureaucrat, murderer, and abusive parent. When I respond in love, love multiplies and ripples powered by the One. 

At its core this is the Good News, love always wins in the end. It is more powerful than death, conspiracies, or greedy politicians. When we respond from the divine love within us, justice will "roll down like waters, and righteousness an ever-flowing stream." (Amos 5: 24 NRSV Read this passage in context.

It's All Made Up Anyway

By Tim Graves

"The Holy Trinity's all made up, anyway!" My friend thought I was joking. I wasn't and I'm not. I'm not an atheist; I believe in God. I'm even  [caption id="attachment_960" align="alignright" width="300"] Painting by Anthony J. Kelly. Image retrieved from Rev. David Eck's blog.[/caption]

trinitarian with a higher sense of the Holy Spirit than many other mainline Christians. Still, it's pretend.

I perceive a divinity that connects us, that flows through us, and encourages us to lovingness. Our stories and theologies -- including trinitarian theology -- reveal truths that are beyond the rational, scientific explanation. They are not, nor were they ever intended to be literal, historical retellings of facts. 

Through the Christian biblical narrative, however, God continues to speak. For me, Jesus is,

"the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you have really known me, you will also know the Father." (John 14:6-7b CEB Read this passage in context.)

This is the path upon which God has lured me. This is the only way for me to be the loving, unique person that God created me to be. It is in the life of Jesus, that I enter into a relationship with the love that underpins all of creation. It is in the human Jesus that I learn how to be who God calls me to be.

Jesus functions as a gate for me (John 10: 1-10 CEB). However, just as it is naive and ineffective to expect all children to learn via only one modality (e.g.; visual, auditory, or kinesthetic), it is naive to think that God's love only opens through one gate. The arrogant teacher is one who thinks there is one -- and only one -- way to reach all children. This assumes the gifts, skills, challenges, and experiences of each individual is the same. 

Arrogant Christian spirituality, is one that projects its own gifts on all. When we do this we deny the truth reflected in Paul's writings to the Corinthians. That truth is that as we seek to follow the One, we each have unique roles and gifts.

Certainly the body isn’t one part but many. If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? (1 Corinthians 12: 14-17 CEB Read this passage in context.)

Though Paul wrote to a squabbling community of Jesus followers, to expand this truth beyond Christianity is to hear the voice of God in a new time and place. Paul -- and the other authors of the canon -- wrote contextually. That is, the biblical writers spoke to specific people in a specific era, place, and culture. When we read and study the texts thoughtfully, communally, and prayerfully, we hear God's voice for today. We can find truths.

The gospels interpret the life of Jesus as he challenged the prevailing human-defined circle of acceptable behaviors and the people that were worthy of God's love. The Good News of the unfolding Realm of God (love) is that it is for all of us. God's love is expansive and extravagant! The One is love. The One, who I call God, reflected in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament reveals an arc of loving inclusiveness and justice for all.

To find God through Jesus, does not require dismissing others. On the contrary, to follow the teachings of Jesus is to engage in loving, respectful relationship with others. Other peoples have stories, metaphors, and narratives that describe their experiences of the One, the divinity that I perceive. Just as the Christian Bible reveals truths, the sacred writings (or verbal stories) of Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Rastafarians, and others reveal truths. They reflect the ways that others have experienced the One I call God. Is it hard to perceive that the mysterium tremendum that is God, might speak to others in ways that make sense to them?

Rather than limiting God, I accept the Trinity as a metaphor that helps me to describe how I experience the One. It helps me to follow the Divine's call on my life. I don't need to idolize it into a literal fact anymore than I need Jesus to be the only way to the extravagant, expansive love of God. 

Good Soil Among the Rocks

By Tim Graves
‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ Mark 4: 9 NRSV
 
In our too-human rush to judgement, we can miss the central point of the teachings of Jesus. In the parable of the sower, Jesus emphasizes the receptivity of the soil - of our hearts - to hearing the Good News of love for all. He does not suggest the sower should withhold seed. Rather, he describes what we see all around us. Not all seeds or love we share take root. 
 
Nonetheless, Jesus calls us to plant seeds of love extravagantly. We may fear there is not enough love, withholding seeds from those we deem unworthy or bad risks, but this is not what Jesus teaches. It is not our role to pre-judge others and withhold our love-seeds from the rocks. To do so, is to assume that we know where the Realm of God will take root and blossom. Sometimes the seed planted among the rocks, finds good soil where we least expect.
 
Photo by Tim Graves
Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ Mark 4: 1-9 NRSV (Read in context.)

Mermaids, Squids, and Christian Reality

Recently a friend of mine mentioned that a counselor had concerns about her daughter because she believed that mermaids existed.  The questioning included why she believed in their existence, and the child responded because she had read about them and had seen a documentary on the Animal Planet, yet admitted to not have seen one in person.  The “professional” was concerned.  The child did ask the interviewer if she believed if giant squids existed and if she had seen one, and as you probably have guessed the answer was, the counselor had read about them and saw a documentary.  This would be funny if the person was not a “professional” analyzing the youth. I had seen most of the mermaid documentary one late night with my brother-in-law, and I must admit I truly understand one believing that mermaids might exist on earth, after viewing the documentary.  I honestly had to choose not to believe this reality when watching the show, and I have to admit the choice is mostly because it may “freak me out” if I saw something while on a boat and that it may open me up to the reality of Bigfoot.  I did just move to the Seattle area, where there are more boats and Northwestern woods in my future, so I have decided on a reality where there are no mermaids and Yetis.

As Christians, are we simply asking people to believe in an historical reality--Jesus’ birth, teachings, death, and resurrection?  Even our Gospel accounts do not match up neatly.  This sets up a reality in which those that believe are in, and those that do not are out.  It is ok to believe in giant squids, but not mermaids.  This is not my Christianity.  My religion is reality, which I find in Christianity.

Humanity did not create God, but humans did create religion.  We must look at our rituals and beliefs with anthropologic and sociological lenses and not simply as a litmus test, such as do you believe….?  And this can be true of the progressive churches as well.  We cannot kid ourselves to think we don’t have litmus tests.  Often we stand there like the professional above, judging other’s beliefs.

“Reality:” that word is itself a question, perhaps even a riddle.  I have been enlightened by the theory of Mimesis, put forth by René Girard.  A one sentence explanation might be that we desire based from the desires of others, and this changes the dialogue immensely.  I would argue it is pre-historical, and cognitive scientists have even confirmed this as desire based off the desire (and actions) of others within our brain function.  As a confessing Christian, this theory has opened me up to Christianity that dare I say, seems “natural” and “scientific.” No longer am I claiming something that others choose not to believe, nor am I stating what I believe they will know exactly like I know.  Rather, I see the reality of religion within Christianity, which I knew before, but now worry only about divine love as an action against our human reality of rivalry from mimetic desire.

Our purpose is to help the Divine we call love be the reality we know.  Violence and rivalry are part of our human condition, and as Christians we know the realization of love by Jesus empting himself without rivalry or retaliation on the cross.  This love is the reality we all aspire to, yet we are tied together not by our individual transgressions, but our universal sin of rivalry and violence.  Thus we don’t need everyone to believe exactly the same way, but to live, what we confessing Christians call the compassion of Jesus, as our reality.  The reality is, who cares if one believes in giant squids and/or mermaids, but rather, are we teaching love--that is, nonviolence, and compassion?

That is the religion for me, religion of revealing forgiveness, compassion, and love without rivalry and violence, as the reality and culture of earth as it is in heaven. That is a transformed world reality here on this globe, not simply an eternal heaven of gold streets, where some are in and others out.

Idolizing the God of Moderation

By Tim Graves

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Genesis 1: 26-27 NRSV (read in context)

Living closer to nature, we live closer God. By slowing down, we see the subtleties of creation. We see the nonstop transformation of the world. There are deaths and resurrections all around us. Dry creek beds, surging waterfalls, ice storms and debilitating heat all come to an end. The Divine energy  pulses and vibrates throughout it all. (This is also reflected in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.)

We experience and observe the resurrecting nature of the One I call God in Creation. It is where we can take our rightful place as one creature among many. We are called to practice a dominion over the earth that reflects the image of God (Imago Dei) within us. That god does not control us. The One who loves us with abandon and feels our every emotion creates and transforms with us. Without pausing, God prods us to reflect God's loving creating nature.

Responding to this call requires empathy. Empathy with the salmon struggling upstream and with our kindred humans fighting for dignity and justice. Without empathy we fail to reflect the Imago Dei.

[caption id="attachment_1094" align="alignright" width="336"]A blooming flower grows through a crack in the asphalt. Nature is filled with death and resurrections. Photo by Tim Graves[/caption]

Yet, we idolize a god who does not feel or transform. We isolate ourselves from the opportunities to empathize and love.

In our modern world of air conditioning we forget that a little sweat is a good thing. Instead of feeling the warm summer blowing on our face, we insulate ourselves. If we feel moisture on our skin with the thermostat set to 78, we sequester ourselves at 72 degrees. We live in a world insulated from the nature of God and one another.

Moderation and comfort are our idols. But without the highs or the lows, the anguish and the exuberance, we do not experience the One who is always creating, the One who dances in joy and weeps in despair with us, the God of the ancient Hebrews who heard cries and responds in mercy. The God who grows through the crack in the asphalt demanding that beauty win, that love win.

God is in the doings

"Men of Galilee, why are you standing here staring into heaven? Acts 1:1a I’ve had people, on more than one occasion, say that they have never had an experience of God.  And yet Acts 17:28 claims that it is in God that we move and have our very being. I’d like to explore why one could claim to not experience God and then move to the account in Acts 17 to relate the two.

Perhaps what some folks mean when they say they have not experienced God is that they have not experienced a voice from heaven, a flaming bush, lightning from above. They have not had a vision, a supernatural event that defies explanation, a miracle from above. If that describes you, you’re likely to be in the company of a good number of folks, including myself.

I think the problem is one of vocabulary. We don’t have the language to talk about God in this life and world. God has been shuttered up in some other realm, perhaps relating to folks in the Bible, but largely absent today. Banished by science or the ongoing course of events, God has little to do in the here and  now.

And yet scripture provides a rich vocabulary to talk about God and God’s doings. God as the one who loves us. God as the source of salvation and transformation. God as the creator and sustainer of all things. I think the mistake has been not to take such language at face value. We keep looking behind the language to see what lies behind the doing. But maybe God is to be found in the doing.

So that when we experience love, we experience God. When we experience transformation, a change for the better, we experience God. When we experience all the things which sustain and uphold us, family, friends, our job, a helping hand, our natural environment,  we experience God. God is to be found in the doings.

In which case, like the angels counseled in Acts, we need not look up to the heavens, waiting for God. God is here, right now, all around us, in all that upholds and transforms life. Indeed in God we move and have our being.

Dwight Welch is an ordained pastor with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) serving First Congregational (UCC) in Sheridan WY

Those Within Us

By Tim Graves

This post originally appeared at timgraves.us Today is my mother's birthday. Maybe that's why I woke up feeling a little blue; she died nearly eleven years ago. She was a remarkable woman, but I suppose most of us think that about our moms. Though I miss her physical presence in my life, to say that she is a part of who I am is not a platitude. The interactions, the relationships we have with others change us. This is particularly true of those with whom we have the strongest attachments.

Robert Mesle describes the experience of being changed by a relationship, 

She and I have shaped each other. Decisions that she makes about who she will be and how she will act call forth responses in me. I experience  her, and then [decide]. . . how I will act. Her love and anger and joy and frustration express themselves in ways that I experience, experiences that are literally part of who I am. (Mesle, Process Theology: A Basic Introduction, 56.)

Mesle wasn't writing about an important relationship with someone who had died, however the same is true of those who we have lost through death. I still carry within me the interactions I had with my mother. My unconditional love of my children, my insatiable curiosity, my commitment to God, and my passion for young children and their families all have their roots in the mother-son relationship. My fondness for pistachio ice cream, my silly songs, and, yes, even my spaciness also can be traced back to the one who died eleven years ago. We carry those who came before us within us. 

Though I never met my paternal grandfather, an alcoholic who abandoned my mother, I carry him within me, too. Though I cannot identify specific personality characteristics within him that are within me, I know that his relationship with my mother changed her. His personality as well as his alcoholism are a part of me, transferred to me through my mother. Who she was included her Scottish immigrant father; who I am includes her. 

We are interconnected; we are one humanity. We are not only bound together through those we personally meet but through those generations that came before us.

***

American culture, especially Anglo-American culture, downplays our connectedness with our forebears. (Perhaps this is the result of our relatively short time on this continent.) We think we are disconnected from our ancestors. We are not. To pretend otherwise is to lose sight of who we are and who we can become.

We think of time as a linear experience that begins with the present. We surgically remove the past from our personal and communal psyches. That is unless that past reflects well on us. Americans like to take pride in our entrance into World War II as liberators. We conveniently forget that our isolationism contributed to Hitler's rise to power. I like to take pride in my grandmother standing up for an unwed mother in her church while ignoring her bigotry toward a neighbor. 

Our sense that time begins with us, prevents us from reconciling with others. It prevents us from healing historic rifts with other peoples and wrongs committed by us. We are responsible for the actions of our forebears. 

As humans, we all sin and we all do good. My people are responsible for much good. We are also responsible for heinous acts. We are responsible for the Crusades, the slave trade, theft and colonization of other peoples' lands, and an atomic bomb dropped on innocent people in Japan. Though I am not personally responsible for any of these actions, they are a part of me. 

We must change our sense of time. We must accept the sin we share with our forebears or we will never be able to reconcile with our kindred human beings. For those of us who claim to follow Jesus, reconciliation with all of God's people should be a part of our DNA. Reconciliation is more than striving to be loving people in the present, though that is critical. Reconciliation requires that we love all peoples enough that we're willing to confess the sins of our past.

Into the night of his very own room (a tribute to Maurice Sendak)

Forgive this article today. It may seem superficial or just silly. I had an idea for an article today but it wasn’t coming together.

Then Maurice Sendak died, and I knew I needed to write about him, and Where the Wild Things Are.

Where the Wild Things Are is, as everyone knows, a beloved children’s classic.  I never bothered to see the movie because I knew it would create an unintentional background and write in a new story where one never was.  The same happened with the full-length motion picture The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  Sometimes, we really should leave the classics alone, for we lose the beauty and innocence of the original tale.

Every one of us has a wild streak, a time when we don’t play by the rules and we do things because we want to.  We make mischief of one kind and another until we find ourselves alone, because we’ve pushed others away by our actions.  We enter The Wild, becoming a Wild Thing.  We join the Wild Rumpus.  We are driven by desire to satisfy ourselves.

But at some point, we realize that living by our desires doesn’t fulfill us.  We realize that the people who love us the most are the ones we may have pushed away—and we attempt to fill that emptiness but we remain hollow.  Like Max, we may hear the call of The Wild even say that we are loved, but we know the real love is the love that calls us into responsibility, into caring for others, and that real love is always waiting for us.

No matter where we wander and roam into The Wild of the world, we know that we can always turn back.  Supper will still be waiting for us, and it will still be hot.

Rest in Peace, Maurice Sendak, for teaching me about faith before I could read, and more importantly, about love like a mother has for her Wild Child.  May you make your way home from the Wild, and may you find your supper still waiting for you, hot.

The Beauty of the Church

Sometimes I get disillusioned with “the church.”  I hear stories of people who were run out, who were gossiped about, who were hurt by the very people who were supposed to love them.  I hear of pastors who were treated like the sole employee with their boss being a board of 15 who criticized every decision the pastor made, every minute of the pastor’s time and every breath or sigh taken during the sermon.  I hear stories of bully pulpits and sanctuaries where children were definitely not welcome. There have been times when I have been down about “the church.”  I become very critical of an organization that can perpetuate myth in tradition, that runs on models outdated and yet expects the pastor to be a miracle worker.  I have been hurt by people in my churches in the past.  I have been hurt as a guest by a pastor using their pulpit to instill fear and justify their own narrow beliefs.  I have been hurt by the things said casually about other people, even in general terms, that were degrading to certain groups of people that happen to be who my family is made up of.

It’s easy to walk away from the church.  I see people do it all the time, I have had people visit me as a pastor and now speak to me as a chaplain about why they will never set foot in a church again.  They are done with organized religion.  They are done with the institution called “the church.”

It breaks my heart.  But rarely do I try to encourage them to go back.  Sometimes the damage is too great.  Instead, I always encourage them to continue on the spiritual journey.  And my hope and prayer is that perhaps they will find their way back to the church.  But me, as clergy, as a direct representative of the institution that has harmed them, I don’t feel it is my place to tell them to come back.  I wouldn’t tell the victim of domestic abuse to go back to the person who has abused them.  But I would tell them they can love again, that in time, perhaps they can trust again.  The same I would say to those abused by “the church.”  I would encourage them to continue on their spiritual journey, and my hope is that they would find a loving, supportive, embracing community.

I love the Church, the Body of Christ described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12.  I don’t love all manifestations of the church.  But I love what it is supposed to be.

The church is supposed to be the place where you feel you are a part of the Body of Christ.  You are valuable.  You are significant.  Your gifts are useful and necessary.  You have an important part to play in the whole body’s function.  You are part of the family.  You are loved, exactly as you are, exactly as you were made by God.  You can come with your wounds and hurts and find comfort and strength.  You can come with your worries and fears and find courage.  You can come with your grief and find some ease.  You come and find your burdens are born by others, your joys are shared by others.

Thankfully, I have experienced the church as this: the body of Christ.  I realize it is hard for me to say this as clergy and have any clout beyond that, but before I was a minister, I loved the church.  As a teen, the church was where I was welcomed and embraced and encouraged in my call to ministry.  As a child, the church was where I was included and loved just as I was.

It saddens me when people throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Whereas I understand completely how individuals, even groups of people have been hurt by the church and have left, I am grieved that there are people calling for the end of the church.  I do believe the church is changing, dying even, but with death there is always the hope of resurrection—something new.  It may look completely different than it is now.  But my hope and prayer is that the church—whatever it is—will be the Body of Christ.

All too often I have friends who claim to be spiritual but not religious—who want nothing to do with church.  Fine.   I actually have no problem with that because the “church” they are rejecting I would reject as well, a place where people are harmed rather than healed.  But it is when my friends go to nothing—there is no faith community, no gathering of people to talk about spirituality or God or whatever—when there is just an absence, this is where I grieve.

I’m not talking about those who have rejected those things and have gone to atheism (that is a different kind of grieving for me, I will admit), but for those friends who rejected the church of their childhood and are raising children, and they tell me they want their children to have the values they were taught but not in the church, and don’t know where to turn—I grieve for them.  I grieve for the ones who want to talk about spirituality and faith but feel they have no place to go.  And I grieve for the ones who simply ridicule those of us who stayed in the church.  I have friends among them all.

But I know one person, who once described his return to church after a twenty-year absence as a “homecoming.”  He walked in the doors and was immediately greeted.  Someone came to his seat and welcomed him.  The people shook his hands and shared their names and made him feel comfortable.  The preacher shared a message of hope.  The songs were uplifting.  And communion was shared with all as a welcome to Christ’s table.

This is the beauty of the church, that for all the shortcomings of the earthly “church” (and as I used to say, the problem with churches is that they are full of people!), there are some who will find their way home again, and find the love, grace, peace and joy that we expect to be there.

RECLAIMING EASTER

Easter is about resurrection and transformation - today. Easter is not about the torture and execution and resurrection of Jesus. Easter is not about an event that happened one time to one person a long time ago. Easter is not about an 11th-century feudal theology .....of "penal substitution" or "substitutionary sacrifice." Easter is not about a 4th-century theology of "original sin." Easter is not about a sadistic abusive murderous blood-thirsty God. Easter is not about a narcissistic mercenary God .....whose love and grace are so shallow and tenuous and inadequate .....that the favor or forgiveness of God can only be earned or purchased. Easter is not about useless promises of an eternal post-mortal utopian etherial existence. Easter is not about using the sharing the Good News as a form of conquest. Easter is not about hate.

Easter is about the life and message and path of Jesus. Easter is about us living the life and message and path of Jesus. Easter is about the resurrection of the disciples - all of us who follow Jesus. Easter is about disciples living and being - here and now - the Kingdom of God. Easter is about disciples working together as the living body of Christ. Easter is about the Good News.

What difference would it make if an ossuary was found that undeniably contained the bones of Jesus?

To the message of Jesus – that God is personal and present and immediate and available and is characterized by love and grace, whose passion for us is to provide justice and compassion and generosity and hospitality and service, and who invites us and welcomes us and includes us and embraces us without exception or conditions – that message would not in any way be changed or diminished.

Something happened on Easter morning. Until that morning, the disciples still saw the message of Jesus as an unassembled upside-down puzzle with no idea as to what image would be revealed by the completed puzzle.

What happened on Easter was a transformative epiphany. The women had it first - a profound comprehensive epiphany. It was the best of epiphanies. When the women shared their insight with the others, the others had the same epiphany, the same transformation.

It was as if every piece of the puzzle had been turned upside-right and sufficiently assembled that the picture could be easily discerned. After all the questions that had only received Jesus’ annoying and unsatisfying answers and after repeatedly hearing the puzzling parables and confounding aphorisms of Jesus, compounded by the grief and depression and repressive fear of the preceding weekend, the impact of this epiphany had to have been earth shaking. It was such a powerful experience that it felt like an earthquake strong enough to roll away massive tombstones. It was so revealing, it was as if the curtain covering the Holy of Holies had been ripped asunder and the presence of God could be plainly seen by anyone who had the courage to look. It was so personal that it was as if Jesus was alive - speaking to them and sharing meals with them - a tangible presence. The life and message and path of Jesus did not die on the cross. The life and message and path of Jesus lives like a fire that hovers over us and smolders within us and breathes as powerfully and disturbingly as a noisy rampaging wind storm. The life and message and path of Jesus can be heard by anyone at any time and regardless of where they were born or what language they speak.

In those first few years, this same epiphany happened to Paul and hundreds of others. Repeatedly, it was such a powerful experience that people were transformed. The isolation and desperation and fatalism of day-to-day living in an oppressive empire supported and legitimized by imperial dominionist theology was replaced by the dual realization that the character of the one true God is: .....* unrestrained love and unconditional grace - .....* always present and immediately available to anyone anywhere anytime, and .....* that life does not require participation in the empire - .....* not its political activities, not its cultural domination practices, .....* not its imperial civic theology, not its military conquests, and .....* not its greedy and isolating economics.

This same profound epiphany, this same earth-shaking resurrection, this same life-as-if-from-death transformation is still happening today.

The Good News has 3 inseparable messages: 1) The universal accessibility of the personal and persistent 1) 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 ............................................................RECLAIMING CHURCH - REDUX

This is resurrection and transformation! This is the Good News! This is Easter! Alleluia!

Easter Sunday to Doubting Sunday

Easter Sunday has passed.  Doubting Sunday is around the corner.

I love how the Revised Common Lectionary places the second half of John 20 the Sunday after Easter.  It’s unfortunate for those regulated to always preaching the Sunday after Easter, when many senior pastors take the day off, and as one who has preached many times on that Sunday, it can get tiresome.  Thankfully, it’s a day when even in some of the more formal Protestant traditions won’t bat an eye if you go off-lectionary.

But I love this day because I need it after Easter.  Easter is often a time when long-held understandings (or misunderstandings) of the Christian story are upheld formally, even if every other Sunday strict blood-atonement theologies are challenged.  It’s the Sunday when everyone’s family is in town and the C & E people come and so the same message is often shared.  The tomb is found empty.  Christ is Risen!

It’s not a bad message by any means.  But where is the room to ask the questions?  Where is the space to say, “Could that have really happened?”  Where is the challenge to the old formulaic answer that because Adam sinned, we are born into sin and need Christ to save us, so Christ had to die as a sacrifice?  Is it safe to question on Easter Sunday, either in the pew or in the pulpit?

Thankfully, we have Thomas, who was no different than Peter who denied Jesus or any of the others who fled.  And we have this Sunday, when the C & E people have gone back home, when others are out of town and it’s typically a low attendance day, perhaps there is more space in the pew and pulpit to speak those challenges, those questions and doubts.

In my Christian Faith journey, the questions and doubts have flowed and ebbed over the years, going from the extreme of coming forward to accept/rededicate my life to Jesus about four times in my teen years, to considering forgoing Christ and exploring Unitarian Universalism and Judaism in my first year of seminary.

But Christ always calls me back.  Despite my rejection of theologies presented to me in my youth and at times doubts of the resurrection stories in the Gospels, I have never been able to leave Jesus behind.  Like Thomas, at times I want proof, I want answers, but it is through encountering Christ I am compelled to stay within the Christian tradition, and through relationship with the Body of Christ, I am compelled to stay within the church—even if that means at times facing traditional simplistic explanations and theories.

Christ is Risen!  And praise God for the space and room to doubt, question, and challenge.  And thanks to Thomas, who paves the way for questioning believers, who keep coming back even when the doubts and challenges pester our hearts.