The Joy – and Challenge – of Easter!

While holidays such as Christmas and Easter are wonderful times to celebrate crucial moments of our Christian faith, these holidays can present HUGE challenges for non-creedal, Progressive pastors.

Some might think I say this because of the additional services and workload associated with the holidays.  While the workload certainly IS intense during these holidays, that’s not why I find the holidays so challenging.

The holidays are challenging because some in our non-creedal Progressive churches have a LOT of pain in their lives due to the way the sacred stories were presented earlier in their life.  As a result, they are triggered any time they hear traditional words or theological concepts used that they associate with their earlier pain.

That means in order for them to feel safe entering into the experience, they want the worshipping community to drop certain words and largely re-do certain theological concepts.

Such an approach might work in creedal Christian worshipping communities – where there is one accepted theological standard in place for everyone.  Such an approach doesn’t work in healthy, vibrant non-creedal Christian communities, however, for such communities are defined by their openness to a variety of theological perspectives.

So how is it possible to worship together when those gathered have such radically different understandings of events like Easter?

The reality is that in order for the non-creedal Christian worship experience to work, each individual has to do his or her work – and make peace with some pieces of their background.  They might have an aversion to a specific word or concept – so when they hear that word or concept referenced in a hymn or piece of Scripture, they can translate it in their head in a way that best communicates God’s love and grace to them.  Likewise, they can appreciate those aspects of the service which speak to them, and not to traditionalists.  I was talking recently to a traditionalist in our church recently who said she struggles a little at the start of each service when we explicitly invite individuals to change the language of the printed service elements as they need in order to have the best possible worship experience.  “I was brought up to believe that there was only one set of acceptable words,” she said, “so it’s tough for me to understand why some need to change words.  That statement pushes me every time I hear it.”

Her statement reminded me that so often, we non-creedal Christian pastors are what I call “equal opportunity offenders” – for in the process of creating safe space for all of God’s children, there are moments when each individual encounters things they would not choose for themselves.  Because of that, however, we non-creedal pastors pay a heavy price.  For many are quick to complain about pieces of the community that offend them.  I am glad to pay that price on most days, however, because the non-creedal way of being represents the fullness of God’s grace as I understand it.

As we observe Good Friday and Holy Saturday – and head toward Easter Sunday – my hope is that those who choose to gather in non-creedal Christian communities can understand what a gift we have been given to gather together as the body of Christ and celebrate Easter in ways that have deep meaning for each of us.  We gather knowing that some parts of the communal worship experience will speak to us more than others.  In the process of making room for those (and those perspectives) that are different from ours, we have been blessed with the opportunity to embrace a deeper experience and understanding of God’s grace and radical hospitality that makes room for ALL of us.

May your Holy Weekend be full of meaning, kindness, and grace – both received and extended to others.

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A New Face of Faith

This morning my friend Anne sent me an opinion article from the New York Times titled “Mayor Pete and the Queering of the American Soul”.  The article’s subtitle read: “His rise is a sign that more LGBT people are finding spiritual homes in houses of faith.”

I loved the article for two reasons.  First, as a gay man who has been politically active since 1990 and “out” since 1993, it is great to see a member of my community run for the highest office in the land.  I wasn’t sure that would happen during my lifetime.  Second, as a gay man whose Christian faith is an essential piece of my identity, it is encouraging to see Pete talk so comfortably about his faith.  When I came out in the early 1990’s, there were so few spiritual resources for those of us in the LGBTQI community.  Pete’s openness will let tens of thousands of LGBTQI persons of faith know they are NOT alone.

There is another level on which Pete’s candidacy excites me as well.  Mayor Pete’s candidacy will help many Americans understand that there is a level of diversity in the Christian community that is not always apparent.  If you read the newspapers and scroll through a variety of sites on the Internet, one might conclude that all Christians are of one theological ilk (i.e. they all believe in the Trinity, they all believe in Jesus’ divinity in a particular way, and they all believe in a literal reading of Scripture) and are of one political mind as well (they are all opposed to abortion, they are all opposed to the extension of human rights – including marriage – to LGBTQI persons, and they all are in support of building a wall at our border).  Neither of those assumptions are true!

People like Mayor Pete will help Americans realize that we LGBTQI people have rich spiritual lives – and that we are eager to participate in the civic life our communities and give back to those communities through lives of service.  Mayor Pete will also help Americans realize that we Christians represent a much broader segment of society than many imagine!

For these reasons and more, I am so grateful for articles like the one my friend Anne shared.  They remind all of us that the face of America is changing.  So, too, is the face of faith.

What’s your take on the article?

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Improving Our Ability to Connect

I stumbled upon a great blog entry that touched upon one of my greatest frustrations in life when it comes to interpersonal communication.  The blog entry was titled “Grief: Why Comparing Losses Never Helps and Often Hurts.”  Here is a link to the article: Grief Support Blog.

“So how does this relate to my greatest pet peeve?”

Let me unpack that for you.

Somewhere along the way, some of us learned that in order to establish a bond with another person it is helpful to share an experience of ours that relates to the topic the other person is talking about.  For instance, if someone says, “I saw the best movie last night starring Jennifer Lopez” – the other person might blurt out, “Oh, I love Jennifer Lopez!  My favorite movie of hers is ….”  And off Person B goes!

On the surface, it might seem as if the two people are bonding: sharing similar experiences.  But let’s dig deeper into the dynamic of the conversation.

The first person (let’s call the individual “Person A”) started the conversation hoping to talk about the new movie (Movie A) that just so happened to star Jennifer Lopez.  Instead of talking about Movie A, however, the second person (let’s call the person “Person B”) high jacks the conversation and shifts the conversation away from the original topic (from Movie A to Jennifer Lopez).

The irony is that while Person B might have been well intended – hoping to build or strengthen a bridge between the two – it typically has the OPPOSITE effect.  Their approach can make Person A feel completely unheard, or invisible.  It also creates the impression that Person B is narcissistic.

The example I used is a fairly innocuous one.  The effect grows exponentially when the topic is deeper (i.e. Person A says something like “My father just passed away” or “My spouse just filed for divorce”).  Attempts to switch the focus is even more hurtful in such cases!

Why do people do it?

For a variety of reasons.  Sometimes, Person B genuinely feels that it is an attempt to strengthen the relationship.  Sometimes, Person B is feeling insecure and their attempt to shift the focus back on to themselves is a way they deal with nerves.  Other times, Person B has no clue what to say – so they use their words as a way of filling space.  There are many other reasons as well.

So how can you break that dangerous pattern of redirecting things back to oneself in the conversation?

There are a couple things I’ve learned over the past two decades in my practice of ministry.  First, become aware of your communication pattern.  Start observing yourself and seeing if you regularly turn things back to yourself.  Second, let go of your need to be the expert on a topic.  Instead of trying to provide information for the other person, simply make a commitment to actively listen to your loved ones.  Which takes me to my third and final point.  Know that the most important way you can be present in people’s lives is by having what we pastors call “a ministry of presence”.  My experience in congregations these past two decades has shown me that most people aren’t seeking advice or recommendations.  Google and Yelp are increasingly taking care of those needs.  What they REALLY need is someone to listen and show that they care through their presence (be that in person, over the phone, or via the Internet).

These are just a couple of thoughts I had about avoiding the temptation to redirect conversations and make things about you.  How about you?  What things do you use to help keep you able to be there for your loved ones?

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Is There Still Room for Difference?

I’ve decided to make a slight shift in my blog.  Rather than sit back and wait for readers to submit questions, I’m going to occasional offer reflections on things that catch my attention.  In those cases, after sharing the resource I’ll pose questions for the readers to consider.  Hopefully, this will be a helpful way to get my interactive blog going again.

I ran across an interesting article on the NPR website titled “Pastoring a Purple Church: ‘I Absolutely Bite My Tongue Sometimes’.”  Here’s a link to the article: Pastoring a Purple Church.

I know that some might read the article and go after Christopher Edmonston (the senior pastor of White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Caroline) for having the nerve to bite his tongue.  After all, we live in a brutally polarized age where some expect those with whom they agree to speak in sharp – even incredibly shrill! – ways to attack those who have the nerve to see things differently than them.  Anyone who does NOT sharply attack those who see things differently is immediately seen as a morally inferior person who is selling out her or his authentic beliefs for self-serving reasons.

I suppose that might be the case for some – but certainly not for all.

What interests me more, however, were two paragraphs toward the middle of the article.

A recent report by the Barna Group, a faith-based research organization, highlighted a growing tendency for people to seek “communities that look and believe as they do” and noted that the trend was especially evident among the most frequent churchgoers.

“One of the features we see in our research is that congregations aren’t as politically diverse as they used to be,” says Barna Group President David Kinnaman. “That’s not to say that they were ever bastions of political diversity, but at least there was a sense in which you could worship together with people who were very different from you politically.”

While those words were written to reflect the political beliefs of those in worshipping communities, the same point could be made on several other levels: including theologically.  Absolute homogeneity in belief is increasingly becoming “the new normal”.

With those words in mind, I would be interested to hear reflections on two things.  First, why it is that we as a people are less willing to sit next to/be in meaningful relationship with those who hold different beliefs than ourselves.  Second, what can we – as individuals – do to help change that.  Please, please, please don’t talk about what OTHERS should do, here.  Instead, focus on what YOU can do.  I ask that of my readers because I believe the incredibly polarized way-of-being which has seized control of our world today can only be broken when brave individuals step forward and have the courage to make the first move (and not hang back in a self-righteous manner while demanding “the other side” make the first move).

Thanks, in advance, for whatever reflections you are willing to share.

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How God Speaks to Us and How We Choose to Follow

Today’s question comes from Cheri, a reader and friend from another state.  She writes, “Our church is losing members who feel that biblically women should not be church leaders.  I’ve always believed that this was more of a societal issue than a biblical one so was shocked when young men, all married and with families, suddenly took exception to this and left our church.  Thoughts?”

Thanks for the great question, Cheri.  Let me touch on two points that your question raises for me and then invite others into the conversation.

There are some who claim to read Scripture literally.  I say “claim to read Scripture literally” because I’ve actually never encountered anyone who actually reads ALL of Scripture literally.  They typically pick some verses to read literally (i.e. those that apply with their particular perspective on things like gender and sexuality) and read other verses differently.  That’s why I call literalists “SELECTIVE literalists”.  How many “literalists”, for instance, have quit their local church because of their church’s teaching on eating fat (Leviticus 3:17) or touching an unclean dead animal (Leviticus 5:2)?  Not many any that I know of.

So what does a broader (i.e. non-literal) reading of Scripture mean?  That we don’t take Scripture seriously?

Absolutely not!  I believe that while Scripture captures expressions of God’s desires and vision for us, those words are frequently grasped through particular filters that reflect the cultural values of the time and location in which they were captured.  Our challenge as people of faith, then, is to take those words and find faithful ways to apply them in ways that are culturally appropriate and relevant for our lives today.  It sounds like your community is doing just that, Cheri.

There is a second related issue your question raises for me: the way(s) in which God reveals Godself.  Some believe that only/primary way God reveals Godself is through Scripture.  And since that biblical canon was closed centuries ago, our role as modern people of faith is to simply go back to the Bible and find “the answers”.  Such an approach puts God’s revelation in the past-tense.

There are many faithful Christians, however, who believe God’s revelation belongs in the present- and future tenses as well.  In the denomination in which I serve (The United Church of Christ), we often talk of a Stillspeaking God.  This means a God who continues to reveal Godself in ways that reflect our ability to grasp God’s presence and activity in the modern world.

This means that while the faithful might have articulated a world-view in a particular time, and a particular place that limited the role of women – today God is speaking in ways in which gender roles are seen in larger ways that reflect humanity’s growing understandings.

Those are just a few thoughts Cheri’s question raised for me.  How about you?  What things does her question raise for you?  (And for my new readers, I would ask that your responses reflect a spirit of gentleness and graciousness.  Translation, please no name calling or overgeneralizations about those who see things differently than you.  Just speak from your own experience and knowledge in ways that encourage others to do the same.)

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What’s On Your Mind?

It’s been a while since I’ve heard from the readers.  What’s on your mind these days?

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Difficult Religious People and the Questions They Raise for Us

Today’s question comes from Yvette. She has recently reconnected with an old friend who had a difficult childhood. Her friend was not spiritual/religious when she was a child: in fact, she wasn’t spiritual/religious at all until a tragedy happened to her.

Since she has turned to God, her friend sometimes expresses beliefs that are troublesome and acts out in hurtful ways (i.e. condemning toward others at times and self-loathing at other times).

This raises a couple questions for Yvette: (1) isn’t [finding religion in the midst of a crisis] kind of hypocritical? (2) is there such a thing as TOO religious? (3) do you think God appreciates this? I mean, the way she is feeling? Or the way she has turned to him?

Let me take those questions on briefly, and then invite you into the conversation.

Question number one: isn’t [finding religion in the midst of a crisis] kind of hypocritical”. My most direct answer is no. There are lots of things that bring people to a place where they suddenly feel the need for God. Some people who were never interested in church, for instance, suddenly want to find God when they have a child and feel the need to have beliefs to pass on to their child. Others who were never interested in church suddenly feel the need for God when something incredibly good happens – and they feel the need to express gratitude to One far greater than themselves. Others – such as your friend – find religion in the midst of turmoil.

There is no “right way” to realize one’s need for God and/or a sense of spirituality. How we get there isn’t an issue for me: the only thing that matters is that we get there.

Question number two: is there such a thing as TOO religious?

My answer to that question will certainly be different than some. That’s because some people separate spirituality from religion. They see spirituality as that genuine yearning to be close to the Divine while religion is simply a set of practices that is all about following rules and routines.

I don’t make that separation. I believe that religion – when practiced best – is simply one’s attempt to express one’s spirituality in a communal setting: a communal setting that involves not only those currently around you/beside you, but those who have gone before you as well.

For those who see religion simply as an attempt to follow (or enforce) rules and routines, then I would say, “Yes, you can absolutely be too religious”. What I mean by that is that you can be too rigid in one’s approach to life and too self-righteous: feeling as if you are better than others because you follow the rules and routines better than others.

For those who see spirituality and religion as things that go hand in hand, then I’m less inclined to answer with a resounding yes. Let me give you an example of why I say that. During the season of Advent (the four Sundays leading up to Christmas), Christian religion teaches that the Christ child came to embody at least four defining qualities – qualities to which he calls his followers: (1) hope; (2) peace; (3) joy; and (4) love. With this in mind, I find it hard to believe one can have too much hope, too much peace, too much joy, and too much love.

Of course, I realize that there are some who grapple with mental health issues who express their spirituality in troubling ways. I’m away of a woman, for instance, who believes herself to be the bride of Christ who is carrying Jesus baby. In this case, I would say her belief is more an expression of her mental illness (influenced by her limited religious background) than it is of healthy spirituality.

Question number three: Does God appreciate [the extreme ways] the woman is feeling and acting in response to her faith in – beliefs about – God.
One thing about God that I’ve learned in my practice of ministry (as opposed to those things I learned from books in seminary) is that God is far more generous with us than we are with ourselves and others. God has an ability to grasp what’s truly in our hearts and receive that (rather than the well-intentioned but perhaps misguided words and deeds we sometimes inflict on the world and on those around us).

So while an individuals actions might absolutely frustrate me to my core, I try to keep my frustration in check and realize that God’s perception of the person is far bigger and more complete than mine. This helps me realize that God can appreciate (or at least put up with) things that I cannot. That helps me cut the difficult person more slack.

How about you? What do Yvette’s questions raise for you?

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