The Importance of a “Both/And” Approach

I’ve gotten behind in my interactions with readers.  Here is a question that was raised 10 days ago that raises many important questions.  Let me share a reader’s question and the context she provided.

“I work with the public, and I of course try to engage with them. Sometimes I get more than what I bargained for, and I like to think of myself as a good sounding board. Sometimes when this happens, I carry perfect strangers sorrows on my shoulders and I dwell on what they have told me. One such person has been on my mind for 24 hours- maybe not her, but her poor daughter.”

“While sharing small talk with a customer, she let out that her 14 year old daughter had had her first day of school. It did NOT go well, and she had been crying ever since. I of course, living in the area almost all of my life, and raising four kids here; inquired about the school. It was a brand-new charter school I had never heard of.”

“The Mom continued on saying that all of the girls friends whom she had gone to school with for many years are attending public schools, and she is alone. She goes onto tell me (this is the alarming part) that she (the Mom) had fasted for 3 days and her whole congregation (a very large church I know of ) had been praying for her daughters acceptance. That is fine— as humans we all have to accept change, no matter how drastic— there are always bumps In the road of life. She goes onto tell me how her daughter is so depressed that she had to re-tell her about Jesus’ acts for her life, holds her in the palm of his hands, died for her, and that He loves her that much.”

“Is there something wrong with me that I feel sorry for this young girl to have a Mother like this? I worry for her— the young girl. Not because she has to go to a new school— she will have to adapt and make new friends. I worry because her Mother had fasted for three days, and prayed to God to get her child in this school, and then I felt like she guilted her child into not accepting the way she was feeling, but making her feel even more downtrodden because now Jesus has somehow taken it personal that this girl was sad or upset.”

“It has been on my mind since, more than 24 hours. Do you have a take?”

Thanks for sharing the situation with us.  I’ll take a moment and share a few thoughts the situation raises for me.  Then, I’ll invite others to share their perspectives as well.

One of the greatest challenges I face is living in a world that would have us believe the solutions to all our problems are “either/or”.  To put it in context of this situation, the world would have us believe that the solutions to the girl’s problems are either purely secular (i.e., get her on medications or into a therapist’s office) or purely sacred (i.e., pray and fast for her).  As a Progressive person of faith, I believe that the best solutions to such challenges are “both/and” – meaning there are elements of the solution that include BOTH secular and sacred aspects.

From what you shared, it sounds like a big piece of the young girl’s challenges right now are situational.  She is depressed because she has changed schools and left her friends behind.  This leads me to believe that it might be good to start by having her see a counselor or mental health professional to help her process her feelings and assess if there are deeper challenges (i.e., chemical issues) that might need medication.  This is what many would call the “secular” aspect of the problem.

While some might stop there, I would not.  As a person of faith, there are wonderful ways in which one’s faith could help support the girl in this time of transition.  As a Progressive person of faith, I would articulate those things in ways that are different from this girl’s mother and congregation approach.  Instead of assuming that WE know God’s will (i.e., God wants her to attend this new charter school), I would embrace the spirit of The Lord’s Prayer – especially the “THY will be done” portion – and ask for guidance to understand what is truly best for the young woman.

I would also pray for the humility to accept that my perception of the solution might be misguided – and that God’s desires would be for her to be in a different setting (i.e., return to the public school her friends are attending).  To figure this out, I would use spiritual disciplines ranging from discernment groups, prayer groups, and conversations with trusted spiritual guides that could help the young woman  discover the best – not necessarily the easiest – path for her.

In terms of her mother’s approach, I have one primary concern.  Sometimes people who embrace a particular form of Christianity take an approach to mental health issues that I would summarize as a “pray the problem away”.  They believe that prayer alone can “fix” the problem or crisis.  What they fail to appreciate, is that prayer is only one part of the equation.  Prayer leads us to the second half of the equation: action.  That action can take many forms including things like seeking out a good licensed therapist or counselor, seeking the advice of trained medical professionals versed in mental health issues, and a willingness to revisit one’s earlier decisions (i.e. changing her school enrollment).

While I believe the mother’s intentions for her daughter are good, her “either/or” approach to resolving the issue (i.e., emphasizing only a “sacred” approach to the challenge and ignoring “secular” solutions) might be putting her daughter at risk for a mental health crisis.

So what perspectives would you share with our reader about her concerns?

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Going High When Others Go Low

It has been tragic to watch the situation unfold as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sent dozens of asylum-seekers – primarily from Venezuela – to Martha’s Vineyard over the past few days.  Governor DeSantis said he was simply trying to force the hand of those places that have declared themselves to be sanctuary communities to prove they practice what they preach.  Even sadder was the way the individuals were lured onto transport vehicles under false pretenses.

There were two things about the situation that struck me to my core.  First, I was amazed at the way residents of Martha’s Vineyard valiantly rallied to extend humanitarian support to the asylum-seekers.  It was beautiful to see communities of faith practice the values that Jesus taught and extend grace and compassion to those in need.

Second, I was horrified at the way some continue to play upon the fears of individuals to justify the horrific treatment of immigrants.  These individuals (who I cannot in good faith call “leaders”) continue to portray immigrants in one-dimensional terms – suggesting our siblings from south of our borders are nothing more than threats to the safety of their communities who seek to take away jobs and resources from residents.

Perhaps the only silver-lining in the way the drama has played out is that such so-called “leaders” no longer make an attempt to justify their actions using the language of faith or values.  They are well aware there is no way such language could be used in regard to their actions.  Instead, their actions are justified in purely political terms.

While the actions of those in positions of leadership is certainly disturbing, what is most disturbing to me is that sizeable portions of the population are still falling prey to their fear-based rhetoric.  The two governors most active in the efforts to target immigrants both hold sizeable leads in recent polls leading up to this November’s elections!

It is time that people of all faiths – and people committed to basic principles of human decency – rise up and challenge the actions that are destroying the moral fabric of our nation.  We must carefully and prayerfully choose leaders who reflect both the values we profess with our lips and the vision upon which our country was founded (i.e., Emma Lazarus’ words written on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”).

And in the meantime, may we draw inspiration from the response of our siblings in Massachusetts.  May each of us, in our own way, find ways to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

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Finding Our Voice – And Giving Others the Room They Need to Do the Same

I’m sorry I haven’t written much lately. I have been preparing for an important transition in my life that will happen this November. After serving as the pastor of local churches for twenty years (as of this past July), I will be stepping into a new role as an Associate Conference Minister for a UCC Conference back East.

Sone of you may wonder why I am so cautious in speaking of the details of my new ministry setting. You may have even wondered why I did not make more mention of the specifics of my ministry setting in the past as well.

There’s a good reason. You see the denomination in which I serve has a historic commitment to the principle of free-thinking. Moreover, as participants in one of the few non-creedal Christian communities, an important aspect of our way of being in the world is to extend the grace we have received so abundantly from God to others as well. Because of that, many of my clergy colleagues go to great lengths to speak TO their communities of faith (and, by extension, to the world), rather than attempting to speak FOR their communities of faith (and, by extension, for the world).

Why do so many in our tradition take this approach to living out our ministry?

For those of us who are authorized ministers, we feel a profound obligation to be a pastoral presence in the lives of ALL of those in our communities: not just the ones with whom we agree theologically or politically. We try to speak openly, honestly, and authentically about OUR experience and convictions. And on our best days, we do this in ways that create room for individuals to (1) affirm those principles and values they share with us as well as (2) talk with us about the principles and values they see differently (based on their unique set of life experiences).

Many in the world describe this approach as being “gentle” or “kind”. The approach is that – and far more. For me, there is a much more accurate descriptor that captures what our way of being in the world is all about: “humility”.

My faith calls me to live each day with both the awareness and conviction that as a finite human being, I am – be definition – incapable of grasping the fullness of “the Big Picture” on my own. Instead, my life provides an important piece of the puzzle that – when assembled with others – creates the richness of “the Big Picture”.

If I am aggressive, loud, and arrogant in putting MY piece of the puzzle forward, I create an environment where others feel unsafe and unwilling to share THEIR piece of the puzzle. The consequence is that “the Big Picture” is never complete. That is why I never presume to speak FOR God, the congregations which I have served, or the Conference to which I have been called. Instead, my goal is to show up each and every day, sharing as openly and authentically what my experiences and convictions are, and then shut my mouth (or put aside my word processor) and listen to the ways in which God is still speaking through the experiences and convictions of others in order to gain a better understanding of “the Big Picture”.

I look forward to continuing our conversations. In coming days – when I figure out how to negotiate the world of a copyright feature called Creative Commons – I will share with you a manual I have created for a program near and dear to my heart that will guide the final stages of my public ministry. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, thank you for traveling with me on my journey. I look forward to sharing exciting adventures and insights with you as I move from one coast to the other.

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Prayer: Public? Private? Or What?

Lots of people make assumptions about what I – as a Christian pastor – think about a variety of issues.  Take, for instance, the Supreme Court’s decision on June 27, 2022, allowing a public high school football coach to pray after games at the 50-yard line.  Some would assume that I as a Christian pastor am totally supportive of the decision.

I am not.

“Why?” You ask.

For two reasons: one reason being secular, and one being sacred.  Let’s start with the secular reason.

While some will debate the merits of the separation of church and state in the Constitution (i.e. strict Constructionists will insist the principle doesn’t appear in the Constitution), I don’t.  I believe that separation benefits both sides of the equation – the state AND the church.  That’s because when you break down the wall and give one religious group privilege over others, it can’t help but create ill will and divisiveness.

Even more so, many of the Evangelicals who are rejoicing at the decision haven’t thought about the implications of the decision.  If any religious group steps forward now and wants to offer prayer at a public event, the planners would need to accommodate it.  It will be interesting to see what would happen, for instance, if a spiritual leader of the Church of Satan asks to offer a prayer at a city council meeting.  From a secular standpoint, the principle of the separation of church and state is the one thing that makes it easier for us to live together in a religiously pluralistic nation.

Now for my sacred reasons for opposing the decision.

In Matthew 6:5-6 (CEB), Jesus makes it crystal clear how we are to conduct ourselves in public when it comes to prayer:

When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.

Jesus’ sentiments still ring so true today.  Those elected officials that are so often quick to wear their religion on their sleeves during a political campaign or press conference are often the least likely to live lives that reflect the basic values of Jesus.  Many of them are exactly the kind of hypocrites of which Jesus spoke.

As a person of faith, I believe it is my responsibility to live out my faith.  I should not demand the government create space for me to do that.

With all of this said, as a Christian pastor I join with many, many, many Christians, people of other faiths, and people of no faith in decrying the decision to impose religion on others in public settings.  Let’s hope future Court decisions do a much better job charting a course for fairness, justice, and inclusion that will weave together our wonderfully diverse country.

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Reflecting God’s Freedom and Grace …

I’ve spent a good chunk of today trying to pull my thoughts together as to how I feel about the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Roe vs. Wade.

So what am I struggling with the most?

I guess the thing that I struggle with most is how some are compelled to live out their faith in the world.  Let me tell you what I mean by that.

As a long-time Congregationalist, I live in a world that celebrates the freedom and grace that God extends to ALL of God’s children.  I live in a faith community where we know that not everyone embraces the same set of values and perspectives.  And that’s okay! That’s why it’s in our spiritual DNA to extend to others the same grace and freedom (or free will) that God has extended to us.

This celebration of freedom (or free will) doesn’t come from a set of civic, or secular, beliefs for me.  No, my celebration of this freedom comes from one of the first metaphorical stories contained in Scripture: the story of Eve and Adam in the book of Genesis.

That story taught me that while God COULD have created a world in which human beings had no choice (by creating a metaphorical garden that did NOT contain the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil), God didn’t.  By including such a tree, the story teaches me that a sacred aspect of creation is the space to make choices for ourselves.

The very existence of that wonderfully expansive Tree puts us on a path where we have sacred opportunities to grow, to learn, and to become through our choices.  The story suggests that if God is comfortable enough to extend to humanity such freedom, then so – too – should I.

There are some, however, who are not comfortable honoring God’s approach.  They want to uproot the tree – or opportunities – and force everyone to travel the path they have chosen.  In doing so, they are not reflecting God’s approach: they are imposing their own.

Having served as a pastor for roughly 20 years now, I have stood in the space with individuals and their families many times as they wrestled with how to respond to an unexpected pregnancy.  And every time, I have been humbled at how powerful the process is when individuals can choose and affirm a path for themselves with the help of the Beloved.

As a pastor, I stand in solidarity with those individuals who affirm they would not choose to terminate a pregnancy for themselves.  As a pastor, I stand in solidarity with those individuals who affirm that their circumstances dictate they cannot see a pregnancy through.  That is why I am pro-choice to the bottom of my soul.

I pray for the day we human beings can overcome our desire to play God by dictating choices that are beyond our limited perspective.  I also pray that for those who feel compelled to play God, that they might do a better, more faithful job of “playing God” by extending to their siblings the same grace and freedom with which they have been blessed.

Until then, I’ll continue to stand in this holy space, and do my VERY best to protects the rights, responsibilities, and freedoms of ALL of my beloved siblings.

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