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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To Observe Christmas Traditions, or Not? That Is the Question …

Hi Craig, your timing is perfect as I’ve been mulling over an issue that’s coming at me fast. I have Christmas traditions that are important to me and that my husband and two grown children agree with and participate in. I however have grandchildren who do not share my beliefs and who have posted on Facebook etc various Memes etc. that give me reason to believe that following these traditions may cause a ruckus Christmas Day. These are minors except 1 who while not a believer is accepting of what They call the your house your rules way of dealing with differences. Do I give up my traditions to keep children happy? I am talking about Christmas Music – mostly Religious, reading the Christmas Story, Lighting the Jesus Advent Candle and things of that nature. Help!”

Progressive people of faith walk a fine line. On one hand, we want to be respectful of other people’s beliefs and practices. On the other hand, we don’t want to be so respectful that, in the process, we become completely invisible to others.

So how do we walk the fine line?

There are many ways to approach the situation. Here is what I would do. I would let all my family members know what traditions I am observing and at approximately what time. Those who want to participate in my traditions – or support me in the observance of those traditions – are welcome to come. Those who do not want to participate in the observance of the traditions – or can’t extend the dignity and respect toward myself and my traditions – are welcome to come either before or after those times.

I’ve used that approach many times – in a variety of situations – and had great success. It’s a way of both acknowledging and honoring the beliefs of others while still acknowledging and honoring YOUR beliefs. You should NOT make yourself invisible – and completely miss out on those things that you hold nearest and dearest to your heart – simply due to worries about others. To do so would be incredibly codependent.

How about you? What issue(s) or insights does Cheri’s question raise for you?

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What’s On Your Mind

I’ve been locked out of the site for a couple of months now.  I think things are back and running.  I’m wondering, “What’s on your mind these days …

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Codependence or Enabling?

Today’s question comes from Sharon, who writes: “I have been involved with a self-help group, have worked the steps several times, and read many books on the subject(s). I am still running together two words, co-dependency and enabling. Will you please give me your take on the difference between the two.”

Sharon, I’m happy to share with you my thoughts on this topic.

For me, the difference between “codependency” and “enabling” is the focus. I consider a thought or action codependent when my focus is primarily on MY need to derive my self-worth or self-identity from the act of assisting the other person.

I consider myself enabling someone when my primary focus is on THE OTHER person and my perception of their need.

Let me give you an example of how this looks for me.

Let’s say I have a friend who has a problem with alcohol or drugs, and my friend comes to me asking for money so she or he can pay her or his rent.

If I respond from a place of codependence, I get hooked into the situation by telling myself, “I’m a good and stabilizing presence in my friend’s life. My job, then, is to help my friend – because that’s who I am, and that’s what people expect from me.  And if I don’t help my friend, then what kind of person would I be?!”

If I respond from an enabling place, I get hooked into the situation by telling myself, “I really love my friend. I am terrified that my friend might end up on the street. If I help my friend out, then she or he will be safe and secure (for a while, anyway).”

Obviously the concepts can bleed into one another. A thought or action might have elements of both (i.e. I’m getting something out of it in terms of my self-worth/self-identity AND I feel as if I’m helping the other person). An action, however, can be primarily one OR the other (i.e. it’s driven by MY needs, or it’s driven by my concern for THE OTHER).

Those are my initial thoughts. What about you? What does Sharon’s question raise for you?

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