Thursday, November 29, 2012

Something Weird This Way Comes

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

This weekend our church is getting ready for Kristkindlmarkt (“Christ Child Market"), when we transform our building into a German village complete with beer hall and oompah band to celebrate the coming of Christmas.  On top of that, the busyness of the holiday season is in full swing.  People are busy this time of year, so why not just throw another commitment log on the ole holiday social calendar fire?  On Sunday, December 9, I am being installed as minister at CCCUCC and I hope you can be a part of it.  Be warned, however, it’s sort of weird.
            A minister’s installation in our denomination is just weird.  I keep telling people to think of it like when you buy a new appliance and have it delivered and installed; I’m the clergy equivalent of a new dishwasher!  Installation is carried over from denominations that control where their clergy go and when—it’s not official until the hierarchy makes it official.  We don’t have a hierarchy in our denomination, but the larger church does play a role.  Our local association (the UCC churches in western MO) is the body that makes sure I am in good standing as a UCC minister and it represents the broader church, so part of the reason we have an installation service is for the church beyond the local congregation to offer its blessing.
            All this is also a bit weird, because technically a local congregation can hire whomever it wants as a minister without the approval of the denomination.  There is no bishop to check with.  When a local church does so, however, it forgoes any kind of accountability—on the part of the minister or the local church.  When all things operate as they should, the process of a church searching for and calling a minister should include the denomination offering support in discernment and a means of ensuring candidates are qualified and healthy enough to be a minister.  I spent the last five and a half years in our sister denomination the Disciples of Christ.  I was shocked to learn that none other than Jim Jones of The Peoples Temple was a DOCminister.  Back then they had no mechanism to remove his standing as a minister.  Perhaps there’s no way to ensure every minister is a healthy one, but accountability still matters in a healthy church system.
            The installation of a UCC minister is still weirder because of the times we live in.  Organized religion has far less relevance today than even a generation ago, and Christian denominations are dying.  Everywhere you look there are church bureaucracies downsizing, cutting staff and selling property.  (A friend of mine recently compared them toTwinkies—everybody knows them but not too many people eat them any more; which is why Hostess is going out of business.)  Local churches have plenty of other options for education, training and missions besides their denominations.  Furthermore, many church officials still don’t seem to get the hard truth that denominations were created to serve the local congregations and not the other way around.  Many self-important religious officials are reaping what they have sown from having understood their roles as corporation presidents instead of servants.  Finally, given the fact that people no longer look for a local church by denomination but instead according to whether it suits their particular tastes and needs, a question worth asking is do we even need denominations any more?
            I would answer that we don’t need many denominations that exist, but we do need the United Church of Christ.  Perhaps we don’t need everything in the UCC’s structure, especially parts designed for the Mad Men era, but we need a national church voice that will stand up for social justice, inclusion of LGBT people and freedom of belief in our increasingly pluralistic world.  I gave my heart away to the Baptist denomination in which I was raised and ended up with a broken heart.  I learned to give my heart only to God and not to an institution.  That being said, however, the UCC accepted me when I was looking for a form of Christianity that would allow me to be the kind of minister I felt called to be.  I am grateful for that.  I am likewise grateful to serve a church like CCCUCC which has accepted so many who were unwelcome in other churches.  That inclusion and that voice for justice are what we will celebrate at my installation.  This event will not be a mere bureaucratic hoop or quaint tradition.  Instead, we will celebrate a relationship between our local church and the wider church that declares, “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
            Grace and Peace,

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Can Money Buy Happiness After All?

In my sermon on Sunday, I shared about this presentation by Michael Norton of Harvard Business School.  In it he presents research that shows money can buy us happiness WHEN we spend it on others rather than ourselves.  It's an exciting thought.

One of my church members raised the question, however, if this was true for people living in poverty.  If you had the financial means to move out of extreme poverty or from lack of health care to quality health care or from lack of shelter to decent housing, wouldn't that produce happiness?  He had a good point!  All I have to work on is this brief presentation by Norton and I haven't read more detailed work from him.  From this presentation, it seems to me that his research seems to be true for middle class and above people--or at least people who have their basic needs covered.

What do you think?

A Church Full of Heretics

The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.
        I’m not sure when I was first condemned to hell for what I believed or didn’t believe, but it had at least happened by my college years.  Despite the conservative religious world I grew up in, my parents taught me things like there was more than one way to interpret the Bible, women were equal to men and grace was more important than dogma.  In my college years, I was still pretty conservative socially and religiously, but I had begun asking questions that others frowned upon.  Pretty soon I began to enjoy the role of upsetting the sensibilities of others who claimed to have all the answers.  It would take years for me to understand that my own religious views could be just as arrogant as those I disagreed with.  Eventually, I grew to no longer care who thought I was a heretic or why; I learned that there were too many hurting people in the world who needed love to bother wasting my time on people who judged me.
            At this point in my life I’ve found myself often in the role of being too liberal for conservative Christians and too conservative for liberal Christians.  I’m considered too liberal by Christians who don’t like my universalistic views on salvation, my refusal to believe the Bible is the literal Word of God, my support of and acceptance of LGBT people and so on.  Yet, liberal Christians tend to wonder why I still believe in the divinity of Jesus, the doctrine of the Trinity and the supernatural intervention of God in the natural realm.  I guess I just can’t please everybody—and maybe I can’t completely please anybody.
            During our recent new member orientation, I shared about the United Church of Christ and that the common joke is that UCC really stands for Unitarians Considering Christ.  (Although I’m learning that in Kansas City it could just as easily be called Unity members Considering Christ.).  Here at CCCUCC, I’m finding that nickname to be true for plenty of folks, just as I’ve found it true at other churches where I have served.  So, as one heretic to another, let me reassure all you folks who doubt Jesus was God or who hold some other non-traditional belief, that I your minister am neither worried nor threatened by your beliefs.  I don’t understand my role to be the doctrinal enforcer, rather I see my job as helping our community of heretics to grow in love of God and love of neighbor.  Exactly what form that love takes in terms of specific religious beliefs is open for negotiation as far as I’m concerned.
            In worship on Sunday mornings, I pray in the name of Jesus Christ and I often use language that equally interchanges God, Jesus and Spirit.  I will pray in language that speaks of God somehow making a difference in our lives and bringing healing to our minds and bodies.  BUT I will do all these things without the expectation that everyone in the sanctuary speak, think, sing and pray in the same way I do.  I’ve come to the conclusion that just as my beliefs have changed over my life thus far they will change during the rest of my life.  Since there are beliefs I hold today that I may not hold in the future, I have to admit that I cannot be certain what I believe about God is true or that it even makes complete sense.  My beliefs are the best I have been able to cobble together thus far on my journey.  I view everyone else’s beliefs the same way.
            A good example of the mixture of religious belief I cling to comes when I try to describe what I think about Jesus.  I’m fully aware the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from a strictly rational perspective, but I have stubbornly clung to a belief in the divinity of Jesus—not because an external authority like scripture or tradition tells me to do so, but because I take comfort in the thought that God has experienced what it means to be human.  When I look at the amount of suffering in our world, at least I can find solace in the thought that God has personally experienced that suffering too.  It seems to help when I fail to find a good answer for why God allows such suffering to exist.  So, if I’m honest, I’m forced to admit that what I believe about Jesus probably has more to do with my own personal existential struggles than any kind of objective proof.  If I’m willing to admit that my beliefs come in large part out of my own experience, I have to allow for others to do the same.
            Take heart all you heretics in the pews!  When you hear me using religious language that resembles that of others who may judge you, please remember that all I’m doing is proclaiming my own faith perspective and I don’t expect or want you to agree with everything I believe.  I suspect that you will challenge and shape my faith at least as much as I as your minister will shape yours.  Even though it might be easier if we all believed the same thing and could live our life together without anyone changing, such a relationship sounds awfully boring.  I’d rather have the exciting and at times difficult journey where we challenge each other to transform and grow.  I hope you want that too.
            Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

I'm everywhere on the web! (sort of)

The church where I serve is the polling place for Brookside, a neighborhood in Kansas City.  Since I"ve only recently come to the church this was my first time experiencing an election.  The place was hopping!  Apparently, it has one of the best voter turnouts in KC.  A local news station was here interviewing people, candidates were outside greeting voters and a photographer for one of the wire services was here.  She got a picture of my voter sticker.  The picture only shows part of my shirt, my hand and the sticker--she wisely chose not to include my face--I think she'll sell more pictures that way!  I googled myself and apparently all kinds of sites post pictures from the service.  The upper left portion of my chest is famous!

The Real Story from the 2012 Election

 The following was written for the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ.

            Yesterday was exciting around the CCCUCC building.  Long lines snaked out the building and down the sidewalk as Brookside voters waited in line to vote in our social hall.  This morning we are cleaning up election signs left behind and other Election Day detritus.  As our nation cleans up after the whirlwind of the election, I’m wondering what there is to learn from it and more specifically what it means for our church. 
            As I think about the votes cast yesterday and more importantly who cast them, I will leave the declarations about America’s moral depravity to the fundamentalists.  Instead, I’m interested in what the demographics of the voters showed about diversity.  According to ABC News, the 2012 electorate is less white and less male than ever before.  Non-white voters made up 21% of the electorate; in 1996 that number was 10%.  CNN reports that since 1964, female voters have outnumbered male voters in every presidential election; last night was no exception.  Indeed, in yesterday’s election white male voters made up 34% of voters; back in 1976 they were at 46%.  In large part, President Obama won the election, because he targeted his campaign to female and non-white voters.
            Setting aside partisan politics, I wish to cheer on these demographic changes.  You may wonder why I, as a white male, would be in support of a culture where white men have less say.  A very important reason for my feelings is that I have two bi-racial sons; both were adopted from African-American birthfathers and Caucasian birthmothers.  I am excited that they will grow up in a culture that looks more like they do, and where people of various skin tones and cultural backgrounds share the power. 
            Another reason that I am glad that white males will have less say in political power is my theology.  By the time I came through seminary, it was standard practice to read the writings of feminist, African-American and Latino theologians.  Their views of God challenged centuries of theology written by and for white men.  When I came to understand that God was not a white male, I came to understand the Church should be a community where all voices are heard, especially those who do not hold power.  Rather than feeling threatened by my own loss of privilege, I was excited by the wonder of diversity.  In political terms—both inside and outside of the Church—I am all for people who have historically not had power and privilege (for example women and non-whites) having their say in what the world should be like.
            These demographic shifts say something to our particular church.  The exit poll data from yesterday reveal religious voters who were white and male largely voted for the losing presidential candidate.  Regardless of how one feels about who won or lost, what this means for the American Church is that if it chooses to remain largely a bastion of white male privilege then it will lose its ability to be a player in society.  Positions against women’s reproductive rights and immigrants for example may be short-term winners, but they are long-term losers.  Churches that fail to take into account the views of women and non-whites will find themselves less relevant than they already are.  Indeed, recent polling data on finds that younger people are leaving Christianity in droves.  It is no coincidence that this is happening among the generations who are more gender inclusive and culturally cosmopolitan than ever before.
            These changes are huge, but I believe CCCUCC is well-positioned to not only survive but thrive as the culture changes around us.  This congregation’s members fought for the rights of African-Americans during the Civil Rights era and stood up for women’s rights in the years that followed.  CCCUCC chose to become Open and Affirming to LGBT people long before most other churches in Kansas City.  This church has chosen to partner with other congregations of different economic and ethnic backgrounds in groups like MORE2.  Yes, we have a lot of work to do in order to truly reflect the diversity of God’s reign, but I am optimistic on that score, because this church has already chosen repeatedly to view diversity not as a threat but as a blessing.
            Our culture is changing, and the battles over those changes will at times be vicious as those with power are forced to share it.  As a local church, however, we can model a different kind of community where power is voluntarily given up for the benefit of those who lack it.  We can make choices to open our doors to the world in all its diversity rather than huddle behind them in fear of cultural changes.  I believe the future of CCCUCC is bright as long as we remain open to a culture that is less homogenous and more blessedly diverse.
            Grace and Peace,