Sometimes it can be hard being part of the Christian family. First of all, we have so many branches on the family tree to keep track of: Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Progressive, to name just a few. We come from the same root, but we have evolved into different understandings on many issues, and sometimes it feels an awful lot like a competition around the family table when people get together to talk. I grew up in the United Church in Los Alamos, New Mexico, which is made up of seven distinct Protestant denominations. Coming from that background, I still find myself shaking my head in wonder whenever oneperson or group decides they need to speak up for “the Church.” Or, even worse, for all Christians. During this political season, it has been particularly ugly, as some candidates accuse other candidates of not being Christian “enough” or believing the right things (meaning: whatever that particular candidate believes.) Issues of deep civic importance are being used as wedges to divide people along religious lines, and old prejudices are flaring.
So I have been asking myself lately about our responsibility in the conversation.
As members of the United Church of Christ, we have a long tradition of being involved in our larger communities, of seeking to be positive forces in our body politic, all the while respecting that other religious groups (Christian and not) have the right and responsibility to work for the common good, as well. What do we do when we, and others, are accused of not being “Christian” enough to be part of the conversation? How can we be respectful of our own beliefs and make sure that others are not shut out?
These are questions I hope we can discuss over the next few weeks, during our Sunday Gatherings, our prayer circles, our individual conversations. We each have had experiences in this realm, and can learn from one another. We are followers of Jesus, worshippers of God, and while we may not be “THE Church” or represent ALL Christians, we stand with Christians around the world who seek to shed more light than heat whenever we work together for God’s world.
As you know, we are part of a group of Christians who identify themselves as “Progressive Christians.” Here is one definition of what that means (from WikiPedia, of all places!):
“Progressive Christianity is the name given to a movement within cotemporary Christianity characterized by a willingness to question tradition, acceptance of human diversity with a strong emphasis on social justice or care for the poor and the oppressed (often identified as minority groups) and environmental stewardship of the Earth.
Elizabeth, who was 4 going on 84, was one of the first people I got to know at my first church. Of course, her parents were the ones who served on boards, ferried their little family back and forth to church, and were actual members, but as far as Elizabeth was concerned, this church was her church, and I was her minister. And she was right.
She was one of those children who was both an old soul and still a child; she was in no way a miniature adult, but she seemed to be wise beyond her years. I will never forget the first Lent we spent together. Our congregation had decided to culminate our observance of Lent with a prayer vigil in the days between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. People signed up for 20 minute periods on the calendar in the narthex. For that period of time, each person agreed to hold the community – and the world – in prayer as a way of preparing for the resurrection celebration. The idea was that at any point during the weekend, someone in our community would be in prayer, linking us all together with one another, with God, and with all of humanity. Amazingly enough, the calendar quickly filled up, and as I was reviewing it one day, I saw ELIZABETH carefully printed in one of the spaces. Hmmmm…, I thought. How’s this going to work?
Well, the day and time she had committed to arrived. She happened to be in the backseat of the family car, headed to Grandma’s for Easter. She was adamant that she was going to pray, however, so her mother turned to her at the appointed time and said, “Elizabeth, it’s time to pray.” “Okay,” Elizabeth replied. And in she launched.
“Dear God, thank for loving us so much that you sent us Jesus– and then killed him. Amen.”
She still had 19 minutes and 45 seconds to go, but her stunned parents decided not to push matters, and let it go.
When her mother shared this story with me later, we both realized how muddled some of our theology can seem when it is articulated so baldly. As adults, we often gloss over the concepts that seem out of touch or inconsistent, but then we forget to articulate what it is we do believe in ways that make sense.
We know that God loves us. We know that God sent us Jesus. We know that Jesus’ death and resurrection are the cornerstones of our faith. But how?
Elizabeth’s understanding of Jesus’ death (God loved us so much that somehow he had to kill Jesus) isn’t all that different from some of the pervasive theologies that float around us today. In fact, they even have names, like the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement,” which posits that God required a payment in order to forgive us for our sins. It is rooted in the belief that every person, even a newborn, is so inherently sinful that in order to brought back to God, someone must be sacrificed, a punishment must be exacted, and so Jesus paid it. It’s an old doctrine, going all the way back to the 4th century, and there are compelling elements to it. But it is not the only theology of Easter, and many Christians throughout the ages have come to a different way of understanding this Mystery.
I believe that the meaning of Jesus’ life and death says much more about God’s desire to remind us of our inherent goodness than to punish someone for our human sin. Jesus’ words continually call us to remember that God dwells in us, that we are loved and cherished, and that even though our frailties and failings cause us and the world much pain, God is always reaching out to bring us closer. Jesus isn’t the payment made to a vengeful God; he is the message from a loving God, reminding of who were created to be – and showing us, through his example, how we can live and die in ways that honor that.
“I have come that you may have life, and life abundant,” says Jesus in the Gospel of John. We do indeed make mistakes, we are, in fact, sinful – we know that. What we too often forget is the deeper truth: that when God created us all, God saw that it was good, and the light of that goodness was never extinguished. Elizabeth was right about God’s love. Let’s just make sure she and others who turn to Christianity come to see God’s love as reconciling, not punishing. That is our call this season and always.
Yesterday morning, through the rain outside my window, I glimpsed the exuberant pink blossoms on my flowering plum tree. Where did they come from? I wondered. They weren’t here last week. How long will they last? I barely notice the little tree, usually, but throughout the day, I found myself drawn to the window, marveling again and again at the gift right in front of my eyes.
This morning, I received word that a friend had died. It was both expected and unexpected; she had been dealing with illness for the past few years and in the past few weeks, things had gotten much worse. So with a mixture of sadness and gratitude, I said good-bye to the gift she had been to the world.
Where do we come from? How long will we be here? These are questions that are the subtext of much of our lives. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” read the words of the scripture so often quoted at the beginning of Lent. And often we hear them as fatalistic or off-putting. But the good news is that we can hear them a different way – not as an ominous warning or something to dread, but instead as a call to appreciate what we have in the here and now.
If these words say anything to us, I believe they say that the life we are living now is not a dress rehearsal. It is the real thing, not to be wasted or squandered. If we want to be people of faith someday, let us be people of faith today. If we want to be known for our courage or our kindness, today is the day to be courageous and kind. Our days on this earth are limited, it is true, but this recognition need not limit our lives – indeed it can free us to live more expansively and lovingly.
Jesus’ life embodies this very truth. He understood that he was mortal and would one day die. He understood that there would be suffering to bear. Yet that knowledge did not keep him from living fully and being completely present, every day. He was continually focusing his attention and ours on the beauty of this world, of this moment. “Consider the lilies of the field,” he said. Or the blossoms of the trees. Or the beauty of friendship, or family. Consider them. What a multitude of blessings we have been given!
When we gather together next Wednesday to share in the special Ash Wednesday service (see page 9), let us do so with a renewed commitment to live our lives fully, to be more aware of the gifts which surround us, and to honor each day as the miracle it is. We are formed by God, we are accompanied through this life by God, and with God we will always remain.
One of the most potent lessons I ever learned about family came from my mother. You should always treat your family as well as you treat your friends, she told me. (I think she may have told me this when I was a teenager, and finding my friends ever so much cooler than my family…) Don’t take family for granted. Don’t assume that you can ignore them because they have to put up with you. Do assume that everyone in your family needs to be treated with the kindness and respect, in private, that you would like to be known for in public.
In spite of the ups and downs of family life, and in spite of the human frailties we all have, I have found that advice to hold true. And it’s true for church families, as well. The healthiest communities I have ever been a part of understand that fundamental truth: we never forget how much we value and need each other.
So many people at FCC do so much for the church and the greater community, and as much as any place I’ve ever seen, you just do it quietly and without fanfare. In the spirit of not taking one another for granted, though, I want to recognize some of the ways you help make this community the loving place it is. This week I’m thinking especially about our Sunday Gatherings – that 4:00 hour when we sing, pray, share our lives, and reflect together on our faith. Every person who comes brings something we need that day – a thought or an insight, a smile or a hug, something that only that person could contribute. No matter the size of the group, each person is truly a vital part of what we do together. On the next page you will see a “thank you” to the folks who have helped plan, lead, feed and arrange these gatherings. There are a lot of you! One constant presence, however, is Ruth Stroshane, who comes each Sunday with a willingness to play whatever we ask of her. Our Sunday services are so much richer because she is there, and I love knowing that whatever hymn someone feels like singing, Ruth just makes it happen. Thank you, Ruth, for sharing your music and your friendship with all of us.
We have much to be thankful for at First Congregational Church. Many of you have a shared history that stretches back over the decades. As we look ahead to a new call and a new future, I hope we will also remember to celebrate the ties that bind this family together in faith and love.
I was at a restaurant recently with some friends. It was a lovely setting: candles on the tables, happy voices chatting around us, and a wonderful classical guitarist playing nearby. Our waiter was friendly and helpful, and often checked in with us about how we were doing. As the evening wore on, though, I found myself increasingly distracted from the conversation at my table. While we had come together to listen and talk with old friends, the noises around us made it hard to focus. Most of the surrounding sounds were quite pleasant, but they still managed to partially obscure the voices we most wanted to hear, and we left feeling tired and a bit dissatisfied.
That is the sense that many people have as we listen for God’s voice in our daily living – there are so many opinions and sources for input, we can get overwhelmed and have a hard time discriminating the “still, small voice” of the Spirit from the competing influences in our lives. And so we develop practices that help us focus and filter the information, hoping that they will help us move with integrity and purpose. This is one of the most important things communities of faith do together.
There are as many different spiritual discernment practices as there are different faith traditions. They all have three basic commonalities, though: they are prayerful, informed, and intentional.
(Farnham, Hull, McLean; Grounded in God:
Listening Hearts for Discernment for Group Deliberation)
Being prayerful means starting any discernment process with a spirit of openness before God. So any person or group that wishes to embark on the journey of spiritual discernment begins with prayer. Quakers start in silence; Jesuits ask God for an “inner disposition” that is open-ended and not focused on getting one’s own way; Buddhists seek non-attachment as a way of being able to see others’ points of view and listen for new insights. But each is a version of that particular groups’ attitude of prayer. This is not an optional or “throw away” part of the process: it is the necessary pre-requisite for what comes next.
Being informed means taking seriously the role of our minds, and our responsibility to think critically. We Protestants often begin our discernment processes with this step, because we believe so strongly in the role of reason and free-will. Sometimes agendas skip prayer altogether in favor of graphs and data points, demographics and reports. However, being informed without being prayerful is to miss out on the grounding we get in faith, even as prayer without the hard work of thinking dismisses one of God’s greatest gifts to us – our ability to reason.
Being intentional means having a process in place to guide us through uncharted territory. The United Methodists have one of the best processes I know of: they are encouraged to prayerfully consider four questions when they seek to discern God’s will:
1. What (if anything) does Scripture say about this?
2. What does my/our experience tell us about this topic?
3. What do other people of faith say about this?
4. What does my reasoning mind tell me?
This is known as the Qaudrilateral:
Scripture/ Experience/ Tradition/ Reason
Each a necessary lens in seeking God’s will, neither one sufficient in itself.
As our community of faith refines our spiritual practices for decision making, may we do so knowing that we are truly bringing our best gifts before God, even as we are listening for and choosing God’s best gifts for us.