Friday, July 10, 2015

Some Reasons Why I Love Being in the United Church of Christ

I just returned from the national meeting of the UCC (see plenty details about the meeting below).  While at the meeting, I had drinks one night with two friends from seminary days.  We each grew up in a religious landscape left desolate by the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.  We attended a seminary filled with refugees--professors and students--from the SBC and wondered where there was a place for us in the church, since the tradition that had taught us about God's love no longer wanted us.  Each of us in our own way, found our way into the UCC and discovered that the principles of freedom and faith we were taught about in Baptist life were actually lived out in the UCC.  We toasted the denomination that welcomed us refugees in and gave us a new home.  I remain proud to be a part of the UCC--the denomination that not only made room for me but actually wanted me and my beliefs--which to this day friends I grew up with consider heretical.  Here are some experiences I've had in the last few months in the UCC beyond our local church that exemplify why I am so proud to be in this denomination.

At the beginning of June, the Missouri Mid-South Conference (the conference is all the UCC churches in MO, northern AR and Memphis, TN) held its annual meeting in Columbia, MO.  I agreed to be on the planning committee, because one day out of the three-day event was to be spent on the conference's on-going "Sacred Conversation on Race."  Such a dialogue is one of the things I'm passionate about--I have two bi-racial sons after all and I believe racism is one of the most pressing justice issues for our nation.  

Thankfully, I was partnered with an African-American minister to plan this day and long before I got on board, arrangements had already been made to have Bishop Yvette Flunder as our keynote speaker and preacher.  She was incredible.  If you have never heard Flunder preach, stop whatever you are doing and watch this (she starts preaching at about 34:00) and this and this.  She is an African American UCC minister, an out lesbian, and bishop for a fellowship of African American churches who fully welcome LGBTQ people.  

With Bishop Flunder there, it was pretty hard for me to screw things up.  Yet, I was still anxious--really anxious--about my part in leading a dialogue on race.  I just knew that I would say the wrong thing or use terminology and despite my best intentions expose my white privilege.  I could imagine very easily ticking off people who had not done as much study on racism as I have and simultaneously ticking off people who had done far more study on racism than me.  I'm glad to say that neither happened that I'm aware of--either I didn't screw it up or more likely people were just gracious.  It was a great day for our conference--a conference that is largely rural and overwhelmingly Caucasian--to reflect, learn, listen and be challenged about race.  I was proud to be a part of it and proud that it wasn't a one-time thing but an on-going series of events designed to help our conference wrestle with racism.

At the conference meeting, we also overwhelmingly approved a resolution opposing the death penalty in MO and calling on Governor Nixon to place a moratorium on executions to study the many issues surrounding the death penalty.  The resolution allows our conference to join its voice with other groups in the effort to end capital punishment in MO.

So many times in the past both here and at other churches I have served, I have hesitated to make an effort to get lay people to attend this level of denominational meeting.  It is a lot to ask people to give up vacation days and spend their own money to attend such an event.  Unfortunately, most of the time in my experience, conference-level meetings are hardly worth the effort.  Usually, the meetings have to do with bureaucratic reshuffling and essentially rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  This time, however, it was exactly the opposite.  The dialogue on racism, the death penalty resolution and many other things at the meeting were prophetic, challenging and inspirational.  

I apologize for not urging my church folks to attend.  I was consumed with helping with the planning, and frankly, it is hard enough getting people to show up to our own events given how people are so busy these days.  It is much harder to ask people to drive across the state to attend another event.  This one was well worth it, however, and I wish some of you had been there to share it with me.  Next time, I will know better.

In addition to the conference meeting, I just returned from spending a week in Cleveland, Ohio at our national denominational meeting.  It meets every other year and is called the General Synod.  A synod is one of those church-specific words that means "assembly" or "council."  Despite serving a UCC church before this one, my previous UCC church did not pay for clergy to attend the General Synod, so I never went to one.  I wanted to attend but never had the money to do so.  The church I served before coming to CCCUCC was a Disciples of Christ congregation, which did pay me to attend DOC national meetings.  Now that I have finally been to a UCC General Synod, I can say what I suspected was the case all along, UCC national meetings are way, way, way better than Baptist or DOC ones.

You better believe on Friday we celebrated the SCOTUS ruling making same gender marriage the law of the land.  A tent was set up in downtown Cleveland and UCC ministers began performing same gender marriages on the spot.

I attended as a guest which means I did not get a vote.  Unlike in Baptist and DOC life--with which I have previous experience--attendees, even clergy ones, don't automatically get a vote.  Each conference sends delegates who do the voting.  The result is that the delegates are trained and educated on the issues beforehand.  Also, they are assigned different committees or working groups on each issue to be voted on.  Being a delegate is so much more work than just being a guest.  I watched in awe as CCCUCC member, Rev. Stephen King, spent his entire trip working 12+ hours each day on the issues debated.  Having delegates seems like a good way to ensure those voting on important issues are actually invested and educated on what they entail.

Boy did we discuss some issues!  Some were about structure and process, but others were about the pressing social issues of our time.  Here are some of them:
Plenty more resolutions were debated on a lot of other issues: mass incarceration, the "New Jim Crow," GMO's, incarceration of undocumented immigrant children and more.  Most passed, but some did not.  As an observer, it was a sometimes riveting debate, while, of course, there were times when it seemed some speakers just made their way to the microphone to hear themselves talk.  Overall, I was so proud to be a part of a denomination that does not shy away from difficult issues of social justice.

Resolutions, or any action taken by the national UCC, are not binding on local congregations or their members.  The UCC values freedom and diversity of belief, so there is no mechanism to require members to go against their own consciences as in other denominations.  Yet, we do live in covenant together, so the resolutions are meant not only as a witness to the larger world but as a challenge to all of us who claim to be a part of the UCC.

Here are some other great things I experienced at the national meeting:
Whether at the conference or national level, I was proud to be a part of a denomination where women, people of all races, LGBTQ people and others could be not only in lay leadership but serve as ordained ministers.  I experienced the joy of being among kindred spirits who make every effort to hear the voices of all.  Every year at budget time, we always wonder if what we give financially to the church beyond our local congregation is worth it--I hope my words gave you at least a few reasons why it is.
Grace and Peace
You can read more of my thoughts and keep up with what I'm reading on my blog: and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.  

Recommended Reading, Listening and Watching (7-5-15 edition)

Each week (more or less) I send out an e-mail to my congregation with my thoughts including stuff I've read over the past week that I want to pass along.  I haven't put my lists up on the blog in a good while so here are some that go back a ways, but if you missed them, they are still worth reading, clicking on, listening to or watching.

Charleston Massacre and the Confederate Flag
SCOTUS Ruling on Same Gender Marriage
 Other Stuff

CCCUCC in the news

KCTV-5 was at our church on last week to do a story on our celebration of the SCOTUS ruling on same gender marriage.  Once again, I'm grateful to church members Paul Osgood and Jerry Cundiff for being willing to be public with their love and their relationship. They make our church look good and their love inspires me to be a better husband to my wife. After 39 years together, they will be married legally at our church later this year! Sadly, another couple I asked to speak with the reporter understandably opted not to, because one of them teaches in a conservative KS school district. In KS, like many states, including MO, you can be fired for being gay with no protection under the law. Despite recent victories, the work for God's justice continues.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Walking Dead and Holy Week

(written on Good Friday 2015)
I will end my Holy Week preaching on Jesus rising from the dead, but I began my Holy Week with a whole lot of dead people coming to life--or at least a sort of life if you call being a human flesh-eating zombie living.  I along with over 15 million other people tuned in to the TV show The Walking Dead last Sunday night.  It turns out there might be a good reason I as a religious person am attracted to a show about zombies--in addition to being attracted to it because it's a really good (if gory) show.
"In their overturning of our understanding of the world, these classic tropes of horror are what I would call theological terrors. They challenge the sacred order by introducing existential chaos. . . Within the Bible, the natural order is routinely shattered, never more famously than during the Easter narrative.
While Jesus hinted at a reversal of the natural order when he reanimated Lazarus, it is the Easter narrative where Scripture downshifts into full horror-movie mode. . .
The natural, sacred, and accepted orders are turned on their collective heads throughout the final days of Holy Week when, after Jesus breathes his last, the light of day ominously and unnaturally transforms into darkness followed by a rock-splitting earthquake, frightening and supernatural imagery echoed in countless apocalyptic horror narratives in contemporary entertainment. . . 
Following this, the gospel of Matthew, predating the zombie craze in popular culture by several thousand years, reads, "The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many." While we don't know whether these revived corpses were muttering "brains" or "shalom," it's safe to say that the sudden reappearance of the dead amid unnatural darkness is, read literally, nothing short of a terrifying turn of events."
It's true, the Gospels, especially Matthew's Gospel, have a mashup of images that would fit nicely into disaster films and horror movies.  Given that all the tropes are there for a big Hollywood blockbuster, why is it that all the Hollywood depictions of Jesus look like my second grader's art class did the special effects?  The stone rolling away from Jesus' tomb in every Jesus movie I've seen looks like a paper mache leftover from a third rate caveman movie!  (In my book, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ doesn't count.  To me, his movie was less a horror movie and more of a snuff film.)

Whether Hollywood ever plays up the horror of Holy Week or not, the prevalence of zombies, demons, vampires and other scary creatures in our culture reveals something deep that people are looking for.  Peacock goes on to make a significant point re: the place of horror movies, zombie TV shows and comics, novels about vampires, etc.  He says:
"While I offer some of these reflections in an ironic spirit, I do think it's important to acknowledge that religion and the horror genre are dueling narratives revolving around the unknown, of what lies beyond human reason and understanding. I would argue that one of the reasons The Walking Dead consistently draws tremendous ratings is that horror entertainment has emerged as another form of religious language. In some sense, due to the need for palatable religious ritual, the ghastly elements of scripture have been buried, only to arise in the sinister form of vampires, zombies, and malevolent elder gods, symbols that enable us to explore the shadow side of the divine." 
Could it be true that as we sanitize the horrific aspects of Holy Week and Easter and in the Bible in general we leave people in search of narratives--however entertaining--that touch on issues of flesh and bone, life and death, mortality and immortality, existence and nihilism, civilization and societal collapse?  
I won't apologize for turning away from a theological point of view that does not emphasize the blood of Jesus Christ.  I continue to believe a Christianity that stresses the blood of Jesus was necessary to appease an angry God is a religion that justifies violence in the name of God and downplays divine mercy.
Yet, the world is a violent place where bad things happen.  People die, sometimes in terrible ways.  Now more than ever in human history technology allows us to bear witness to the barbarity of humanity.  Just think how often every day you hear news about child sexual abuse, homicides and terrorism.  At the same time, our American culture allows many of us the privilege of denying death's ever present reality.  The industrial complexes of medical care, pharmaceutical conglomerates and the funeral industry sanitize the grim reality of our physical existence.  We don't have to deal with death until we are forced to deal with death--either our own or someone else's.
Yes, The Walking Dead is a really good TV show with really good writing, acting and special effects.  It is also really gory and bloody.  Yet within the gore and blood the characters struggle constantly with what they must do to survive and whether or not survival alone justifies all they must do to remain alive.  Is one really alive when one must do inhumane things?  Often the characters on the show bear a striking similarity to the undead whom they fight--a purposeful decision on the part of the show's writers.  
The show is entertaining--absolutely, but does it speak to a deeper human longing?  In the back of our minds, those of us who are privileged enough to turn our thoughts away from survival toward reflection upon what life means have to wonder about just how fragile our human society actually is.  The chaos of a zombie apocalypse is a metaphor for all the small outbreaks of chaos within our lives--all the things we cannot control--all the ways we are unable to overcome our mortality.  
I will continue to set my DVR to record The Walking Dead when it returns in October (and for the spin-off which airs this summer ), but now I'm wondering about what the appeal of the show says about us at this particular time in our culture.  Now, as much as any time, we need a Christianity that does not offer us simplistic answers about existence and meaning.  We  need a religion that helps us take in the suffering and death that is a part of the human condition--what we see when we look upon Jesus on Good Friday--and helps us to embrace the mystery that is Easter.  We need a reason to do more than survive or else we become the zombies.  Despite the internet meme of "Zombie Jesus," the resurrected Jesus of the Gospels is not the same as the zombies of The Walking Dead.  This walking dead man offers hope of something greater than mere survival, greater even than death. 
Horror movies, books and TV shows are appealing, because they allow us a glimpse of the things we are afraid of and want to avoid.  There is pleasure in facing one's fears of death, pain and powerlessness.  By facing such fears one can overcome them.  Isn't it time for a Christianity that acknowledges the horrific realities of our world in order to reveal a God who is greater than our fears?
The angel's words in the empty tomb were, "Do not be afraid."
 Grace and Peace

Recommended Reading 4.3.15 Edition

Each week (more or less) I send out an e-mail to my congregation with my thoughts including stuff I've read over the past week that I want to pass along.  I haven't put my lists up on the blog in a good while so here are some that go back a ways, but if you missed them, they are still worth reading, clicking on, listening to or watching.

Stuff I've Referenced in Sermons
Recommended Reading, Listening and Watching

Friday, April 3, 2015

Therapeutic Gratitude

I'm not a big fan of self-help books.  From my perspective, the self-help industry tends to over-simplify issues that often defy easy answers.  On the other hand, as a minister, I've known many people who have been helped by books, videos, etc. from the self-help section of the bookstore.  I think I'm humble enough and pragmatic enough to celebrate whatever works to help people with their difficulties.  Yet, I still view self-help books with suspicion.
 All that being said, I have been driving around lately listening to a self-help book on CD.  It's called  The Tools: 5 Tools to Help You Find Courage, Creativity and Willpower--and Inspire You to Live Life in Forward Mostion by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels.  I first heard of the book on Marc Maron's podcast which I listen to regularly (the title of the podcast, as I've mentioned before in sermons, is too blue for me to name).  Maron usually interviews comedians, musicians or actors, but this time he was interviewing one of the authors, Phil Stutz.  I was intrigued with what Stutz had to say, because he was so blunt and because his focus of treatment was giving patients tools to deal immediately with the problems that brought them to therapy.  The tools Stutz talked about didn't seem to be quick fixes or over-simplifications but ways to go about changing behavior--changes that could bring a suffering person immediate relief.
 The perspective of the authors runs contrary to many therapists who practice talk therapy and believe in a process of discovering the sources of an individual's current psychological pain in one's past experiences.  Although Stutz and Michel value that approach, what they really wanted to find was a way to give patients immediate relief from unhealthy ways of thinking or acting.  It sounds a lot to me like what I understand to be Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. 
I've benefited greatly from a process-orientated talk therapy approach.  The times I've spent seeing a therapist have given me great benefits in understanding myself and how often my thoughts and behaviors result from unresolved issues in my unconscious.  That being said, I've also benefited from CBT--skipping the discovery process of why a problem exists and focusing on behaviors I can implement to change an unhealthy way of acting or thinking.  In my experience, both approaches yield benefits and I'm suspicious of those who insist on either/or. 
As a minister who often talks with people about their personal struggles, those conversations often involve discussion of spiritual, psychological, emotional and physical problems.  I try to be quick to acknowledge when an issue exceeds my expertise; after all I'm not a medical doctor and I'm not a therapist.  I'm not afraid to make referrals to someone who knows more than I do.  Yet, I often feel the need to make suggestions to people about how to stop unhealthy ways of thinking/acting such as worrying, extreme self-criticism, feelings of guilt and shame, etc. because they are suffering in the present moment.  It's this last need in my work that made me interested in Stutz' and Michel's The Tools.
 When I started listening to the book, I was really surprised about how spiritual the book is.  It's not Christian but it's also not un-Christian.  The authors use language that is overtly spiritual in nature but they also choose to use language that does not match any organized religion.  For example, each of the tools they discuss involves opening oneself to "higher forces of the universe."  In order to overcome self-destructive behavior a person needs to connect with a power above himself or herself.  They state clearly that they don't care whether or not you call these higher forces God, Jesus, the Collective Unconscious or some other religious term; they don't care what you call it just that you make use of it.  Unlike a lot of New Age mumbo jumbo that just involves thinking positive thoughts without any real effort or sacrifice, the tools the authors advocate involve facing one's own mortality, demonstrating love for people one is angry with or even hates, cultivating a pattern of gratitude and other difficult work.  The language they use sounds goofy to me at times-okay a lot of the time--but the tools they describe seem to offer a practical way for someone to change one's unhealthy ways of living--provided that person puts in the effort.  One of the reasons I like the book is that they don't promise any easy or quick fixes, just a way to immediately begin difficult changes.
The fourth tool in the book is called "The Grateful Flow" (I told you the language sounds goofy), and it involves overcoming negative thinking through gratitude.  They state that the trigger for using this tool happens whenever you find yourself thinking negative thoughts--we're not talking about a stray critical thought now and then but the kind of negative thinking that builds upon itself and eventually blocks out all positive ones.  When this occurs, they ask patients to immediately think of five things the person is grateful for--not things one should feel grateful for, but five things one is actually grateful for.  These things can be basic like being alive, having the ability to see or even mundane like having coffee with a friend or a good book.  They promise that this simple act of catching yourself before the negative thoughts take over connects one to a higher force.  That higher force they call "The Source" and they describe it as the force in the universe that is giving and has your best interest at heart.  Rather than viewing the universe as inherently hostile or merely indifferent, this way of thinking involves faith that there is some force out there that gave you life and continues to give you things you can be thankful for--provided you become conscious of them.
The terminology is different, but it sounds awfully Christian to me.  While listening to the audio book, the words to the old hymn "Count Your Blessings" kept running through my mind.  The Bible contains plenty of exhortations to thankfulness.  Psalm 95 says, "Let us come into God's presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!"  The Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippian church, "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God."  I have a number of books on prayer in my office that teach making prayers of thanksgiving an essential part of the spiritual life.  Annie Dillard wrote in  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, "I think that the dying pray at the last not 'please,' but 'thank you,' as a guest thanks his host at the door."  Rev. John Claypool says, "Truth be told, whenever we face ambiguous situations with things going for us and things going against us, I would suggest that gratitude is the most creative thing we can possibly do because it puts us in touch with the positive energies that are at work in our lives." 
On the one hand, there's a part of me that thinks about the authors' emphasis upon gratitude as less than a novel idea.  Christians, Jews and other religious people have been offering this advice for centuries.  Yet on the other hand, I see overtly religious calls to thanksgiving mainly offered in terms of what one ought to do.  As a Christian, I would say that we creatures should give our Creator thanks, but I think there is real wisdom in acknowledging the therapeutic quality of gratitude.  Orienting one's life towards gratitude does have a powerful transformative effect upon a person's life.  In addition to being something one ought to do, gratitude is something that improves one's life.  The happiest people I know with the greatest sense of inner peace are people who seem to maintain a posture of gratitude for their blessings rather than choosing to dwell on their misfortunes.
Furthermore, gratitude helps a person let go of worrying, which the authors rightly describe as a vain effort to control what cannot be controlled.  Worry is a superstition that has no real power to make things better--only the power to inhibit one from truly living.  Practicing thanksgiving allows one to live out of joy rather than living out of fear.
 In our increasingly secular age, I continually struggle as a minister to translate traditional Christian language into terms non-religious people or more often in my setting people who are jaded and cynical about religion can resonate with.  I'm not sure if the words used in  The Tools fit that bill or not, but I'm not going to argue with anyone who offers people a way to be thankful, love others and live unafraid of death.
 Grace and Peace