So…This is Happening…

One of my favorite movies is An American President, not because of the cheesy romance, but because of the sharp, rapid-fire dialog that is a hallmark of any Aaron Sorkin project. Late in the film, as Michael Douglas’s President is giving the press conference that marks the climax of the film, he makes the following comment about his conservative opponents: “They’re only interested in two things: making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it.” Or something like that.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the same is true of the religious right. In general, the religious right is what one would refer to as a bounded set. There’s an “in” group and an “out” group. Furthermore, the pastoral leadership is personally invested in making sure the community hangs on their every word and buys what they’re selling from the pulpit because their livelihood depends on it. Of late, the conservatives have been losing the cultural battle against the gays. Turns out, they’re just like straight people, for the most part, and not scary at all. Would you believe they’re not even recruiting children? As greater percentages of professing Christians fail to see what the big deal is about gay people wanting to get married, the conservatives have had to find a new Boogey Man to blame for what’s wrong with the world.

Enter: progressive Christianity. In the picturesque hamlet of Fountain Hills, AZ, a group of conservative churches have united against the scourge of Progressive Christianity to preach six sermons with the same theme, all to answer the following question:Credit: @lindawfox10

It’s even made the local news. Yes, these banners have been seen around town as advertisement for this expression of church “unity” against an EVIL WE NEVER SAW COMING!!!! I bet that you figured out that the quotes around “progressive” give you the answer to that puzzling “fact or fiction” question. By the way – is it a question? There’s no question mark. So clearly, they’re not asking. The answer is fiction, obviously.

A Global Apology

The apology is (usually) a powerful thing. Sometimes it falls on deaf ears, but when it is sincere and contrite and is met with grace, it can change the world.

I have been in conversations both past and recent about what the church has done to people in the name of the gospel and it just makes me so angry. It’s abuse. Grand scale church leadership abuse has been in the news lately but the smaller, subtler, more nuanced cases are what’s on my mind today.

A few years ago I hosted a group of folks from the LGBTQ community and World Vision in my home to talk about a partnership with the WV AIDS Village experience. I’m not sure that much came of that, but what did come of that was much more beautiful and fruitful than I could’ve imagined. As we were having our conversations, some of the people in the room began to talk about the pain and rejection they’d experienced at the hands of the church and as they told their stories, I looked them in the eyes and apologized. I apologized for their pain, the feeling that they were less than the rest of us, and the message that God couldn’t love them. They were shocked. They didn’t know what to do. They wept. It’s not that I was doing anything remarkable, just doing something that should have been done a long time ago, and probably should still be happening on a regular basis.

Recently I’ve dealt with people, specifically women, who are dealing with more subtle, insidious types of abuse meted out by the church. The tough part about this is that these women are the victims of a cultural view of Christianity perpetrated by people who think they are honestly doing the right thing. As progressive as some of my friends are, they’re realizing some of the misogynistic crap that has seeped into their own psyches. Some friends are just now realizing the bill of goods they’ve been sold and are running in the opposite direction.

I’ve been processing what I’ve heard and experiencing genuine sorrow on behalf of my friends who are so hurt and damaged by what they’ve been told by the church about who they are and about about who God is, and I feel my best response can come in the form of an apology. If moderate Muslims are constantly called upon to denounce the behavior of the craziest members of their group, then I can do the same.

I’m sorry that through the use of masculine language for God we told you that you were not quite made in God’s image. Language is the key to culture, and our language says that God is all things male, so since you’re not, you must be missing something. You must be less than. You must be destined to be a second class citizen in church. You must cover your head, be silent, play piano, teach only children and clean up after pot luck meals. Using masculine language for God limits God. It puts God into our more manageable, patriarchal cultural box but it’s not who God is. God transcends gender and we all contain the stamp of God’s image in us. All of us.

I’m sorry that you were told that your body exists to serve your husband. I’m sorry you were told (either explicitly or implicitly) that you really weren’t a full member of the community unless you had a husband. I’m sorry that you were told that faith was something to be endured rather than relished. I’m sorry you weren’t told that God has such crazy, irrational love for you that God can’t contain it and it spills over in the form of beauty, and friends, and great food, and art. I’m sorry that you heard that you had to work more than you could celebrate. I’m sorry you were told that the kingdom of God is something to be achieved after you die and has nothing to do with the world now. I’m sorry you weren’t told of the gospel as a loving, courageous person who restores the outcast to full spiritual participation. I’m sorry that God’s desire to change the world through the church was sold to you as a burden, an obligation, and only for the select few who were in the right crowd.

I’m sorry. I want better for you, for the church and for the world. I will support you. I will listen to you, pray for you, sit with you and walk with you as you become who you truly are. You are beautiful, you are loved and you are valued. You matter. And I love you.

Change of Scenery

Yesterday I got out of town for a bit. I’ve been experiencing some personal unpleasantness, and when I have to deal with unpleasant feels I typically want to change something. Right now. While change is something that most people run from, change is my coping skill of choice. A haircut, a new outfit, even looking for new (internal) job opportunities. I just want to change something. I know. I’m in therapy.

I’ve got a big vacation coming up in just 25 days but that wasn’t soon enough. My Friday plans were cancelled and I stayed home watching recorded TV and was bored out of my mind and didn’t want to sit with some of my discomfort at home, so I decided to take it on the road. Fortunately, I live about an hour-ish from some pretty decent scenery and cooler weather so I filled up Fiona’s tank and we headed first to Jerome, then to Sedona.

The day was all about seeing things differently and letting things go that don’t belong to me. I have a hard time letting go. I’m a control freak anyway, but when I want something, I cling to all hope like grim death before conceding defeat. I hate conceding. I had to concede something this week and it pissed me off. So I went into the woods because I wished to concede deliberately, and I feel like I did. Mostly. It’s a process.

When I arrived in Sedona, I passed a sign advertising a Taize service at 7pm that evening at a local Episcopal church. I felt like I needed to attend, but it wasn’t for a few hours so I kept driving down into Oak Creek Canyon and stopped off to sit outside and listen to the water and just be for a bit. The traffic heading back into Sedona was horrendous so I wasn’t sure I’d make it, but wouldn’t you know it – I rolled into the church parking lot at 6:59.

It was a really nice service. There was a small but diverse collection of parishioners there who genuinely seemed to care for each other. It’s a church I might attend if I lived there. (side note: why are all the churches – and men –  that seem to suit me located hundreds of miles away?). I didn’t have a life-altering experience, didn’t see a light, hear an audible voice, but was quietly reminded, both during the service and all day, of God’s bigger plan.

I don’t know what’s up for me, on most, if not all, fronts. I’ve never felt that my move to Phoenix was permanent, and I still don’t, but I’m here for now. I don’t know what career opportunities are going to come up for me, but I’m grateful to work for a global company so I could theoretically go anywhere. As I said, I don’t like conceding, especially when I feel like I have a positive vision of what the future could be, but that’s what I’m doing. So I left town. And it was a very good day.

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Islam and Shalom

I posted a bit of a conversation that I had this weekend with one of our employees as I discussed his observation of Eid. I know the basics of the holiday but I was asking about some of the particulars, like if there are specific foods or traditions. He was telling me that some people fast the day before, some several days, and some a week. There’s not really a particular food that’s eaten, but it’s just a big party. You go to the mosque to pray in the morning and then you just follow the crowd and have a good time. Here’s the basics of what he said: “I fast because I need help. Everybody needs help. God is very big & religion is about prayer & worship. You don’t need to worry about all the other stuff. Just worship God.”

This weekend was a confluence of holidays or events in the 3 Abrahamic faiths: Eid for Islam, Yom Kippur for Judaism, World Communion Sunday for Christians. I read a beautiful piece on the similarities between Eid and Yom Kippur over at the Velveteen Rabbi, and got a lot of this from her. If you don’t read her, I highly recommend that you do.

Eid al-Adha is a celebration that commemorates the near-sacrifice of Abraham’s son. Islamic scholars are mixed on whether or not it’s Ishmael or Isaac, as the Qur’an doesn’t actually say. Either way, it’s seen as an example of the gracious submission to God’s will. In fact, the Arabic word for this peaceful submission is islam, which is where the faith got its name. The word connotes peace and wholeness, which is very similar in meaning to the Hebrew word shalom. In other words, peace and wholeness are found when we submit to God.

World Communion Sunday is always the first Sunday of October, but this year I almost forgot about it. I loved WCS at Mission Bay because, while we rarely had any dearly held traditions, the one we did have was Hawaiian bread for communion. On this Sunday when we had breads from various cultures we always got several, “Ummm..this is cool and everything, but where’s the Hawaiian bread?” People are funny.

The observance of communion varies between communities and denominations, but the root meaning is the same: Jesus’ model of submission to God is a model for how we ought to live – graciously submitting to God’s will, even though it seems to really suck in the moment. Submitting to God is the only way to peace and wholeness.

God is very big, and religion is about prayer and worship. You don’t need to worry about all the other stuff. Just worship God.

Why Yoga is Better than Church

Recently I’ve gotten back to yoga after almost a year away and given my current ministry sabbatical, I couldn’t help but compare the yoga studio community to the state of the church. Not surprisingly, I found the church lacking. In this particular context, I’m talking about “church” as in my experience with more evangelical church and some mainline churches as well. I feel like this may be true of the majority of churches, but there are definitely some out there for whom this does not apply. Still looking for one of those.

1. The focus is on what you’re doing, not what everyone else is or is not doing. I was very fortunate to have Dr. Paul Hiebert as my uncle and got to spend time with him as a great guy who would play on the floor with me before I ever knew that he was kind of famous. In his book Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, he proposed the idea of the “bounded” set vs. the “centered” set. In their book, The Shaping of Things to Come, Alan Hirsch & Michael Frost use this analogy:

If you are a farmer with a 3-acre ranch so to speak, you can build a fence to keep your cattle in and other animals out. This would be a Bounded Set. But if you are a rancher say with a huge amount of land and acreage you wouldn’t be able to build fences around your whole property. Instead of building fences, you dig wells. It is assumed that animals won’t go too far away from the well because their life literally depends on them not wandering too far away from their water source. Visually, it looks like this:
Bounded vs CenteredSet
Most churches are a Bounded Set. They are very clear, both explicitly and implicitly, on who is in and who is out. Many churches are all about looking externally at other peoples’ behavior. And if they don’t fit the list, they’re out. I guess since they can’t see the Holy Spirit (and, let’s face it, probably haven’t heard from Her in a while) they’ve decided She needs some help. Not so in the yoga studio. Everyone focuses on their own progress and development. The instructor will go around and help and make adjustments

2. It’s an environment of unconditional acceptance. Students are appreciated for where they are and the phrase “if it’s available to you” is used often. Everyone engages in each pose where they can. Pushing yourself too hard results in injury.

3. It’s a safe place to try stuff and to screw up. Doing things outside your comfort zone is encouraged. Perfection is never expected because it’s actually not even a goal. Each pose has another level, and then another level, and so on. All you do is move through each level and it’s just expected that you won’t get things right the first time.

4. It gives energy rather than taking energy.  The point of yoga is to give energy to those practicing it so that they can go out into the world to contribute positively. I know that churches say they want to do that, and many do. But many of them don’t actually do it because they’ve made it so culturally necessary to pretend to be more together than you are in order to fit in, and that’s exhausting.

5. Instructors participate alongside the students. Other than moving through the space to make adjustments to students who are risking injury, the instructor is practicing with everyone else. The instructor is ahead of the students, of course, but doesn’t make that a focus in the classroom. We’re all students, we’re all practicing.

6. Instructors encourage rather than condemn. All progress is applauded because all progress is positive. No one is asked to leave because they get something wrong. No one is publicly shamed. As a result, we all want to work harder. Study after study on positive reinforcement shows that when you offer positive reinforcement to someone you are guaranteed to get back positive behavior 100% of the time. When you offer negative reinforcement, you can get anything from the same negative behavior all the way over to positive behavior. You have no way of predicting the outcome. Churches should really read these studies.

7. The focus is on the benefits of yoga in all areas of life, rather than the benefits to the physical studio by you being there. Yoga instructors clearly tell us that what we’re doing in the studio is all about positively impacting our lives outside the studio. Churches rarely give us the tools to make a difference in our lives outside because they are so busy using all their energy and resources to perpetuate their weekly event and keep their buildings running. Churches need to make a real connection between saying you follow Christ and what it means to live like a follower of Jesus.

8. The encouragement is to make your life bigger. I’ve mentioned before that my spiritual journey has led my view of God to continually expand. So many churches don’t want their people’s views of God to expand because if it did, they might realize that what their church is teaching is crap. The need to make God small and manageable and dignified is rampant in all denominations, from conservative to progressive, Pentecostal to Presbyterian. In my opinion, you should run from anyone who claims to know how God behaves in any situation. God is good, but God is not safe. It comes back to the bounded vs. centered set. We don’t get to say, “God only acts this way, therefore you can only believe this about God.” Let God get bigger and things will get bumpy, but they will also be awesome.

But We’re Disciples of Moses

As we know, I’m currently between churches and I’m trying to figure out where exactly I fit in the ministry scheme of things. Yesterday I was reading the lectionary passages and the Gospel passage was from John 9, a story of Jesus healing a blind man. This is the one, if you’re familiar with Bible stories, when the disciples ask who sinned that this man was born blind.  Jesus made the paste of mud & spit and smeared it on the man’s eyes and he could see. BTW – this is my biblical justification for spa treatments.

Here’s the part of the story I find particularly interesting at the time in my journey:

13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus[c] to be the Messiah[d] would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

I’m interested here in the view of the man’s healing by the religious establishment. First, they don’t believe it’s possible. Then when they are proven wrong, they denied Jesus’ authority. How many times has Jesus intervened and brought healing into someone’s life and we are either surprised or incredulous and definitely skeptical. Then our next thing is to force them into established religion to make sure we can exploit their experience to get more butts in seats or we decide it wasn’t from God because it didn’t fit our view of how God acts in the world?

Right now there are two biblical films in theaters and a lot of the Christian community is trying to drum up support for those films so Hollywood will make more films that support their world view. What bugs me about this is that what they’re saying is, “We only see a story as valid if it matches how we see the world. If your story is not palatable to us, we don’t want to see it.” This view says that God can only be seen and appreciated in a certain, sanitized context. The truth is, God is in all life. There is no sacred/secular divide. It’s all sacred. It’s all God’s territory. The challenge is to see God in everyone’s story.

The same Christians who read this story and pity the Jews are the same Christians who behave exactly like the Jews. They have a narrow view of how God can be seen and act in the world and if someone dares to contradict that they are not welcome. This is my issue with church. And it’s on all sides – progressive and evangelical. For example:

Churches that are theologically conservative have more contemporary worship and are more open, in some contexts to getting out in the world. However, there is no full inclusion of women, LGBTQ people, and they’re pretty white.

Churches that are progressive theologically often have more traditional worship services and are structurally in their own way so that it’s very difficult to get them to move out of their comfort zone to get into the community. But you get some pretty full inclusion.

Both sets frustrate me in completely different ways and both suffer from Pharisee syndrome, in that there are some things that must always be done in a certain way or you’re not welcome. Do you see my issue here? Sometimes I just want to start my own thing, but then I’m pretty sure it’d be just me.

Oh, Right. Lent.

Ok, so it’s Lent already and since I’m taking a bit of a break from formal churching, it sort of snuck up on me. I’ve seen a couple of resources around the interwebs and while some years I’ve given things up, I generally prefer to engage with the world differently instead of withdrawing. One thing I always need work on is general mindfulness – being present rather than being mentally elsewhere. I acknowledge that my brain works in future planning mode much of the time, and I’m grateful for it. I also acknowledge that I need to encourage my brain to present in the moment as well. Not judging, just encouraging brain development.

I’ve signed up for this. I have no idea what it is, but the facebook told me to do it, so I am. It’s in England, so I don’t even know if I’m allowed. Day 1 is create a journal and “remember the awesome bits.” Tomorrow is day 1 in this country, so I’ll take note of my awesome bits then.

I also really like the House for All Sinners & Saints list of 40 Ideas for Keeping a Holy Lent. I’m going to do some of these too:

Day 1: Pray for your enemies

Day 2: Walk, carpool, bike or bus it.

Day 3: Don’t turn on the car radio

Day 4: Give $20 to a non-profit of your choosing

(Sunday)

Day 5: Take 5 minutes of silence at noon

Day 6: Look out the window until you find something of beauty you had not noticed before

Day 7: Give 5 items of clothing to Goodwill

Day 8: No bitching day

Day 9: Do someone else’s chore

Day 10: Buy a few $5 fast food gift cards to give to homeless people you encounter

(Sunday)

Day 11: Call an old friend

Day 12: Pray the Paper (pray for people and situations in today’s news)

Day 13: Read Psalm 139 http://bible.oremus.org

Day 14: Pay a few sincere compliments

Day 15: Bring your own mug

Day 16: Educate yourself about human trafficking www.praxus.org

(Sunday)

Day 17: Forgive someone

Day 18: Internet diet

Day 19: Change one light in your house to a compact florescent

Day 20: Check out morning and evening prayer at http://dailyoffice.wordpress.com

Day 21: Ask for help

Day 22: Tell someone what you are grateful for

(Sunday)

Day 23: Introduce yourself to a neighbor

Day 24: Read Psalm 121 http://bible.oremus.org

Day 25: Bake a cake

Day 26: No shopping day

Day 27: Light a virtual candle http://rejesus.co.uk/spirituality/post_prayer/

Day 28: Light an actual candle

(Sunday)

Day 29: Write a thank you note to your favorite teacher

Day 30: Invest in canvas shopping bags

Day 31: Use Freecycle www.freecycle.org

Day 32: Donate art supplies to your local elementary school

Day 33: Read John 8:1-11 http://bible.oremus.org

Day 34: Worship at a friend’s mosque, synogogue or church and look for the beauty

(Sunday)

Day 35: Confess a secret

Day 36: No sugar day – where else is there sweetness in your life?

Day 37: Give $20 to a local non-profit

Day 38: Educate yourself about a saint www.catholic.org/saints

Day 39: Pray for peace

Day 40: Pray for your enemies (you probably have new ones by now) then decide which of these exercises you’ll keep for good