Emerging, Religion

A Discomfortable Edge

Recently my Conference Minister asked if I would co-chair our Annual Meeting for the next two years. He said my name came up because the topic they hope to explore in 2010 is the Emerging Church.


If you know me at all, if you read my old blog especially, you'll know I cannot get on the page with Emergent very easily. When I read that certain leaders in the movement do not support women in leadership, or that they are still trying to figure out what to do about LGBT people and their inclusion, I think, "This is why I am no longer Southern Baptist."

I skipped over a big, uncomfortable discussion and went straight to the United Church of Christ, where there are local pockets of concern and question but the national church is *proud* of our long history of ordaining people from traditionally unacceptable groups, as well as a history of prophetic, classically liberal pronouncements.

And yet at our General Synod last month, people felt left out of a debate about changing the governance structure, a discussion on which I truly have no informed opinion. I can simply see that we have a money problem and hear that there is no happy way to make changes.

Believe me, I know what that is like. Whether it's a local church or a denomination or a household of four people, making major changes in response to a financial downturn hurts. Someone will always feel discounted; everyone may feel disappointed.

How long is long enough to sit at a discomfortable edge? How long is too long?

I agreed to co-chair the Annual Meeting, in large measure because I suspect that in relatively isolated Maine, my uncomfortable forays into reading about Emergent are about as much experience as anyone has with it. While other mainline churches have their own Emergent branches, we on the oddly nerdy liberal fringe of Trinitarian Christianity haven't related much to the conversation, even though
we're held up as the example of all that is bad about the mainline
church by one of Emergent's leading lights. (I'm not going to say his
name because I don't really want him to find this post. And he knows
how to find posts about himself, as some of my blogging friends have
discovered by mentioning him.)The one church in our Conference that might be labeled Emergent is, as far as I can tell, out of favor for becoming less denominational.

I, on the other hand, seem to be viewed as a Company Gal.

And that takes me to the discomfortable edge. So many things get tangled up together. At Small Church, I believe I ministered in ways that opened up space for the Spirit to move, for the Spirit to emerge, if you will. In that place and among those people the Spirit seemed to call for colored candles and unusual flowers and twigs and drama in worship–lots of drama–and music from a variety of traditions that underscored the message. In that place and among those people the Spirit led to a positive vote to be Open and Affirming. In that place and among those people the Spirit led to hope for the future. And that was all good, but it didn't save Small Church from the inevitable need to hire a part-time pastor or spare me the difficult decision to leave so they could recognize the need.

At the discomfortable edge, the new emergence may not save–really it surely won't save–the old structures.

How, then, do we ask people who liked the old ways to allow something new to emerge when it may hasten the erasure of all they loved? Is it enough to tell them it was going to die, anyway? Are we inviting ourselves to a suicide party?

Believe me, no one wants to attend that.

We'll move more quietly, then, toward extinction. We don't have the kind of theology that urges us to save the souls of
others; our beliefs don't have the ferocity of evangelicalism.

But I admire that ferocity, that sense that the Word received must be transmitted.

Some churches, the ones that have maintained their endowments or that are particularly well-situated, will go on for some time. But the others will drop sooner, unable to defend themselves, like plant-eating dinosaurs finally pushed over a discomfortable edge. 

America, Prayer, Religion

Religion and Civility

Last summer, I received a request to offer a prayer of invocation and a benediction at a civic event. The VFW planned to dedicate a plaque in honor of town residents who died in World War II, as well as presenting pins and certificates to surviving veterans. I didn't have to think hard about it. I said "yes," and began planning prayers that would invoke the God I understand to have been called upon by our Founders in the Declaration of Independence, a Divine Providence not individualized to meet the needs of any one religious group or subset.

It always surprises me when other pastors seem unaware of this. When we stand in front of the public library to honor war veterans, we are Americans who happen to be Christians or not, rather than Christians who happen to be Americans. I have no trouble sorting this out, not at all. I have a sense of what it means to be American, one I'm proud of, even though some days (and some years and some presidencies) may have challenged it. I have a clear understanding of what I believe and also of how it differs from what you, or you, or you might believe. When I'm invited to pray at a civic event, I'm not there to convert you to my way of seeing Jesus or anything else. I'm there to invite something greater than any of us to be present among us as we take up matters of gravity or rejoicing to the larger community.

And so with great curiosity I have listened to the different pray-ers of the past few days. I have watched preachers struggle to keep their eyes down to pray, because they have this moment, only this moment, and they want to engage the crowd because as preachers they cannot help themselves.

I understand them. I am a preacher, after all, and a professional pray-er, too. But more than that I am a writer, and I believe that words matter. Words matter. My words for God, if they must exclude others by their very nature, are also by their very nature limited. And God is by God's very nature not limited at all. God means, to me, everything beyond our seeing, everything grounding our existence and everything outside our understanding. The details of our attempts to pull God closer sadly make the infinite measurable, because we demand it. We contract the Divine Source of All Love into an old man who tells us what to do and punishes us when we are bad and rewards us when we are good because such a system organizes otherwise disorganized forces known as human beings. We convince ourselves that those who succeed in this world must be in the Old Man's favor. We invoke Him the way some people might fondle a rabbit's foot.

Is it any wonder that sensible people, thoughtful people, cannot play that game with us?

In my family reside believers and questioners and one person who feels left out of the civic oratory whenever it invokes the Almighty. But today, the words of the President included him. The President, a believer himself, included those who differed from him not only economically, racially and socially, but theologically.

We're a long way from real respect for each other in America when it comes to religious beliefs. I found the inclusion of Rick Warren today very hard to take, and I cringed when he used The Lord's Prayer. That prayer belongs in church, or in gatherings of the faithful or even the seeking whose purpose is primarily religious. Today we stood at the door of a new national era and no sooner had it opened than the words of a prayer I value highly were used to close it against people of other faiths and people of no faith at all.

That was wrong of him. This is America, and we are free to believe and practice what we will, Rick Warren and I. But in the public forum, I believe faith leaders have a responsibility to be Americans first, to live out the creed of country first and faith second, in gratitude for the freedom to do otherwise all the other days of our lives.

Psalms, Religion

In the River

O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

(Psalm 139:1-6, NRSV)

On the news early this evening, we heard people saying, "Thank God! Thank God!" They expressed thanks for the story that feels so miraculous tonight, that a pilot landed a plane IN THE RIVER and everyone survived.

Pure Luck asked, "If the plane had gone in, would they be giving God credit for that, too?"

I usually talk about feeling God is with me, no matter what is happening, present but not directive (although, seriously, I could use a bit more direction right this minute), or perhaps more precisely guiding but not commanding.

But I guess what I want to say to Pure Luck, who is in the next room reading the news on his computer and maybe I ought to just say the words, is this:

God is good. All the time.

And since I believe that, I don't believe God is in the bad things that happen, creating them or manipulating them, most assuredly not using them to punish us. Today we saw a catastrophe born of the way the world is, full of geese and people and enormous machines that fly through the air, and apparently peopled by at least one person who knew how to handle the collision between them.

One of the survivors, I heard, lost a family member on 9/11. Why, God, did this day turn out so well when that day turned out so badly? Just who did you lay your hand on that day?

I want to believe: everyone. It's how we respond to the hand of love, individually and collectively, that makes the difference, in the air, on the land, and in the river.