Sunday I preached a rousing sermon on the Gospel of Mark talking about Jesus' call to discipleship, and then the service ended with the hymn "I Love to Tell the Story," which reminded me of the good aspects of my childhood as a Baptist, and as the service concluded I felt the joy of loving Jesus and of having loved Jesus since I committed to follow him at the age of 5.
This fall our worship series is entitled Reformed as we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation with a focus on various doctrines of the Reformation and what they might mean to us today. First up this morning was Soli Deo Gloria--Glory to God Alone. In my sermon prep I was reading about Johann Sebastian Bach, as he signed all his compositions Soli Deo Gloria. When Katie, my Associate Minister, asked if I'd do the conversation with the children in worship, I said I would, "And I'm going to talk about Bach." Here's how that went.
Kids are coming forward and sitting beside me on the chancel steps as I engage in some lively banter with them. Before I can begin in earnest one of the older kids asks about the picture I'm holding, "Is that George Washington?"
"No. This is not George Washington."
"No. It is Johann Sebastian Bach. Have any of you ever heard of Johann Sebastian Bach?"
"My last name is Bock," says one of the kids.
"Yes, but he spells it differently. He spells it B-a-c-h." This news is greeted by a grimace. "How do you spell it?"
"See. It's spelled differently." Then other kids start spelling their names.
"Here's another picture. It's an action shot."
"He's playing the piano."
"Actually, it's the organ. Bach composed music. He may be the greatest composer of music ever."
One kid shakes his head. "No."
"Who do you think is the greatest?"
"Okay, I like Michael Jackson too. Let's hear some Bach. Stephen [the organist], can you play us a few lines of Bach?"
Stephen plays the opening of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.
"Did you like that?"
One girl, loudly, "No!" A few yeses.
"Is it pretty?" A few nods.
"It's often played at weddings. Have you heard it at a wedding?"
Mr. Michael Jackson Fan says, "I went to a wedding last week."
"Did they play this music?"
"Did they play any Michael Jackson?"
Stephen, the organist, interrupts. "I have another piece they might like better." Plays the opening of Toccato and Fugue, very loudly. Some kids like it. One says he recognizes it. Some laugh. Some put their hands over their ears. And one girl utters a loud, primal scream.
Pastor and congregation begin cackling.
Mr. Michael Jackson Fan, "That sounded like Dracula."
"Yes, that's sometimes played in scary movies. Did you think it was scary?"
No Girl from earlier, "No."
Then I went on to talk about how Bach believed God inspired and spoke through his music and that people could experience God through music.
"What's experience?" Then I tried to answer that.
Then I asked them what are ways they can show the beauty and joy of God in their lives, and they gave good answers.
Yesterday I borrowed these words for my pastoral prayer.
Sweet Jesus, what has happened to your beloved world? What darkness is on the loose when those who hate their neighbors pray in your name and ask for your blessing?
You have told us, O Lord, what is good: to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with you, and yet there are those among us who wield machine guns to intimidate and chant vitriolic rhetoric to terrorize, and ram cars intentionally into crowds to kill.
Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. . . . [Keep reading the rest of the prayer]
On Independence Day we continued our work at the United Church of Christ General Synod, finishing early with our business sessions and spending much of the time in plenary session recognizing leaders and volunteers and celebrating the synod. The music in the closing worship inspired some dancing, and the preaching rallied our spirits.
Among the final business actions, we adopted a resolution calling for a $15 minimum wage, added new specifics in our support for disability justice, and called on clergy to undergo diversity training as part of their continuing education.
The morning session was deeply moved when three youth delegates from Trinity UCC in Chicago spoke of their personal experiences with gun violence, including the murders of friends and church members and their own daily fears. This was a moving epilogue to the decision the day before calling for gun violence to be declared a public health emergency.
That morning I was walking along and started chatting with a woman I did not know who was walking near me. She had family in the Omaha metro area and eventually mentioned Ken Evitts, a conservative UCC minister. I said, "Ken and I are good friends." Her jaw dropped. She said, "I'm shocked by that. He's part of Faithful and Welcoming," which is the conservative caucus in the UCC that has often voted against our pro-LGBT stances.
I told her that I thought our friendship often surprised people, but it is a genuine friendship. She was very encouraged to hear about it and encouraged Ken and I to give a speak out on our friendship as an example of how in the church we can cross theological boundaries.
When I approached Ken with the idea, he loved it, and we did just that in the final plenary session of the synod.
One of the great joys of the last week for me was seeing three of my former youth, meaning they were teenagers in my youth groups at churches I once served. In DC I had lunch with Chris Rempert who is now a successful consultant for progressive causes. I was his youth minister from 2003-5 in Dallas, when he was in middle school.
Nathan Watts was attending Synod, as he is now in the process of transitioning from Baptist to UCC. Nathan, who was in the same youth group in Dallas, now works for immigrant rights on the border in Arizona and has turned into a radical activist for Jesus.
Hannah Breckenridge and her husband took me to dinner after the close of Synod. Her father was my senior minister in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Hannah was a sixth grader when I left that church in 2003. She is close to completing her masters in social work and is a vibrant, passionate young adult.
What pride in the good lives the are leading. What joy that I was a small part of their journey and that I can stay in contact with them. And what irony that they are now the age I was when I was their youth minister.
"You lit the fuse of dynamic, inclusive environmental change that heard all voices. This is the Lord's action," declared Aaron Mair, former president of the Sierra Club. He was referencing the impact that the UCC's 1987 study Toxic Wastes and Race had upon the environmental movement. This study coined term and first drew attention to the concept of environmental racism, the reality that there is "a direct correlation between the placement of toxic waste facilities and communities of poverty and/or color."
Mair discussed how the conservationist movement of the early 20th century had ties with the eugenics movement and that modern environmentalism was largely a movement of white, privileged people. The UCC's study not only drew attention to a vital problem but also laid the groundwork for transforming the environmental movement itself. Thirty years later he celebrated the UCC's work and shared how he had used the study in his own work for environmental and racial justice.
In the afternoon there was an immigration march from the convention hall to the federal building which houses ICE offices. In partnership with local faith communities and the Annapolis Sanctuary Network, we were demanding justice and freedom for an artist and father who had been detained in Annapolis.
Today was largely a day of business, with occasional breaks to celebrate our ministry or launch new initiatives, such as a new Caribbean Initiative from Global Ministries, new fundraising campaigns, and the local church mission efforts of the Three Great Loves--Love of Children, Love of Neighbor, and Love of Creation.
The business included passage of the Constitution and Bylaws changes to the way the board committees work and the portfolios of the officers of the church are determined. I was one of only two to speak against the second part of those changes. I have practical and governance concerns for streamlining our national leadership into a model where associate ministers report to the General Minister and their portfolios of ministry are not set by Synod, but my primary objection is theological. I liked the Collegium of Officers. For much of my time in the UCC there were five co-equal ministers who deliberated together. I believe this modeled a form of leadership that fit our ethos--conversation among a diverse group. I believe it gave them unique authority when they issues pastoral letters to the church on topics of importance. Now there will be one boss and a staff working for him. I'm grieved to lose something that I believe was important to our character.
But most of the day was taken up by the long series of resolutions on a variety of topics--climate change, gun violence, survivors of abuse, diversity training, fair wages for farm workers, and more. With generally harmonious debate though sometimes getting into the weeds of amendments and procedural motions and questions, we deliberated and decided on all these topics. Some resolutions passed overwhelmingly, some failed narrowly (resolutions of witness require a two-thirds vote).
The resolution I was most concerned about was one calling on the church to support the right to die. I rose to speak in opposition to the resolution, but did not get a chance to speak, as a series of procedural questions and motions robbed much of the time and my effort to extend debate failed, though at least a dozen people were still in line to speak both pro and con. So, let me state what I would have said.
As a pastor and an ethicist I believe we do have the right to choose death when we have a terminal, debilitating condition. But I believe that before the church takes that position, we must engage in robust theology. Previous significant theological steps have included study committees who met over many years to research a topic and then draft a thorough report that was received by Synod. I believe we should do the same on this issue, and not simply pass a resolution of witness. This is more than a social justice or civil rights issue, but a matter of clearly articulating a Christian theology. I believe we owe a clear theology to our church members, to the wider community, and to our sisters and brothers in the church universal.
I did not get to say that. But the opponents who did speak included an interesting coalition of some conservatives, some very liberal queer folk, and representatives of the disabilities ministries. And the resolution failed, by less than 1 percentage point.
And so it was a day in which we heard many voices speak on many issues, trusting that we are also listening to the Stillspeaking God.
Sunday morning began with hearings. Though there was more than one topic I wanted to hear about, I am most curious about the proposed changes to the constitution and bylaws, particularly the proposal to eliminate the collegium of officers and go to a model where the President and the Board determine the portfolios of the executive ministers who will report directly to the president. I have many thoughts on this topic which I will hopefully blog about in a separate post.
The hearing was not as well attended as I suspected but there were those of us who raised questions and objections to the proposals.
Next was the Health and Wholeness lunch where First Central was one of seven recipients of the denomination's Mental Health Education Award. We were the second WISE for Mental Health congregation in the denomination, after the WISE resolution passed last synod.
This luncheon featured the other health ministries of the church--parish nurses, disabilities ministries, HIV/AIDS ministries, health advocacy, and the Council for Health and Human Services Ministries, which coordinates all our senior adult facilities, youth facilities, and other health related local and regional agencies. They talked about their increased role in advocacy as health care is currently under threat.
In the exhibit hall I joined in sending letters to our Senators objecting to the proposed cuts to Medicaid.
For the afternoon I enjoyed a visit to Fort McHenry which made me feel quite patriotic as I experienced the story of brave soldiers holding out during the horrifying bombardment.
The Open and Affirming Dinner was fun as always, though I missed being there with the Rev. Dr. Jo Hudson. I believe this was the first time I wasn't sitting with her. Four years ago this dinner was held the day of the Windsor ruling and two years ago the day of the Obergefell ruling. Sadly, the times are different.
Andy Lang reported that 60% of ONA churches are not adequate in their inclusion of trans persons. I hope we aren't in that category. What can we do to be sure we are not?
Rev. Naomi Leaphart delivered a powerful message on intersectionality and the work we must still do to expand our LGBT movement to be truly queer and truly inclusive. Her most searing line was "Are we doing the same church in gay face?" Also "When did we believe that queerness could erase whiteness?" And "We should not be including people in the same church but constructing church anew." I got her card as I want to bring her to Omaha to preach.
The evening Plenary saw a range of business, including increased support for our historic missionary churches, electing Traci Blackmon as the Executive Minister for Justice and Witness, adopting constitutional changes related to our full communion agreement with the United Church of Canada, and declaring ourselves an immigrant welcoming church.
The financial report was poorly handled this time, unlike other synod's I've attended, and generated some dissension from the floor. Previous reports were sometimes mind-numbingly boring in their detail and this one was lacking in information. It passed with only 57% of the vote, which is very unusual. I'll say more on this topic if you have a question about it.
We also passed a resolution calling for strong advocacy on behalf of Palestinian children. I morally agree with such actions, but also puzzle over some of these types of resolutions that call for us to do things like deliver a message to the Israeli government. Plus we have previously condemned the treatment of Palestinians during the occupation.
And we voted to set aside the existing giving plan and develop a new model. A significant number of people voted against this resolution, though no one spoke against it on the floor, which is quite surprising, unlike the synod, and maybe an unhealthy sign that people feel their voice isn't being heard?
"We need a shifting of the moral narrative," Rev. William Barber declared in his afternoon workshop at the United Church of Christ General Synod. His topic was taking preaching into the public square, though his actual agenda was recruiting us for a new Poor People's Campaign for the spring of 2018.
“The attempt to capture Jesus for an agenda that cuts health care, that’s heresy. Voter suppression is blasphemy because you are suggesting some people are less than human, less than the image of God.”
I appreciated his rising about political terminology to use the language of our faith tradition to proclaim the truth.
“You do not honor prophets by merely having memorial services at their tombs.” “Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t some human relations specialist.”
“Every right you have is because somebody did civil disobedience.” Now it is our turn, he urged us.
The morning began with our delegation in caucus with the delegations from the Iowa and South Dakota Conferences discussing the work of the committees on Friday and hearing from the governance committee about changes to the constitution and bylaws (about which I continue to have reservations) and from the proponents of the resolution on protecting Palestinian children.
The plenary session began with Rev. Starsky Wilson, who co-chaired the Ferguson Commission, nominating his friend the Rev. Traci Blackmon to be the Executive Minister for Justice and Witness Ministries (she has been the acting minister in that role for 18 months). Rev. Wilson delivered a powerful, inspiring speech that left me craving the chance to hear him preach.
Rev. Blackmon, who did preach on Friday night, spoke about her call and her vision for the church. “We are called to make room and not just space,” she said. At another point in her speech she talked about how she had gotten angry about some injustice and then she said, “Don’t worry about it; Jesus is used to my anger and handles it well.”
Justice and Witness later presented the first Movement Maker Award to the International Indigenous Youth Council, the youth who had helped to create the Standing Rock movement. Ten attended and their spokesperson said they were grateful that after the church's role in colonization we were now joining in protecting land and water.
Glennon Doyle, blogger, author, and UCC member, spoke about her faith journey, her ministry, and her new political activism. Her talk was wide ranging. She believes we must quit protecting our children from pain and teach them how to live through the pain because pain is what produces moral character. We need friendships where we don’t try to fix each other for “Friendship is two people not being God together.” The not being God a reference to an acknowledgement that we cannot fix things.
She said she was puzzled when she first tried going back to church as a new mother. She thought church would be the place where everyone let their guard down and was their authentic self. Instead so many people were trying to act perfect. “Acting perfect at church is like getting really dressed up for an X-ray.”
She did advise that the UCC should use as slogans “The only church who will have you” and “Free coffee and daycare.”
Her political turn came about after Charleston. She was showing her kids photos of the Civil Rights Movement and one child asked, “Mom, would we have marched back then?” And before she could answer, “Of course we would have,” her other child said, “No, because we aren’t marching now.”
She said she made stupid mistakes when she first tried to become more engaged, but that we need to learn that it is okay to look stupid. Fortunately other people overlooked her stupidity and her privilege and took the time out of their busy lives to teach her.
She said, “We just have to look to and learn from women of color.”
Some Willimon quotes from Who Lynched Willie Earle?
Race is a socially constructed, psychologically rooted attempt to name humanity through human designations. Christians defiantly believe that our identity and our human significance are bestowed upon us not by our culture, family, or skin color but rather given us in baptism.
The origins of Southern fundamentalist Christianity have their roots in the creation of this disincarnate "empty space" sealed off from theological scrutiny.
In a critique of how church often functions he writes "church is made into a font of positive feelings, a sabbatical for the soothing of anxiety, healing of stress, a place to receive placid balance, and a retreat where we go to pray for those in the hospital."
In a society of racial denial, blaming and falsehood, rituals that enable repentance are great gifts that the church offers. When so many white Americans adamantly maintain our innocence, our guiltlessness, it's a remarkable witness to be in a community where sin is admitted, confessed, and given to God.
Much of my church family wallows in the mire of anthropological moral, therapeutic deism, a "god" whom the modern world has robbed of agency, an ineffective godlet who allegedly cares but never gets around to doing anything. Such a "god" is an idol who is inadequate to the challenge of our racism.
Christians answer to a theological vocation whereby we must demonstrate to an unbelieving world, by our little lives and in our pitiful churches that, in spite of us, nevertheless there is hope because God is able.
We preach about race as those who believe we have seen as much of God as we hoped to see in his world when we look upon a brown-skinned Jew from Nazareth.
His critique on much worship and pastoral care is spot on:
Should we be surprised that a racially accommodated church reduces Christian worship to the cultivation of subjectivity and interiority, presenting the Christian faith as a therapeutic technique for acquiring personal, individual meaning and joy in life?
Though moral, therapeutic deism takes the guts out of preaching, truth, smothered by therapeutic mush and self-pitying theodicy, will rise.
"We have come to declare what we believe about God," so proclaimed Rev. Traci Blackmon during the opening worship of the United Church of Christ General Synod. And we were down to work to do just that. Committees gathered this afternoon in educational intensives to learn about the issues addressed in the resolutions assigned to them. This is how the theological work of the church is accomplished.
I'm in committee #14 and we were assigned the resolution on studying gun violence as a public health emergency. When we arrived for our educational intensive we learned that we had also been assigned the late resolution on climate change, reacting to the President withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords.
These resolutions were joined together because both cited John 18:37-38 in their theological rationale. Both were about speaking truth. In one case, public health researchers are not empowered to pursue the truth regarding gun violence and in the other, climate change and the moral imperatives of the moment are denied.
The climate change resolution was targeted to what we as the church should do, most importantly what we should proclaim. This is a resolution about the power of preaching, the effectiveness of the spoken word of God to advance God’s mission upon the earth. And the committee discussion swirled around precisely these points, why the author, Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, Massachusetts Conference Minister, had written the resolution this way instead of within the more expected theological framework of our stewardship of creation or God’s sovereignty.
And so we debated. What were the best words to express our consensus? Someone would raise a question or critique and the room would move toward them to accommodate them. Then, someone else would make another point, and we’d move toward them. And we’d try to keep everyone’s point-of-view included. So, for an example.
In lines 74-75 of the climate resolution, one somewhat conservative member of the Massachusetts conference didn’t like the reference to the administration or the use of the verb will, which seemed to speak for and not to the church (which is what Synod does). He proposed new wording, that was probably fine with most of us. Then, someone said they thought his wording wasn’t quite strong enough, so they proposed “any administration” in order to make the resolution not simply a response to Trump. Many of us weren’t sure about this recommendation.
Then a pastor from rural Ohio spoke. She had preached on this issue in her conservative congregation. She needed the denomination to include the political reference because it supported her preaching. Yes, we were in this committee discussing the role of the spoken word of God to speak truth.
And so we were soon bogged down in multiple wordings of the sentence, so I worked out what I hoped would be wording that kept everyone at the table. The committee chair, who did an excellent job the whole session, appeared a little frustrated that I wanted to offer another option to the already bewildering array of choices.
My wording was “When the powers-that-be deny or obscure the truth, we followers of Jesus will proclaim the truth to protect our common home.” Immediately many of the parties liked it. The Ohio pastor wasn’t convinced it addressed her need. But after some further discussion it was the overwhelming consensus of the body.
Here, in theological, even Christological language, we had expressed our mission as the people of God.
And, this is how we do theology in the United Church of Christ, with God’s people talking with one another, learning from one another, holding each other in relationship. Thereby we declare what we believe about God.
Will Willimon has clearly reached the point in life at which he doesn’t give a damn. Though I’ve heard him a handful of times before, this time he pulled no punches and cut to the quick.
For instance, he said that sometime in the middle of his career it became fashionable to view pastoral care as the primary aspect of ministry, to let it trump preaching. He said, “If you like holding hands, go into nursing. We are called to be preachers. To tell the truth.”
His lecture was on using preaching to combat racism. He said, “One of God’s weapons for defeating the color line is preaching.”
“If our congregations are nervous about this kind of talk, then they’ve just got to get over it.”
He shared how recently someone came up after he preached and said that he shouldn’t have dealt with some issue in his preaching. Willimon said to the person, “I guess Jesus did make a mistake in calling you to be a disciple, then. I thought maybe you were better than you are.” Damn. I can’t wait to be in my seventies if that’s the sort of thing you get to say to congregants.
“The point of the sermon is to increase stress.” He said he recently went to church and the call to worship was about how people are anxious and are coming to worship to find comfort, centering, and balance. He said he looked around and it was mostly white people who didn’t look anxious at all.
“I’m worried how white supremacism sneaks into our stuff.” “It’s time to talk about our social mores as an offense against God.” “I can’t think of a greater enemy than white people.”
But he believes in grace and that God can save even us biased and racist white people. “That we can be changed is a Christian gift.”