Friday, May 23, 2014

Who We Are

I am in the midst of end of semester evaluation reports - so instead of my usual blog - this week I am going to post the text of a talk I gave in my church recently.  Many people today don't appreciate the wide spectrum of belief found under the label "Christian"... so my goal in posting this here is to clarify the label "Progressive Christian". 


Writing a 'sermon' gives me a new appreciation for what our ministers go through every week – I have discovered that sermons don't pop out of a bag all ready to go … and it's a learning experience to write one. I suspect that my life as a teacher will influence what I will say this morning. Research shows that most people are actually not very good at remembering information presented by listening to a speaker. If this was my classroom I would give you a handout with key points, have a power point presentation, and have you break into small discussion groups. So, since I don't have those today, it’s OK if you all just take notes. 

Not so long ago most teachers thought that once we had the attention of our students, our job was to fill them with knowledge. Students were viewed as uniform empty vessels. Now we appreciate that each student is different and comes with his or her own unique readiness to learn – some are preoccupied with the details of their lives, some are open to listen and learn, some know it already. Students come with various life experiences and pre knowledge – some of it correct and some that needs to be unlearned. 

I think about this when I sit in church and listen to a sermon – how each person comes and has a unique learning experience based on where they are in their life journey. I sometimes look out at the congregation and realize that we each take what we hear and interpret it and connect to it in our own unique way. Can you imagine the challenge for a pastor to craft sermons that connect with such a diverse group? So with all this in mind I would like to share some thoughts this morning on who we are as a church. 

Please pray with me. Spirit of God – we know you are present with us here and everywhere. If anything is spoken this morning that does not proclaim your message, strike it quickly from our minds but if words carry your truth, move them swiftly into our hearts and actions. Amen 

I am thankful to be connected with a church where you and I are free to develop our understanding of what we believe without being compelled to follow a crystallized official dogma. An important feature in both the traditions of the UCC and the DOC is our strong commitment to relate the message of Jesus into our lives and into the life of our community I like the idea that from the start of our faith it was realized that it is not possible to be a Christian all by yourself alone. To be a Christian is a communal activity – together we are the body of Christ. Our task is to support each other on our journeys. 

One way we attempt to live our faith together is through our outreach to others. We also strive to be open to different ways of being human, and to welcome all into full participation in our community. Faith is a verb; faith is something that we practice in action. This church is where we encounter opportunities to take action. 

Here we can learn about our Christian responsibility to care for the earth. Here we have opportunities to deal with hunger and poverty by supporting the Heifer project. Here we can support migrants in need through the Puente program, we learn about human trafficking in our own Bay Area. Here we see and act upon a variety of church and faith based ministries that reach out to our community and beyond, responding to a variety of human needs. The learning becomes a spiritual activity when it leads to our responding. Christian service can connect us with the spirit of God like nothing else. Many in this church also practice their beliefs far beyond the church – serving as active voices and hands in the work of the community. 

We also come here to feed our spiritual lives … and in a diverse gathering like this, that is a challenge. Every person is seeking to grow in the way that he or she perceives they need to, in ways that they feel led by the spirit of God. Growing spiritually often involves moving out of the safe and familiar and accepting challenges to explore new ideas that stretch our ways of understanding. 

Many of us identify with the Progressive church movement – focusing in the message of the pre-Easter Jesus, taking the bible seriously but not literally. The movement is young and cuts across several traditional denominations. In this way of thinking we are all pioneers seeking the direction of the church for the future. This is why it’s so important to collectively be a supportive, safe place for all people in all stages of our spiritual journals. This is what we strive to be. 

It would probably be easier to belong to a church with an official ‘party line’ – where your goal is to believe what is required, but not to challenge. That is not the case here. It’s OK to ask the hard questions about our beliefs and faith history – that is how you grow. 

We seek to be a progressive church that invites members and friends to believe that God is still speaking in our world. We believe that God can speak to us through modern prophets, writers, and policy makers, but there are some voices that we hear that make us unsure. We face the same problem as early Christians - torn by uncertainty about the true message of God and the ease of slipping into heresy. We hear so many voices in our society – we live in a time of information overload - the books we read, film, TV, all the beliefs, opinions, and traditions that we encounter each week – some helpful, some questionable. We need a central point of focus to guide us – and for me this church with its ministry and traditions helps me discern what is true from the false. As Jesus taught us, you judge a tree by its fruit. “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.” It's a good formula. 

In the Christian tradition of ‘witness,’ let me, this morning, tell you about why I am so thankful to be part of this church. In my life I have experienced a struggle to make peace with my early Christian training, growing up in a small mid western fundamentalist church. In many ways it was a warm and nurturing church community – a small united group of farm families, many of them related, with definite beliefs to follow. It was a church with an emphasis on taking the Bible literally, recognizing the power of sin in this world, and seeking redemption through the grace of God. I grew up thinking of God as a loving but demanding parent, Jesus as a friend, but also judgmental. 

As my view of the world broadened through encountering other cultures of people, in my study of history, anthropology, and Biology, my beliefs were seriously challenged. I have heard people like me called ‘lily pad Christians’ – in my life long faith journey I have felt a need to explore other traditions. So, like a frog hopping from one lily pad to another, I have hopped to seek answers. Sometimes in this journey my rebellious streak has caused me to push back against leaders with authoritative answers that didn't satisfy my longings, but always I have felt the hounds of heaven prodding me to continue my search. 

Now Judy and I feel that Niles Church is our spiritual home. Here in this place I have learned new ways to understand the life and work of the pre-Easter Jesus, to recognize the spirit of God as a loving presence in my life, to make sense of the nature of the world and our responsibilities to others in ways where I don't have to hide my scientific thinking. I have learned that the God of creation in the Bible and the God of creation through evolution and genetic mutation support each other. I have grown to feel contented with the understanding that some things can be known and others are unknowable. Scientists have learned to live with the “not yet understood” – just as progressive Christians attempt to struggle with the concept. I’m OK with that. Accepting the mystery in the unknown has become an important part of my theology. In this church I feel safe to explore, challenge, and discard beliefs that no longer fit. 

When I reflect on my life journey, my first response is one of gratitude – thankfulness for my childhood home, for growing up close to nature, for my wife and sons, for my educational opportunities, for my health, for my life as a teacher. I am grateful that I did not have to fight in a war, that I did not grow up in an inner-city, gang-dominated neighborhood. I have had great privilege growing up as a white, middle-class American in the 20th and 21st century. Did I do anything to earn these things? No, not a thing. Why do some people have their possibilities and others don't? It is a mystery. 

Would I have become a Somali pirate if I had been exposed to that culture and those social conditions? Would I be living with my family in a garbage dump community outside Mexico City if I had been born into that world? I suppose so. It’s unsettling to see extreme social unrest and poverty in this world and not be moved. All I can do is feel compassion for those not as fortunate, and seek ways to respond. Sending a few dollars never seems enough – and I am troubled by my capacity for turning a blind eye. 

I have often seen that people want to help and don't know how to do anything by themselves alone. When someone comes along with a good hands on an idea, then many people step forward and say “I want to be part of that.” That is a role I wish for this church. 
I love the phrase in the old hymn “through many pitfalls toils and snares I have already come.” I did the usual dumb kid things growing up, especially in my late teens and 20s. My life had the usual opportunities for serious pitfalls, toils, and snares. What kept me from getting trapped by them? Blind luck? I think being taught good values, as a child was one reason – but that isn’t always enough. I know good people who made bad choices and ended up with big time problems. I like to feel that the spirit of God, or the grace of God is at work in my life - and this falls most certainly into the category of mysteries that I can’t begin to understand. This is part of what I just have to accept as unknowable. 

I am certainly not consistent with my practice, but due to experiences in this church I am attempting to return to the practice of regular prayers. I am not praying to the God that I visualized as a child, not to a God that controls every details of this world, but to a God of spirit. It’s not like he needs to be reminded of all my requests to know me; I don't think that God needs that from me. For me prayer is more about remembering my relationship with him. I can commune with this Spirit God and in some mysterious way feel his presence responding. Before I go to sleep at night, I reflect on the events of my day – I find that I have so much to give thanks for – much of my prayer is thanks giving; and I also take a look at those times in the day when I was selfish or filled with my own ego. I have also discovered the power of silence, of being in silent conversation with God. I can learn so much from the wisdom of the Buddhists but in Buddhism I sorely miss this personal relationship with God. 

A young Afghan women I had as a student told me about living the life of a free American teenager while at school – and then going home and taking on the role of a submissive young female in her traditional Afghan home. Did she feel conflict? “Not really,” she said – she seemed comfortable living life as it was. So I’m like them – living my rational scientific life but still drawn to my relationship with a loving God spirit. Call it what you will but I am content to live my two lives without conflict. 

That's my story and that is why I feel fed when I come to join with you as part of this church community. 
And now, here we are at a major threshold as we move to a new location – it’s exiting and scary at once. Will this change who we are? This church has many traditions and memories for us. We will carry those memories with us to the new location. The sense of who we are and what work we have to do will continue and over time adjust to new situations. The new church building will have a location and features that will make it even better for meeting the diverse needs of the wider Niles community. 

I am absolutely convinced that you and I know people who need what we have. We all know neighbors and friends, people living good lives – fulfilling lives – but with an unfilled need. In our place and this year, many people have a feeling that they would like to find something beyond the everyday “hum drum.” They seek ‘more meaning,’ ‘ more feeling,’ ‘more connection.’ The challenge before us is to find effective ways to tell our story and be the people that can bring comfort and support to spiritually hungry people in our own communities. We need to invent a new kind of Progressive evangelism. 

Some of us say, “Well I’m really not completely sure myself what I believe as a Progressive Christian. How can I tell someone else about my beliefs and why they should come to my church?“ You can tell people that this is a safe place to explore and grow your spiritual beliefs in the company of likeminded supportive people. You can tell them that searching alone is not as effective as learning and acting together. There are many people in our wider community with false ideas of what it means to be a practicing Christian – and don't even know about Progressive Christianity. For our church to live and thrive we have to find ways to tell our story. During this time of transition we need to continually reach out to our own members - particularly those who do not attend worship – connect with them, and tell them that we miss them. 5 

It’s exciting to think of how the increased space and location of our new church building may open us to the wider Niles and Tri-Cities community. How do you feel about sharing our church for Saturday evening TaizĂ©? for thoughtful Saturday afternoon films? for concerts and speakers? But what I really get enthused about is finding ways to be the Progressive church in our time – reaching out to all, remaining a supportive community, growing spiritually and in outreach to others. For the Christian church to survive and thrive in out time we have to explore new ways of being the church, and we are on the front line of this question.