Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Welcoming the Stranger on Christmas Eve...

Well, here we are. The 18th of December. One week until Christmas. The Advent Express train has been gathering a head of steam, racing toward Christmas Eve and our annual celebration of the Birth.

This has been an unsettling Advent for me, the first time in 12 years I was not actively planning the season as a local church pastor. And I have a confession to make (lay folks, change the channel now. Your pastor might not want you to read this next part).

I miss it. I miss the hustle and bustle, I miss the balancing of what Christmas has become in the secular world with what it means to us as a congregation, I miss the controversy over whether it’s OK to pull out our Pilgrim Hymnals so that our generally inclusive congregation can sing the old beloved carols unreformed by gender neutrality, I miss the sometimes snarky discourse over the color of the Advent candles, and…
Whoa. Just had one of those moments. I can’t get this vision out of my head of Flora & Merryweather from Sleeping Beauty standing over an Advent Wreath with their magic wands, “Make it pink!” “Make it blue!”

Whew. Still with me? Here’s the part that you may find surprising. In spite of all the things that conspire to make it hard, I love Advent. And I suspect most pastors do too. And in addition to all the obvious answers to why, here’s my #1 reason.

On Christmas Eve, you have a chance to be with and love people who only enter your sanctuary once a year. It’s your congregation’s opportunity to take marginally attached folk and help them find a spiritual home. It’s a night when you put your best foot forward, not just for yourselves, but for the stranger among you. It’s when you can make the case that your congregation, your United Church of Christ congregation, is a sort of hospital
for the religiously wounded, where no matter who they are or where they are on life’s journey, that they are welcome. A place where the spiritual but not religious could find a home. Where the questioner and doubter would be welcomed. Think of your church as the stable. The best accommodations? Perhaps not. But the stable is the one that welcomes the stranger, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, the vulnerable.

So, as you finish planning for Christmas Eve, keep these people in mind. Be sure your worship is welcoming, hospitable, that you print the words to every prayer in your bulletin, that you avoid ‘church-speak’ whenever possible, that you present love and acceptance as your chief witness. In Randolph Center we served communion on Christmas Eve. Perhaps that seems out of place to you. But we thought of those who only come on Christmas Eve, or are there for the first time in years, or never before, and we wanted to welcome them to the birth and the table. Jesus’ table.

Blessings to you and yours this Christmas season. God has great things planned for us. I can’t wait.



Saturday, May 18, 2013

Is your congregation a place embracing change or a refuge from uncomfortable change?

I recently finished reading a book authored by Alan Klaas titled "In Search of the Unchurched: Why People Don't Join Your Congregation." The book was the result of a million dollar, two year, Alban Institute funded project which had some findings that may appear self evident, and some surprises as well.

The researchers began by asking themselves some questions (here's a small sample):

● What were gas stations like thirty years ago?
What are they like now?
● What were grocery stores like thirty years ago?
What are they like now?
● What was communications like thirty years ago?
What is it like now?

You can perhaps guess what questions came next.

Is the church affected by similar changes?
Is your congregation a place embracing change or a refuge from uncomfortable change?

The book asserts that 80% of congregations are in decline, due to a combination of factors, not the least of which is the change from a churched to an unchurched society. People no longer automatically participate in a community of faith; and as a result, the way we interact with the community outside the walls of our church must change.
I'm reminded of the analogy I once heard Brain McLaren use - "Are we in the phone booth business, or the communications business?" Because if we're in the phone booth business, we're through. If we are in the business of communications, the methodology can be fluid - even when our message is not.

There's a lot to digest in this book, but the point I'm pondering right now (and invite you to ponder with me) is this:

In the churched society, in our church 30 or 40 or 50 years ago, "mission" meant something very different than it means today. Congregations functioning well in the unchurched society of today see themselves as mission outposts in a mission field. These congregations perceive mission as starting at their property line, not in some far off land. Rather than focusing all their energy to meet the needs of current members, they instead invest in new ways to speak to the people in their community.



Wednesday, March 27, 2013

(gay) Marriage, LGBTQ Christians, the Bible, and Me: A reflection...

I have friends from all over the spectrum, and to avoid heated disagreements I've been more silent than not about this, but I can't do that any longer. It's time for me to say what I believe. Here is a message I wrote for a member of my church.

I was recently asked by a member of my church how I would respond to a woman who left her church because the pastor openly supported LGBTQ rights. It is as divisive and emotionally fraught as any topic in our current public discourse, but I’ll see what I can do. I’d much rather have a conversation than produce a written response, but all I can hope for is that one will read it with an open mind.

            I think to begin; we have to address the thorny problem of the authority of the bible. The bible was not delivered by angels in the form of the King James (more correctly, the Authorized Version) in 1611. We Protestants have been given the Bible by the Roman Catholic Church. Which books would be part of the Canon were debated for 300 years, finally settled at Pope Damasus I's Council of Rome in the year 382. Well, not finally settled. The contents of the Canon have been under review and attack ever since. Even Martin Luther proposed to remove 4 books from the Bible, but it has survived more or less intact. So we are given these particular books because Rome said so, some getting in and others excluded not just for theological reasons but ecclesial, political, and cultural ones as well. And the Authorized Version was translated with a specific purpose in mind: King James directed the translation in many ways, including instructions designed to guarantee that the new version would reflect the episcopal structure of the Church of England and its belief in an ordained clergy, and to limit the Puritan influence on this new translation. (I’m not going to footnote this, but most of the above is from Daniell, David (2003). The Bible in English: its history and influence. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09930-4. It is also searchable on Wikipedia.)

            All of that leads me to a place where I don’t believe that the Bible is inerrant, infallible, or divinely inspired in the sense of written by people, dictated by angels. In a way I do think the Bible is divinely inspired in the sense that it is a sacred text, just not one that communicates the unaltered word of God. The Bible is the word of God, not the words of God.

            So, whenever I preach on a biblical text, I seek to both place the text in its proper cultural context, and interpret what that text means for us today. I am not worried about the historicity of the bible, but in the underlying truth. The Bible is full of parables and allegory – when Jesus says he is the gate for the sheep, he does not mean that he is an actual, physical gate.

            Now, it is possible to hunt and peck at texts which seem to pass judgment on relationships that are not heteronormative, but you must place each within the correct historical and cultural reference. The Leviticus passages (Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13) are the easiest to dismiss. Both of these passages are a part of the Levitical holiness code, which is not kept by any Christian group. If it was enforced, almost every Christian would be excommunicated or executed. It has been logically argued that science and progress have made many of the Levitical laws irrelevant. For example, fundamentalist author Tim LaHaye states that, although Levitical laws prohibit intercourse during menstruation, medical authorities do not view it as harmful, and, therefore, it should not be viewed as sinful. He further explains, “Those laws were given 3,500 years ago before showers and baths were convenient, before tampons, disinfectants and other improved means of sanitation had been invented.” (The Act of Marriage, p.275) With that, LaHaye makes this law irrelevant and rightly so. Ironically, though, in his book, The Unhappy Gay, the Levitical laws are one of the chief cornerstones of his arguments. Much of the holiness code is now irrelevant for us as moral law. Thus, having children, which was of exceptional importance to the early Hebrews, is now made less relevant by overpopulation, just as the prohibition against eating pork and shellfish has been made irrelevant by refrigeration.

The Bible never addresses the issue of homosexual love, yet it does have several beautiful examples of same-sex love. David's love for Jonathan was said to exceed his love for women. (2 Samuel 1:26) Ruth's relationship with Naomi is an example of a deep, bonding love, and Ruth’s words of covenant to Naomi are often used in heterosexual wedding ceremonies. (Ruth 1:16-17) The Bible clearly values love between persons of the same sex. (portions of the above two paragraphs from the writings of Rev Mike Piazza)

It is curious to me how the Leviticus passage is used as an axe against the LGBTQ community. We have easily thrown away most of the rest of the rules from that book, yet we cling to this one. Why? Because it suits those who wish to use it to affirm what they already believe.

Paul had something to say about this, but it is not surprising, given his status as a Pharisee. But again, the context is important. The Rev. Peter Gomes makes the point in The Good Book that it was homosexual behavior by heterosexuals that was being condemned in Genesis and Romans; it was homosexual prostitution associated with pagan worship practices being called sinful, not homosexuality per se.

Why has the Bible been used to damn relationships which are not heteronormative? Perhaps for the same reasons that Holy Scripture has also been abused in history to oppress women, slaughter Jews, Indians, and Muslims, and enslave Africans. Thank God we learn (eventually). Hate is a sad legacy for a book that tells us the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

And what did Jesus say about this? Nothing. Not a word. How would he feel about them and treat them? Well, my understanding of Jesus is of one who always stood up for the marginalized, the down trodden, and the disenfranchised. And there I find my answer. Along with the new commandment which instructs us to love. And regardless what you think about LGBTQ people and gay marriage (which I like to call marriage) it wouldn’t hurt to begin from a place of love.

For the Christian, sin must be understood as a disease that results FROM a broken relationship with God and that results IN a broken relationship with one another and with ourselves. Hence, Jesus' supreme command is to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Christianity is not a religion with new rules and laws but rather is a new relationship with God. Those things that the legalists are fond of labeling “sins” are actually just symptoms of the much deeper disease of alienation and estrangement. Much of the energy of the Church has been spent dealing with symptoms while leaving the disease intact. Jesus did not seem overly concerned about the legal transgressions of those to whom he ministered. Rather, he was much more concerned with healing the physical, spiritual, emotional and relational brokenness of people. (Piazza)

I don’t understand what causes two people to love each other, and I’ve been married for over 30 years. And I am in no position to call another’s love wrong or imperfect or anything else. I embrace diversity in our congregation and community, and affirm the dignity and worth of every person created in the image of God. I honor the principle that discrimination is incompatible with Christ's Gospel of unconditional love, and welcome into full membership and participation in the Body of Christ persons of every race, language, age, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, economic or marital status, and faith background. I affirm and celebrate all loving and committed relationships. And specifically, as a follower of Jesus, I wholeheartedly support marriage equality.

Jim Thomas 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Does It Matter Where the Rockets Come Down?

Some years Lent and its purposeful reflection sends me down some odd rabbit holes. This year I'm pondering to what extent we take our Sunday morning faith into the rest of the week - I mean - do we live into being a disciple of Jesus away from church? And does it matter?

I'm intrigued by the life of Wernher von Braun. Wernher wasthe central figure of the German rocket program from the 1930's until the end of World War II. A real life rocket scientist, perhaps the greatest one in history. He developed the V-2 rocket, built with workers from concentration camps, and more than 3,000 were fired upon England and Belgium during the last 18 months of that war. After the war, he was whisked to the United States along with several members of his team. His history was whitewashed, and we put him to work. Designing ICBMs. And later, the Saturn 5 rocket that took our astronauts to the moon. It's fair to say we might not have made that trip without him.

Tom Lehrer
Wernher was contrite about his past later in life, resulting in some revisionism. In his recollection of the day of the first successful firing of a V-2 at England he quoted himself as saying "The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet." Nice one, Wernher. He described himself as apolitical, and cared more about designing rockets than what they were used for. He was famously spoofed in the mid 1960s by satirist Tom Lehrer in his song "Wernher von Braun" which included the lyrics: "Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down; That's not my department," says Wernher von Braun."


But, it IS our department, isn't it? We can't hold the moral high ground for an hour a week and put it away for the rest of it. If discipleship means anything, it means this: That we live our whole lives as followers and disciples of Jesus, and whole means not just all of us, but all of our time.

Some of us seem to have built a partition that we hide behind, disconnecting our professed faith from how we actually lead our lives. This Lenten season, I am being intentional about not doing that. The mantra I repeat to myself (and I invite you to say to yourself) is:

"I DO care where the rockets come down."

All the time.

Every day.