For The Someday Book

Archive for the ‘UCC’ Category

As I posted in an earlier, more personal reflection, I recently attended the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, the church of my childhood and youth, after having been a part of the United Church of Christ for nearly 20 years. One of the things that struck me in this brief mixture of my personal past and present is that both churches claim “United” in their title, a designation that is very important to their identities. However, I realized that “united” means something very different for each church, and their faithfulness to being united takes shape in unique ways.

The “united” in United Church of Christ speaks to our passion for diversity, inclusivity and openness. Our heritage (and our name) lies in the creation of a new denomination 55 years ago, from four distinct Protestant branches of Christianity. From the beginning, we did not have or ever expect unanimity. Our motto, drawn from Jesus’ prayer in John 17, is “that they may all be one,” and we covenant to live together as partners in spite of our differences and disagreements.

The “united” in the United Methodist Church also grows from a merger, but of a different sort. The Evangelical United Brethren shared Wesleyan practices and Arminian theology with the Methodist Church, and they united in 1968 to form one church in the heritage of John Wesley. They are bound by shared practices of class meetings, the quest for personal holiness and the social gospel.

When I was at the Virginia UMC meeting, I heard speaker after speaker emphasize that word, “united,” almost as much as we do in the UCC. It also became quickly apparent to me that that they were using that word to evoke a very different image of unity. The “united” of United Methodism is about a shared fidelity to the theology and legacy of John Wesley. It is about a commitment to follow his disciplines (“methods”). It is about loyalty to a way of life and to the authority of the church and its leaders. This unity emphasizes the importance of the body, its theology and identity, above that of any one individual’s ideas or customs. Their unity cultivates the virtues of humility, loyalty, faithfulness and discipline.

At my friend’s ordination, she received a certificate detailing her ordination lineage: “John Wesley ordained Thomas Coke, who ordained Francis Asbury,” who ordained someone else and someone else in a straight, direct line to the current UMC bishop who ordained my friend. It was an inspiring thing to see, but it also made me realize how different our understandings of ordination are. There could never be such a document for me, or any of my Congregational colleagues. We have to have more than one clergy present, but all those present participate, along with the entire gathered congregation. Our authority does not come from a lineage handed down over time, but from a congregation that calls us up and out.

To be united in the UMC is to be a branch of a distinguished oak tree. The tree is formidable, alive, holy. It provides shade and comfort and strength and orientation. Much like John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” The tree grows from one root (Christ, as preached by Wesley), and the church is united because they are all branches of the same tree. Their unity grows by strengthening the tree, and making sure not to be cut off from the nourishment of the root. The signs of unity and wholeness are the growing tree, bearing more fruit.

The “united” in the United Church of Christ means something very different. Instead of a solid tree, I imagine us like a big tent. Our unity comes from welcoming more and more people into the big tent with a giant “y’all come!” As the family picnic grows, we throw up a few more poles and a few more yards of canvas to make room for the new folks. We set up extra chairs and scrounge for more plates. Nothing matches–not the tables or the silverware or even the tent fabric. Most people bring their own chairs to rest in, but we still all mingle together. Sometimes it’s awkward, sometimes it feels like we have very little in common except our commitment to be welcoming and to make sure everybody has a place in the tent. But we are united, no matter our diversity, because we will keep making room for one more, and we won’t cut people off as long as they want to be in the tent with us.

Rev. Oliver G. Powell famously described the UCC in 1975 as “a beautiful, heady, exasperating, hopeful mix!” We are proud to be united with one another, and we work hard to keep growing the tent so that more people can join the party. We are united not by a shared history or theology or lineage, but by our stubborn refusal to leave anyone out and a fierce commitment to one another as fellow followers of Christ. Our unity cultivates the virtues of hospitality, diversity, partnership, flexibility, openness and inclusivity.

There is no right or wrong, better or worse in these different understandings of “united” churches, but I imagine that we often talk past one another when we speak of our practices of Christian unity. Both cultivate important Christian virtues. Both also foster challenges and even vices. I imagine we could both learn much from one another, for the purpose of uniting all Christ’s followers as one, whether tent or tree.

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Embracing our newly ordained sister on the conference floor.

Two weeks ago, I spent the weekend at the Virginia United Methodist Annual Conference, the church of my childhood and youth. I was there to celebrate the ordination of my best friend since junior high school, and it was the honor of a lifetime to share in that special moment of the laying on of hands with her. That visit also brought me back in touch with dozens of people that I had known and loved. I got to see women clergy who had inspired me to ministry, old pals from high school and college, pastors of my home church, camp counselors I worked alongside over several summers, my campus ministry chaplains, former Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders, the pastor who officiated our wedding, and even a few old boyfriends (and their parents). My parents were there too, and for the first time in many years I found myself  best known as their daughter.

I left the United Methodist Church and found my way to the United Church of Christ almost 20 years ago, in my final two years of college. I felt angry and wounded at the time, and it was a painful separation for me. I had experienced my call to ministry in that community. I felt known and loved in that body. I loved all those people that had shaped me, but God was calling me out. I stayed connected to people until I left for seminary in California 15 years ago, which was the last time I saw most of these UMC friends. This trip back for the ordination blended the experience of a high school reunion with an odd glimpse of the road not taken.

What struck me most, the whole time I was there, was how much I felt out of place. The experience was entirely internal, because everyone there greeted me warmly and welcomed me home.  I was surprised and delighted to see how many people recognized and remembered me, even though I had been gone so long.  I had an amazing time catching up with everyone, hearing about their ministries, exchanging pictures of children and grandchildren. We had found each other on Facebook in recent years, so that made the reunion even more meaningful.   Most of my old friends shared my theological and social concerns, so there was no tension or inquisition about why I had left.  The difference between us is that I had left the tribe.

And, at the risk of alluding to Frost one too many times, that has made all the difference.

The first time I walked into a UCC congregation, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of being at home, among “my people.” Even though I had known real love and community and faith formation in my United Methodist upbringing, I discovered in the United Church of Christ that I  fit in effortlessly. My theology and ecclesiology were not outsider opinions—they were core values. The vision of Christian mission in the UCC matched my own vision for my ministry and my Christian life. Rather than a reaction against the church of my childhood, my departure was more about being drawn into another one. I had found my tribe.

Returning to my United Methodist roots for this occasion allowed me to share my deep appreciation and love for those who nurtured me in the faith. The pain of old wounds had faded for me a very long time ago, but this reunion provided a time of healing. In the intervening years, my old friends have been drawn in and formed by their tribe, shaped and molded in accord with the values of Wesley’s great heritage. At the same time, my UCC tribe has been shaping me in the ways of Reformed and Congregational life. That is the role of our tribes—to form us. I felt out of place in that gathering because I was out of place, having been shaped for 20 years by a different tribe’s values and practices. I am grateful that I have not spent all my energy fighting that formation simply because I was in the wrong tribe.

I am equally grateful for the way my former church loved and cared for me, for the shaping gifts of their tribe to me and for the powerful witness and ministry they offer in the Christian community. I delight in seeming my friends come alive within the shaping influence of their tribe, even as I claim, with joy, a different path. Thanks be to God for my tribe, and for theirs.

The United Church of Christ in the Shenandoah Valley: Liberal Church, Traditional Congregations by H. B. Cavalcanti, Lexington Books: 2010, 155 pp.

It was a personal interest and an author’s generosity that led me to this book. I stumbled upon an article about it through my “Google Alerts” for the United Church of Christ. The article was in a local paper from the rural Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where I went to college, interviewing an author from my alma mater (a public university) who had written a book about my denomination. It was in the Shenandoah Valley that I first discovered the UCC, and I attended several churches there, including one in particular that inspired me to seek membership and ordination in this denomination that I now deeply love. Compelled by the intersecting factors of my alma mater, my first UCC church and the Shenandoah Valley, I wrote to the author to express my excitement to read the book as soon as I could get it through a local seminary library. He generously sent me my very own copy.

The book tackles a question that haunts the United Church of Christ, particularly in areas of the country where historic churches (and their cultural traditions) predate the UCC and its progressive leanings. (This review presumes a basic knowledge of UCC history. If you are unfamiliar with it, you can find it here.)

How fully have United Church of Christ congregations embraced these commitments? How have their local traditions in worship, outreach or service been impacted by them? Could local congregations whose origins precede the UCC’s be more attached to older identities? … To what extent are United Church of Christ congregations the local expression of a united and uniting, multiracial and multicultural, accessible to all, open and affirming and just peace church?  (2)

This book tries to answer that question by a concrete look at the churches of one association, and a close examination of its churches and their local practices and concerns.

In my correspondence with Dr. Cavalcanti, I learned that he began this book as an outsider to the UCC. His background is in the Brazilian Baptist church (a mission of the Southern Baptist church), where he was ordained many years ago, before his academic career. His partner was raised in the UCC, but the author was not active in any church during the time he was researching and writing this book, except for attending all the Shenandoah Valley UCC churches for research. While his research opened the door for him to return to church through the UCC, what makes this book so interesting and compelling is his outsider’s perspective, the simple sociological viewpoint based on statistical measures, detailed interviews and rigorous observations. Many UCC clergy, theologians and seminary professors have pondered this same question, but I have never read a sociologist (in the context of a public university) examine it.

This outsider status functions in two ways in the book. First, Cavalcanti writes notes and descriptions of the UCC and its culture that seem obvious to insiders like me. The observations he draws from worship experiences, church newsletters and descriptions of annual events like church picnics and Homecoming Sundays seem almost uninteresting to those of us who live those realities all the time. One whole chapter is “A Year in the Life of a Church,” and it could have been written about my church or any of hundreds of others in the UCC or many other mainline Protestant churches, especially smaller, historic ones. There were Easter egg hunts and Christmas pageants, hospitalizations and funerals, yard sales and Vacation Bible School, choir practices and annual business meetings.

I did not need to read this book to know what goes on in the church throughout a year. There was no new insight or information there. And yet, that was one of the best parts of the book. There is something quite affirming and uniting about seeing those descriptions in print. It affirmed the basic, ordinary, unheralded work that the church does year in and year out to tend to the members of its community. By a close examination of one church, it described the reality of so many churches, and made me feel a sense of connection to all those other congregations out there in the UCC, to their pastors and leaders who are doing the same work we are doing, facing the same struggles and delighting in the same rewards. This book captures, for history, a window into my life and the life of so many other churchgoers and church leaders. It unites us as a denomination based on our shared experiences of ordinary church life.

Second, the outsider’s perspective Cavalcanti offers creates a much more realistic, measured assessment of the original thesis question about the gap (real or perceived) between the local church and the national bodies. I currently serve in the Kentuckiana Association of the UCC, and my association is similar to the Shenandoah Association in many ways–historic churches with diverse histories, smaller and more rural settings, and a theological and political culture in our members that is much more conservative than our national representatives. I suspect it mirrors many local associations throughout the UCC. While my theology and politics align closely with our historic UCC commitments outlined above, I find myself standing in between the local church and the national church to act as interpreter. When insiders talk about the separation, we are caught up in the act of defending one side to the other, trying desperately to bridge the gap or push it closed. Cavalcanti’s outside perspective approaches the question without all our anxieties and defensiveness.

In the end, he concludes that many of the local churches of the Shenandoah Valley Association, especially those formed before the merger, do not reflect the priorities of the national UCC. He offers the most astute description of the disconnect that I have heard:

An important trait of United Church of Christ identity in the valley is the sense of outside-ness that still pervades the older congregations. … They do not see themselves as stakeholders in the making of that history. It is not necessarily that they do not feel like they belong to the United Church of Christ, but rather that the national church is not a natural, organic extension of their local religious life. … In that sense, the national structure exists as an autonomous actor with its own separate agenda. (127)

On the other hand, those churches formed after the 1957 merger usually identify quite strongly with the priorities of the national church.

For Shenandoah Association congregations that were founded as United Church of Christ, the relationship with the UCC is wholly unproblematic. For the most part, they are the local expression of the national church. Their histories reflect its journey. (130)

I think that summarizes my experience of the relationship between the local and national churches in every association of which I’ve been a part.

In the end, it is clear in reading this book—and in experiencing the lived reality of local UCC churches and associations—that the five historic commitments might not be what unites us, but we are united. Cavalcanti offers some concluding thoughts on the five characteristics that unite all the churches he studied in the Shenandoah Association, regardless of their political or theological orientation. I believe those same characteristics apply throughout the UCC.

  • The UCC is evangelical: no matter how we understand him, Christ is always the center of our work.
  • The UCC is confessional: worship is an act of reverence, to be treated with a sense of formality and sacredness, regardless of style, size or theology.
  • The UCC is fiercely independent: each church stands proudly on its own two feet, claiming its own heritage and freedom, its own strengths and weaknesses.
  • The UCC is eminently practical: each church has much wisdom about how to be a church, how to do the work of worship, care, education, fellowship and finances at the local level. (This is the shared sense I got in the description of “A Year in the Life of a Church”)
  • The UCC is caring: every church cares for its members and its community, striving to attend to the real matters of ordinary life—sharing meals, celebrating milestones, assisting with emergencies, helping with education and housing, marrying and burying. (132-134)

Across our theological and political divisions, from traditional historic churches to new and experimental ones, at the local level and the national setting, we are bound together by these shared practices and commitments. There is something that unites us, and Cavalcanti’s research helps explore and explain it. This book would be an excellent resource for any local pastor or leader interested in the dynamics of the UCC in a given association, or another “outsider” trying to grasp an image of this wild and diverse thing that is the UCC. Even more, Cavalcanti’s work should inform the work of all our judicatory staff at the Association, Conference and National settings of the church. There is much more to explore as we consider what unites us. It is a joy to read, and an insightful look at our local churches that both acknowledges their struggles and uplifts their ministries.

I am addicted to flash mob videos, especially the ones that feature seemingly random groups of people coming together in public places to sing and dance. They just seem full of such joy and beauty and delight. Improv Everywhere does excellent pieces. Some of my other favorites are the Glee-inspired “Don’t Stop Believin'” and “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music in a train station in Antwerp, Belgium.

But this latest one really got me thinking. It comes from the Opera Company of Philadelphia as part of the Knight Foundation’s Random Acts of Culture. Six hundred and fifty singers gathered at the Macy’s store in downtown Philadelphia and burst into a full-voiced rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. It was awe-inspiring and moved me to tears. Watch it. Please. You don’t want to miss it.

It is my secret longing to be a part of a song-and-dance flash mob someday, because the whole thing just looks like so much fun. This experience at the Philadelphia Macy’s was fun too, but it was more than fun. It brings tears to your eyes, because  the power of the music and the message sweep you up in an encounter with something transcendent. It is sanctified—the voices resonant in that secular space sanctified that shopping center, even if only for a few minutes. I imagine the experience of being there must have felt holy.

And so an idea is beginning to take shape in my mind. Could we in the church take a lesson from the flash mob craze? Could we take an experience of excitement, welcome, even transcendence, directly to people, right where they are? Could we use the flash mob as the newest evangelism tool? Think about it: church folk emerge from the crowd, looking just like everyone else, until they burst into song and dance. The crowd is excited, entertained, intrigued. They want to be a part of it. They see that we Christians have joy, that we look just like they do, that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Maybe they even see God’s presence in the world around them in a new way. Maybe we sanctify a space, just for a moment or two. Maybe some of that crowd wants to be a part of something that looks so fun, so amazing, so connected, so much bigger than one person. Maybe the video goes viral, and more people get the message about a different kind of church, a different kind of Christianity, that welcomes you “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey.”

Here’s my proposal:

Let’s do it–at UCC General Synod 28, July 1-5, 2011, Tampa, FL

It would take a lot of people, at least some of them with talent, to pull this off well. But if any church has the attitude, the talent and the sense of humor and whimsy to pull it off, our United Church of Christ does. We could do it on Synod Saturday, at some venue in Tampa, and get video to set loose on the web. What’s the worst thing that happens? We all have a great time, and a bunch of random people get to know something about the United Church of Christ.

What do you think? Are you in? Do you want to participate? Do you have ideas for songs, places, people that would have expertise and ideas to share? I’m serious about considering this idea. If enough friends and followers seem interested, I’m going to reach out and see about making it happen—so let me know what you think!

This is a sermon I preached at our United Church of Christ Conference Annual Meeting in June. The texts were 2 Peter 3:13 and Genesis 32:22-32, and the theme of the Annual Meeting was “Transformed Lives, Changing Church, Responsive God.” The pictures in the post were chosen by me and displayed on a screen behind me during the sermon.

“But according to God’s promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” — 2 Peter 3:13

That’s our theme scripture for this Annual Meeting. And I have to be honest, the first thing I thought of when I contemplated that scripture was the Great Pumpkin.


You all are familiar with the Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin, right? The ever-faithful and devoted Linus believes that every year on Halloween the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch to give toys to all the children. Full of hope and expectation, Linus explains to Sally that the Great Pumpkin chooses just one pumpkin patch every year for his visit—the one that is the most sincere. He convinces Sally to wait with him, saying,

“He’s got to pick this one, he’s got to! I don’t see how a pumpkin patch could be more sincere than this one. You can look all around, and not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.”

They wait and wait, and all they see is a certain incorrigible beagle. Sally is furious at missing trick-or-treat. She calls Linus a blockhead, and demands restitution. But Linus perseveres in his sincerity: sitting in the pumpkin patch all night, waiting, hoping, trusting that the Great Pumpkin will arise and he will be vindicated.

According to God’s promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Oftentimes, I think that in our anticipation of a church for a new time, for transformed lives and changing conference and even a responsive God, we are like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin to rise out of the pumpkin patch. We seek out the most sincere church we can find—the one that practices what it preaches, the one that doesn’t exclude anyone, the one that serves the community, the one that genuinely welcomes all—and we sit in all our greatest sincerity, waiting, hoping, trusting that the Responsive Great Pumpkin God will arise and reward us.

Like Linus, our utmost sincerity has yet to vindicate us, as we face another Annual Meeting with reports of decreased membership and budget shortfalls and decline, decline, decline. So we wait again, and wonder if Sally is right—we are just a bunch of blockheads.

What I would like to offer today is another image, a different story about how God brings about a new church for a new time. And that is the story of Jacob.

Jabbok River

Good old Jacob. The original “Jake the Snake,” and a trickster of the highest order. He cut his teeth swindling his brother Esau—first convincing him to give up his birthright for a bowl of porridge, then later wearing a hairy costume to convince his blind father Isaac that he was Esau and wrangle out of him Esau’s  rightful blessing and inheritance as the eldest son. Esau understandably threatened to kill him the next time he laid eyes on him, so Jacob took off.

He ended up at the home of his uncle Laban, where he immediately falls in love with his cousin Rachel. He works seven years to earn her hand, but Laban has tricks of his own and switches Rachel for her older sister Leah. Jacob works another seven years to take Rachel as his second wife, but still feels that Laban owes him. He works out a skimming scheme, taking the best and strongest breeding lambs and goats from Laban’s herds and keeping them for himself. He amasses herds of hundreds by this petty theft. When Laban wises up, Jacob, Rachel and Leah pack up their herds, children, servants and household goods and take off. Oh yeah, and Rachel also steals Laban’s household gods, which sends Laban in hot pursuit. After much argument and many threats, Laban and Jacob work out a deal–you go your way, and I’ll go mine. They literally drew together a pillar of stones like a line in the sand and said, you stay on your side and I’ll stay on mine, and nobody gets hurt.

So with Laban’s line behind him, Jacob and his family are making their way back toward the land of his childhood, the inheritance he stole all those years ago, when they discover that Esau lies directly in their path. The same Esau who threatened to kill Jacob if ever they met again. And he was coming at them with 400 men.

This is where we find Jacob–on the run from Laban, headed off by Esau, in the middle beside the Jabbok River.

A Ford at the Jabbok River

The Jabbok is not a mighty, rushing river at this point–it’s little more than a stream, really–but it sits inside a deep and jagged ravine, with steep edges leading to high peaks on either side. Jacob sits at the bottom of this deep, rocky pit, with Esau on one side and Laban on the other, and nowhere to go. He sends his family across the ford of the river, and sits utterly alone on the other side as the night falls, awaiting his demise. He is empty of tricks, without his entourage, stripped of his wealth, status and power, frightened and desolate.

Our situation in the church is not so different than Jacob’s at the Jabbok. We mainline Protestants have also lost our entourage—presidents and politicians from among our ranks who took our counsel; mainstream media who showed respect, even deference and understanding of our faith; blue laws that kept stores closed and restricted baseball games to Saturdays; wealth and power and status. We have run out of tricks for church growth initiatives, miracle youth groups and successful Sunday School programs. Sometimes, it seems like we are simply awaiting our demise.

And yet, according to God’s promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Here’s the key: the God of Jacob and our God, that God of the new heavens and the new earth, the God of Jesus Christ does not simply arise out of the Jabbok River to save Jacob, any more than the Great Pumpkin arises from the pumpkin patch bestowing presents.

God shows up to fight.

Gustave Dore

There at the banks of the Jabbok, a man who Jacob seems instinctively to know is God shows up and they begin to wrestle. All through the night, back and forth, rolling in the dirt and mud at the side of the river, grunting and squirming and pinning and grabbing, God and Jacob, the Bible tells us, wrestle, and one does not prevail over the other.

See, when we’re sitting at the Jabbok, without our tricks, without our entourage, enemies on either side, God doesn’t show up to save us or to vindicate us—God shows up to wrestle us, to challenge our strength, and to change our very name.

This, of course, is not what we want. We would much prefer the God who rescues us to go out ahead of us and fix the things that are broken. We would much prefer the God who vindicates us to go and deal righteously with our enemies. Why can’t God just rise up from the pumpkin patch and give us presents? The God who wrestles us deals with us—taking us firmly by the shoulders, holding on tight and refusing to let go.

Mel Perkarsky

When God has got a hold of you, you’re in for some transformation, and that’s hard work. Wrestling is exhausting, sometimes even agonizing. All we really want is our nice herds and families and children and servants and wealth back. We just want to do our jobs, go to church, be nice, sincere people and get a good night’s sleep. But there is no sleeping at the Jabbok. God has come to us in this time and place in Christian history to wrestle us into a new way of being. We wrangle over theology and politics and resolutions. We debate how to worship and pray and talk about God. We reinvent children’s programs and youth ministries. We struggle over mission projects and giving, and reach out in service to a world of endless brokenness and need.

Ruth Beloe

So when all this wrestling leaves us feeling like we are being mauled or attacked or beaten, we must always remember who our wrestling partner is. We are not wrestling not some demon, some danger or distress or horrific creature of the night. We are wrestling with God Almighty. We may be far away from our entourage, but as long as we are wrestling, we are in constant and compassionate contact with God Almighty. We are locked in God’s embrace, so close we can feel one another’s breathing, and smell each other’s sweat and hear one another’s heartbeat and feel the heat from each other’s bodies. This wrestling is a time of utmost holiness and intimacy with God, where we, like Jacob, might claim to see God face to face.

Jacoib Epstein

When the wrestling gets us down, we must remember who we are wrestling with, but we must also remember what we are wrestling for. We are wrestling for a blessing. God wants more from us, because God wants more for us—more than the tired old scraps from Laban’s table, more than the life of trickery, more than being Esau’s nemesis. More than a has-been, wannabe, used-to-be church. God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob a land and a future, many generations of descendants who come to love God and become a blessing to all nations. That promise is ours as well, as Jacob’s children. God also promises us a future—new generations who will continue to serve and love God, to be a blessing to all the nations of the world. That is the blessing we are wrestling for, and we must not give up or let go until we receive it.

Rembrandt

When the dawn comes that morning at the Jabbok, and the wrestling match between God and Jacob is over, nothing about Jacob’s situation has changed. Laban is still seething behind him, Esau is still hunting him down with 400 men. He is still without his entourage. If anything, Jacob has only been weakened—exhausted and wounded from his night of wrestling. Likewise, our circumstances are not going to change—the world will not return to bygone days, blue laws or baby boom churches. But like Jacob, if we hold on until dawn, we will have been changed so that we are ready to meet that world, and we will have received the blessing of God’s promise for the future.

Shraga Weil

Like Jacob, we will have a new name. Jacob’s new name was Israel, “one who strives with God.” What will our new name be? What new name will carry us as leaders of the church into the future? Will God call us out to be explorers and entrepreneur? Inventors? Pioneers? Reformers? Artists? Guides? Whatever new name God blesses us with, that name will reveal our true identity as those who have wrestled with God and received a blessing.

The change will not be easy, and we will not emerge unscathed. Jacob acquired a permanent limp from his night at the Jabbok, the result of a hip knocked out of joint. I suspect we will have some parts of ourselves and our churches permanently knocked out of joint as well, and we will come out with a limp. Our entourage will not be coming with us. Like Jacob, our strength and ego and power and charming good looks will not be the first thing people notice about us. Instead they will notice our brokenness—our limp. But maybe, just maybe, that limp makes us approachable again—to the mass of humanity who does not feel strong and powerful and charming and good-looking, perhaps a limping and vulnerable, but open-hearted and humble church will be just what they need to find God again. We will have received a body shaped by God, even if God has to pummel it into submission to get it there.

Karen Novak

I imagine Jacob the next morning, as the sun dawns behind him, walking up the hill from the Jabbok, boldly ready to meet Esau, looking like Rocky Balboa at the end of the prize fight. Swollen cheekbones, split lip, blackened eye, yet triumphant. Limping, but confident, strong and proud. Through the bruises, his eyes are smiling and his mouth is wide in a grin. On his lips, a single word: Hallelujah!

According to God’s promise we are wrestling for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

As we embark upon this Annual Meeting, I remind you that we are at the Jabbok. Let us wrestle on—not with each other, but with the God of the new heavens and the new earth, who would give to us a new name and a blessing for the future. Refuse to sit and await our demise. God is here with us, holding us tight to wrestle us into new being. Let us keep up the struggle and listen for the blessing—so that the only sincere word that we can utter is, hallelujah! Amen.

This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers, by Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver, Eerdmans, 2009, 235 pp.

This is one of the best books I have read in a long time, and one of the best books I have ever read about the pastoral life. In the preface, the authors promise “a current book that is honest about the challenges of this vocation but still reflects the joy that can be found in it… an encouraging yet realistic book about the ministry written by someone who is still doing it.” (xiv) The chapters that follow make good on that promise.

Each chapter takes a particular experience in pastoral life (singular or recurring) and holds it up to the light, examining the specks and imperfections while simultaneously seeing the experience as a prism that reflects and refracts the light of God. They dissect everything from shaking hands at the back of the sanctuary and visiting hospital rooms to church fellowship hour and committee meetings. Without exaggerating or idealizing, Daniel and Copenhaver articulate why each of these little things matter, and describe the ways they have witnessed God’s light break through in these ordinary moments.

Sometimes, it feels as though they have pulled back the curtain to expose that we wizards behind the magic of the pulpit and pastoral presence are just ordinary, wrinkled, anxious human beings. Copenhaver’s chapter about “The Twin Imposters” of praise and criticism in ministerial life discusses the lavish praise pastors can receive for just showing up, even if we do or offer very little. Daniel’s chapter entitled, “Can We Be Friends?” takes on the challenging tension between wanting friends outside the church and wanting people to join your church. I suspect some clergy might want to avoid these kinds of revelations, but to me they only increase my respect for the work of ministry and for these two particular clergy. I admit I am even a bit jealous of their confidence and honesty—not to mention their way with words.

From the beginning, I put this book in dialogue with another account of the pastoral life: Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church. Taylor also describes the beauty and challenge of the pastoral life, but she does it with an underlying sense of frustration and incarceration that eventually causes her to leave the pastoral life altogether. I loved her writing about ministry, but did not share her conclusions. This Odd and Wondrous Calling is the antithesis of Leaving Church—Daniel and Copenhaver acknowledge the mess and the stress and then loudly declare their love for it. Daniel gives us images upon images that move and inspire, like identifying the church as “one of the last remaining homes of the no-cut audition,” (116) or seeing  “people who have no china of their own get to own the china of the church.” (27) While the whole of the book is not a response to Taylor, Copenhaver’s final chapter does take direct aim. Entitled “Staying in Church,” Copenhaver talks about Taylor’s book and concludes that pastoral life is simply a calling: “it is a good life, if you are called to it.” (234)

I am with Copenhaver and Daniel all the way. They point out that the pastoral life presents the opportunity to be better than you are, to grow in wisdom every day, to stand and witness God at work in people’s lives, and occasionally even serve as midwife to holy experiences. This book captures that life in all its complexity, sacrifice and joy. I recommend it to those considering ministry, preparing for ministry, living the pastoral life or contemplating leaving the ministry.

The authors strike a balance between honesty and awe at the pastoral life. The daily tasks of ministry are sometimes tedious, difficult, stressful or even ridiculous, but those same daily tasks draw us into close proximity with the Holy One all the time. It is a gift, a work, and most profoundly a calling.

I love the United Church of Christ!

This morning, they revealed the latest ad inviting people into our wondrous and wild and welcoming tribe. The message is entitled, “The Language of God,” and it moved me to tears the first time I saw it. Take a minute to watch.

The images speak the language of God to me. God speaks when we love each other. God speaks when suffering ones are comforted. God speaks when outsiders are included. God speaks when lonely ones in lonely places are acknowledged. God speaks when young and old gather together. God speaks in sacraments. God speaks in marches for justice. God speaks in a lovers’ kiss. God speaks in pulpits and pews. God speaks in the wonders of creation. God speaks in the faces of children. God speaks when boundaries of race and class and geography are overcome. God speaks in music, in silence, in words. God speaks through broken human beings like us.

My church is engaged in all those things. Both my local congregation and the United Church of Christ we belong to go chasing after God, worshiping God and sharing God by loving God’s people. And when you start loving God’s people,  God starts speaking. That’s why I love the church. We are not perfect, but we try to practice loving God’s people, and when we do God’s voice is heard loud and clear. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.

Thanks be to the God who is still speaking,

(And if you get excited about the vision of the United Church of Christ, you can find a church near you at www.ucc.org.)


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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