On social media, I polled my friends who are spiritual but not religious.

Now this is not a scientific poll, and the sample size is small. So I'm not going to draw any national conclusions.

But this is what I got back within MINUTES of asking the question:

From a straight, white, cisgender male, I received comments about how each person's relationship with Jesus is different. Then I read this heartbreaking sentence: "It's important that I separate myself from the greater church that hates, discriminates, casts out those that are the most deserving of love for the sake of appearances and money." This is a guy the church would love to have, but his heart for those the church doesn't want is what keeps him outside with the outcasts rather than inside with the respectable.

From someone who is in a same sex relationship:
We've been asked to leave a dozen churches over the years. We finally found a UCC home and felt welcomed until we became activists. After that we were treated like bastards at a family reunion. It simply hurt too much to try again.
Asked to leave churches. Treated like bastards.

I don't wonder why people don't come to church. I get it.

What I wonder is why churches are working so hard to keep people out.

Maybe it's Religious but not Spiritual: to have a specific way (religion) but not the spirit, the breath, the life, the love to reach out to the hurting, to those who need healing.

It breaks my heart that this is still happening, even in my own denomination, in the name of Christ.

Still, these are people of faith who can see past the hurt the church has caused to see the love of Jesus. They are believers not because of the church, but in spite of the church. The church had become a stumbling block to them, and they have overcome it.

Maybe those of us who are Spiritual and Religious need to spend more time outside the churches, meeting people where they are, and loving them whether they come to church or not. Because Christianity is not about the numbers in worship, nor the amount in the offering plate, not the beauty of the sanctuary, nor the chops of the praise band, nor the fame of the pastor. Christianity, at its root, is about grace and love, poured out without limit, to all. We, as church leaders, have to learn to be conduits of grace and love rather than restrictions in the flow.

Fishing in the Dark

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I just spent four days with some AMAZING women led by the Reverend Mary Luti, studying the bulk of the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel according to John.

There were a lot of things I took away from this study, but there's one I want to share, with my own twist.

In this story, seven of the disciples are fishing all night. At dawn, the resurrected Jesus appears to them and asks

You haven't caught anything, have you? 
They admit they haven't caught anything, and Jesus says to cast the net on the right side of the boat, and they catch more than they can bring into the boat.

I don't think this is about the side of the boat.  I think it's about timing.

If you know about fish, you know they're not evenly distributed in any body of water. Smaller fish tend to school, and larger, predatory fish tend to follow schools of smaller fish.

Until Jesus says "cast the net on the right (or starboard, depending on translation) side of the boat," the disciples and the fish were in different places.  Jesus tells them "now is the time."

It's tempting to think that all we need to do is to wait until morning, and our fruitless labor will be rewarded. But unlike earthly time, where we can (at least according to the US Naval Observatory) reliably predict sunrise and sunset, we're working on God's time. We have no idea when the night will end.

In my own overnight fishing experience, I have been eagerly anticipating that moment when I hear "Now! Throw the net!"  But in God's time, I don't know when the sun will rise. I don't know when I'll see Jesus on the shore. I don't know when those fish will be here. 

It's difficult, drawing up these empty nets again and again. It's discouraging. It makes me consider saying "I'm no good at this" and giving up fishing altogether.

As tempted as I am to bring the boat in and call it a night, there's a part of me that knows I'm meant to be out here. Though my muscles ache, my hands are blistered, my eyelids are heavy, and I have nothing to show for my time and labor: if I bring the boat in now, there is no chance of a successful catch.

So I tend to my nets, waiting for dawn and the voice from the shore. 

Is there anyone out on the sea with me tonight?

Prisoners of Hope

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Sermon preached July 6, 2014
First Congregational UCC, Waukegan IL

When I was a child, going to Sunday School and church in the Evangelical Free Church, we had a pastor who was the example to which we aspired. We couldn't imagine him doing anything wrong, or being sad, or angry.

And we felt we were expected to reach that level of perfection - to grow into happy, even-tempered people who could resist temptation. I don't know about you, but I've never reached that level of perfection.

There are a few movies out there about pastors. Movies like "Leap of Faith" and "The Apostle" reveal that clergy also have feet of clay.

It's easy to knock the apostle, or the priest, or the pastor. It's easy to pick out the places where a spiritual leader does not live up to the ideal. And, too often, for fear of criticism, spiritual leaders will present a façade of perfection. 

It's a lot of work.


I can't believe I have to say this, but:

  • don't use trans as an insult.
  • don't use trans as a punchline.

You see, when you try to insult someone who identifies as a woman by saying she's trans, one of two things is happening:

  1. She's trans, and you're using who she is as an insult. 
  2. She's not trans, and you're using other people - trans people - as the insult.

Either way, what you're saying is that trans is less-than, that trans is something about which to be ashamed, that trans is somehow dirty or sinful or disgusting.

The same is true for jokes. If the punch line is "she's trans" or - worse yet - "she's a man," you are saying that there's something inherently funny about being trans - that just the existence of a trans person is laughable.

And when you make trans into something bad or laughable, you reinforce for trans people the lie that they are bad or laughable. And this can add to anxiety, depression, lack of self-worth and, in many cases, self-harm.

It also gives some other people the idea that trans people have less value. It leads to discrimination in employment, education, housing, and public services. It leads to rape, beating, and murder of trans people.


And if you don't care about trans people, and you're not concerned about the harm these sorts of insults and jokes can cause, there's something else I want you to think about:

These insults and jokes are cheap and lazy.

If the greatest intellectual rebuttal you can formulate is "she has an Adam's apple" or "I bet she has a penis," you're not in the debate at all. You've admitted defeat. What you're engaging in is called an "ad hominem attack," and it's the equivalent of the schoolyard response "oh yeah?  Well... um... you smell!" It's beyond weak: it is an act of ceding the intellectual ground to your opponent, while you yell "nanny nanny boo boo." Just stop it.

If the best attempt at humor you can muster is "and she was a GUY!" you clearly need to work on your material. Andrew Dice Clay had a run with "Oooh! I said something dirty!" as the punch line to nearly every joke, and that was still a lot more clever than this joke. If you can't come up with better laugh lines than this, you might consider letting someone else be the life of the party, because you're not bringing much to the table.


But seriously, stop it already. It's weak. It makes you look stupid. And it's harmful to a group of people who have done nothing to harm you.


I really shouldn't have to say this now.

I don't want to have to say it again.

After a decade and a half of formation for ordained ministry, you might think I have this "God's will for me" stuff down cold.

You would be wrong.

Through these years, seeking to know God's will for me, I have often struggled. I have wondered what the next right thing is and, having chosen, worried that I had chosen wrongly.

At times, having done what I felt in my heart of hearts to be what God desired for me, I came up against what seemed like insurmountable obstacles.

There have been times when I have cried out

"GOD! What do you WANT from me?"

I guess I sound a little arrogant. Who am I to question God?

But I'm in good company.  I may sound a bit like the Psalmist in Psalm 13::

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,

and my enemy will say, "I have prevailed"; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

Have you ever felt like that?

Please pray with me

God of unfathomable Wisdom,
May the words that I speak
And the ways they are received by each of our hearts and minds
Help us to continue to grow into the people
and the church
you have dreamed us to be.

Amen


Today, at the end of Chicago's Pride week and the beginning of Chicago's Pride weekend, I want to talk about something other than Pride.

Yes, Pride is about standing up for our rights. Yes, Pride is about being authentic to who we are. Yes, yes, yes! And there are hundreds - perhaps thousands - of articles being written this year about these important ideas.

I want to talk about love.

I want to talk about loving those who disagree with us. I want to talk about loving those who have decided we are the enemy. Maybe it's because some of the stuff Jesus said, or maybe it's because I have seen too many relationships remain broken all the way to death.

I know it's hard. It's hard for me too. It's hard to love someone who shows up at funerals to thank God for death and to proclaim God hates people like me. It's hard to love someone who presses for the right to keep me out of public accommodations, to deny my identity, and to prevent recognition of my 25 year relationship and covenant with my spouse. It's hard to love those who threaten me with violence, or with cruel language. Sometimes it's even hard for me to love people who just don't understand me.

But as much as I have been hurt, I do not believe it makes the world better for me to hurt others. It is far better to respond with love.

In many cases, a slight or difference of opinion has led to division in families and breaking of friendships. The question I want to ask is: are those words you had with your family or friend more important than the relationship with the family or friend?

In some cases, the division is caused by something greater: actual harm. Love doesn't require us to remain in abusive relationships. Love doesn't require to accept less than full recognition of our humanity and our rights. Love doesn't require us to submit to demands that disrespect our identities.

But love requires us to care about others - even those who seem to not care about us.

It can be a sign of our humanity, a sign of our identity, a sign of our pride and confidence in who we are and who we love... that we love those who stand against us.

This year, in the name of Pride, I'm calling for us to love others. I'm calling for us to show the compassion we wish others had for us. I'm calling for us to model the behavior we want to see.

How queer would it be for us to love our enemies?

Let us love in the name of Pride.
So a resolution is being offered to the Southern Baptist Convention opposing normalizing transgender[ABP News].

I'm not going to try to argue against Denny Burk: neither of us is likely to sway the other.

Instead, I want to address transgender believers:

You are loved.

You are beloved of God, and of many who have faith.

While some who do not understand you will stand to condemn you, know that many others will stand with you and defend you.

There are a great many transgender Christians, many of us active in the church, and a few of us ordained ministers or (like myself) approved for ordination pending call.

Jesus said:

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my parent's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also."
 - John 14:1-3
A lot of people read this as heaven. That's fine. But I think it's also the church.

The believers here on earth are the body of Christ, and in the Church are many places for us to dwell. If the church you attend stands against you rather than with you; if the community you are with refuses to love you; if you are not spiritually fed by the people with whom you worship...

...know that Jesus has prepared a place for you, too: right here, right now.

There are churches that not only tolerate transgender people, not only allow us to worship among them, but embrace us as part of the priesthood of all believers. There are churches that stand with us, and who are not threatened by "normalizing transgender." Among them are many congregations of the United Church of Christ (UCC).

At the 24th General Synod in 2003 - the year before I joined the UCC - they passed a resolution "Affirming the Participation and Ministry of Transgender People within the United Church of Christ and Supporting their Civil and Human Rights." At the 28th General Synod in 2011, they passed  a resolution "Supporting International Human Rights Related to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity."

While not all UCC churches fully support the resolutions made at General Synod, many of them do. Know that there are places that will love you as you have been wonderfully, fearfully, and complexly made: a person who may not fit well in society's binary boxes, but part of God's diversity.

Believe that Jesus has prepared a dwelling place within the body of Christ for you.
Another entry based on my #clergyBuzzFeedLists contributions

Everyone needs some alone time - especially pastors who are introverts. Here are some common ideas of where to get some time alone - and why they're myths:

  1. The pastor's study:

    OK, it seems like this should be a quiet place, until you realize that this is the first place people will  come looking for the pastor. There's also the phone, which may ring at any time, and the distraction of the computer, where e-mail is piling up even as we speak.

  2. The sanctuary:

    Sanctuary may be what the pastor is seeking, but this is the second place people will look. Also, a pastor found sitting in a pew will likely be asked "What's wrong?"

  3. The chapel:

    Some churches have a smaller worship space - maybe it was the sanctuary before the big one was built. This is the third place people will look, and it carries the same "something is wrong" feel as the main sanctuary.

  4. The parsonage/home

    Yes, people will call on you at home, too, especially if you're staying in a building owned by the church.

Your best shot at alone time is to have some real boundaries around sabbath-taking. Choose a day when you can turn off most of your means of communications, leaving only a means of contacting you in dire emergencies. If need be, find a clergy friend who can cover your sabbath while she covers yours.

"Then he said to them, 'The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath'" - Mark 2:27
It happens often: you meet someone in a Roman collar, and you want to say something. But you notice this clergyperson is female, and suddenly parts of your brain are tripping over each other trying to figure out how to address this individual. Here are the six titles through which people fumble while addressing female clergy.

1. Father
People see the collar and want to say "Father." It only takes a moment before another group of brain cells notices the juxtaposition of the paternal with the female form and tries to put a stop to it. By then, of course, it's too late: the lungs, larynx, lingual muscles and lips have conspired to make known your error.
2. Mother
The simple solution would seem to be to switch to the maternal. Yet another part of the brain will object to this - though perhaps more slowly. Even most nuns are called "Sister," with only the senior in leadership called Mother. It just doesn't feel right.
3. Priestess
This one really isn't too bad, though for some it sounds non-Christian. (It is not.) Still, you could have just said
4. Priest
For Episcopal/Anglican, Old Catholic, and other denominations which actually have priests, this is really just fine. For some denominations, however, "Priest" doesn't usually get used for male clergy, either. Maybe you could just say
5. Pastor
Pastor implies a particular role in a church, and can work much of the time. "Pastor Wilkins" or "Pastor Susan" (depending on how she prefers to be named) fits quite well for those in parish ministry. But if the ordained person is working outside the church, you might try
6. Reverend
Reverend Alicia, or the Reverend Roberts, is a respectful way of addressing female clergy. Still, there's a far more appropriate choice:

Ask her how she prefers to be addressed. She probably has a way she prefers, and it will make life so much easier for you.



Prophetic Games

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It's been years since I've done improv. I miss it. But I learned a lot from playing with some very talented improvisers.

I played a lot of short-form improv, where the game was explicit. This is the sort of thing you see on "Whose Line Is It Anyway," where people have to speak only in questions, or start each line with a subsequent letter of the alphabet, or speak in gibberish. But underlying much of improv -including long form - is the game of the scene: the underlying structure that moves the action.

One of the great things about improv - and theater in general - is its ability to shine a light on topics we might not otherwise discuss. Maybe we're afraid of conflict. Maybe the subject is just to sad for words. With theater, we can look at the issue through the eyes of people we have invented, so as to not get quite so close to the stark reality of problems in this world.

On twitter, I've been noticing a trend toward using a hashtag as a game. I've participated in a few of them. And what I've noticed is that we're using the tags to create rules of participation in a game that exposes an issue without having to confront it directly.

The #ContemporaryChristianDebates tag, which began with this post

May 20

Can God can create a burrito too hot for God to eat?

offers an opportunity for satire about the state of the Christian church - although as Ken Hood Jr. pointed out,

To be fair, many of the items under are specific to White Protestant American Christianity


A lot of us were laughing on the outside, but expressing sadness, frustration, or anger on the inside. Here are a few rather poignant tweets:

May 21

Do churches in other countries need to hang an American flag up front to be legit?


May 21

: Pastor:"Check my wife, she's hot! ...girls, don't cause your brothers in Christ to stumble."


May 22

No blessing for queer couples... but feel free to bring your new car to church so the pastor can pray over it.


These point to real struggles the church has with civil religion, women, sexuality, and materialism. In 140 characters or less, people are making prophetic statements about the direction the church is heading. Prophets are gathered, calling out hypocrisy.

The tag #SexismTurnedAround began with this tweet:

20h

Men just can't have it all. They say that they want a career and a family. Inevitably one will suffer.

and began with exploring the ways that the church treats women by swapping the genders and showing how ridiculous it would be to treat men that way. In fact, the originator of this hashtag explained

20h

Most of my tweets of are things has told me she has been told or heard.

At first, it was just "Carols' husband" tweeting these gems, but more players quickly joined the game:

19h

You're a pastor?!?! Oh, I thought you were the handy man?


19h

Maybe we shouldn't hire this pastor because he's at an age where he might be thinking about having kids.


19h

He's great, but I just don't think I can see a man as my spiritual authority.


19h

A male pastor is fine most of the time but when a real crisis comes people are going to want a woman around to handle it

This hashtag is a bit more focused: instead of exploring the many ways the church is dysfunctional, this game is about one issue: women's roles in the church. The tweets look at the same problem from many different angles.

Eventually, the discussion began to move outside the church:

6h

Gentlemen can have a nice drop of sherry. Leave the Scotch to the ladies.



6h

"The cast is mostly female. But business/politics is a mostly female dominated environment."



6h

You're not like other guys I've met. It's like you're a woman.



4h

In "The Little Mermaid," Eric has to choose between having legs and having a voice.


Still, these are justice issues that the church should be engaging.

So take a look at these and other hashtags. Laugh at the irony and cognitive dissonance. But also take time to consider the issues they expose: these tweets are not just for laughs. The humor moves the discourse along, but the prophetic voice is very, very real.