It is summer! Yay! Time for adventures, vacations and travel to places near and far. I know that some of you will be staying nearby, camping in the mountains, going to concerts, hanging out people watching in Old Town Square. Others will be journeying to foreign lands, climbing castle walls, wandering through medieval cathedrals, marveling at the architecture of Ottoman mosques or rummaging through ancient archaeological sites. As you pack, think about how you will encounter God in your journeys.
Now, we know that God is everywhere, present in every place, and that every person we meet bears the very image of God. So, in one sense, we need not “go” anywhere to encounter God. We just need to open our eyes to the craggy peaks, touch the leaves with our fingers, listen to the stranger with our ears, and engage the waitress with our heart. It is a question of focus and openness, stepping away from our Facebook feed and paying attention to the heart of the reality we are immersed in. For there isGod, in splendor and grandeur and pain and suffering and noise and silence.
One of the joys and challenges of travel is the opportunity to visit sites sacred to communities very different from our own. On our recent trip to Quebec, I dragged Ivan into every cathedral we encountered – and there were lots! But to our UCC eyes, they seemed very foreign: every church seemed dedicated to Mary, there was a sensory overload of gild and images and statues. Saints peered down from every window, apocryphal scenes from the life of Sts. Anne and Joachim (Mary’s parents) filled mosaic panels across the ceiling, giant bleeding crucifixes adorned every side chapel, and Jesus was very, very White. One cathedral (St. Anne de Beaupre, the largest pilgrimage site north of Mexico, credited with miraculous healings, receives a half million visitors yearly) displayed holy relics of St. Anne, large forearm bones given by two Popes from the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. There were pictures of 17thcentury missionary martyrs being killed by nearly naked “savages,” and nuns teaching adoring First Nation children. I was particularly struck by huge images of the “Enthronement of the Queen of Heaven,” where bearded Father and Son crowned the Virgin Mother, while the dove of the Spirit vaguely hovered nearby (see photo). I wondered, was this a Trinity of Father/Mother/Son, or maybe a Holy Quartet?
Now, it would be easy to deconstruct the whole place, to look at it with rational, Protestant eyes. You could see schlock, kitch, superstition, colonialism, even idolatry. I mean, St. Anne isn’t even mentioned in the Bible! (You have to read the second-century Protevangelium of James to get the fanciful back story on Jesus’ parents). In parts of Europe, our Protestant forbearers literally smashed all the statues (“idols!”) in cathedrals. But is that why I went there? To decry the locals, their history and the faith that built a cathedral? I did not eat at McDonalds, but tried poutine; why should my spiritual adventure be different?
Now, one way to side-step the unease is to become good and academic. Focus on the amazing architecture. Appreciate the artistry. Learn about the history of the peoples who built this shrine. Photograph the stained glass. Stand apart as a sociologist, and observe the pilgrims praying, wondering about where they are from and what motivated their journey. But do not ponder their faith too much, for that is risky… what if you are drawn into their passion? So I cautiouslyprayed a brief prayer to God for healing at St. Anne’s relic, all the time knowing that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of The Living God!
So here is the challenge when visiting a spiritual site that is so different: to be open to the Holy as the people whose home it is understand it. Yes, these sites may be totally weird. But the very word weird is rooted in the experience of the supernatural, the uncanny, the uncontrolled spiritual forces of the universe, exemplified in the “weird sisters” of Macbeth. So… you are privileged to be a guest in a place built by people who loved and worshiped God –- maybe, yes, in a very weird way. So suspend your criticisms, and use your sanctified imagination to enter the lives of those people. They were in touch with something that made them sacrifice wealth and energy and even their lives. They brought children to the font, filled with hope despite an uncertain future. They knelt and prayed for their daily bread, for forgiveness of their sins, for deliverance from times of trouble. They gave alms to the poor, assisted their neighbors rebuild burned out homes, and tended their sick. They buried their dead in the yard outside, trusting them to the grace and power of a resurrected Christ. You know how to open your spiritual eyes to a Rocky Mountain sunset; use the same creativity to open your heart to a medieval Marian shrine.
Stepping out of your spiritual comfort zone and trusting that the ever-present God has something for you even there, is an exciting (and sometimes unsettling) quest. Even in a non-Christian site – a mosque, an ashram, pagan ruin or even a battlefield, muster your courage to experience how God is there. As in the eucharist, nobody believes in “the real absence of God” anywhere. Perhaps that is the time, that is the place, that the Still-Speaking God will speak to you.
Peace and blessed journeys,
Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
Director of Christian Formation (Adults)
The Rev. Dr. Mark Lee brings a passion for Christian education that bears fruit in social justice. He has had a lifelong fascination with theology, with a particular emphasis on how Biblical hermeneutics shape personal and political action. Read more about Mark.
A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and the disciples woke him up and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?" He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. - Mark 4:37-39
Have you ever had that feeling that God is with you, but perhaps asleep at the wheel, or at the very least distracted? I have. It is not a comfortable feeling. I work so hard to have a good intentions for life, to steer clear of storms, to think ahead about all necessities. But then trouble comes, despite our best laid plans.
At these times I am reminded of a favorite song from the 90’s written by Emily Saliers, one of the Indigo Girls. It is titled “The Wood Song” and begins:
the thin horizon of a plan is almost clear
my friends and i have had a tough time
bruising our brains hard up against change
all the old dogs and the magician
It is hard to think with bruised brains. It is hard to out-think “the old dogs and the magicians” of culture, of politics. We can feel very helpless as we try to be the change we want to see in the world. Will the plan for meaningful change every become clear, every be attainable?
I remember the story from Mark 4. Being in the boat with the disciples and Jesus when a sudden storm comes up. God, are you paying attention? Do you not care that we are perishing? Here is what the disciples forget for a moment. They are not in the boat alone. Jesus is with them. And Emily’s song returns to my mind:
now i see we're in the boat in two by twos
only the heart that we have for a tool we could use
and the very close quarters are hard to get used to
love weighs the hull down with its weight
Even in the close quarters of a church community we can panic, forget that we have our hearts for tools and our hearts keep us close to God. We can forget how love weights our communal ship with the right ballast to keep us from sinking. In the midst of the storms of life we might wail at one another:
but the wood is tired and the wood is old
and we'll make it fine if the weather holds
Yet the weather never holds, does it? Storms come. Children are separated from parents in tragic, needless suffering. Our heart-felt plans for making the world more just, more loving, more peaceful seem thwarted at every turn. We are overwhelmed. It seems the waves are beating into our boat and we will drown. Or others will drown. How can any of us be saved? God, do you not care?
but if the weather holds we'll have missed the point
that's where i need to go, Emily sings in “The Wood Song.” God is with us in the midst of the storm even when our “Just Peace, Open and Affirming, Immigrant Welcoming” beloved body of Christ may seem old and tired, battered by too many huge waves. But God is with us in the boat. And we might not fully realize it until we are overwhelmed and forced to rely only on the voice of Jesus, "Peace! Be still!"
This coming Sunday in worship we will sit together with the story of Jesus stilling the storm from Mark 4. Before and after worship we will have the opportunity to be the Body of Christ in the midst of the storms of injustice in our world by writing letters to our government officials about the plight of hungry people and the plight of immigrant children separated from their parents on our borders. As we join in worship and in letter writing we are in the boat in two by twos using the tools of our hearts, hands and voices to help our world hear Jesus’ voice, "Peace! Be still!” God is with us always!
Blessings on the journey through your week,
PS. If you would like to hear the Indigo Girls sing “The Wood Song” click here.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
Remember that hackneyed line that“Plymouth is the best-kept secret in Fort Collins?” That condition is just about to change!
The Leadership Council has launched a mini-campaign to replace our street signage on Prospect Road and Lake Street. Even though our trustees have cobbled together and repaired the 17-year-old sign on Prospect, it is falling apart (as you’ll see in the above 4-minute video*).
With the construction of the CSU football stadium, we have an opportunity to let more people know not just that Plymouth is here, but what makes us unique in our community and ways it might become part of their faith journey.
With a lead gift of $25,000 from a member family at Plymouth, we are already halfway to funding the signs themselves. (An additional $10,000 will cover any landscaping needs and overruns.) As in most capital campaigns, our mini-campaign team is currently soliciting major gifts in the next few weeks, and the open campaign will follow, during which we encourage everyone to support this effort.
Our mini-campaign team is headed by Nic Redavid with Irene Wherritt, Claudia DeMarco, and me serving as well. We invite you to take a look at the 4-minute video* enclosed with this email and see the sign design and hear from three leaders in our congregation.
It will be exciting to see the changes our new signs will bring!
*made by yours truly with iMovie…not ready for an Oscar!
The Rev. Hal Chorpennng has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
For my Beloved United Church of Christ,
I have written in my ordination paper, essays in seminary, and many other forums of my love for this denomination as an out-LGBTQ clergyperson and Christian. This Pride Month 2018, however, it is time to issue a loving challenge.
Twenty-five percent of congregations Open and Affirming, thirty-three years of the Open and Affirming (ONA) Statement, and many other signs and sacrifices for the LGBTQ community in the National Setting and Local Settings of the UCC (including countless congregational and individual member departures) are a great start. Thank you, UCC, for your dedication, help, and sacrifice. I know how hard your work for LGBTQ people has been: sometimes splitting congregations, families, friendships, and decimating church budgets. Likewise, I know sometimes it has brought new life to congregations in need of new inclusive vision, members, or hope. I look for more examples of the latter as we move forward as a faith tradition into an uncertain future.
That said, I want to address an attitude in the UCC: shock when LGBTQ people don’t understand that this denomination is a safe space. Moreover, I have witnessed straight-privileged anger, indignation, and desperate need for gratitude. Open and Affirming Churches want gratitude from the LGBTQ community, which is something we really cannot emotionally provide.
In order to be theologically healthy and authentic as an Open and Affirming Movement, we need to first affirm the following difficult reality: The LGBTQ community does not owe the United Church of Christ anything in return for it's theologically driven move towards inclusion—even if that has meant great sacrifices. We are delighted to be included in pews, pulpits, pastorates, and pensions, but the wider LGBTQ family’s hurt and continued endangerment (especially with the current political winds) is greater than anything the UCC alone can heal, apologize for, or save us from. Additionally, LGBTQ spiritual gifts, theology, and radically unique perspective on liberation didn’t end with marriage equality. Marriage Equality is not synonymous with LGBTQ Liberation. There is so much more wisdom capacity and value yet untapped by the UCC from our diverse queer perspectives and fabulous presence.
The UCC’s openness is deeply appreciated by those of us in the LGBTQ community whom have chosen to do the HARD WORK (daily, complicated, painful) of reclaiming and living as religious Christians, but It doesn’t mean that gay and queer people owe you, the institution, our love and devotion. ONA isn’t transactional in that way. The popular attitude that the UCC is the gift that the LGBTQ community is looking for but hasn't found yet must be tempered with an understanding that church PTSD is real even for those who have never been inside a church.
As an example, I have never been inside of a haunted house attraction or a haunted corn maze, but I know that it would NOT be a safe, fun, or good experience for me. I know that from my outside experience with horror movies, people jumping at me, and even being alone at Plymouth at night (yes, this is a scary building when empty). Every experience I have had informs me to stay away from haunted houses. Likewise, even for LGBTQ people who have never had a direct experience with church (not even to mention the countless who have been emotionally abused and damaged by our wider Christian family), convincing us LGBTQ people that churches are safe and trustworthy is a multi-generational, long-term effort that must be rooted in meaningful mission and ministry rather than money and marketing. I have yet, sticking with my above example, to be convinced that a haunted house would result in anything other than a heart attack and my own early demise on the spot! In short, we are a hard sell.
Having an out minister doesn’t cure that fear or fulfill your ONA promise. Yes, I can speak with my friends and sometimes open doors of understanding, but I am not called to evangelize the LGBTQ community. Hiring me or my predecessor didn’t mean a cure to any fear others have. If anything, it just means that Gerhard and I have a lot of trouble finding friends who understand me or want to be around us, and I never ever blame anyone for this. I knew what I was signing-up for. It is a sacrifice I have been willing to make. It does mean that I understand and respect the healthy distance people who have been hurt need to keep from religion—even if that means keeping me as out gay clergyperson at a distance too. It is just too risky, confusing, or painful to befriend even a gay minister.
The LGBTQ community still has the right to distrust the God of Christianity after 2,000 years of oppression and continued alienation like yesterday.
The UCC must continue in our Open and Affirming Journey, and that means understanding that what we have begun in reconciliation, love, and radical inclusion is only the beginning of what could take generations of Queer acceptance to heal. We do this work of openness not for ourselves, our full pews, or our budgets, but we do it for God and for Jesus the Christ whose love we are called to embody.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that a local Colorado cake baker could deny a gay couple a wedding cake because of his belief in God and “religious liberty.” For that decision to come down in June is particularly difficult. June is LGBTQ Pride Month when we celebrate our liberation from straight patriarchy beginning with the Stonewall Riots in NYC in 1969, so this decision is jarring for many. It is days like yesterday that I find it incredibly difficult to justify the Church, God, and religion to my LGBTQ community as a Christian Minister of the Gospel. It is days like yesterday when responses, “sorry,” “we promise we aren’t all like that,” “you should try the UCC,” “don’t lump us in with those Christians,” or even, “we are just as angry as you and God loves you… really we promise…” just don’t work. It breaks my heart to watch my Facebook feed crumble in pain, alienation, and anger after yesterday’s verdict. It hurts even more to have to admit that my ministry and my Facebook posts can’t fix it and neither can the UCC alone within one generation.
It isn’t really about the damn cake. We, LGBTQ individuals and our straight allies alike, all know that we make better, tastier, more creative cakes anyway when it comes right down to it, right? Right? You know it’s true. It is really about systemic pain of rejection, of family alienation, and discrimination happening when trying to do something as simple as ordering a giant, glorified pastry for a party with a loved one! For God’s sake… it isn’t about the cake. It is about everything else that matters.
There is hope yet, friends, in grace! This is a word many of us only know if we have ventured into Wesleyan theological territory like I did for seminary, but it can mean so much right now for us in the United Church of Christ.
Grace means more than changing ourselves, changing our words, opening our doors and then assuming that we no longer carry cultural pain. It means coming to terms with our own privilege and understanding the weight of the history of this wider institution outside of our control. Grace also means understanding when our invitation of Open and Affirming welcome isn’t met with enthusiastic embrace. The turning of the Titanic takes great time. Grace is the humility to know that the doors may have to remain open for a very longtime before anyone feels safe enough to trust this institution. Love is loving those who never will enter our churches and never become pledging units because we are called by God Almighty to do so. Becoming ONA isn’t a marketing scheme to fill pews, it is a theological statement on the level of theodicy!
Grace is a grace for ourselves when we don’t get it right. Grace is love for others when they aren’t quite ready to accept our invitation to a loving community as we experience and know it. Grace is what God holds us all in at this time of transformation for the Open and Affirming Movement. Grace is what happens when we see that becoming Open and Affirming is more than a marketing statement. When taken seriously, it is a part of a wider systematic theology of inclusion that has the power to transform all of us into better people: all of us together…even or especially those whom we now accept will never join or visit the church.
Yours in Love and Pride,
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph (or just Jake)
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, CO.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.