Monday, March 24, 2008

Why I Go To the Church I Go To

United Church of Christ logo.Image via Wikipedia
What a difference a few days can make.  According to Christian tradition, on Good Friday, things looked hopeless and on Easter Sunday, we have new life and hope springing eternal.  The last few days or couple of weeks has been that in a microcosm for me.  A few days ago my attention was turned to things that were making me frustrated, disappointed and yes even angry.  But, over the weekend, I saw some things that have renewed my hope, lifted my spirits and made me proud of my pastor, my church, my denomination, my country and even a little prouder of my wife and kids (if that's possible).  I posted  a poll on my blog, asking why you attend the church you attend.  One of the things I explore in this post is why I attend the one I go to.

No need to go into the things that were frustrating me last week.  If you've read my blog, you're probably painfully aware already.  But, I would like to share a few things that have happened in my life since then. 

First, as my family and I sat glued to the news coverage this weekend, I saw a more even-handed treatment of the Barack Obama/Reverend  Wright situation beginning to unfold. While a lot of whites (I'll avoid saying a "typical" white person) might be uncomfortable talking about these things, my guess is the majority of black people are jumping at the chance to have these conversations.  I know my family is all caught up in this.

The talking heads began going beyond the 30 second sound bites and the parroted uncritiqued criticism and began showing some empathy for the  Reverend Wright situation.  Some wondered aloud what they would do in their churches if such things were said.  Some began asking "Just what is this black theology or black liberation theology?".  Some even took the time to listen to the sermons of the Reverend in their entirety.  Those are the responses I would expect of responsible media/journalists.  I, of course, wished those things would have happened sooner.  But, as they began happening, I saw a softening of the criticism of both Reverend Wright and Barack Obama begin to emerge.  I even saw some news people on FOX news step up and criticize their peers for being so biased in their reporting.  I was surprised to see that kind of integrity actually on camera at FOX news.

One of the reporters who had been on FOX  blogged about an entire sermon (as I did last week).  He gave a link to the entire audio tape of the "God Damn America" sermon (that was actually titled "Confusing God and Government").  I listened to the sermon.  In case you don't have time to, let me make a few quick points about it that might surprise you:

  • The theme of the sermon this: Governments fail, governments lie and governments change.  Not that governments lie, fail or change constantly.  But that, over the course of time, all governments do all three.  No government lasts forever, tells the truth all of the time or is 100% consistent.  He gives specific examples to make his point.  And, not all of the examples are the United States government.
  • The Reverend begins by saying that people are looking for their government to give them what only God can.  Unchanging values, unswaying truth and the ability to deliver on what He promises.  The main point of his sermon is we should not do that.
  • The Reverend specifically says:  "Not all colonizers are white.  Turn to your neighbor and say that oppressors come in all colors."

People might disagree with some of the specifics of the sub-points the Reverend makes to back up his thesis.  You might say that he is overly critical of America or that some of his charges are unproven (and some of them are).  But, I expect and want my preacher to "speak truth to power".  I expect and want him to carry on in the tradition of Jesus and the other prophets (you did know Jesus was a prophet didn't you?) and to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable".  Jesus' death was very much a political assassination as well as a sacrifice for us. Jesus spoke truth to the powerful political structures of the day, the Roman government and his own "church", the Jewish temple system- so much so that they killed Him to shut Him up.  I'm proud to be a member of the same denomination as Reverend Wright, the United Church of Christ.  The UCC takes its role of remaining true to G-d's principles of justice for all very seriously.  And puts that before being "patriotic" (as some people define patriotism).  Speaking truth to power, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable (those in positions of power and those who would oppress people) has always been of paramount importance in the black church and in the United Church of Christ.  As I listened to Reverend Wright's sermon yesterday morning before church, I disagreed with some of his sub-points.  I wished he had brought more "hope" into the sermon.  But, I could not disagree with his advice to give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to G-d what is G-d's.  IOW, don't place all of your hope in the government for things only G-d can provide.

My parents were in town yesterday and they went to church with us.  My parents have never attended our new church with us and I'm pretty sure they thought the Vineyard was flaky enough with its rock music and jeans-wearing congregation.  I didn't know how well church in a YMCA gymnasium would go with them.  As has been well documented here, I'm conflicted about Sunday mornings services and their role in my life.  I was prepared for another pat "Aren't we happy Jesus rose from the dead?"  message yesterday.  Nothing wrong with that. I am happy Jesus rose from the dead.  But, I've already heard that sermon about 42 times (I'll be 47 this year.  I'm not counting the 4 times I heard it before I was 5 years old).  I've had some buyer's remorse about Nexus.  I'm very critical when it comes to just about everything.  I'm always looking to make things better.  Barack Obama's words about "perfecting our union" rang very true to me.  We can and should appreciate what we have.  We can and should be joyous in our present moment.  But, that does not preclude always working to make things better.  People have been asking how Barack Obama could attend a church "like Trinity" for over 20 years.  As I've mulled that over and thought of my own situation, I haven't attended a church just for the sermons in my entire adult life.  The sermons at most churches are just boring pablum. They're just "blah, blah, blah".  I'm willing to bet that most people a week after a sermon couldn't tell you what their pastor spoke about last week, let alone last month or last year.  When I was attending the Vineyard, I was usually bored to death on Sunday mornings.  Just about every week I'd leave the service I had to consciously try not to be too negative when I was talking to Ty about the sermon.  So, if you went back and listened to tapes of those sermons over the 10 years I went there and asked if the message being delivered there represented my views, I'd have to say that much of it did, but much of it did not. Why did I go then?  I love the people.  I love the mission of the church.  I love that the Vineyard reaches out to the unchurched and, even better, the dechurched (those who  had been poisoned by toxic religion).  I love that the Vineyard actively gives to the poor.  Not just words but bread (and jobs and cars).  That's why I went there.

The same holds true for Nexus.   I don't attend Nexus for the sermons.  I grew up listening to some very, very good preachers.  Some of them very similar to Reverend Wright who reminds me of both of my grandfathers, BTW. He looks a lot like my mother's father and he sounds a lot like my "Pop" who was an Apostolic preacher and is the preacher I heard every Sunday for the first 11 years of my life. But, again I digress. I'm at the age now where a lot of pastors are younger than I am.  My own pastor is almost a decade my junior.  So, I have more life experience than he does.  While he has been to seminary, I've spent most of my life studying the theology that is most relevant to me. Not that I could do what Gregg does.  I could not.   And, not that Gregg is not a fine preacher.  He is.     But, from my personal butt-in-the-pew perspective, there are very, very few preachers I would really want to listen to week after week.   So, from the POV of going to church on Sunday morning to be "fed" with some words of wisdom that I would have never been able to figure out on my own, that's not my reason for going on Sunday.  I chose Nexus because I had heard it was a progressive church and was interested in the concept of emergent and its slogan was "God is still speaking..."  I was thrilled to find out the history of the UCC and its dedication to not building a "kingdom in the sky", but to bringing G-d's kingdom to Earth by feeding the hungry, taking care of the poor and challenging the government and other institutions to do better.

Yesterday, Gregg announced the conclusion of our food drive to collect food for Shared Harvest, an organization that equips food pantries around the area.  Our little-old-church of about 40 Sunday morning attenders spearheaded a drive that collected close to 2,000 pounds of food over the last six weeks.  That, I was reminded, was one of the reasons I chose Nexus.  Then, Gregg went on to preach the best sermon I have ever heard Gregg preach.  He, of course, talked about the resurrection.  But, he expanded its meaning beyond just the fact that it "gets our butts into heaven" and he said again one of my favorite lines from Gregg "If this was just about getting our butts into heaven, I  would want no part of it."  As I've been reading the comments on blogs over the last couple of weeks a lot of people have asked why churches have to get political anyway.  Why was Reverend Wright speaking about the government at all?  Last night on CNN one of their guests (who shall remain nameless suffice it to say he's a Black Republican- an oxymoron in my book) implied that the Reverend had no place in criticizing the government.  Hello McFly?  Is there anybody in there?  Did you not read Jesus' words about coming to the oppressed?  Did you not hear Him rail against the social injustices of His day? Do you think the Roman's were complicit in His death because they thought He was was of no threat to Him.   Prophets, like Jesus, the Old Testament prophets and Jeremiah Wright make people in power uncomfortable. That's a major part of their job.  If Jesus were preaching today, my vision is He'd be a lot more like Jeremiah Wright than like Joel Osteen or Robert Schuler.

Back to Gregg,  he did a masterful job of talking about how the empty tomb brings hope to oppressed and disenfranchised people today.  As part of his sermon, he had to give some uncomfortable statistics about where we are in America today. 30 million people without access to the best health care system in the world,  people of color four times more likely to be put to death for the same crimes as people who are white, etc.  While no one is going to confuse Gregg with Reverend Wright (this is Gregg), his sermon was in many ways similar to the ones Reverend Wright has been criticized about.  And, Gregg stepped up and talked about the Wright controversy.  I was beaming.  Gregg and I had lunch on Friday and talked about it extensively.  While we agree that Reverend Wright probably did go over the top and we certainly don't agree with all of the sub-points, we both see a lot of merit in what the man preached and we agree that it's the job of the preacher to point out the flaws in our society and in our government.  I was proud of Gregg for saying the things that I thought needed to be said.

Lastly, yesterday, I was so proud of Ty and Shayna.  Ty sang a solo, acoustic arrangement of one of my all time favorite songs in church (Sun & Moon by Sarah Laughing).  She was so nervous and wanted to back out right up until the last moment.  Shayna was very nervous, too. But, they both stepped up and they did an amazing job! 

So, yesterday, I was reminded again why I joined the UCC and, more specifically, Nexus Church. The UCC has not backed down or even flinched in their support of Trinity UCC or of Reverend Wright.  As this Obama and Reverend Wright thing has been allowed to unfold, I've seen more of the reaction I was hoping to see.  That is seeking to understand and facing up the the fact that we are not a perfect nation ( which is the first step to making the changes to become more perfect).  America is a great country.  We have been tremendously blessed.  We have done great things.  But, America is made up of human beings.  While we try very hard to to do the right things, we don't always get it it right.  True patriots don't just go along saying everything is perfect. True patriots help us see our flaws and help us correct them.  I'm seeing that kind of patriotism and it makes me proud to be an American. 

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