The Need for a Passionate Church

Christian Century has a review this week of a book entitled Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church by Kenda Casey Dean. The basic synopsis of the book and the review is captured here:

Practicing Passion begins with an exploration of the nature of passion and its connections with youth. Like Kierkegaard, Dean sees young people as especially well equipped for pathos. Because they are keenly aware of both love and suffering, they are particularly well suited to engage in passionate practices within Christian community. That is what living in deep connection with the passion of Christ means, she argues. But churches largely abdicate their identification with such costly love, leaving few opportunities for young people to participate in the church as a community that practices God's passion.

Naturally, as Dean explains in the book's second section, when the church does not live out passion in its practices, youth take their passions elsewhere. They commonly fall prey to the larger human tendency to confuse ultimate passions (the kinds of passions that are fully engaged only in connection to the holy) with fleeting attractions to causes, or with transient sexual feelings that only mirror the deeper intimacy they passionately seek. Exploring three dimensions of passion—fidelity, transcendence and community—Dean addresses the relationship between processes of identity formation among youth today and the distortions of passion common in contemporary society.

In the book's final section, Dean proposes that youth ministry be grounded in young people's participation in the practices of a passionate church. To achieve this, the church must retrieve its historical "curriculum of passion," which is found in the memory of Christ's passion and in the "practical piety" of the Christian community as it participates in the missio dei.

I find this very interesting. I wholeheartedly agree that a church constantly needs a 'passion check;' to make sure it still has a pulse for the things of God and the mission to which Christ calls us (John Cobb makes a similar argument in his book Reclaiming the Church). But this article and book hone in on a particular area of the church that suffers in particular when there is no passion: youth ministry.

In the first place, youth are affected when there is no passion in adults. Youth observe their parents and other adults in church and receive a message through their actions. 'If Dad doesn't have to go to church, why should I?' Why indeed. If you don't care, then I don't. Rip on his namesake political system, but Marx had some good points about religion being the people's opiate. Uncle Joe is falling asleep, so I'll grab a pillow in the pew right behind him. This must be what it means to be a member here.

'Youth will take their passions elsewhere,' the article says. That's true of attending other churches as well. In some cases, youth end up enduring Sunday worship at their passionless home church in the morning and then go to 'Christ Rawks Cafe' at Gigantor Christian Church down the road that evening where they feel like they're a part of something life-giving, or at least lively.

Of course, it would be a mistake to measure passion by attendance. Better to measure passion by engagement, by a commitment to transforming lives and the world around us. 'Practical piety,' the article suggests. 'A commitment to missio dei.' What is the mission of God for the church and how might youth passion be nurtured by and focused on this mission? It is my experience that youth have genuine questions of faith that they might not ask until asked if they have any faith questions. Likewise, youth do have a potential passion for church life. It is the call of the passionate church to invite them to participate. Put down your pillow and take up your cross.

Related post: Mainlines in Trouble, Part 2

Philosophy Over Beer and Chips

One of the best theological conversations I've had was during my second year of seminary. Every year, the seven seminaries in St. Louis come together for an annual Day of Theological Conversation. Eden is the resident 'liberal' seminary, along with two Catholic seminaries, a Missouri Synod Lutheran seminary, a Presbyterian Church of America seminary, and a budding Pentecostal seminary. The theme that year was war, and we first listened to professors from the schools make presentations on the topic before we all split into smaller groups in classrooms to discuss the topic.

After the official day had ended, a group from Eden invited some of the guys (and they were all guys) from the Lutheran school to a local pub to hang out. THIS is where the real conversation started. A couple of us talked about the meaning of the garden story in Genesis, humanity's sinfulness, and issues of Christology. All this was in between pool games and sips of beer. If there was any hostility or animosity among us, no one paid attention. If there was any disrespect shown, it was hard to notice. There was passion among us, but no anger; no resentment.

This night brought to mind the days of the Greeks, when people came together for a meal and then after a transition time (usually involving some imbibing), moved into symposium, when ideas were traded and discussed. It was meant to be a relaxing time among colleagues and friends rather than a hardline debate. I considered that night more productive than the more organized, more polished events earlier in the day and much less tense than any of us were expecting it to be.

Of course, I wouldn't chalk the success of this after-hours time up to booze. It was the atmosphere in general. There was no agenda, we were in a public place, we didn't have expectations. We just shared with one another. And we listened, too.

You can only do so much to set something up like that. The rest had to come from the participants. I think we did pretty well.

Can't Quite Pinpoint...

A while back, I saw the movie Saved! for the first time. In case you aren't familiar with this film, it's about a group of kids going through life at the fictional American Eagle High School, a private Christian school. Over the course of the movie, topics such as homosexuality, premarital sex and teen pregnancy, divorce, Christianity's relationship with other faiths, and God's relationship to the world are touched on, among other things. Mandy Moore plays Hillary Faye, ever attempting to maintain the facade of 'model' Christian, who gives us gems of wisdom such as 'Of course [Jesus] was white,' and 'You're not born a gay, you're born again!' Jena Malone plays her sidekick, Mary, who tries to 'save' her boyfriend from being gay by sleeping with him and winding up pregnant. The pastor of the school attempts to speak in slang. A top-selling Christian band plays at their prom. The resident rebel (who also happens to be Jewish) goes out of her way at every opportunity to foil Hillary Faye's attempts to 'save' others. Some have cried 'generalizing' and 'demonizing,' almost exclusively from Evangelical Christian circles. I bought this before viewing it, expecting it to be a satirical commentary on more 'conservative' Christian practice (much like what Dogma was for Catholics), and pieces of it were. But ever since I saw it the first time, I couldn't help but think, 'There's something about this movie that really bothers me.'

I don't think I'm going to solve what exactly 'it' was in this entry, but I am typing after just watching the movie a second time as if 'it' would be any more clear. Hillary Faye goes about her personal crusades with an earnest desire to serve Jesus is bothersome, though I'm unable to pinpoint if it's her earnestness or her crusades that are most troubling. She is sincere in her approach (a few scenes feature her passionately raising her arms, eyes closed, pleading for God's will to be revealed to her so that she knows what to do next), though her alienation of others in Jesus' name doesn't seem to bother her too much.

Upon the initial realization that she is being betrayed and her ex-boyfriend judged, Mary does not move to a more moderate version of Christian faith. She flat out rejects it. One scene features her attempt to find a new religion by exploring healing crystals. In the world of Saved! the ones who end up getting it 'right' aren't Christian with one exception: the pastor's son (woohoo!) Patrick, who does make numerous arguments for grey areas. All the other most sympathetic characters are non-Christians who are constantly at odds with Hillary Faye and the brand of faith that she peddles.

There is participation in Christian subculture at American Eagle. Besides the afforementioned prom performance by a Christian artist, Patrick has recently returned from participation in a Christian skateboarding tour (prompting the resident rebel to ask, 'Isn't anything sacred to you people?'). Mary's mother receives an award for Best Christian Home Decorator. The school has an abstinence-only sex education course, and it is mentioned that they only offer a course at all after the state required them to offer one. Mary's boyfriend is sent to Mercy House, a place where homosexuals go to be 'cured.' These last two probably fit in their own category, but they at least stem from certain beliefs within the subculture.

What is the point of this analysis? Good question. There is some combination of these things that caused the movie to raise such an unsuspected reaction within me. Why I found Dogma such an enjoyable romp and Saved! such a discomforting labor is still a partial mystery to me. I say partial because I see truth in the character (caricature?) of Hillary Faye, I yearn for more sympathetic 'progressive' Christians in film, and I'm quite familiar with (and even sympathetic to certain parts of) the subculture. Maybe the movie wants to beat on Hillary Faye a little too much. Maybe the earnest judgmentalism is a little too realistic. Maybe the existence of places like Mercy House just makes me mad.

I don't need the proposed funny moments explained to me. I guess I just need someone to explain why I should laugh.

Pop Culture Roundup

I'm still working through Help: The Original Human Dilemma. There isn't a whole lot else to report on that right now. Reading has slowed this week.

I've seen no movies this week, but I did go see two operas last night as part of the Ohio Light Opera. We had tickets as part of my mom's birthday (plus we have behind-the-scenes connections, but if I elaborated on that I'd have my kneecaps broken). The first was The Island of Tulipatan. The basic synopsis is: two teenagers, a boy and a girl, have been raised as the opposite gender of what they actually are for various reasons. They fall in love, but there is some confusion among the parents as to how they could be in love because one is aware that half the couple is not the gender everyone else thinks they are. Did you follow that? It's quite funny, and if nothing else a conversation starter about 'nature vs. nurture' on the drive home. My wife and I didn't have such a conversation as we're relatively settled on such matters, but others could have.

The second opera was The Sorcerer. The performance was good. The players can't be faulted for how they sang and acted, as they did their best. But the opera itself is boring. The basic plot: two people get married. The guy is not only in love with his bride, but he's in love with love itself and decides that he wants everyone to experience what he's experiencing. He hires a sorcerer to sneak a potion into the entire town's tea so that they'll all indiscriminately fall in love with the first person they see. This, of course, produces some mismatched couples which I'd venture are supposed to be funny but end up being kind of creepy (an old man and an 18-year-old girl, for instance). Then, the guy who started this whole thing takes his obsession one step further by suggesting that his wife take the potion so that he can know that she's truly in love with him (as if the 40 minutes of gushing all over each other in song before this point wasn't enough). Hey, guess what? She ends up falling in love with someone else. Only then does the guy realize what a stupid idea this was, and he calls on the sorcerer to make things right. I've seen this story done much better and in ways that didn't cause me to pray for the end, elsewhere. This opera would also make for good conversation surrounding general topics of free will and forcing your help and/or beliefs on others in the name of making them happy, but the execution of the basic plot in this instance turns the topic to how awful it is instead.

I'm sad that Five Iron Frenzy broke up. That is all.

Around the web, Maggi Dawn is searching for the right metaphor.

Here and There

Rev. Kenneth Samuel was one of the featured preachers at General Synod, and his sermon can be found online here. Better to track down an audio or a video of it to get the full effect, though.

Prickly City is a comic strip featured in a local newspaper, and apparently is a nationwide thing. Its basic schtick is a little girl and what looks to be a dog arguing about politics. It's like if Calvin and Hobbes were merged with Doonesbury, only with a more 'conservative' bent and...well....not funny. Check out this strip from the other day. That's the sort of humor that's been featured for months: playing on lowest common denominators and jokes that were sort of funny a year ago when they were first told. Wanna seem edgy and satirical? Talk about the so-called 'Dean Scream.' Again.

I was originally going to present similar 'humor' from a more 'liberal' standpoint, but the example that I had (concerning Bush...who else?) might actually be against the law. Yes, not only is it not funny, but it could get someone arrested. So whaddaya think about that?

I can see the Goodyear Blimp from my window right now. Cool.

Okay, sure...

Someone recently found my blog while looking up '2005 alliance ohio hog wrestling' on a search engine. S/he apparently didn't find what s/he was looking for, because no visit length is recorded. Sorry I couldn't be of more help, whoever you are.

Some Good News for the UCC

United Church News reports:

Denominational leaders said this week that as many as 15 different churches and church groups have inquired about affiliating with the UCC since the meeting of its General Synod earlier this month.

On the heels of a General Synod that dramatically spiked the church’s national visibility, inquiries have come from a variety of sources, according to the Rev. David C. Schoen, the UCC’s minister for evangelism.

Schoen said the inquiries include expressed interest from three significantly large congregations representing three different regions of the country -- with a combined membership of nearly 12,000 parishioners.

“Interest has been all over the map,” Schoen said. “The interest has ranged form people wanting to plant a church to churches wanting to affiliate with the UCC to groups of people wanting to know about the UCC and how they might become affiliated with the UCC as a new church start. It has all been very exciting.”

While at Synod, we were introduced to 100 new churches that had formed over the past two years. There are new communities of faith forming in the United Church of Christ. While we grieve the present and potential departure of members and congregations over The Vote, we are also seeing new buds blooming on the tree, and we can be thankful for that.

Unseparated, Unexpected

This morning's sermon pieced together from my outline...

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-50
Romans 8:26-39

I love a good surprise ending. There are certain movies that fall into this category, that are so well-written, so brilliantly crafted that you don't see the plot twist coming until it happens. And then everything you thought was going to happen needs to be discarded. They keep you interested and engaged with the story. Once a murder mystery establishes that it couldn't have possibly been the most obvious person, one becomes all the more interested in turning the page to see what happens next. You are hanging on the next word, the next scene, to find out how it will resolve.

What is the kingdom of heaven like? Jesus says it is like a bit of yeast, mixed in with dough. That doesn't sound strange to us. We're used to having yeast in our bread. But to a Jewish audience in the 1st Century, it would have been really strange. In Jewish custom, yeast is unclean. It is unfavorable. How strange that must have sounded.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. This is one of the more popular and well-known metaphors in scripture. We hear it elsewhere when Jesus refers to 'faith the size of a mustard seed.' It is so small, and then it grows into the greatest of...shrubs. A tree that didn't make it.

The kingdom of heaven is like buried treasure that a man found and then hid. Could it really be considered his? Could it be claimed by someone else? Regardless, the man hides the treasure and is shrewd about securing it for himself.

The kingdom of heaven is like a pearl that a man secures for himself after giving up everything else he had. All for one little pearl?

Why use such strange language to promote something so wonderful? This is, after all, a kingdom we're talking about. A kingdom is supposed to be grand and beautiful. It is supposed to evoke images similar to the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. We are supposed to look on it with awe and amazement like the children when they first enter Willy Wonka's chocolate room. This is a kingdom, God's kingdom, and it should be proud and regal. It should be filled with pageantry, with silver and gold and show power! Such a kingdom deserves better promotion than yeast and a shrub.

In the parables, there is always a certain element of shock and awe. Traditional concepts get bombarded by alternate usage. The way we expect terms or items to be used or represented are changed by Jesus. He frequently turned convention on its head. For yeast and shrubs to be symbols of the kingdom of heaven, the ultimate alternate reality, rather than silver and gold – someone was bound to notice. And most probably did. After all, this kingdom was supposed to be over and against the kingdom of Rome, THE kingdom of the day. It was a kingdom that proclaimed Caesar as Son of God. It was a kingdom that proclaimed ultimate peace for the world and hardly anyone thought differently. It was a kingdom that wrapped itself in purple velvet and gold trim. It was a kingdom that had either built cities or took them, and proclaimed itself sovereign through absolute military power.

And once again, Jesus presents us with the unexpected in his counter to that kingdom. Yeast? And a shrub? The kingdom of heaven is like that which is unclean, unworthy, and unheard of. And true to form, Jesus hangs out with people considered unclean, unworthy, and unheard of, the likes of lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans, and even WOMEN, considered second-class (and in most cases that might be generous). Maybe the language wasn’t lost on them. Jesus' life and teaching had enough plot twists to keep people interested, even after his death. His beginnings in a stable and his end on a cross (and the twist afterward) kept people guessing.

But what else is going on? Yeast causes things to expand, to grow, to rise. Once a little gets in, the whole loaf rises. Mustard? It was used as a cure for many different ailments. It could clear your sinuses and clean you out. Buried treasure and a pearl? They were so precious, even priceless, that some would give it all up to secure them. And for the kingdom of heaven, who wouldn’t? It is a kingdom where God’s love is law.

‘For,' Paul asks, 'what can separate us from the love of Christ?’ 'I am convinced,' he says, ‘that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ He is convinced. Nothing separates him or anyone else from the love of God. It truly is a love divine, all loves excelling. And yet there are many attempts by rulers, things present, powers, so many earthly attempts to provide litmus tests: 'You are loved, and you are not.' 'You are worthy and you are not.'

In a predominantly white congregation far away from here, when discussing alternate worship styles and referring to black worship, one person stands and says, 'Those people should just worship elsewhere.'

A disabled woman is unable to come to worship at a particular church because there is no ramp for her wheelchair.

A couple refuses to come one Sunday when they discover that the youth are leading the service. It wouldn't be 'real worship.'

All these earthly attempts to restrain God's love from some.

The kingdom of heaven is something strange; something other. God’s love knows no boundaries, vainly put in place by Rome or by anyone else. Like yeast, it expands on its own without us doing anything or if we tried to stop it. It grows despite human efforts. It is already in the dough, so it will expand. It is already in the ground and has taken root, so it is already growing.

Neither racism, nor stairs, nor age, nor dress codes, nor denominationalism, nor prejudice, nor disability, nor poverty, nor homelessness, nor mental illness, nor lack of church attendence, nor career, nor anything else under the sun in all God's creation will be able to separate anyone from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God's grace is extended even when humanity tries to stop it. That is why some would give it all up. They are fueled by hope, they are engulfed by it. They have discovered the joy that is beyond human constraint. They are affirmed when no one else would affirm them. One is finally told: nothing can separate us from the love of God.

This is God's ultimate plot twist.

Pop Culture Roundup

As I continue to fight my onset of writer's block, I'm making my way through Help: The Original Human Dilemma by Garrett Keizer. Keizer is a pastor wrestling with the questions surrounding helping others, such as when another is taking advantage of your help, when your 'help' is not helpful, not helpin gin the name of self-preservation, and so on. He heavily works with the parable of the Samaritan and brings out pieces of the story that may tend to be overlooked.

We watched Sideways last night, and it is a travesty that Paul Giamatti was overlooked for an Oscar nomination. And I haven't heard anyone else say so, but I'm a little perplexed that Thomas Hayden Church wasn't. Giamatti has all the heavier moments (which he plays brilliantly), save for one scene for Church. But by that point how can you feel sympathetic at all to Church's character? He plays an actor on the fast track to burnout, and immature to boot. But then again, he plays that well. All in all, a great film. The wine discussion is fascinating in and of itself, or at least I thought so.

About a year ago, I picked up Modest Mouse's Good News for People Who Love Bad News. It reminds me of my first time out of the box as a pastor: a two-month stint at my home church. This album provided part of the soundtrack for that experience. The music ranges from the soft and dreamy of 'The World at Large' to the angry screaming of 'Bury Me With It' and the haunting banjo tune 'Bukowski.' And 'Float On' is just a great pick-me-up.

Around the web, Dave has writer's block, too.

The Original Human Dilemma

I bought a man McDonald's while in Atlanta. He'd wandered up to me in a dirty white t-shirt and carrying an umbrella, his scraggily greying beard giving a little extra length to his chin. Here I was at a church conference where I'd been hearing about justice for the poor while I and my fellow delegates pretended to ignore the poor right in front of our faces as they asked for loose change. The man was hungry, and he'd approached me. Quick decision: let's go get a sandwich.

This was one of the more pleasant encounters I'd had with Atlanta's homeless. Actually, only one could really be counted as unpleasant to any degree. A man professing to be a preacher wandered up to me in the CNN Center food court and asked for some money for food. Having become more thrifty throughout the week (if thrifty is the appropriate term in this instance), I'd begun stuffing extra fruit or bagels in my backpack from my Conference's morning meetings. 'I have two apples here. Would you like them?' 'Well, actually I need money for transportation.' 'Well, that's all I've got for you right now.' As that last sentence was coming out of my mouth, he was already moving on to seek out a more receptive patron. A few days later I'd see him again as he was sitting down with whomever had taken him to one of the court's eateries. We locked eyes for just a split second before I turned my attention back to my own table.

The ambiguity that accompanied both of these situations would remain with me long after I'd parted ways with their principle characters. In the former, he'd be hungry again, and a greasy fish sandwich wasn't what he should have been eating in the first place. In the latter, he probably was really hungry, but didn't want what I had (I refrain here from referring to a relevant yet tritely cruel cliche). Would my simply giving either of them money have been enough, or, could more have been done?

Borg cites a piece of wisdom that I actually heard for the first time while at Synod: 'Give a bit of food to the hungry and they'll call you a saint. Ask why the people are hungry and they'll call you a communist.' He differentiates between charity and justice. He'd designate what I tried to do with the passers-by in Atlanta as charity. However, if I had tried to raise greater awareness, entered into economic debate, sought legislative change, or something similar, it would have been seeking justice. Of course, I wasn't in Atlanta long enough to do anything that extensive, so charity was appropriate action for me.

Can people take advantage of charity? Sure. I'd imagine that's why so many people are quicker to cross to the other side of the street than be approached by my scraggily bearded friend. They've either been burned before, or heard enough stories from others that they 'know better,' or have come up with another explanation entirely.

Can people take advantage of justice? What a much more interesting question. Can a situation truly be called just if one has somehow taken advantage of justice? For justice to be present, exploitation is absent. The two have been in some rough fistfights, and only one gets to be king of the hill at any one moment. How is a system designed to be just, when it is successfully manipulated, still just? Or, can that system remain just while individual cases of manipulation are prosecuted? For my own part, there is never a point when one can say, 'Here, now we have justice. We're done. Thanks everyone. Last one out, turn off the lights.' In said individual cases this may happen, but on a global scale, we should be so lucky.

In our ambiguous, less-than-just world, there is no rest. There is no easily towed line. There are no laurels to give us complete serenity. An act of charity might bring temporary satisfaction, but stomachs the world over keep growling and will growl again. Shall we dare to ask why?

Trying to Jump Start the Ol' Fingers

Greetings again. As I've been settling back in after a wonderful vacation, I've been preoccupied with certain things. Can you guess what some of those things might be?

I've had some respectful and honest conversations with parishioners this week about The Vote, with more to come. Of course, we're all just getting started on this issue and I wonder what the future holds. It's a complicated issue and even more complicated to try to address it effectively with 160-odd people. There will, however, be no sermon on it per se, as a 20-minute talk in the context of worship would be neither extensive nor appropriate. This is a matter of education and pastoral care and a sermon wouldn't address those needs.

I finished The Heart of Christianity, which is amazingly good, and Shepherd Leadership, which is not as good.

Greg has a great post up about worship.

As for my thinking out loud about shifting the blog focus, I've decided not to change much. This blog will end up focusing on UCC issues often because that's who I'm a part of. But it won't be entirely UCC-focused. So it'll basically be what it is now.

And hey, guess what? This blog just celebrated its 6-month birthday. How about that.
Greetings. Apologies for the lack of posting lately. I haven't had regular access to a computer. Things will return to abnormal next week.

Blog Focus?

You may or may not be familiar with Shane over at Wesley Blog. It's an excellent blog, even if I don't agree with everything he says (but who agrees totally on anything?). Anyway, he's been profiled at Locusts and Honey and has this advice to beginner bloggers:

The first thing you should ask yourself is if you really want a lot of readers. That sounds silly at first, but some people look at their blogs as personal journals, and they may not want hundreds or thousands of people stopping by daily. Family and friends are usually who they’re targeting. But for those who do want to reach as many people as possible, I recommend finding a niche that no one is covering, one that you’re passionate about, and give it everything you have. General political and religious blogs are a dime a dozen, but well-done specialized blogs are a rare find. When I started Wesley Blog, I could not find a blog by a United Methodist that focused almost exclusively on Methodism. So I started one, and I wasn’t afraid to spend a few bucks on marketing it. (Otherwise, no one would have ever known about it and I would have gotten bored within a week and shut it down.)

The middle part is the part I'm most interested in. While I didn't start this blog with ambitions to attract a huge readership, I have been quite amazed at the level of traffic here over the course of General Synod. This suggests to me that to some extent people are looking for (or at least during Synod were looking for) some uniquely UCC voices as Shane suggests people have been seeking uniquely United Methodist voices. Anyone who has been reading this blog over the course of the past several weeks have already encountered numerous UCC-specific posts. While many bloggers listed in my blog list on the sidebar idenitify as UCC, only one or two of them to my knowledge have an intensive focus on UCC-related items.

Perhaps this is where Philosophy Over Coffee is headed. Maybe that's the niche that it needs to address. What I don't want is for this to be an endless presentation of news items and commentary. I'd get bored with that, as others might as well. But if there is some way that this blog can speak to items facing the church and the United Church of Christ in particular without the article & response, article & response format, then I'd gladly be more intentional about shifting the focus.

Or maybe I've already achieved that and don't need to change anything.


Pop Culture Roundup

It just wouldn't be Friday without my recapping those elements in books, music, movies, and internets that I've been sampling this past week.

I made it through Walter Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination, finishing it in the Atlanta airport before coming home. He writes of prophets addressing the 'royal consciousness,' that consciousness that numbs us to the notion that how it is is not how it has to be, proclaiming that there is nothing new under the sun. Sovereign earthly entities want their rule, proclaim their rule, the way that they have established, as 'forever,' and when people resign themselves to that 'forever,' there is a loss of hope and loss of an ability to feel pain, to grieve the very real mortality of the situation. 'Forever' is not really forever, but the numbness of the royal consciousness keeps people from seeing that. Prophets give voice to that grief as well as hope in an alternative reality, which belongs to God, a true 'forever.' It's a great read. I'm now about 60 pages into Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity, which for me personally has not yet proposed a whole lot of new ideas. But it would be a decent introductory read for a class or for someone struggling with a paradigmatic shift in their faith.

While in Atlanta I was lazily flipping channels and settled on a movie called Grind. It is a silly movie, about four skater friends who want to skateboard professionally. You don't have to engage many of your brain cells for this film, but it has some pretty hilarious Happy Gilmore-level moments.

I decided not to bring any music with me on the trip. I don't know why. It was uncharacteristic of me. So I have no music recommendation. But what I DO have is a rare television recommendation. A few weeks ago, Michael Imperioli (of The Sopranos) joined the cast of Law and Order, apparently as a guest star. I don't know how permanent he'll be on the show. Still, it was cool to see him on the other side of the law. Speaking of The Sopranos, the 5th season came out on DVD a few weeks ago.

Around the web, check out Early Christian Writings. A wealth of information at your fingertips.

Enjoy. Have a good week.

Rev. John Thomas' Prayer After the Marriage Vote

Lord Jesus, to you we live, to you we suffer, to you we die. Yours will we be in life and in death. Today, as in ancient Bethlehem, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in you. We give thanks for your presence during these days of prayer and idscernment, and especially for your presence here this morning. We have felt your warm embrace, stilling us as we tremble with joy, with hope, with fear, with disappointment. Remind us that as we are tempted to run from each other, so too we run from you. We know that every choice confers a cost, so let us attend in the coming hours and days to those for whom this decision confers a particular burden. Let us find words that comfort rather than congratulate; let us seek to be a community of grace and forgiveness rather than organizing constituencies of protest, let us use our hands not to clap, but to wipe away every tear. And in all this may we know in surprising new ways the comfort of belonging to You. This is our prayer. Hear us, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Continued Thoughts on Synod

I write this in my hotel room a few hours since the final worship service, and long after the final gavel. Tomorrow I will travel back home and begin to face the inevitable questions about what transpired here. Those questions are a part of our life together at the local church level, as well as our life together as a denomination. The questions will likely surround one issue only: that of gay marriage.

I wish, however, to touch upon other issues discussed today. In particular, the other resolutions deemed 'hot button' issues for this assembly were discussed with, in my own opinion, a mixed bag of disappointment and willingness to give them a try.

First, the disappointment. The resolutions on divestment were condensed into one resolution on the general use of economic leverage to support companies that promoted peace IN GENERAL in the Middle East (rather than in favor of either Israel or Palestine), stockholder advocacy, and the like. The language of divestment had been removed completely. It took into serious account the true complexity of the situation in the Middle East, as well as the effect a resolution on divestment would have on our relationships with our Jewish friends. I thought it was well-written. Then all that went to hell.

A substitute resolution was presented this morning. This was after the committee to which it was assigned worked long and hard into the evening to come up with a single resolution that sought to balance the approach more evenly than divesting from companies in Israel. A small group, apparently without the presence of the Pension Boards (the UCC pension entity that supported one of the original resolutions) or any members of the committee that had worked all day on this resolution came up with another resolution that re-inserted language of divestment among other things. Both a member of the committee and the Pension Boards spoke out to note their feeling betrayed and undermined by this last-minute late-night process. It was very unfortunate, I found, for this to have taken place. I personally found the resolution that the committee had produced to be well thought out and balanced. A subsitute resolution was not needed. Well, long story short, the majority disagreed and ended up passing the subsitute resolution.

The other big issue of the day was the ministry pronouncement. With some changes and some lengthy discussion, it ended up passing. In particular, an amendment was made to consult with the UCC's ecumenical partners in full communion (Presbyterian U.S.A., Reformed Churches in America, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Disciples of Christ) as to how tracks to ordination that would not include the traditional 4 years college, 3 years seminary would affect an ordained pastor who did not take this track serving in one of the other denominations. I and other colleagues were appreciative of this amendment in particular. I voted for it in the hope and with the trust that much more extensive work would be done to develop these alternate tracks and that they would all include significant education and training.

So what comes next? Well, like I said, I travel home, I actually have a vacation scheduled, and then we continue to reason together as the church under one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Over the next day or two I'll post sort of a 'wrap-up' which will hopefully include thoughts on aspects of Synod other than the resolution deliberation. In the meantime I leave you with this. Welcome again to all new visitors, as there seem to have been a rash of them lately. Feel free to pour yourself a cup and stay as long as you like.

Live from Synod...Sort of

Wow. While here in Atlanta, I have access to the internet. I hadn't intended to spend much time with the blog while here, but I decided that I'd check on things just for fun. I have had more traffic here the past few days than average, and I credit Chuck Currie's Synod coverage on the UCC blog. So a warm welcome, no matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, to all of you. Hey, I don't use the Still Speaking jargon on this blog very often, so indulge me.

Also, a few thank yous and resultant plugs to Dwight at Religious Liberal for my official endorsement on his blogroll, and to William Brandes who helps with the website for First Congregational UCC in Mt. Vernon, Ohio for his endorsement, which reads as follows: 'Speaking of blogs. Philosophy Over Coffee is, well, just cool.' The only thing, William, is that my first name is Jeff, not Jim. Heh.

I had mentioned in my last post that I'd continue to work through Walter Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination while here. Well, as it turns out, Dr. Brueggemann was actually at the morning plenary today to receive an award, along with Andrew Young, for his contributions to and representation of the United Church of Christ. To have two men who have had such extraordinary impacts on the church and the world on stage together was truly amazing.

And oh yes, we began working through the resolutions this morning, and will resume that work this evening and tomorrow. So far we have made it through the resolutions on the Sudan, the two dealing with the UCC symbol and common confession of Jesus as Lord, support of campus ministries, compensation for lay employees, and the resolutions dealing with marriage equality (but not the 'One Man, One Woman' resolution). All of these resolutions were approved, with some amendments. In particular, the two dealing with marriage equality were combined, as were the ones dealing with the symbol and confession. In the latter, the committee did superb work, writing one resolution stated as a re-affirmation, for which I was particularly hopeful.

The resolution dealing with campus ministry had some surprisingly lively debate. The original text called for the re-establishment of a national staff position, which was removed in committee and replaced by calling all entities of the UCC to contribute to campus ministry at local institutions. Some wished for the original language to be reinserted (including myself), but it passed as amended. I understand the reasoning for removal of the language, as the UCC's financial state would not allow for a national staffperson. But I grieve that at any level of the UCC, when it comes time for budget and staff cuts, youth and young adult ministry tends to suffer in particular.

The marriage equality resolution passed. It's being given such extensive coverage by everyone else that my spending too much time with it here would be redundant. Suffice it to say that there were long lines at all microphones and after the first few comments for either side (those in favor tended to share personal narratives and those against tended to share scriptural texts), a motion was made to cut the discussion short and just vote. Who at this point would be persuaded to the other side? Outgoing Executive for Justice and Witness, Bernice Powell-Jackson, called for a moment of silent prayer and reflection before the vote, for which I was appreciative. Many acknowledged that the passing of this resolution would be a source of pain for many, for which I was also appreciative. I really don't feel like typing any more about it at this point.

As far as I know, the resolutions on divestment will come tomorrow, and I'm not sure when we'll discuss multiple paths for ministry. The more I think about the latter, the more problems I have with it. That will be for another entry.

As I said at the beginning, welcome to all those who have found their way here from the UCC site and from other places. Feel free to begin a discussion and peruse the archives. I don't know if I'll have time to post again while here, but once I'm back home I'll certainly share more.