Church

Finding Life in the UCC

Finding Life in the UCC

So it’s been a year since I’ve posted! Whew! Time for an update. In the past year I’ve moved my ministerial credentials from the Christian Reformed Church in North America to the United Church of Christ. It’s been a healthy and hopeful move, and I wanted to share a bit of that with you. I am posting here the “Theological Paper” that I had to write as part of my transition to the UCC. In the past year I’ve also been a part of starting a new UCC community in Holland, MI: Holland UCC. You can read more about that at hollanducc.org. It’s a long paper, but I thought you might enjoy reading about some of my spiritual journey and theological evolution—which of course is ongoing! Here’s the paper (including endnotes!):

Along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, in small fishing towns in the first century of the common era, these simple words rang out: “Come, follow me.” Words that echo through the centuries. Words that evoke something within us: a longing to go, to participate in something large and meaningful, to hear the voice of God in our lives, and respond. This simple beginning for Jesus and his disciples reminds us that the spiritual life is above all a journey. My own journey of faith started early, as a child raised in a loving, Christian home. I was taught the tenets of the Reformed faith from a young age, as expressed in the Christian Reformed Church. This was a wonderful foundation for my faith journey and I am grateful for it. Yet my journey has taken me beyond the inherently narrow confines of this confessional tradition with largely conservative values. A confessional tradition like the CRC requires consent for all pastors and office bearers to uphold, defend and be governed by certain Reformation-era doctrinal formulations.[1] My journey, some of which we’ll discuss in this paper, has led me to a place where such consent is no longer possible, and further, seems unnecessary. This has led me to the United Church of Christ, where there is “no rigid formulation of doctrine or attachment to creeds or structures” and the “overarching creed is love.”[2] Those words are incredibly welcoming to someone coming from a tradition with quite rigid formulations, and incredibly strong attachment to its confessional identity. The “What We Believe” section of the UCC website notes that “In the UCC, members, congregations and structures have the breathing room to explore and to hear … for after all, God is still speaking, …”[3] I find this a healthy and hopeful statement, because it creates space for real journeys by real people seeking to hear that ancient and simple invitation of Jesus. It opens to the real possibility of the Spirit at work in new ways in our lives and world today. Continue Reading..

Holy Ground

Holy Ground

Reflections by Pastor Lee Ann Bryce of First Congregational UCC, Fort Worth, TX. Delivered during a Service of Lament, Healing, and Courage at Amistad Chapel UCC in Cleveland Tuesday. Shared with permission.

 

This is a beautiful church
and we’re grateful to be here,
but I want to talk for a moment about gay bars.
I came out as a lesbian many years ago
and I’ve noticed that at times,
particularly early in our movement for equality
gay bars have been referred to as a sort of necessary evil;
at one time, they were one of the few public places
where LGBTQ people could meet and be in community.
The truth is
long before we were widely welcomed in churches,
we were welcomed in gay bars.

And so to me, gay bars and nightclubs,

many of them at least,
are like churches.
Or at least like churches should be –
places where you are welcomed just as you are.
Continue Reading..

Why I Can’t Agree to Disagree

Why I Can’t Agree to Disagree

The Gospel Coalition posted a piece today asking whether or not Christians can “agree to disagree” on the issue of homosexuality and marriage. I deeply understand the desire for unity in the church and share it myself. I have quite a few friends who hold to a conservative view on these matters. I disagree with them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t or don’t have a relationship. But can we be in the same worshiping body? [By which I mean denominational/institutional affiliation—not a worship service] That is another question.

I am inclined to not want to “agree to disagree” on this issue. There are a couple of points at which unity is very difficult here.

1) Understanding of the Bible. Most who have an “open and accepting” view toward our LGBTQ brothers and sisters have evolved in their understanding of Scripture, based in large part upon biblical scholarship, personal study, experience, reason and prayer. Some of this scholarship is recent, much has been around awhile. Continue Reading..

On Restraint

On Restraint

I had the privilege of attending an Ash Wednesday Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, near Catholic University in NE Washington DC this week.

Under a dreary winter sky we walked toward the large cathedral, a few others blowing in alongside at the end of this busy workday. The large wooden doors welcomed us into the immense Basilica, where some hundreds were gathering to mark the start of this impending liturgical season.

I haven’t often made a big production out of Lent, in my personal life nor in congregational settings (production might be the wrong word here—observance?), though I’ve increasingly made varied attempts to recognize, honor, and live into it at some level over the years. Sometimes us Protestants tend to forget about Lent until Holy Week. Better late than never?

After finding a pew somewhere in the middle of this huge church, we sang a processional hymn. Many voices joined the cantor, singing; “Again we keep this solemn fast, a gift of faith from ages past, this Lent which binds us lovingly, to faith and hope and charity.”

It got me to thinking about the gift(s) of tradition—here we stood, as many have stood before us, in this vast, holy space—the largest Catholic church in North America. I am one who is quick to question, wonder, and ask whether various traditions, rituals and observances are worthwhile—Why are we doing this? When did it start? What purpose does it serve? What is its intent? How does this fit in the larger picture? Is there some Scriptural connection or basis? Is it still life-giving?

The next line of the hymn we sang went: “More sparing, therefore, let us make the words we speak, the food we take, our sleep, our laughter, ev’ry sense; learn peace thru holy penitence.”

Sitting in this vast, austere setting, with the wind blowing harshly outside, and pew after pew of darkly clad worshippers stretching out in front of me, it was easy to get into the spirit of “sparing.” I felt ready to abandon all extravagance for the next 40 days. Ready to swear off dessert and good wine. Ready to speak only when needed. To limit my too-frequent (and ill-fated) attempts at humor.

Could such restraint really lead me on a path of holiness and deeper connection this season of Lent? I think it actually could. I understand the possibility for “traditionalism” or “legalism”—but I also understand rhythm and season and intentionality. And if one’s heart is to seek fullness or satisfaction elsewhere than in the usual outlets—good food, glib conversation, excessive entertainment—I have to think one might well find it.

The idea of putting ashes on the forehead, as best history can remember, began about 1000 years ago. As I left my pew and stood before this graying, wise-countenanced African-American priest, and heard him say in a serious voice: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”—it had the intended effect. It reaffirmed the words of the hymn we had moments before sung, and I was ready to “more sparing make” quite a few things.

In the end, I haven’t necessarily decided to give anything up—except perhaps, as Pope Francis reminded, indifference—but I do long to give in to this desire to be mindful of what I eat and how much, what I say and how, where I give my time and to what, and see if this old tradition might have plenty of life left in it. I suspect I won’t be disappointed.


bryan-2Bryan Berghoef is a pastor, speaker, and author of the book: Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation and God. He’s also a big fan of his kids, baseball, and a good scotch. Listen to Bryan’s weekly podcast: Pub Theology Live! on Tuesday nights at 9pm ET.

Say My Name

Say My Name

Pope Francis is being widely hailed for his historic appearance before a joint session of Congress yesterday. But some are taking him to task for one glaring omission: he didn’t say the name of Jesus.

A professor of moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary noted the “pope did not find it necessary to name the name of Jesus when he addressed Congress yesterday.” Perhaps an oversight? Like, hey, I’m the vicar of you-know-who on earth. Did I forget to mention him?

Perhaps such an oversight is forgivable, right? I mean, what with all the focus on caring for the poor, embracing the stranger, denouncing violence, caring for creation, and reverencing all human life—in other words, some of the very teachings of Jesus—can we not overlook such a small omission?

Apparently not.

This professor goes on to write: “Now the whole country is talking about the pope and the pope’s politics, but no one is talking about Jesus or the gospel. What a sad day. What a wasted opportunity.” Continue Reading..

Pope Economist

Pope Economist

Guest post by Chris Lubbers

How can anyone take Pope Francis seriously about economics? What does he know about it?! I mean, listen to this “social justice” nonsense from his speech today.

Any economist knows that businesses hire people only if both sides freely agree to the terms of employment.  But the pope argues that employers have an enormous advantage!

“It is not… difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into a compliance with their terms. … In all such disputes, the masters can hold out much longer. …[A] master manufacturer, or merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks, which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year, without employment. In the long run, the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.”

Then the pope suggests, again contrary to what every economist knows, that our job creators are being selfish and inconsistent in opposition to a minimum wage!

“Our merchants and master manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price, and thereby lessening the sale of their goods, both at home and abroad. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits; they are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains; they complain only of those of other people.” Continue Reading..

Our Best Life Now

Our Best Life Now

“Don’t just accept whatever comes your way in life. You were born to win; you were born for greatness; you were created to be a champion in life.”

“God wants you to have a good life, a life filled with love, joy, peace, and fulfillment.”

“When you focus on being a blessing, God makes sure that you are always blessed in abundance.”

“Don’t simply settle for what your parents had. You can go further than that. You can do more, have more, be more.”

“Be the one to stand out in the crowd.”

        —Joel Osteen, Your Best Life Now

Focusing on how we can better ourselves is a popular industry these days. Best selling books often focus on self-improvement, on self-image, on increasing wealth. There is even a niche within Christianity called the “prosperity Gospel” or the “health and wealth movement.”

If you do X, God will bless you with Y.

A simple formula. Enticing, even.

I wonder, then, if Joel Osteen is almost on to something. No really. Hear me out.

A question by a friend came up recently. He asked, “What is the gospel?”

An obvious answer seems to be: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” As in, you will go to heaven and live forever in peace. For many folks, it seems obvious that Jesus came to die so that you could live. I recall one of the first pub theology sessions I ever attended, where someone was adamant that the only purpose of Jesus’ life was to die on the cross.

As I’ve reflected on my own view on these things, I’ve realized that such a cosmic-formula approach to the gospel is not only not very compelling to me, but that it is hard to find in the pages of the Gospels themselves.

In fact, Jesus is asked directly on several occasions: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

His responses range from: “Obey the commandments” to “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself” to “Sell all that you have and give to the poor. Then come, follow me.” And in these encounters, Jesus often adds: “Do these things and you will live.”

In other words, Jesus doesn’t seem all that concerned with what happens after we die. He’s concerned with what is happening while we are alive. This was a common focus in Jewish thinking at the time—not to mention today—so it’s not all that surprising.

Yet it is surprising to many of us, because we’ve been so indoctrinated with the view that the gospel is primarily about going to heaven when we die.

Even when Jesus does tell stories or parables about heaven, they nearly always are rooted in how one is living a justice or other-centered life in this present existence. Think of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) or the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25).

When Jesus begins his ministry, he began to say, “The kingdom of heaven is near.” Or the “kingdom of God is at hand.” In other words, God’s presence is unfolding right now all around you. Time to open yourself up to that reality. Time to live in that presence.

And what does living in that presence mean? It means things like, “loving your neighbor as yourself” and “giving to those who ask” and “loving your enemies” and throwing parties where the very least in society are given a seat at the table. It means good news to the poor.

Joel Osteen is right.

So Joel Osteen is right. Or at least, almost right. I just hadn’t seen it before.

He famously tells folks how to have “your best life now.”

Jesus, it seems, was about our best life now. And by ‘best life’, I mean, a life where we together, as community, live generously and peacefully with one another in light of God’s gracious presence. Where we seek to care for and make space for the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. Where we creatively re-imagine the world as one where there’s enough for all, where we respond to enemies with love and forgiveness rather than violence, and where seating at the table isn’t determined by wealth, or societal position, or if it is – it’s the poorest first, and the lowest on the ladder who get the best spot.

Jesus wasn’t about an easy life, which is what one might take from the prosperity preachers. He told us to take up our own cross—in other words—to oppose the unjust structures and powers that be and fight the injustices of our own day. It may well cost us something. But if we’re committed to it, it really could turn into our—all of humanity’s—best life. Now.

I’m in. Who’s with me?

 


bryan-2Bryan Berghoef is a pastor, speaker, and author of the book: Pub Theology: Beer, Conversation and God. He’s also a big fan of his kids, baseball, and a good scotch.

Ecstatic about SCOTUS, but it took awhile

Ecstatic about SCOTUS, but it took awhile

Guest post by Mike Clawson

20 years ago I would have been among those who believe today’s SCOTUS ruling signals the moral and spiritual decay of American society – a sign of the end times.

15 years ago I still thought homosexuality was a sin, but no worse than any others, and didn’t think Christians should be making such a big deal about it. Also, my political views had shifted and I no longer believed it was right for religious people to impose our morality on society by opposing equal rights for gay people. Continue Reading..

4 steps for talking about Jesus at the bar (or coffeehouse, or anywhere else)

4 steps for talking about Jesus at the bar (or coffeehouse, or anywhere else)

This post originally appeared in Toast Weekly, a newsletter of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington DC.

If you’re like me, you’ve been told once or twice that being a good Christian includes occasionally telling other people about Jesus.

Your reaction might go something like: “Ewww. Yuck. I’m not that interested in evangelism, or selling something, or anything like that.”

But there is another part of you which senses that if more people knew the Jesus who was a radical for peace, forgiveness, love, and justice—the world would be a better place. So how does one go about doing this, without feeling like an unwanted door-to-door salesperson or an awkward friend? Continue Reading..

Why Does the Church Insist That People Stop Learning?

Why Does the Church Insist That People Stop Learning?

AS A PARENT, it is a particular delight when I see one of my kids reading. I love to see when they become immersed into a story, or discover something they didn’t know before as they pore over a book. It is a thrill to watch their imaginations and worlds expand. Which makes it hard to imagine a parent saying to a child: “Stop reading! You’ve learned enough already. You’ve learned all you need to know.” Yet in my experience in the church, I’ve been told exactly that. And I know my experience isn’t an isolated one. Continue Reading..

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