Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Can Church Be a Safe Space???

Our church has begun conversations together about gender differences, the goal being to begin to see the church as a safe place to talk about our beliefs and questions and dreams and fears, even when we may not agree. This is a hard process. We come to the meetings with a whole spectrum of emotions.

There are those of us who fear being judged for being completely ready and impatient to affirm and welcome persons of all gender expressions.

There are those of us who fear being judged for being completely convinced it is wrong to affirm and welcome those practicing any other than committed heterosexual relationships.

There are those of us (who probably have not attended the conversations) who are of differing gender identities who fear being judged for being honest about their identities and their questions and their relationship to God.

There are those of us who have friends, relatives, loved ones who have been excluded or have chosen to leave church because of the possibility of being judged for having a different gender identity.

There are those of us who have no close relationships (that we know of) with those of other than heterosexual gender identity, who have questioned the assumptions they grew up with, but have no safe place to talk about those questions in a church setting because of fear of being judged.

And now we come together to try just to talk around tables in the same room and show love to each other, making the assumption that each person at the table, no matter what their position on this issue,

  • loves Jesus
  • wants wholeheartedly to follow Jesus
  • is loved by Jesus
  • is on a journey together with all the rest of the people in the room to love each other and love God as well as we possibly can.
  • believes that the Bible is our truth.

There is holiness when we meet, but also fear. Will this discussion split our church? Are people still not coming to the conversations because they do not feel safe even in this place that we have tried to make safe?

I don't have a lot of answers.

In my own life, the tendency to be like the Pharisees is a huge temptation.

As a child I dedicated my life to Jesus many times, mostly to stay out of hell. I was afraid of a God who was waiting for me to make a mistake. I wanted to have said the right words, prayed the right prayer, done the right things, avoided the wrong things, in order to be saved. I did all of those things. And still, on days when the house was very very quiet, I would go to check on my younger brothers as they slept. I'd been taught that when Jesus comes again the sinners would be left behind, but I knew God would not leave a child behind, so if my brothers were still there, I was safe. That is a miserable way to live, and a false way to see God.

I was not able to feel safe in my relationship with God until sometime in high school when I discovered that God absolutely loved me. God was not out there waiting for me to fail so that he could catch me at it and let me have the consequences for all eternity. God was in love with me, saw good in me, was cheering me on, wanted me to be my best self. That kind of love was something I wanted. Knowing the God who offered it, knowing Jesus who made it flesh, was something I wanted in this life, regardless of eternity.

But throughout my life I have still managed to slip back to the Pharisee side of things.

What is the Pharisee side of things? To my way of thinking, the Pharisee was someone who placed a very high value on worshiping God and on righteous living as a result of that worship. The Pharisee wanted every part of their life to line up with God's values, and so they took the things they knew about God, and then set out rules for themselves in order to stay inside the lines they saw as God's boundaries. Their intention was to honor God. Their practice ended up being a litmus test for who was in and who was out. Keeping the Sabbath is such a good thing that can nurture faith, but it is easy to slide away from keeping the Sabbath until bit by bit there is no Sabbath left. So the Pharisees made rules to help them know. You can walk this far but no farther. You can do this much but no more. It is easy to see if I'm OK or not. It is easy for me to see if you are OK or not.

As a child, I subscribed to this by wanting to say the right words, pray the right prayer, and then to be 'in'. Throughout my life I continue to slip back into it. I want to have a prescription that lines out for me what will keep me in good standing with God and what will edge me out into "condemned" territory. Must I have devotions every day? What if I miss a day? or a week? Does my tithe have to be exactly 10 percent. Am I holier if I give more? Am I still OK if I give less? Does time count as part of the tithe? 

Throughout my life, God continues to challenge this way of looking at life and at faith. 

The apostle Paul was one who spent  his early life doing everything out of a desire for holy living. He followed all the laws and took them more seriously than the average Hebrew. After he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he wrote of his 'resume' for following the law and his rigorous desire to be a righteous Jew as being worthless. Seeing faith this way is something to repent from, for it isn't faith. It is a contract. 

The Pharisees (and I) wanted to know the definition of being in the kingdom so that they (and I) could be sure to be on the right side. But the thing that happens when we use these prescriptions for right living to order our lives is judgement and self-righteousness. We judge ourselves to have followed or not followed the rules. We judge others as to whether they follow the rules. Then we rest on these assessments instead of realizing we can never do enough to become perfect. 

Certainly many of these practices are very helpful to faith. But when we use them to measure ourselves as to being fit for the kingdom or fit for destruction, we are looking to see who is in and who is out. And sadly, that is what the church in the United States seems to be known for these days. 

The church is already split.

We come to our conversations together afraid that people will leave because we are having this conversation. The thing is, people already have left. They left because we have not had the conversation, or because they could not be welcomed here, or because their friends/family members could not be welcomed here. They have left because we are too liberal and they have left because we are too conservative and they have left because our worship is different than the worship they find meaningful. They left because someone said hurtful things, or they left because no one really made them welcome.They disappeared quietly and they will not be back because they have found faith communities elsewhere, or because they have given up on faith communities.

There are others who stand on the cusp of leaving, sure that God will not be honored if the conversation goes one way or another. The church has become so used to being a litmus test that we can't conceive of being church together if we disagree. This is me too. I have had those thoughts as well, that I can't continue with this or that group of believers if we continue to do this or that expression of belief. I'm guilty too.

Why are we so prone to leaving?

How do we become the kind of church where it is safe and good to bring our hardest questions about life and faith without fear?

How do we become the kind of church that demonstrates the kind of love and acceptance from God that brought me head over heels into the arms of Jesus when I was a teenager?

How do we become the kind of church where we are committed to staying and working through the hard questions together in love so that we can bring up the questions and struggle with the answers without losing our fellowship?

If I tell you that I need you in my church even though we disagree, that I need you perhaps precisely because we disagree, will my needing you here be enough to make it worth it for you to stay? Will you needing me be enough to make me stay? Can we be church together even if we see things very very differently?

Can we talk about our disagreements but also talk about the ways we see God working in each other? Can we value each other's gifts even as we wrestle with our questions? Can we see our love for each other and the goodness in each other every bit as clearly as we see the differences between us? Can we refuse to put each other in a box labeled 'right' or 'wrong' that conveniently allows us to stop listening or caring?

Is there ever a good time to give up on finding answers together and leave to find more like-minded, or more true understandings of faith? Should we bless each other to go and trust each other with that decision and not see it as a failure?

Is it possible to have a church that includes everyone who wants to follow Jesus regardless of every other difference, trusting that we are all on a journey, that we all do not fully understand, that we all need grace, that we are all chosen and loved by God?

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

I think I need to get better at living with the questions. If there were answers to the questions, those answers would probably be the kinds of answers we Pharisees would like.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Lenten Practice

As we move through the Lenten season, I'm glad for the thoughts of others on the meaning and practice of celebrating Lent. Paul Schrag wrote for Mennonite World Review about repentance and these words especially caught my attention:

"In a time when disagreements are escalating among Christians and conflict is dividing our churches, what are the sins we need to confess? In our zeal to keep other people's sins always before us, do we fail to see those others as children of God? How might putting our own sins first in our mind improve our ability to get along?"

Since reading this, I've decided to make a daily practice of looking at my day for my own sins. Paul is right and it is too easy to keep the sins of others before us.

Another practice I have been adding to my days during Lent, and hopefully longer, is to be writing at least a little bit that is thoughtful or seeking insight. It can be a journal entry or an email or a thank you note or a blog post or just general writing practice.

And the third practice that isn't necessarily Lenten but seems to be needed during this particular Lent is to be practicing mindfulness regularly. Breathing in and out, aware of the feeling of air moving. Observing my thoughts objectively rather than subjectively living inside them. Letting them go and returning my focus back to my breath. Sometimes repeating a short prayer with each in and out breath. This practice seems to be the best treatment for worry and anxiety, and has eased me back to sleep in spite of many middle of the night worried thoughts.

I am aware that we are moving toward the first Easter without our dads. Just yesterday I was thinking about how it was time to assemble the ingredients for paska, and then had sadness. I make paska for Dad more than for myself. It was his mother who made it long before I did. I found it important every year to get a loaf to their house before Easter morning so that their breakfast could be paska. This year he will not be there to eat it.

I rearranged a table in the living room yesterday, removing clutter and deciding what things are important to be displayed right now. This is how it looks.