I Miss DisciplesWorld

disciplesworldIt’s been four years since the magazine for my denomination shut down.  DisciplesWorld was an effort to create an independent magazine that would replace The Disciple, the in-house magazine which shut down in 2002.  For seven years, DisciplesWorld did a valiant effort in trying to tell the story of our denomination.  One of the best things they did was ran an issue that focused on Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre.  (Jim Jones was a Disciples pastor and the story show the efforts and the shortcomings of the Regions where he was a member to confront Jones.)

During the closure of the Disciples in 2002 and its successor seven years later the mood from a number of Disciples I knew was a collective shrug.  This is what colleague Dan Mayes said back in 2010:

I think the demise of DisciplesWorld also has something to do with larger issues facing the Church today, also. Being part of a denomination means less and less to people than it used to. People are more concerned with being a part of a particular local church where they fit than they are about that congregation’s denominational affiliation. This means our editorial outlets have less of a captive audience than ever before. With a wane in denominational interest the publications are sure to suffer.

I have been a faithful subscriber to DisciplesWorld, so I must confess a bit of sadness. But I have to admit that in recent years my magazine subscription has served as little more than a novelty. I, personally, find sources of theological reflection and information through trusted bloggers more than anywhere else. And I’m venturing to guess that more and more people are doing the same.

Perhaps someone else will pick up where DisciplesWorld left off one day. Or perhaps no one will ever need to. This old world keeps on changing. So changing is what we’re going to have to do.

Things have changed, but I don’t think they were for the better.  We still don’t have a pan-Disciple outlet.  Some blogs have come in to fill in the gap, like D-Mergent.  But the problem there is that D-Mergent tends to provide the progressive/left voice in the denomination.  For those of us who are more moderate, there is…nothing.

I think D-Mergent has its place.  As I’ve said before, I do need to be stretched at times.  The problem is, that I’m only hearing the progressive voice.  I’d like to hear someone that has views closer to mine every so often.  A denominational magazine would provides that wider view.

Disciples News Service has become more consistent with their weekly emails.  A look at their webpage shows some interesting stories. But I don’t think it does a complete job of telling the Disciple story.

Back in 2010, I wrote why we need some kind of denominational news source.  They are:

  • To stregthen and uphold the bonds of “brotherhood” and be aware of God’s mission in the world. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is not like other denominations.  Unlike Lutherans or Presbyterians, we don’t have creeds that bind us together.  Being non creedal means we have had to find other means of upholding the ties that bond us together.  A denominational news source that is telling the story of what is going on in the wider church, to talk about what ministries are taking place in California or Kentucky or Florida is keeping us bound together and helps congregations know they are not alone.  Maybe the best example of this is the work the Presbyterian Church (USA) is doing through Presbyterian News Service called “Growing God’s Church Deep and Wide.”  Over the last year, a number of stories have been written about mission taking place within local Presbyterian churches around the nation (including my hometown of Flint, MI).  Disciplesworld did a good job of telling those stories.  Who will tell them now?
  • To Give Us a Wide Viewpoint.  Yeah, I know, we can read blogs to get a wide range of opinions.  But the thing is, I can decide to read only the sources I want to read and ignore the rest.  What was great about Disciplesworld is that it presented views and opinions that not every would agree with.  While I don’t agree at times with folks like Jan Linn or Rita Nakashima Brock, I did appreciate reading a different opinion.  The loss of a news source leaves us without a forum where we can be intellectually and spiritually stretched.  Without a vital gathering place, we won’t have a place where we can make reasoned arguments and be able to discern the vital issues of the day like gay ordination or war.

I think there is the beginnings of a good magazine that is already being produced by Home Missions. The Disciples Advocate is published a few times a year and tells what’s going on around the church. The drawback at this point is that it isn’t well-publicized and it would need to spiff up its look. But the bones of a good magazine are there.

I still think there is a way telling the story of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Maybe it’s an even stronger Disciple News Service. Maybe it’s an online magazine. I don’t know. What I do know is that we need to have something that is greater than the parts that exist now.

The Disciples of Christ Historical Society has an online archive of past issues of DisciplesWorld, from 2002 until 2009.  You can access it here.

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“The Right Side of History” and Other Fundamentalisms

right side of historyOver and over again, I heard one phrase being used on my side of the same-sex marriage debate: “the right side of history.”  Yes, most of us who believe in marriage equality do think this is the right thing to do.  We liken this current debate in the backdrop of the civil rights movement and interracial marriages where equality was seen as the march of progress and those who disagreed were out of touch and archaic. The steady march of progress on marriage equality can make one think that those of us on the pro-same sex marriage fight are truly on the “right side of history.”

Despite all of this, if I were King of Everything, I would have that phrase banished from the English language.

The problem with the “right side of history” is that it smacks of hubris and certainty, the very things we accuse the other side of all the time. I’ve said this before, my coming out experience was based less on certainty than it was on faith and grace.  The Bible really doesn’t say much positive on being gay (probably because in biblical times the focus was on the sex act not the person’s sexuality).  It also doesn’t say much about the gay man who is in a monogamus long-term relationship, either.  So, since the Bible is not telling me much to help me, I have rely on faith that God loves me no matter what and also rest in God’s abundant grace.  Grace isn’t about being on the “right side of history” as much as it is how we can be loving to one another; how we can welcome each other even when we disagree.  For Christians, same sex marriage is not about the inevitable march of progress as much as it is about two people entering in a covenant with God and each other.  That’s not as thrilling as being on the right side of history, but it is what Christians are called to do.

Earlier this year former Anglican Bishop and well-known author N.T. Wright warned Christians who use the “right side of history” or progress as the reason to do something.  Not every mark of progress is a good one.

“Now that we live in the 21st century,” begins the interviewer, invoking the calendar to justify a proposed innovation. “In this day and age,” we say, assuming that we all believe the 18th-century doctrine of “progress”, which, allied to a Whig view of history, dictates that policies and practices somehow ought to become more “liberal”, whatever that means. Russia and China were on the “wrong side of history”, Hillary Clinton warned recently. But how does she know what “history” will do? And what makes her think that “history” never makes mistakes?

We, of all people, ought to know better. “Progress” gave us modern medicine, liberal democracy, the internet. It also gave us the guillotine, the Gulag and the gas chambers. Western intelligentsia assumed in the 1920s that “history” was moving away from the muddle and mess of democracy towards the brave new world of Russian communism. Many in 1930s Germany regarded Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his friends as on the wrong side of history. The strong point of postmodernity is that the big stories have let us down. And the biggest of all was the modernist myth of “progress”.

He then remarks on the then failure of the Church of England to allow women bishops:

It won’t do to say, then, as David Cameron did, that the Church of England should “get with the programme” over women bishops. And Parliament must not try to force the Church’s hand, on this or anything else. That threat of political interference, of naked Erastianism in which the State rules supreme in Church matters, would be angrily resisted if it attempted to block reform; it is shameful for “liberals” in the Church to invite it in their own cause. The Church that forgets to say “we must obey God rather than human authorities” has forgotten what it means to be the Church. The spirit of the age is in any case notoriously fickle. You might as well, walking in the mist, take a compass bearing on a mountain goat.

What is more, the Church’s foundation documents (to say nothing of its Founder himself) were notoriously on the wrong side of history. The Gospel was foolishness to the Greeks, said St Paul, and a scandal to Jews. The early Christians got a reputation for believing in all sorts of ridiculous things such as humility, chastity and resurrection, standing up for the poor and giving slaves equal status with the free. And for valuing women more highly than anyone else had ever done. People thought them crazy, but they stuck to their counter-cultural Gospel. If the Church had allowed prime ministers to tell them what the “programme” was it would have sunk without trace in fifty years. If Jesus had allowed Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate to dictate their “programme” to him there wouldn’t have been a Church in the first place.

Progress is not always a good thing and it shouldn’t be the basis for ministry and mission in the church.  Sometimes the church will do things that might mirror society.  Other times it might be in direct opposition to culture.   We can only discern where God wants us at a point in history.  But we can’t be so sure that we have history on our side and in the end that isn’t our concern.

Sociologist Peter Berger notes that the certainty of liberal Christians tends to mirror the fundamentalism of conservatism.  Berger looks at the recent goings on in the Episcopal Church and how the denomination is beset by two fundamentalisms:

I am not concerned here with the merits of these various contentions. (By way of examples, I see no reason why gays and lesbians should not be priests or bishops, but I have serious difficulties with an endorsement of abortion without any limitations.) My point here is simply to point out that two fundamentalisms are embattled here. I am not acquainted with Bishop Schori, but I am prepared to stipulate that as a person she may be amiable, even tolerant. But her public record impresses me as representing a dogmatic adherence to current progressive ideology. This fundamentalism is mirrored by fundamentalism on the conservative side. In the Anglican case this is a mix of Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical groupings, which are at odds with each other but (sort of) allied in opposition to the liberal theology and (less strongly) progressive politics dominant in mainline Protestantism. The two fundamentalisms are very visible in their respective approaches to the Bible. Anglo-Catholics are more concerned with fidelity to tradition than to the Bible, but for Evangelicals the Bible, Old as well as New Testament, has an absolute if not “inerrant” authority. It seems to me that there is a different “inerrancy” operative on the other side—that is, an unquestioning certitude of being “on the right side of history”. Both conservatives and progressives comb the Bible for “proof texts”, an exercise that often leads to very imaginative exegeses. Take, for example, the problem of excluding from imputed “inerrancy” some of the hair-raising penal texts in Leviticus. Schori’s exegesis of the text from Acts is a nice example of hermeneutic imagination on the other side.

In the next few days, I will head down to Orlando, FL for the 2013 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  We will be discussing a resolution on being a table of welcome to all including gays and lesbians (or LGBT).  While I’m in favor of the resolution, I hope that those on my side will not talk about the church “getting with the program.”  We don’t need to be modern as much as we need to be faithful.

How a Clockwork Pastor is Becoming Human

7024824877_2f325d0636_zWhen I started seminary 15 years ago, I had come to accept that I would never pastor a church.  I just wasn’t a people person.  Maybe I’d be a seminary professor or something.  I didn’t know it back then, but I was basically acknowledging my Aspergers limitations.

Of course, as you can tell, I didn’t end up as a seminary prof.  Instead, I’ve been the Associate Pastor at a church for nearly five years.  And somehow, I’ve managed to not mess things up, praise be to God.

Just shortly after my Aspergers diagnosis, I wrote about what my future would be in the ministry.  I had my doubts at times, but as this blog post from May 2008 shows, I was thinking about what conditions would make for a good pastorate:

Last night, I watched the Associate Pastor at the church I am a part of. We had our weekly prayer service- now biweekly during the summer months- and she was talking with two members of our congregation whose daughter, son-in-law and children were brutally affected by a tornado that hit the northern Twin Cities suburbs. She was skilled in being truly a pastor to them during this horrible time. As watched this scene, it occurred to me: I couldn’t do what she is doing- or at least it doesn’t come to me as naturally…

While I am relieved about my diagnosis of Aspergers, it leaves me with a big question regarding vocation: what in the world do you do with a pastor that has autism?

I’ve been around long enough to know that pastors tend to be social beings. They are supposed to be the kind of people who can connect with others. They “get” social cues. They know how to deal with sudden change. So what about someone like me who isn’t any of that? How in the world can I be a pastor if I don’t have those skills?

For a long time, I’ve wondered where I fit in the church. I knew I didn’t fit, but didn’t know why. But now I need to figure out how to use my gifts in ministry, how to use my Aspergers not as a deficit, but as an advantage.

I know that I need to be in environments that are structured and have some sense of stability. That has made me think of some kind of Associate Ministry. However, at least in the metro area, there are no possibilities for that kind of ministry among Disciple churches and very few in UCC circles. I guess I could start looking outstate and see what happens.

What I have wanted to do is to maybe create some kind of ministry in a congregation where I would be on staff probably bivocational. Maybe it would be to perform worship or lead Christian Education. But it would be something that is regimented.

Five years later, I’m the Associate Pastor at a church and I have spelled out duties.

As I look back over those five years, I can see how I’ve been stretched, having to move out of my comfort zones.  No matter how much you try to keep things as routine as possible, there are going to be times where things won’t be routinized…where things will be chaotic.  What I’ve had to learn as someone who is autistic is that sometimes things can’t be routine.  If someone is in pain and needs help, you have to learn to summon strength from somewhere and help that person.

Last summer, I got a call at 10:30pm from the office manager.  A longtime member of the church had died.  We were between pastors, so I had to meet with the family in St. Paul.  My android brain might have wanted to protest, but I had a job to do.  I had to be human for a little while to help a family that had lost their loved one.  A wife of 60 years needed someone to hold her hand.

What has happened over the last few years is become more…human.  It’s not that I was some monster before this, but being a pastor means you have to engage people, giving someone a hug when they need one, or listening when they need to rant.  None of this comes easy to me, and like most persons with Aspergers, you learn to fake it til you make it.

I’m still somewhat android-like in that when I see someone that needs something from me my brain starts whirring and spitting out a command that I should do.  If someone is mad and hurt, my brain says, “Hug person.”  And so, I give them a hug.  No, it’s not warm and fuzzy, but I get the job done.  And maybe in someway I learn to be a real boy along the way.

So, five years later, I’ve learned so much about people and I’ve learned so much about ministry.  It tells me that I can do this whole pastor thing, and there’s even a benefit along the way: the robot-boy is becoming a human….almost.

Wait for the Healing

Back in May of 2012 , I shared a story of what happened at a Baptist church I attended in Washington, DC in the early 90s.  It was a story of how people who disagreed with each other on the issue of homosexuality were able to still be friends and support each other.

Around that same time, I remember someone saying something after a congregation was going to make a tough vote on becoming open and affirming.  The exact situation is foggy after 20 years, but what I remember this woman saying that after this vote, “there would be some healing to do.”

The pastor was quite aware the stand be open and affirming to gays and lesbians was the right thing to do, but there was also a need to heal the rifts from this challenging process of discernment.  After the prophetic, there had to be time for the pastoral.

When my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) gathers in Orlando this summer for our General Assembly a resolution will be up for consideration on welcoming LGBT persons not just as congregations, but as a whole denomination.  Knowing some of the folks who came up with the resolution, I think it’s pretty good.

And yet, I’m concerned what will happen to the wider church after the vote.  Will the body been torn apart, never to be put back together, or will there be agents of peace who will try to mend the broken pieces after a hard, but neccesary vote?

The thing that I don’t hear much these days is the call to mend fences after a vote such as this.  More often what happens is that folks vote and the winners claim victory and the losers walk off to sulk.  What missing in all of this is the larger picture, the larger whole of the church.  There is no desire to heal the wounds.

As I said in my post from last year, I think part of the problem here is sorting of American society into like-minded communities.  Here’s what I wrote back then:

Civility is all the talk in our political culture, mostly because it seems like we have less and less of it.  We have made it a civic value, but I want to lift up the fact that it should also be a moral and biblical value.  We have to learn ways to respect and honor one another; not papering over our differences, but finding ways to still care for each other even when we disagree.

Last summer, Sharon Watkins, the General Minister and President tape a video about the importance of all sides of this issue to remain at the Table.  The letter and video, called Setting a Graceful Table stressed the centrality of the communion table:

All tables of the church must be safe places, where respect for diversity among God’s children is honored. As self-governing ministries, in covenant with one another, our challenge is to make room for each other within one Church – even when we make different decisions on important matters. In the past, maintaining the respect and safety of the Table has challenged Disciples. In the era of slavery and abolition Disciples did not divide, but stayed at the common table. Today, the politicized and polarized character of the sexual orientation and equality debate again poses such challenges. This is the time to use our best table etiquette of entering into dialogue in love even in our diversity of opinion. This is the time for the church to show the world that wholeness wins out over fragmentation.

I shared in a post that this issue of welcoming LGBT persons into the full life of the church is personal for me.  But so is being a unique community of love:

Being an openly gay man and a Disciples pastor, I have a dog in this fight.  I’m not going to pretend I’m above the fray and all that.  I want to see churches become more accepting of LGBT persons.  However, I also want the church to be a better witness in the world, not only being more inclusive, but also showing how we can deal with one another humanely even when we disagree profoundly.

We live in a world that is increasingly polarized and factionalized.   More and more, we sort ourselves into like-minded ghettoes where we never encounter folks with a differing view point.  More and more we are certain that our view is the correct one and the other side is going surely lead us down the road to ruin.  As our political and social lives have become more polarized, so has the church. In the name of justice or faithfulness or what have you, we have erected barriers to protect ourselves from other views and launch verbal attacks on others, cloaking our incivility in some form of being prophetic or speaking God’s truth.

What I long for this summer is two-fold:  I hope the resolution passes, but I also hope that if my side succeeds they will reach out to their sisters and brothers who might be on the losing side.  I hope that we won’t just be prophetic, but that we are also pastoral to those who might be our “enemies” and welcome them with open arms.

I hope we can wait for the healing.

Regarding Sharon Watkins’ Pastoral Letter

Last week, Sharon Watkins, the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) released a pastoral letter regarding the denomination’s stance on homosexuality.   It was sent to all churches in the denomination and late last week, a letter came to the church where I serve as Associate Pastor.  You can read the letter and watch a video by Watkins by going here.

All in all, I think it was a good letter.  What is what I would have liked to hear?  No.  But I think it is what I needed to hear.

Fellow Disciples such as Derek Penwell have regarded Watkins’ letter as “moderate,” trying to steer a course between pro-gay and anti-gay factions.  There is some truth to that, but I don’t think the goal here was to be “moderate.”  I think the goal was to be a living witness of how to be church in a polarized world.

Being an openly gay man and a Disciples pastor, I have a dog in this fight.  I’m not going to pretend I’m above the fray and all that.  I want to see churches become more accepting of LGBT persons.  However, I also want the church to be a better witness in the world, not only being more inclusive, but also showing how we can deal with one another humanely even when we disagree profoundly.

We live in a world that is increasingly polarized and factionalized.   More and more, we sort ourselves into like-minded ghettoes where we never encounter folks with a differing view point.  More and more we are certain that our view is the correct one and the other side is going surely lead us down the road to ruin.  As our political and social lives have become more polarized, so has the church. In the name of justice or faithfulness or what have you, we have erected barriers to protect ourselves from other views and launch verbal attacks on others, cloaking our incivility in some form of being prophetic or speaking God’s truth.

I don’t think that Watkins was calling for some sort of lame middle of the road view as much as she was calling for those of us who follow Jesus Christ to act with civility towards each other, even on issues that we view as a matter of justice.

I think it matters in this age, when the outside culture is so toxic and where people are mean to each other to find the church, God’s people showing a “more excellent way.”  We have to find ways to discuss, discern and decide issues without being mean towards one another.

I know that talking more about…talking can be frustrating to people on my side of the debate.  In his blog post, Penwell shares stories about how LGBT people have been hurt by the church:

A few days ago I met a young gay man who had just recently undergone reparative therapy to “repair” his sexual orientation. Among the accounts of psychologically damaging statements about the fact that he was a “broken” young man—broken in places where straight folks are presumably “whole,” in virtue of their “natural” constitution—were stories of therapies that included beatings, needles, and electric shock. I don’t want to be misunderstood to be asserting that the treatment this young man received is the norm. I will extend the benefit of the doubt to those who both seek and administer such therapy that on balance the intentions are good. However, I have heard enough horror stories told by people who have been the recipient of these “good intentions” to know that great damage is being done to people, often at extremely important and formative stages of their lives.

It can be hard to hear stories like this and not feel that the time for debate is over.  But the fact is, many people are still dealing with this issue.  They are still trying to come to terms what this all means.  Maybe this is a foolish dream, but I still think it matters how we conduct ourselves in the world, even if and especially when I think I’m right.

Maybe there will be time when debate has to end, but I don’t think we are there yet, I know we aren’t at the church I serve.

So, as hard as it is to sit and be patient, I think we have to try to engage in debate with true love for each other and show the rest of the world that at least this little patch of humanity is truly living like Christians, loving each other even when they don’t see eye to eye.

"The Table Reveals Who We Are"

Disciples like to call that thing that’s up front in the sanctuary a table.  Lutherans used to call it an altar, but more and more they’ve started following us and calling it a table.  Far more humble and fitting in my view.

Disciples Pastor Lee Yates reminds us that the Table reveals who we really are.  If you want to know something about the life of a church, then look how they deal with the table, which means a lot of our churches are in trouble:

While much of our church rhetoric includes the table, I’ve been
thinking a lot lately about our casual conversation around the table.
When people complain that worship is too long, we often point to how
long it takes to serve communion. When we plan a Youth Sunday there is
concern about how the kids serve, making sure they know the proper way
to line up. Deacon and Elder training is often about where to line up
and when to move. Unfortunately, much of our conversation on being
church follows suit.

We talk about numbers and programs. We talk about what music will
attract people to our buildings. We talk about what program will bring
people to our church. We talk about how to structure committees to
better be the church. We talk more about the institution of church than
how to better live out our faith. We worry about numbers and structure
more than passion and purpose. Again, the table reveals who we are.

For Disciples, if something new is going to emerge, it will probably come up at the table.

Since we Disciples place such a centrality on the Lord’s Supper, maybe we need to take a good, hard and long look at how we do communion.  Who is it for?  Who do we welcome?  Who do we exclude?

But I think we also need to examine how we feel about communion.  Is this just something we do every Sunday because its been done this way forever and ever?  Is it something we want to do, to take part in?  Are we reminded about the life death and resurrection of Jesus?  Do we leave the table wanting to serve Christ more, or are we waiting to meet up with our friends for lunch or catch the opening of that football game?

“The table reveals who we are.”

Truer words were never spoken.