At the close of every Sunday morning service I see the faces of each person I’ve grown to love in this congregation. It’s a small Methodist church in a rural Northern New Jersey community surrounded by forest, a wild land that’s protected because it’s home to a watershed that feeds Newark and surrounding urban areas with their water. I’ve often said thank you to the city dwellers south of me for the rugged hills and big black bears that visit me on summer nights.
Where else in NJ can you launch a kayak in a lake surrounded by nothing but silence and wildlife, while just minutes from the concrete landscapes of Home Depot and Bed, Bath, and Beyond who welcome their visitors from a sea of subdivisions that surround them?
We sit in this relatively undisturbed pocket of wild, greeting our Sunday morning parishioners with a hug and a smile, genuinely happy to see them each week. This is a miracle that happened in our life that might’ve gone unnoticed. I’d come from Idaho, where I lived in the middle of nowhere on a ranch down the road from a town of 500. The town sat under the 9 highest peaks in the State, boasting their Rocky Mountain claim. The wilderness I’d grown to love there had become a prison when I married someone who couldn’t love me, or ever see me for me. He sought a utilitarian partner in every sense of the word. When I finally escaped the abuse and pain, landing in Northern New Jersey, the last place I expected to find myself was in another wild land embraced by the love of a man I was destined to be married to all along. I was blessed with real love and a best friend, and returned to the beauty of the wild to boot. Not the first thing a girl expects when she moves to a state she’d always shunned for its subdivisions, Stepford Wives, isolation and embarrassing reality shows. There was some of that, but mostly I found love and life. Even if it took me awhile to get there.
THe old men and the hunters
These faces in the circle each Sunday speak volumes to me of love and family. They are relics in the best sense of the word, because they have stood together through thick and thin, in an ocean of change around them. Some of their longevity is due to their own stubbornness at resisting change. But more accurately, they simply didn’t need to change. They weren’t faced with the need to change, even though church membership continued to dwindle to a handful. They accepted this, and went on.
I used to see the old men - they were the old cowboys. The toughest of the bunch. These men could go days without water, and weren’t afraid to stare down a mountain lion. I’ve known some who stabbed them in the neck with their bare hands. A funny thing happens to them when they get to be a certain age.
They don't want to kill anything anymore.
Why do you suppose that is? It’s always stunned me, when the men a few years younger literally lived for the day the hunt opens. Is it the same as me not wanting to cook anymore?
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Each face tells me a story. Most include the times of pain and heartache we all claw our way through in life. Others have rested easy and never touched the winter of their soul. They haven’t had to claw exactly, they’ve simply struggled with their egos or a bout of gout from time to time. No matter which path they’ve traveled though, they have been steadfast and still stand up to hear the scripture or sing a hymn that’s chosen for them, neatly typed in the weekly bulletin with the order of worship. I often think it’s odd that after decades of Sunday after Sunday, they still need a bulletin to tell them what’s next. It’s a strange custom, a need actually. When we arrived, we were told it would not be possible to have church without a bulletin. My goodness, why not?
Surely, Jesus did not receive a bulletin when he went to temple. Nor do many churches today.
This little church did not change when other churches did. Nor did many Methodist churches in rural pockets around the country. Churches that once sat full to the brim, where every child and grandchild were baptized, confirmed, and married now sit dotted with older people, and the now and again obligatory family member doing a good deed for the family elder.
How can we possibly think this is ok? How can we possibly think it’s them, not us? Just last night I read a comment by a classmate in a Leading Worship class that said, “How can people be so rude that they don’t listen to the scripture being read? How can they not maintain the reverence to listen with respect? They should want to do that for the Lord.” Clearly, those she refers to have a completely different relationship with scripture and probably, church. If the majority of people do not read scripture, or feel a reverence for it when spoken, they are not genuinely connected to it. Does this mean we can surmise they don’t have a relationship with God? Or that they are not Christians?
It does not.
This lack of interest in hearing scripture read is not a reflection of their lack of respect or reverence, but a lack of connection, understanding, and meaning. In learning to ride or when training dogs, one of the first things I learned is the problem is never them, it’s always us. We haven’t learned how to effectively communicate to achieve the results we want. Also, we probably haven’t taken the time to build trust and listen to what they need.
I’m often stunned by the mostly innocent assumptions, and sometimes shock, that people have lost their way and their disappointment that most no longer attend church. They seem to think all of society has lost its moral compass. This is far from the facts.
What stands out most, however, is the blatant and steadfast belief that the way church is - is the way church is. There is an assumption that the way it’s always been is the way it’s supposed to be. When is the last time they’ve researched how church
I’m not sure many think about how church was formed, and how the current format began. It is not the way it’s always been. As a matter of fact, the way the church requires/requests that we execute worship, what we agree to believe, and how we behave is a direct result of the Catholic Church. It is not the way church started. Of course, most of us know this, but many of us conveniently forget it and are too lazy or busy to find out more.
I’ve been reading a lot lately. I seem to be in a time of isolation, a time in which I choose to be alone and not risk developing friendships out of fear of rejection; while simultaneously having little patience for small talk and chatter when there is so much to learn and do in its place. This has been a big change in my life, and I’m not sure how to break the habit I’m in. It’s been going on for years - since I was deeply hurt by those closest to me. Ever since then, I seem to have adopted a life of solitude and rarely make time for any kind of social interaction unless it’s required.
I think my spirit was broken. I was the most positive person I knew. This was true most of my life. I believed in my dreams, in possibility, in anything we dreamed we could achieve. Not only did I believe this, I lived it. I took risk after risk - sometimes with great success, and sometimes I fell flat on my face - but I always tried if it lit me up or I believed in it strongly enough. I always said this was God whispering to me and giving me a push. I still think that’s true. Those years from my twenties to my forties were filled with adventure, even if this included heartbreaks and pain. It did, but that was part of the growth - and I almost always saw it like that.
Until Mel stole all my money, my friends turned on me and I lost my job over a false rumor, and the man who started the rumor out of a desire for revenge, was the person I’d been most devoted to and given up my future for…he eventually died holding on to his revenge and anger, and misguided thinking. It broke me. The funny thing is that was his intent. He’d called many times threatening me - and on one such occasion said he finally figured out what would destroy me. He said his only goal was to destroy me - and now he knew how. He’s spread lies about me, and I’d lose everything that mattered. He even said he knew that my career and the work I was doing was the most important thing in my life besides my son, and he knew exactly how he was going to destroy it all for me and then he’d have his revenge.
I laughed it off. I’m not saying it didn’t scare me because it did. But I still didn’t think he could actually pull it off. He was a raging alcoholic who was mentally unstable and had barely worked the ten years we were together. How could he possibly do something so vile to begin with, and it could never be taken seriously. What I didn’t know was the addictive nature of rumor mills and drama in small towns. I didn’t have a clue about that part.
I lived to tell about it but barely. It has been almost 12 years now and I still cry over it almost every day. Usually more than once. I guess this would translate to depression but nobody knows that. Wally does, but I don’t think he really gets the depth of this pain. On top of it all, I’m rejected here. And now by his family. I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong but I think it better to just stay inside and alone. The other day at the meeting with the outreach depot, I was stunned when not made an officer ( i turned down treasurer), and I felt truly discouraged because the man forcing the issue clearly didn’t like me - and it hurt. After 19 months of feeling put down and rejected by Al Harding, with not one ounce of defense by the church leaders and my husband, I feel ready to throw in the towel. I’m disappointed. I know I can’t try to control it nor can I whine about it. I just have to accept this is how it is, and move on. But where do I move on to?
This is my dilemma now. I don’t think there’s anywhere else to go. What would I do, where would I live - so for now, i think I will just stay in this house and type on this computer, write letters and comments to people because they always seem to like me online - and then wait for my next move, whatever that will be. (It took strength and discipline there to not write what I was inclined to write about what I was waiting for…but I didn’t say it. )
This is all leading me to how we relate to, believe in, connect to what we understand as God.
Why is this such a source of conflict? Why do we dig our heels in so deep about what each other believes? How have generations of theologians come to the answers they have, and why haven’t they questioned some clearly illogical and incongruent beliefs that have affected generations of people causing injustice, inequality, and cruelty all over the world. Their lack of awareness and curiosity has stunted progress and more than likely contributed to deaths, abuse, and false imprisonments as well.
Why are we so stuck in our idea of what is right, and subsequently, maintain such strong conviction that it needs defending? These faces of the circle I mentioned early on have taught me some things these last two years. We are all different, and contrary to what we want to think, we all believe differently too.
The UMC is stuck between a rock and a hard place wanting to grow, yet not willing to change. They are sitting in a pool of water that’s been left behind from the thaw, which now sits alone in the shining sun. If fresh water isn’t added to this pool that flows and has life to help wash it out, it will die. Evaporate. It can do it if it chooses, and here’s how.
Learn to speak with a bigger, wider, deeper voice. Learn to speak the language of the culture.
Churches are so deeply attached to making sure their beliefs are stated, and followed, that they have lost sight of the importance of the desire of the heart and spirit. The heart and spirit don’t require the “beliefs” in order to be activated. This will happen no matter what if we approach church as a place of spiritual renewal, of inner healing, of knowing Christ and connecting to God, as we understand God.
Many have rejected that statement so aptly written by Bill Wilson of Alcoholics Anonymous, because they say there is only one understanding of God. To that I say, “Really?”
I don’t believe for a moment that there is one understanding of just about anything. We live in a time when world views and perceptions are king, and what we individually believe and truly understand - as the result of our experience and true knowing - is close to nil. Our society speaks in a language that shares the same words, and when those words line up with the ideas that we feel most aligned to, or are most popular, or help us to belong, or match the image we have of who we want to be or look like - we adopt them as true.
We all know it.
But don’t admit it.
Some may be ignorant to this and actually think these ideas are true or matter - but for a society of mostly critical thinkers, we sure are stupid if we think otherwise.
Many of us who go to church don’t know what we believe. Others have become so disconnected from the culture of the church that they don’t understand what they’re talking about during a service. With such a deep disconnect and lack of familiarity with doctrine, and a deluge of information all around us in this technological age - the doctrine and dogma, quite frankly, sound a little crazy. Even cultlike. In fact, it is cult-like in some ways - even though it is what we believe in.
Each face in the circle holds God in their own way. Some hope God is real, and come with their spouse because it’s a nice thing to do. Others have had a spiritual awakening of some kind, or grown their faith one day at a time over many years - but in both cases, they believe in something that is beyond themselves and have chosen to believe what the church tells them because it is here they’ve received this experience or knowledge. The church provides a strong community bond, and a sense of belonging that feeds them socially while their spiritual food comes from their involvement in the doctrine.
So, what is it they each experience in their relationship with God? Is it an unwavering faith because they made a decision long ago not to question it? Or is it an assumption they’ve never been without? Some might be disconnected from any kind of experience of God but go through the motions of communion and other rituals simply because it’s ingrain habit that makes them feel good, and connects them.
Others will struggle with their beliefs in their journey but not dare tell a soul.
So, what would happen if we
We need a new agreement about what faith means. We need a shared language that speaks to who we are together in our connection to God - God being defined as a Presence that is greater than the sum of all of us, that has life and
It is a new opportunity to practice tolerance - in our own house. If some are contemplative and some are evangelical, and some believe only in scripture while others believe in experience and ecstatic reverent journeys into the holy - what is the difference?
The difference you’ll say is whether or not they believe Jesus is the son of God or not. The only son of God who died for our sins and because of this sacrifice, all our sins are forgiven and we can enter the gates of heaven. This may be true. It also may not be true.
Who said this is how it works? The disciples? how?
Perhaps there is a place like that…
UMC needs to do a survey of ages of church leaders, and conference representatives. Who makes up the voting majority, and what do they stand for?
If we just went to church, and reshaped the language and process we enter into to meet everyone where they are, without compromising the holy nature of the experience and what most matters, couldn’t we worship together in wholeness?
There is a way of talking about God that invites us in. This way of talking about God does not tell us what we must believe in order to be accepted in this place, but rather, allows us to experience the holiness that is in God. It leaves room for the bigness of the Divine, while silently acknowledging that each of us has a different image of what God is, or looks like. Our imaginings take us to our relationship and how God is shaped in our hearts and minds. Isn’t this how it is anyway?
Some of us may believe wholeheartedly, whether it be the result of a spiritual awakening or a long, steadfast journey on the path, that Jesus is the Savior because he was crucified and was resurrected to free us and forgive us for our sins. Others may see Jesus as a holy presence that influences our lives through his life and teachings, and understand we can also work out our own salvation by taking on the mind of Christ. Does it matter how we each define salvation? Is this a deal breaker? Are we so certain what Jesus meant by salvation, or by his words, “The only way to the Father is through me.” Many choose to simply not think about it, and accept it for what it is. This is the easiest path, and more than likely, the more predictable one for those raised in a culture in which there were no other religious choices to speak of, and the only real option. It may be that those who accept it as truth have the best solution - until they are faced with the neighbor who is Muslim and they grow to love them dearly. At this point, does the idea that they will rot in hell for eternity give them cause to doubt?
Of course it does.
It’s the ultimate test of letting go - especially for a codependent, and I’d wager to guess that most devout Christians are as codependent as they come. This was my breaking point with traditional Christianity, and the primary reason I could not bring myself to give myself to it again.
But there were other reasons as well. Mainly just not fitting in, and I’ve kicked that horse long enough.
The faces in the circle are all different. Each face has its own relationship to their belief about God and Christianity. For some, it’s the one thing in their life that sets them apart. It sets them apart in the way a favorite child feels love from a beloved parent. It may be the very first time they’ve known this kind of love throughout their lives. For another, it may be the ecstatic experience they had when they were baptized or like me, the only white blonde in a sea of people in a Harlem revival tent in the late 70’s. Something happened to me, came over me and it changed me. It changed me for good. It gave me a glimpse into spiritual nirvana, they said it was an infilling of the Holy Spirit. Whatever it was, the change lasted a long time, and in my deepest heart of hearts I can never deny that this experience was anything other than something holy and a new awareness of what I then called God. It could be nothing else…even if other religions experienced the same type of spiritual awakening, it still was what it was. And God knows, i wasn’t going to deny or minimize it.
I did believe the story of Jesus from that day forward, and did worship with my whole heart, but what I know for sure is - that wasn’t what caused me to have the spiritual awakening. It was the spirit in the room, it was the faith around me. It was the conviction and passion that came from the preacher and the people around me. Is it not possible that if we allow ourselves to open to the passion and spirit that comes alive within each of us, that it travels and joins with ours - in its holiness? Isn’t this an aspect of quantum physics that we do not yet understand, yet often experience.
In my class last night, a Methodist woman who is also a local pastor said she loves her traditional church service and has been a loyal lay servant for over 26 years. She attended a contemporary service not very long ago, and admitted it was hard to go back to her quiet, reverent, and emotionless service that she loves. Why? Because she said, “I could really feel God there.” This of course raised the question in my mind whether God was more there than in the other service. If God is all that is, is God more present in a room that’s lit up like that?
God is, likely, just as present in both services, but the expression of God is louder, more vibrant, more connected through the people who are willing to open themselves to the other senses of hearing from and receiving God.
In this case, does it matter which belief system they hold - meaning with which headline - as long as being a Christian means we take on the mind of Christ, that we are of God, that Jesus is our guide, teacher, savior. If how Christ shows up in our life is different, does this matter? IF we are worshipping together and allowing ourselves to enter into the mystery and the holy by an inner journey to the sacred, do the words of what we say define who we are in it?
Isn’t it akin to my being pregnant and unmarried because I chose not to have an abortion at 29, versus having had an abortion so the schools would still consider me a good role model. (include story)?
Is it the unseen or the seen that takes precedence in the journey of our faith. Whether we travel this journey on a path or as a belief system, will we end up in the same place? Is the inner work the same in the long run, while only the window we’re looking through differs?
If a room full of parishioners stand in the circle each Sunday at the close of the service, and each one recites the Apostles Creed, but is completely disconnected from the worship songs because they are on a screen, can we say they are opening into the mystery, or simply accustomed to a particular belief system in which they are comfortable and makes them feel good? But if each of us travels this journey with open heart, allowing God’s expression to come forth in the myriad of ways God likes to show up in our lives, and we feel free and unencumbered to express this relationship or connection with the family of Christ, which will be more contagious, more spontaneous, more free, more alive, more spiritual food?
Who are we to say that those practicing a contemplative Christian path, of which some will receive Christ and only see the cross and resurrection from the window. It is this view that defines their connection and spiritual identity in him, what brings them life, and propels them forward on the journey. While another will have their focus on how they see and feel his reflection in their heart and mind, taking on his Spirit with their own, and with each step, growing a bigger, more expansive and transparent heart and mind of God in the world. As each one moves forward in their journey as Christians, while loving and holding each other up, what would prevent one of them from having a full experience of the Holy Spirit? Particularly if they are worshipping together in one body, in one love, as Bob Marley would say?
It is the movement of God in each of them….and where their primary focus is in their beliefs is irrelevant to their love and heart for Christ, or God. This is the heart of the matter.
The only way we will survive these times is to apply the same tolerance and ‘seek first to understand’ attitude to ourselves within the walls of the church. It is here that love lives too, and if they are to see we are Christians by our love, let’s not prove them wrong by demonstrating that love toward one another is contingent on our theology.
It’s time to create shared language -
for all the faces in the circle -
and the future of the church.
The various ways that Jesus is interpreted should not be considered right or wrong, perhaps it should be seen as no coincidence. God is big, and will look or be experienced differently because we are different a billion ways. We think differently, see differently, believe differently, need and love and hear differently. Why in the world wouldn’t a Presence greater than all of us, and comprised of love, do everything possible to ensure we all have access?
I am certain - as sure as I am the day is short right now in mid winter - that a bottom-up, more inclusive and broad message that provides different doors for those who want to know more about Christianity is the only loving and Christian choice. We should offer them the different choices that are available to practice and understand. They should be told that a Christian is defined by their relationship to Christ, and their path in Christ. We, as a church, should come to some understanding about what it means in the language of today’s culture to be a Christian. We should also test the waters about what people feel about salvation in a general sense - do they believe everyone burns in hell or not? Is this a widespread conviction in terms of message, or is it something the theological jury is out on, unless one is a fundamentalist. What about the approach that the church will take with the divide between fundamentalist beliefs and progressive/liberal stance?
How is that to be handled on the whole? Voting is not the answer…