Saturday, April 29, 2006

Judicial Council Witness

It's been a very interesting last few days for a United Methodist in Kansas City. On Wednesday the Judicial Council began their quarterly meeting here (actually in Overland Park since we have a the Chiefs as a Native American sports mascot) and on their list of things to consider was the possibility of reconsidering the decision (1032) in which a pastor was affirmed for deciding someone could not join the church, specifically because he's gay. There has been a lot of conversation about the decision itself (including here on this blog) but I want to talk more about what I experienced being present outside of the Judicial Council meeting room these last few days. The Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) coordinated a prayerful witness of folks from around the country to let the Judicial Council know that this was something important and that we were prayerfully watching. We had a conference room right by the conference room in which they had their meeting and a group of us went outside (see picture above) to make a more public witness to what was going on inside. We even made it onto the local news (KCTV 5 was the only channel but they presented to situation well).

In the end, the Judicial Council invited us to have communion with them on their last day, Friday. It was interesting because this was not anything that had been done before and I was interested to see how it was going to be handled by all those involved. There were quite a few of us crammed into the conference room that morning, and many more of us wearing rainbow stoles than there were members of the Judicial Council. We sang songs, prayed, confessed our sins and shared the holy meal that, in this church, has always been open to all people. It was quite a feeling to know that after these people had discussed openness of the church we were sharing in the open table.

We still have no idea what the Judicial Council decided - they will post their decisions on their website Monday, and until then we are just waiting and continuing to pray. There were more than a hundred of us who came out in support of the RMN movement in this church, and I know that decision 1032 is not just a concern for those working on inclusion on LGBT people in church life - this is a huge theological issue for any church to decide who is in and who (if anyone) is out. Should people be excluded from the church? We'll see in a couple more days...

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Easter Reflections

Now that a week has gone by, I feel like maybe I can put into words some of my thoughts and feelings regarding attending an Easter morning service at Church of the Resurrection. I have to visit a variety of worship services for my worship class this semester, and after visiting COR for an anaysis of their space I thought it would be good for me to attend a worship service. I've never really had a "mega-church" experience, and I don't know why it struck me to go on Easter morning, but I went to their 9 am service which got out in plenty of time for me to get to my "regular" 10:45 service at Trinity.

The first thing that struck me upon arrival at COR was the sheer number of people - it was quite an amazing operation just to facilitate parking for everyone! We walked into the atrium/gathering space and there was quite a crowd milling about since the previous service was still going. I browsed in the book store and coffee shop before just standing in a kind of line that had formed to make our way into the sactuary once the others filed out. I walked in and found a single seat on the end of a row about halfway back and sat down to look through the worship bulletin. Right off the bat, I thought it was very odd that there wasn't a typical order of worship laid out. Granted, not all churches do it the same way, but I'm used to there being something that tells you what the scripture and songs are going to be that day and there wasn't anything like that. There were, however, notes and an outline of the sermon and a printed version of the scripture reading for the day.

The other big thing that struck me was the way the people didn't really seem to have to do anything - they were invited to sing, but not using hymnals - the words were printed on the big video screens on either side of the altar area. I guess there's something to be said for getting people to look up rather than down at their books in front of them, but if they were actively singing along, I couldn't hear them - not even the person standing next to me. I didn't want to be obvious about looking around so I didn't really look to see how many people were singing, but I did see some mouths moving - just couldn't hear anything. Acoustic problem I guess. Even when the congregation was invited to pray, it was strange. The first time was when the minister (not Adam Hamilton, who only seems to preach) said "pray with me" and then turned around so that she had her back to the congregation and knelt on a kneeler in front of the altar table. She then said a prayer and I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be watching her or praying the words with her or what. Then a little later we were asked to join in the Lord's prayer, which once again had the words on the video screens - and this time it made sense to me since many of the people at COR aren't familiar with it.

And I think that's where I finally landed - that COR wasn't for me, but it wasn't meant to be. It's targeting a specific population of people and I do not fit that demographic, and that's fine. I can get into the quality vs. quantity debate, but the fact is that this church is doing something that a lot of other churches don't - cater to those who are foreign to the concept. It's growing by leaps and bounds, and I have no idea why that's the case, but these people seem to be getting some sort of need met there. Perhaps it will be just the first step on their faith journey and they will eventually find another church home that goes a little deeper if/when they are ready for it or perhaps they will stay comfortable in the basic level that seems to be offered there. Of course, I've only been the one time, so I have no idea how involved people can get over time there, and this all only my opinion and general impression.

I was not comfortable there - for a variety of reasons. I don't like the affluence and abundance of material items that seems to be so prevalent there. I wasn't wearing the latest fashion or driving an SUV. I didn't need to words to the Lord's Prayer put on a screen and I didn't someone to pray on my behalf because I didn't know how to do it. I did, however, love the music - the choir and the orchestra were very good and ending with the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah put me in a wonderful mood for the rest of the day. I sang along with gusto and don't think anybody noticed or cared. :) I still have to write a paper about the service for my class, and that will be a much more detailed analysis, but this is plenty for now.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Happy Earth Day!

I've been a little sparse with entries lately - my apologies but things are hectic, even more so than usual. Happy Earth Day! For those of you who didn't know, today is the day we celebrate the earth and focus on ways to take better care of her so that she may still be around for our kids and grandchildren. I walked for the third year in the Kansas City Earthwalk, sponsored by Bridging the Gap (a local non-profit org. here in KC). Unfortunately, today was also the AIDS walk downtown and I had to choose which one to do this year. I don't know who is responsible for that planning, but I hope they fall on different days next year so I don't have to make that choice again. I chose to do the earthwalk for a couple of reasons, but the main one was that it's so much less popular. I don't know why that is - you'd think that people would be able to back up environmental causes pretty easily whereas AIDS can get to be a controversial topic. Or maybe it's not anymore.

AIDS used to be seen as a "gay" issue, and sometimes it still is, but we've reached a new level of the epidemic where it's become more of a global problem, particularly in "third world" countries. I think if it's seen as a poverty issue rather than a "lifestyle" issue, it gets better support from fundraisers. Isn't that interesting? When it was just gay people and drug addicts dying, people wanted to condemn and stigmatize. Now it's an acceptable issue to talk about. And yet when I walked in the AIDS walk last year, it was still a largely gay contingency. There were a lot of church groups and corporate teams - it was a very "fashionable" things to be a part of.

The Earthwalk doesn't seem to have that kind of image, and I'm not sure whay that is. Just form walking around, I would estimate that there were about 200 people at the walk this morning. 200 people is quite a few but nowhere near as much as the AIDS walk, I'm sure. And where people in the AIDS walk raise hundreds of dollars each, I doubt many people raised more than $25 for the Earthwalk. So what is it? Do people just assume that the earth will always be here? That we don't need to do anything because nature will adapt to whatever we dish out? Or is it somehow more important to care about diseases because people are dying rather than plants and animals? I've always been a sucker for the underdog and in this case, that was the Earth Day celebration - but I hope that we can get to place where it's not a competition between these issues.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Maundy Thursday

Continuing my holy week observations...

Last night for Maundy Thursday (or Holy Thursday as I called it up until about 10 years ago), our church held dinners in various people's homes with a small liturgy to create that kind of intimate setting like the Last Supper. I had dinner with several people from church that live in the same part of town as me, people that I mostly already knew I liked. I did meet a couple of new people, including some neighbor friends of the host who are not from our church (but were very fun!). We had snacks while everyone gathered together, did a prayer of confession before the meal and then ate a wonderful potluck of salads, soup and a tender potroast. We then continued the liturgy after dinner, including communion being passed around the table. We ended with dessert and more conversation before everyone said their goodbyes. All in all it was a nice evening, BUT...

It just didn't feel like Holy Thursday. While there were references made to the last supper and Judas' betrayal (including some conversation about the recently translated Gospel of Judas), it felt too much like a social gathering rather than a religious gathering. I don't know what would have made it more "appropriate" or what I was really looking for. We talked about foot washing, but some people were clearly uncomfortable with the idea of exposing their feet to others (which is perhaps part of the point of foot washing?) so we passed on it. Maybe next year.... but I doubt it since it would be the same people involved. Is this part of the problem? Do we cater to people's comfort level so much that we lose significant pieces of our faith heritage?

There's a saying that I love, that Jesus was about "comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable." I have no idea who gets credit for that statement, but I think it's absolutely correct, and yet it seems that today's church is very scared of disturbing anyone - the government, the people in the pews, the church leadership, etc. If people never get puched out of their comfort zones, how will they grow? How will things change and get better?

Granted, there are lines that shouldn't be crossed - discomfort can sometimes be an issue of safety or a warning and defense mechanism. But that is the tension within which the church should reside and for far too long they've been playing it safe. While I don't want to make my friend upset, I do want to push her on the footwashing thing. Nobody that I know of is prouf of their feet and wants to show them off - feet are not aesthetically pleasing to most people. But the act of footwashing has a deeper meaning and her discomfort may actually make it more so. When Jesus washed his disciples' feet, it was a low, humiliating act - for Jesus and for them! They didn't understand, and they were not comfortable, but Jesus explained that it was something he needed to do for them and they would need to do for others. Why aren't we doing it?

Palm Sunday

I know that being raised Catholic has a bog effect on the things that I'm comfortable with and look for in church, but I'm just not satisfied with my Holy Week this year.

To start, Palm Sunday was not the joyous occasion that I wanted/needed it to be. We started our church service with a procession into the sanctuary with palms, but the bulk of the service was a dramatic reading of the entire passion story - through the crucifixion, laying Jesus' body in the tomb and stopping just short of the resurrection. The service ended with a solo performance of "Were you There?" while the altar was completely stripped. I understand the point of Lent and especially Holy Week, but why is this done all on Palm Sunday?? I asked some people about it, and it was explained to me that so few people attend services on Thursday and Friday that they felt like it all had to be done on Palm Sunday. AARGH!

Why do we cater to the fact that people don't make this a priority? Maybe I'm just having a little tantrum here, but it's my blog and I can do that. :) Palm Sunday is the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem for the Passover festival - we barely acknowledged that part of the story before immediatly moving on to his death. It seems to me like this is a typical Protestant thing - theologically the focus is on the fact that "Jesus died for me. It's just not good enough for me to only get part of the story, or at least to just blow through parts of the story that aren't "relevant."

When I was growing up, Palm Sunday was a joyous occasion, with the kids all getting involved more than usual and lots of palm waving, joyous songs, etc. Yes, there was the looming notion of crucufixion - everyone knew what the rest of the week's events were - but that wasn't the point of PALM SUNDAY. We all went to church on Thursday for the last supper and footwashing service. And then we all went again on Friday for the death on the cross (usually involving fasting as well). These are significant days for our religion, so why not expect people to go to church more often than just Sunday morning?! When Christmas is not on Sunday, do they not go then? Oh, maybe they don't....

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Science or miracles?

I was recently reading a past issue of Zion's Herald magazine that had been given to me, and in it was an interview with Huston Smith, an expert on world religions who has written several books I've used and seen others use for classes on the topic. He's now a fairly old man (around 90) and has written a book on Christianity. He spoke about the way he doesn't align with either party of the polarized church - he disagrees with the way fundamentalists discount any historical context of the Bible and he disagrees with the progressives over-reliance on science. I was intrigued by that idea, as one who considers herself to be a progressive and is also the child of two engineers. I'd never heard it said that science was our main problem - just another in a list of issues. It's had me thinking all weekend about how my thinking has been shaped and how much I take science for granted. The scientific method was a basic lesson in junior high school and I remember when I was hearing it explained, it was kind of a "duh" experience - like it was intuitively obvious that that was the way to think through a problem or a question. I didn't understand how big a deal that process is and how much it had already shaped my way of thinking and viewing the world.

I've also been reading about baptism and conversion experiences and it's really got me thinking about how I view God, particularly in light of this scientific basis I know I have. (FYI, before going into religion, I was a music major but had a hard time choosing between music and genetic engineering - it's in my blood.) I want to say that I believe in miracles, but if I'm honest, I know I would be completely skeptical of anyone who told me they had seen one. The scientist in me would want some kind of proof, some kind of evidence to back up the story. Faith doesn't work like that though - we don't have proof, at least not in the scientific kind of way, that there's even a God. I have faith - I KNOW there is a God and I know that God is loving, just and merciful. I know that I am loved, as I am, but I can't explain it or prove it - I just know. So why can't God do miracles and people just know that too?

The Bible is full of stories of healings and all kinds of miracles that I, frankly, dismiss as some kind of ancient need to explain things that couldn't be understood any other way but as some kind of magical power. Look at the things that the church does, even today, with the rites around Eucharist and baptism - there is all kinds of stuff that we say happens, but that is something mysterious and unexplainable. The Catholic church believes in transubstantiation - that the bread and wine literally become Jesus' body and blood - I just can't buy into that! Many Protestants don't buy into that, but why not? If God can perform miracles and do all these mysterious things, why not that one every week? Do we believe in the power of the Holy Spirit or don't we? Where is the line between what we will accept as miracle and what is false?

I try to keep historical context in mind when I read scripture, and I've often wondered about the daily practices of the common every day people in biblical times. What did they really think about the religious practice of sacrifice at the temple? How much did they understand what was going on and what it all meant? Did they care or just go through the motions as prescribed by the priests? What about other gods from other religions? Did they believe in magic? It seems like they must have but I don't know that much about it. I know a little more about the dark ages and the magic of pagans that the church ended up incorporating in various ways. There was exorcisms from the first century on in the Catholic church - fighting the powers of darkness and Satan. But I don't think I believe in that kind of magic, and so don't need my God to be that kind of a magician. Magicians are really just skilled at directing your attention away from what's "really" going on - and I want to know what's actually happening rather than what I'm told I'm seeing. So I guess it's partly a scientifically based skepticism and part of it is not trusting the ones in authority (the institution especially). But does my intellectual deduction thus make God way too small and "like me"? I'm afraid it might. There is something to be said for the mystery, for the power of the Holy Spirit and the things which God can do - I just don't know how far I can go with it....