Category Archives: Circle of Grace

The Power of our Stories

Yesterday we said these words in our Seder meal:  “Laughter and tears life and death, good and evil – these are bound  irrevocably together. We bless them together for we know that with without death we would not fully value life. Without tears we would not fully value laughter. As we learn to maximize the good and valuable, let us  remember the evil we would reject, lest it creep, unrecognized, back into our presence.”

Has Pharaoh crept back into power? In our day ‘pharaohs’ are the ones who live in luxury while families struggle to make ends meet. ‘Pharaohs’ are those who get tax cuts while the most vulnerable lose benefits like meals-on-wheels, childcare assistance, reproductive healthcare, social security, and disability benefits. ‘Pharaohs’ are the ones who wrangle power from the people and centralize it among friends and family.

Today I wonder how we can celebrate the journey to freedom when Pharaoh skulks around every corner working hard to corrode our freedoms. Pharaoh lives in the White House, in the Senate and House. Pharaoh now resides on the Supreme Court.

So how do we become free? We remember our history and tell those stores along with new stories as we begin again our journey to freedom. For those of us in the United States our stories are of our constitution and bill of rights, and stories of our march toward the liberation of all: the abolition movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the movement for LGBTQ rights, for immigrant rights. These are the stories we need to remember

How do we become free? We wake up for the hundredth morning and grope for words to describe what is wrong. We engage in small heroic acts of disobedience until our disparate voices come together into the cry of the people. We continue to move forward even though the way looks impossible and pharaoh nips at our heels.

We open our doors and make ourselves see the crimes of rape, violence, hatred, intolerance, prejudice, and the dehumanization of those called ‘other’ who are really our sisters and brothers and friends. And we care enough to act.

We have begun. We are marching and speaking and writing and calling and voting. We are wading into a sea and we are in it up to our necks. But our stories give up hope and tell us we will make a way through to the other side. So let’s keep telling our stories and singing our stories as we travel on the road to liberation. Let the children of today represented by the Children’s Choir of Boston sing a story for us and inspire us not to let anyone turn us ’round on this journey.

 

 

 

Those Damn Angels

fear-no-dan-skognes-insurance-finance-investments-motivation-blogger-speaker-entrepreneurThe electoral college voted on December 20th and something in me died.

Okay, maybe not died, but broke, shifted, was mangled.

Donald Trump will be our next president.

Some part of me, some subconscious part, some kid part believed we were better than that and clung to unreasonable hope. I really didn’t think I was hopeful. I really thought I accepted the outcome of the election. I really had not.

And I spiraled into grief and hopelessness and fear…

What is going to happen now? We will have a president with YUGE ethical challenges, hair trigger reactions to perceived slights, surrounded by right wing extremists, with a vision of our nation that is antithetical to everything I know and believe.

What are we going to do? How are we going to face the threat to this nation and to our own humanity? I am frightened. Very frightened.

And it came to pass that the days went by and the time came to read the Christmas story. And the angels appeared and said, “Fear not.” “Don’t be Afraid”. In the midst of poverty and oppression, when a people could imagine no way out, these freaking angels said, “Don’t be afraid”.

Screw that.

Here’s the thing. They were right. They are right. Whenever someone reminds or encourages to ‘not be afraid’ take it in. Listen. Breathe into it. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t things to be afraid of. There are. Many, many things. But we must take the challenge to heart.

Because fear paralyzes. Fear defeats us before our enemies fire a shot across the bow.

So, Fear Not. Use the scrambled energy within to stand and speak and work and move. There is more that needs to be challenged, checked, defeated, engaged than ever in our lifetime. We cannot let fear defeat us before the fight is even begun.

 

We Need A Little Christmas…


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Not here we said.

Never here.

But it is here

and it is now.

Wealth so repulsive, unethical, self-serving

Built on the backs of the hungry, the hurting, the oppressed,

the left out and left behind.

Power so arrogant as to despise kindness and human dignity.

 

We need a little Christmas right this very minute

We need a vision of the beauty in creation

the ethic of vulnerability

the power of love.

We need a story that emerges in the midst of

an oppressive state

corrupt power

religious factions.

We need a story of perseverance

Right over might

Love over hate

Goodness over evil

Truth over lies.

 

America is built on ideas that are important to hold on to and that many have forgotten. We are built on ideas that require a strong commitment to diversity, to a free press and undiluted truth. Assumed in our constitution, in all our founding documents is the idea that we will remain in dialogue. That respect for one another grounds us in a way of being. That relationship is necessary and disagreement is always in context of relationship. The concept of the ‘loyal opposition’ assumes we all seek the greater good for the nation.

We have lost that relationship. Lost it because, in no small part, the right is now so radicalized (see: Tea Party, white supremacists) that finding ‘a third way’ is no longer the goal. All or nothing is the goal. It has rent us in two.

So when I, as a pastor, say ‘we need a little Christmas’ I mean we need to remember the source of our faith journey. It begins in poverty, it values the outsider (moral, cultural, racial, etc) and it overcomes oppression, hate, and fear with love. Our story invites us to a kind of love that infuses a deep sense of self worth, the courage to resist, and the willingness to sacrifice.

Now the rubber meets the road. We must  live into ideas greater than ourselves and our own self-interest. For my fellow Christians, this season I urge us to embrace our story of hope, power, and promise. And let us honor faith traditions other than our own who journey beside us as they uniquely express the love of God.

The story of this nation isn’t over.

The story of the incarnation isn’t over.

It is just beginning.

Our hope is being born in the muck,

in the stench of poverty

in the belly of the oppressive beast.

We must allow hope to be born in us

with power and  passion

for the facing of this hour.

Faith and Forgiveness

ForgivenessThe truth is it is easy not to forgive. When I don’t forgive it feels like I have a protective layer against further emotional aggression. When I don’t forgive my anger feels righteous (whether it is or not). When I don’t forgive there is no way to siphon off my anger.

When I forgive someone who has hurt me deeply I kind of resent it. Perhaps that is not forgiveness. I would rather say it is not completed forgiveness. It has taken me a while to understand forgiveness as solely my internal process. Let me break that down:

Solely, mine alone, without any action or reaction on the part of another, mine to wrestle with, mine to resolve, mine to engage without expectation of changed relationship with anyone other than myself.

Internal, the change that forgiveness makes is in me. In me. In me. Forgiving changes my physiology. It changes how I view the world. It reorients me to something greater than myself, a way that my faith calls me to move in the world.

Process, I have come to understand that forgiveness for any unjust or emotionally harmful event is not a one-time thing. Sometimes I have to forgive a person who betrayed or hurt me several times a day. Each time I do, I move toward wholeness. Process is choosing over and over again to be the person my faith calls me to be. Sometimes I resent that I am choosing to forgive, but I choose it anyway. The process requires time and emotional energy to continue to make the choice  until it becomes my default response to painful memories, lost dreams, and dashed hopes.

I know I only do this because of my faith. It is easy to hold anger because the anger seduces me into believing I am protecting myself. It is my faith that instructs me to be vulnerable, to change the world by first changing myself. It is my faith that gives me the strength to continue the process of forgiveness because I don’t always gravitate toward forgiveness.

 

 

retro- Wednesday- How Can It Be Different?

 

 

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originally posted August 16, 2010

How different can you ‘do church’ from traditional models?  So far the answer is a resounding ‘somewhat’.

Here’s the thing: we want to share power.  We don’t want to replicate any kind of hierarchy.  We named ourselves Circle of Grace because all the points on the circle are on an even playing field.  In theory that translates to equal or shared power.   In practice, people are often uncomfortable with the thought of exercising power.  Maybe they are afraid of being ‘wrong’ or maybe they are afraid they will have to ‘bring it’.

In our model everyone has a voice.  That’s a good thing.  What’s difficult (I’ll refrain from saying ‘bad’) is that not everybody is willing to exercise his or her power.  As feminists, we redefined power.  For us, power isn’t ‘power over’ anything.  Power is what we share.  For some of us it is uncomfortable – but we agree it is important.

This breaks down pretty significantly when commitment and responsibility are iffy.  It is a pretty big trade off.  For some reason, in hierarchical power structures those with power are able to require a certain amount of responsibility.   Not so much in a non-hierarchical situation.  In my bad moments, I hate that.  I hate that we don’t have a structure I can wrangle to get something done quickly, without discussion or dissension.  Sometimes I hate it that everyone has a voice but not everyone has the inclination to do the work that needs to be dome.

So how different are we from more traditional churches?  Sometimes not at all.  Sometimes power lands in the lap of a few because of lack of interest.  Kind of like state and federal elections.  We have the power to vote, but too many people don’t give enough of a damn to exercise their power.  As pastor, I am sometimes left with too much power by default.  (Default: no one else wants to do it)  Fortunately, I don’t want the power even when I have to exercise it.

Sometimes we are very, very different from traditional churches.  There is no power of ‘right thought’ or ‘right belief’.  One of the most challenging aspects of being in our community is that we are not bound by shared belief.  There may be someone who believes in substitutionary atonement and another who vehemently does not (in fact most of us don’t).  We have had times of members who opposed abortion and those who worked for choice organizations.  We have learned to make room for one another.

That’s the wonderful part.  It is wonderful enough to balance out the trials of a lumpy sharing of power.  How different can it be?  Different enough that we keep on trying to figure out how we’ve been socialized and work against what is easy or comfortable.  We know we are on a huge learning curve.  I guess that’s how different it is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

retro- Wednesday: What makes a spiritual community Christian?

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(originally posted in 2010)

Here’s a good follow-up from my last post:  what makes a spiritual community Christian?  What seems obvious to some has been completely un-obvious to me.  Let me meander through this question a moment.

Years ago the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical group comprised of nearly all current Christian denominations said that be be a member of the Council a church was only required to affirm the statement “Jesus is Lord.”

That was until the MCC, a predominantly gay and lesbian church, tried to join.  The MCC was perfectly willing to affirm and declare that “Jesus is Lord”.  Suddenly, our good friends at NCC had a problem.  The net-net is, at that time, MCC was denied membership into the National Council of Churches.  I don’t know if that has changed but either way, my point is taken.  There is more than one idea floating around about what it means to be Christian.

To me, the affirmation “Jesus is Lord” is difficult to make sense of in a democratic society where none of us has lived under a feudal system or functioning monarchy.  We don’t swear fealty to an overlord who protects us.  We really don’t have any experiential idea of what lordship looks and feels like.  I know some folks say that “Jesus is Lord” means that Jesus is in charge or that Jesus is the thing we most value in our lives or that we follow the way of Jesus above all other ways if there is a conflict of interests.  But the phrase doesn’t emerge out of our life experiences as it did in the time of Paul up to the Industrial Age.   However, it remains one understanding of what it means to be Christian and what it means to be in a Christian community.

Another understanding of what it means to be Christian is the affirmation of the phrase: “Jesus Christ is my lord and savior.”  “Isn’t this the same?” you might ask.  Well, yes and no.

Having chatted with many a ‘missionary’ on my doorstep I have discerned a distinct, rather than nuanced, difference between the two statements.  This statement infers that one believes Jesus is saving one from eternal damnation, otherwise known as ‘hell’.    If you believe in Jesus as the son of God, if you believe he came to atone for the sins of all humanity throughout all time (including yours) then you are saved.  This understanding often encourages blind faith, the accepting of things that don’t make sense or that appear, in and of themselves, unbelievable.

For some, it is a matter of believing the tenets of the ‘true faith’. The ‘true faith’ is always the faith purported by the makers of the statement, which have been varied and many.

Finally, there are those who call themselves Christian who consider themselves ‘followers in the Way of Jesus’.  They follow the teachings of Jesus and seek to live in the manner that Christ lived and taught.  Now, I’m not saying that those with different understandings of what it means to be Christian don’t do that, I’m just saying that this is how some Christians define their Christianity.

So, the question: what makes a spiritual community Christian?  I guess the answer is: All of the above.  At Circle of Grace we try to make room for multiple understandings of what it means to be a Christian.  For some, atonement is essential.  For some, the lordship of Christ is pivotal.  For most of us, being Christian is following in the Way of Christ (Jesus).  For all of us, it is essential that we remain respectful of one another’s understandings.   I guess the one understanding that wouldn’t make it here is the idea of a ‘true faith’.  It excludes the respectful possibility of differences.

So are we Christian?  I am sure some would say not.  And some might think, “Well some of you are and some of you aren’t.”   Some of us hesitate to be called Christian because they hesitate to be identified with the dominant cultural understanding of Christian as intolerant and judgmental.  But Christian we are, in most of its permutations.  What makes us a spiritual community that is Christian?

Okay, the bottom line is that I don’t have an answer to what seems to be a profoundly easy question.

A modest proposal as to why and how it is okay for Christians to celebrate a Passover Seder

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My dear friend and celebrated scholar, Dr. Monica A. Coleman sent me a link to a blog by the Rev. J. Mary Luti who is pondering the question of Christians celebrating Seders.

http://sicutlocutusest.com/2014/04/11/no-christian-seders-please/

This is a thoughtful and well argued piece and I actually agree with most of her assertions but I think the topic requires further imagination.

First, the Seder as we have come to know it is not the precise meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples on Good Friday. Seders  did not begin to develop until after the destruction of the Temple, 70 C.E.  But it is likely that Jesus  was remembering the Exodus event in some fashion as the festival is prescribed in Exodus 12:14,  “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it  as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.”

At that meal Jesus invited us to another act of remembering in what we now celebrate as our communion meal. The Eucharist, for Christians, is an act of remembering spiritual liberation.  That being  said, I am not sure if it would be appropriate to insert Communion into a Seder celebration. But  if we did make that addition it would  be adding our story to the story of our ancestors- which every haggadah (telling) I have ever had the privilege to read or share in encourages the practitioners to do.

Rev. Luti also argues that ritual originates and arises from a community’s shared experience. As Christians, she asserts, we cannot celebrate a Seder out of anything like the lived experience of Jews.  I would respond with both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.  Yes, we cannot, nor should we attempt to claim that our lived experience ‘remotely resembles’ the lived experience of Jews. But if scripture is our shared story, and indeed a universal story, then it is also our story to tell. (I would note here that not all Christians are white and privileged.  And those who are white and/or privileged,  confront the pharaoh within when telling the Exodus story.)

As pastor of a progressive, feminist church (note the orange on the Seder plate) with a community of women and men, many races, gender identifications and sexual orientations, the Seder is a time of remembering Godde’s promises, given and fulfilled, and Godde’s call for us to live into freedom. In the remembering and telling the story each year we are encouraged, renewed, challenged and sent forth with hope.

I agree that the celebration of the Seder meal should never supplant the Exodus story with the Christian story as the ‘conclusion’ of Godde’s activity in history. The point of the Seder is to remember who we are, to remember Godde’s intention, desire and liberating acts for humanity, to own the places where we participate in our own oppression and the oppression of others, and to depart with the hope  of Godde’s continued redemption of humankind.

It is not a Christo-centric story. Neither is a story exclusive to Jews. It is our story, wherever we find ourselves in it. It is a story that brings both judgment and hope. It speaks to Godde’s movement in history and to the journey of the community of faith and of individual souls.  It frames for us an understanding of who Godde is and how Godde acts.  In the telling of our story each year,  we learn as we hear and speak the words,  listen with our bodies when we eat the lessons, and sing with our hearts as we insert our personal journeys and lives into the story.  This ritual returns us to spiritual center.

If Christians can celebrate a Seder meal in those ways then so we should for it opens us to greater understandings and deeper experiences. If we hear echoes of Jesus’ words for us to remember him in the story, then let our hearts be open to ways the Exodus journey might illuminate those words.

 

 

 

Christian, feminist and church…

originally posted in 2010

My friend and our non-resident theologian, Dr. Monica A. Coleman, recently visited a feminist church at a conference at which she presented.  She then posted an idea on facebook inviting all feminist churches to hook up.  I snickered and posted back, “What, all two of us?”

      There may be more but we are so far apart and disconnected that it is hard to find one another.  On some level we may not believe that the other exists.  And then there is the question of what makes a spiritual community feminist.

      First of all, there are a lot of understandings about what it means to be feminist (among feminists as well as outside the feminist community).  After lengthy discussion Circle of Grace distilled our understanding down to a short paragraph:

        Circle of Grace is a feminist Christian worshipping community.  We are non-doctrinal and seek to re- imagine understandings of language and stories, symbols and metaphors.  Our commitment is to inclusivity.  We honor each one’s truth and each one’s journey and feel called into community as a way of faithful response.  We understand feminism to be a critique of power.

 Spelled out it means: 

  1-we don’t all have to (nor do we) believe the same things. Nothing is written in stone.  For us the journey of the spirit requires a certain fluidity (uncomfortable at times).  Theologically, members of our community range the gamut of understandings.  Biblical authority, atonement, – you name it.  This hooks up with the last sentence in our statement: we honor each one’s truth and each one’s journey.  As in, I can’t tell you what your experience of the Sacred is, nor will I try to dissuade you of it.  Need I say that making room for many truths is a challenge?  But we are committed to this endeavor because It is central to feminist thought.

 2-  Our images, stories, symbols and metaphors are not limited to the images, stories, symbols and metaphors available in the biblical text, though we do ‘re-imagine’ those in ways that, we hope, opens us to new understandings of Godde.  As feminists, we find any symbol that becomes rigid and/or absolute to be unhelpful and sometimes harmful to the journey of the spirit.  It is one thing to say Godde is like a father (or mother or eagle or bridegroom, etc.) and quite another to say Godde is father,etc.

 3-  We feel called to community as a way of faithful response.  All of us at Circle of Grace come together because we believe or intuit that sharing spiritual community both grounds and grows us.  It is the challenge of being (or trying to be) who Godde calls us  to be in the world and with one another that draws us together in worship, prayer, meals, time, relationship…     It is faithful (and feminist) to build community that is radically inclusive.  It is faithful (and feminist) to live our one’s journey of spirit informed by those who are not like us but offer new wisdom, insight, challenge and hope.   For me, at least, and others I believe, the call to community is the call to kin-dom living, the call to embody the kin-dom in real time as a beacon of hope for the world.  Each week at Eucharist we say something like this to one another as we pass the wine, “Drink in and become the promises of Godde.”

 4- We understand feminism to be a critique of power.  We also understand the Way of Jesus to be a critique of power.  They go hand in hand.  As feminist Christians we speak a critique of the power of the institutional church.  

       So for Circle of Grace being spiritual feminist community is about opening understandings of the Divine to include many images, it’s about making room for all kinds of differences and it’s about living out our understandings (and our struggles to understand and our inability to make sense) together.  It means that we get comfortable with not having all the answers.  It means that we make room for one another.  It means we critique power used and misused in both the culture (patriarchy) and the institutional church (with love…).

 So here’s a shout out to all the other feminist spiritual communities/churches out there (they are there, right, Monica?) – “what does it mean to you?”   

 And isn’t it great that it can mean so many different things? 

 

 

     

Retro-Wednesday: Circle of Grace as Elephant Orphanage

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This was first posted in 2010.

I received a thoughtful email from someone who used to attend Circle of Grace about my last post.  She had some insightful responses and agreed with my assessment of Circle of Grace as a place of spiritual healing.  

 She went on to remind me that many folks who ‘came through’ Circle of Grace often returned to traditional churches as she, herself, had.   She returned to the church in which she had grown up and with whom she had a deep connection but she continued, she would never had been able to do that without her time at Circle of Grace.  She said that she, too, pondered why we hadn’t grown and concluded that we needed to remain small to do the healing work we do.

 It reminds me of what my spiritual director shared with me some time ago.  She had seen a 60 Minutes special about an elephant orphanage in Africa.  A woman began a refuge for baby elephants whose mothers had been killed by poachers or who had physical defects (e.g. blindness) that had caused their ‘tribe’ to abandon them.  She and her workers take in these baby elephants and provide medical care and nourishment.  When a baby recovers sufficiently they go about the business of teaching the baby how to be an elephant- including pounding the ground with small logs to teach her/him how to read sound through the ground.   

 Some of the babies are so damaged or ill they don’t make it.  Some are able to be reunited with their ‘aunties’ and assimilate back into the wild.  Some recover but are never able to return to the wild and a new ‘tribe’ has evolved at the orphanage.   

 “That’s what Circle of Grace is like!”  she exclaimed.  “Some people heal and return to the church of their childhoods.  And some people find themselves to be more at home at Circle of Grace and become a part of its ongoing healing ministry, forming a new and different kind of ‘tribe’.”

 I remembered that comment after I got the email this week:  two very different people seeing the same thing from different perspectives.  A final thought my emailing friend shared was that she now takes stands and provides a much needed witness in her more traditional church. 

 I’ll keep pondering all these things and we’ll keep talking about these things.  For too many years I assumed we were supposed to follow a certain pattern and achieve specific things: membership, space, programs…

 Now, I just want us to walk as faithfully as we are able and do the work to which we are called.  I want us to keep on living into who we are and not into any superimposed idea of who we think we should be.  It’s an ongoing learning experience.  It is always challenging.  We’re always going to have to question our assumptions and let some of them go.  

 But I don’t guess we would do it any other way.

 

Retro- Wednesday: revisiting the beginning

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(this was originally posted in 2010)

Over sixteen years ago, twelve women took a class I taught entitled Christian Feminist Theology. Toward the end of the class several women said, “We want to do church that looks like this.”

For me, it was the beginning of a vision of what spiritual community could look like. Okay, then it was all women and mostly lesbians but it was s a good start. Our intent was to build community way more expansive. We didn’t want to repeat what we saw/see to be the shortcomings of the traditional church. Instead, we have found plenty of our own unique shortcomings. But more on that at a later date.

At our first retreat, working to form a covenant that expressed our vision, our big question was ‘ is there anyone who would not be welcome?’ followed by a lot of ‘what if’ questions: what if a skinhead came? what if someone showed up naked? or drunk? would those folks be welcome?

Our answer was: everyone is welcome, even those who we find distasteful. The only criteria is that their intent not be to disrupt worship. And by the way, for a long while, someone had a blanket in the trunk of the car, to cover the naked person so s/he didn’t disrupt worship.

The bigger vision we held, and still hold, is a community of women and men, children and elders, LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered, queer-identified, and intrasexed), heterosexuals, people with physical and mental disabilities, people with mental health challenges, Asian, African-American, and Latino folk- and anyone we hadn’t thought of yet. We wanted and want to create a community that is inclusive. And not merely inclusive of the kind of people who show up, but inclusive in the building relationships, making space for one another and struggling with all the messiness of living in dynamic community.
That kind of community can be built in many contexts but, to me is the imperative of christian life. The vision of all-inclusive community is a vision of the kin-dom. It is how we live Godde’s future in the now. Or as theologians would say: it is living eschatologically.
To that end this is the covenant we hammered out early on:
We, the Circle of Grace Community Church, as christians, covenant with God and one another to intentionally and self-reflectively:
* live with compassion and seek justice
* continually discern that to which God calls us
* build spiritual community that is inclusive of race, gender, sexuality, abilities, class,
culture, age and religious backgrounds.
* provide safe haven
* worship and pray together and our worship and prayer and that in our worship and
prayer our language about God and humanity will be inclusive.
* live in right relationship with God and each other
* speak truth to power.

Clearly ambitious and not particularly comfortable, building expansive spiritual community is like building a path in the wilderness: many people have to walk the way before the path becomes either clear or firm. We’re walking. We’re sometimes screwing it up. We’re sometimes the glory of what human beings can be. Mostly, we’re walking. We’re rolling. We’re limping or crawling. We are making a way together through the wilderness.
Stay tuned for more about the good, the bad, the ugly, the profane and the sacredness of our journey together.