My frustration was coming out of my recent experiences at CHPC -- and also probably exacerbated by the fact that even when CWM isn't doing it for me I don't have anywhere else I can go.
Don't get me wrong -- First Church Somerville, UCC, is a vibrant church with an integrated GLBT presence (okay, maybe not so much T -- though there's a boy who sometimes dresses in drag who's very much a part of the community) and the preaching is energetic and intelligent and challenging and uplifting, and the pastors are good at pastoral care ... it is my secondary church home, and in part I'm just stubborn that I do "Rest and Bread" (Wednesday evening) there and so don't want to do Sunday morning there, but in part it's also not "mine" (I did Sunday mornings there last Advent, and I hated that so often I was pulled out of the worship experience, having to refer back to my bulletin, because it wasn't announced what we were doing next [e.g., hymn number], and when I raised that concern to Molly -- the senior pastor -- she said she thought they already did too much talking but she would be attentive to ways they could be more inclusive of/welcoming to people who were new; in fairness, Laura Ruth is very receptive/responsive to my criticisms re: Rest and Bread).
At Smith, I felt really conservative (e.g. I think ends sometimes justify means, I want to take seriously humanitarian arguments for war even when it's war proposed by someone you don't agree with, I'm really sympathetic to the idea that abortion is murder and that the law should reflect that) and then when I came back to my white-bread suburb I felt really radical (accepting/affirming of not only same-sex marriage [which Massachusetts legalized my junior year of college, and which I'd written a paper arguing for my senior year of high school], but also polyamory, kink, trans, furry ... hi, I'm a libertarian).
Similarly, at RMN Convo (a gathering of folks -- GLBT and Allies -- supporting full inclusion -- e.g., ordination, etc. -- of GLBT persons in the United Methodist Church) I was so confused that I wanted the language of the liturgy to be more socially/theologically progressive. "But I'm the most conservative person at Cambridge Welcoming, I swear," I would say. Michele responded: "Listen to what you just said."
I lay read at CHPC on October 11 -- National Coming Out Day. There was NO mention of NCOD. I thought about lifting it up during Announcements, but since I didn't know of any general Boston-area events, it felt sort of weird. But hi, you fail at being a More Light congregation if you don't have NCOD on your radar.
The Gospel reading that week was Mark 10:17-31.
Re: the "sell everything you have and give the money to the poor," Karl raised the question of whether we are called to do the St. Francis thing. "Ideally, yes [or possibly he said "maybe" -- I forget, and I'm not sure which is worse], but practically-speaking, that's impossible -- so instead we should use our wealth toward helping to build the Kingdom of God on Earth." Okay YES I am in agreement on that second part (which I would have felt much better about, btw, if he had cited John Wesley -- earn all you can, save all you can, GIVE all you can) but NO, giving everything we have to the poor is NOT impossible. It is HARD, yes, but it is NOT impossible.
And we are spending ~$30K to fix the giant stained glass window. Which is apparently cheaper than replacing it with glass. And there are a lot of reasons to stay in this building. And investing in the building is a leap of faith and a commitment to this church. But it still makes me uncomfortable.
This next Sunday, the Gospel reading was Mark 10:35-45.
Karl opened with the issue of how a lot of people question whether Christianity is relevant to people today. He said that there are words and ideas in the Bible that really don't connect to our experience today -- like servant. We don't have servants these days, and we don't even like to think about that idea, because we have egalitarian ideals. He said that while we don't have servants, we do hire people to do work for us -- and we even have the same patronizing attititudes toward them that people used to have toward servants. He said, "We don't encourage our children to become domestic help as a way to have a steady income." (Sitting there, with a family of black people a few pews in front of me, I thought, "What you say WE, middle-class white man?" In telling the story to my best friend the next night, I remembered that my maternal aunt-by-marriage used to clean houses. She grew up white and poor.) He said that we don't want to perpetuate exploitative ideas of ages past, but that we can reclaim this idea of "servant" with the idea of being of use to one another, and that this includes actually doing the work. He implied actual physical work, though he didn't volunteer any specific examples. And near the end of the sermon, he said something about how our task as church is to reclaim words/ideas from the Bible and make them relevant to today.
So many missed opportunities for a challenging sermon. Yes, many of us don't have an understanding of the word "servant" in the way that the first hearers of Jesus' words would, so let's talk about how Jesus would have understood the word "servant." Let's talk about what a radical, powerful thing it was for Jesus to say that he came to be a servant and that we are called to be servants to each other. Let's talk about Jesus washing the disciples' feet. Let's talk about how we treat those who serve us (whether it's someone we pay to clean our house or mow our lawn or the waitperson at a restaurant or the cashier at a grocery store). Let's talk about how Jesus said, "Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me."
At the receiving line I was going to ask Karl, "So if our task as church is to make language relevant, why don't we rewrite the Lord's Prayer?" but instead I said, "You look like you want to abandon the receiving line." He said it's because we were running late. I said, "But we never start anything on time." He agreed. And p.s., it was not even noon, and book study was announced to start at 12:15; I dunno what he was in such a frelling rush about. And srsly, I am the person who wants a strict timetable, but I am not going to abbreviate the receiving line unless I have something really fracking important I'm actualfax late to.
So I asked him before book group instead. He said it has been rewritten, in some lots of really beautiful ways. I said, "I know. But we don't use any of them." And he said that for whatever reason, the Lord's Prayer is something that people in this church really don't want to change. I said, "So there have been actual conversations about this in recent memory?" He said yes.
So we had the first session of book group on John Shelby Spong's Sins of Scripture. Which I hadn't read any of (I got my ILL copy on Friday), but I doubted that would impede my ability to participate in group discussion :)
Karl opened with asking us which ideas/passages we find most difficult. I thought this was a great way to open the session. Though at one point I did comment: "Most of these things I've already made my peace with. The stuff I have the hardest time with is the stuff we ACCEPT -- like the call to give up everything to follow Jesus." I might have been feeling a bit pointed. I did also, partway through the listing, ask, "Do we want to include the texts that have been used to oppress GLBT persons? I've already made my peace with those texts, but..." Because HI, we had listed like 5 things and NO ONE had mentioned GLBT issues. I was very conscious that I was sitting in a room with a half a dozen straight people. At CWM it would have been the first thing mentioned -- and by no means would it necessarily have been a queer person who mentioned it.
Karl then asked why we keep coming back. Is it because we're masochists? People talked about how they learn new things from wrestling with these texts, how they find comfort, etc. I said, "Because I'm a Christian. [This was the part where I almost said, "Because I'm a Methodist," wanting to reference Scripture/Tradition/Reason/Experience.] Because these are the texts that my tradition have found powerful for millennia. Because if I'm going to just pick a few ethical precepts and a few hymns, then I'm not a Christian. If I am going to call myself a Christian, I am obligated to deal with ALL of this."
Karl talked about how the Reformed tradition has a history of engaging critically with Scripture (John Calvin wrote volume upon volume of Bible commentary) and this really rubbed me the wrong way, as if no other denomination has such a history. Which is maybe unfair of me because I don't have that reaction when Tiffany talks about the social justice history of Methodism.
Ellen said that at Presbyterian churches the sermon always relates to the Scripture, which isn't true in other churches she's been to. I said, "Do you mean they went off lectionary?" (She didn't.) Karl made an aside that the lectionary is a recent artificial invention. I didn't say, "But we use the lectionary here. Wherefore the negative/dismissive tone?"
She mentioned a Methodist church for example. Someone said something about the pastor and she said, "Well he's not there anymore, so..."
I said, "Well Methodists have an itinerancy system."
She said she knows that, and she knows that the congregation doesn't get to choose their pastor.
I didn't say anything.
And then we just started on the first chapter of the book.
Afterward, Munir said to me, "I see you have a library copy -- so some libraries DO have a copy of this book." I said, "Of course -- this is BOSTON." It turns out he had never heard of Spong. Um, okay. I also got the impression that he thought Spong was doing this radical thing such that libraries wouldn't stock copies of it (cuz the evol conservatives rule everything, or whatever). But maybe I am reading too much into his tone.
Munir had apparently been the one who had suggested we do a book study on this book (someone having brought the book to his) attention. Karl said, "Look what you started, Munir," said it had kicked off some really good conversation. I said I wasn't so sure about that -- that basically what I was hearing was that conservatives are bad and that the Reformed tradition is good. Karl basically said that the idea that we can question Scripture might not be new and liberating for me, but that it is for other people -- that different people are going to get different things out of a study like this. I said that was true. (Though really, everyone at this study has been at CHPC longer than I have; I don't think this is news to them.)
There is a Session meeting this coming Sunday. I will go to that and hear about what has happened with the church since January's Annual Meeting, and I will hear about their plans for the future, and I will probably keep my mouth shut and decide to stop attending.
I want a church that has a (radical, prophetic) vision of the Kindom of God and is working to bring it forth on Earth.