Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Two ways of understanding faith

I spent the past weekend in Philadelphia at the bi-annual Regional Assembly for Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It followed, by six weeks, the bi-annual Convention of the Penn Central Conference of the United Church of Christ. Even as I write this, it sounds confusing. Easier to say Disciples and UCC, so I will here.

Every other year, both groups converge on a conference center to keep in touch, to recognize new clergy and those who have died and to celebrate many years of ministry. Children attend and have a “youth” track – activities that interest them. A good thing because sometimes what the adults do is not necessarily interesting to adults, though business is important.

At these meetings, I think it is truthful to say that I am the only person wearing the hats of two denominations: the UCC and the Disciples. I observe the differences between these sister denominations and wonder how they partnered; yes, I did take polity for both denominations in seminary, but practical application is a far cry from classroom learnings. Let me tell you some differences I observed:

Worship is very different – at the Disciples this weekend, each worship I attended was Praise Worship. Lots of singing and standing and Praising Jesus. Not much in the “familiar hymns” department. At UCC, there were contemporary hymns as well as some most Protestants sang as they came up in the church.

Preaching is another huge difference – at the Disciples’ it was filled with emotion and Biblical citations. At the UCC, a preaching centered on a central Biblical theme, but it was more intellectual and far quieter. Almost no “Amens” during the sermon.

At the UCC, it is required that clergy and lay ministers attend; not so at Disciples. At UCC, spouses were included and I saw fewer spouses at the Disciples though it is interesting (to me) that the spouses I did see were from the district of which Soul Link is a part. With the attendance requirement, 500+ attended the UCC event in June; about 200 attended this past weekend.

Sameness is also relevant.

At both, I renewed acquaintances, developed a few new relationships and participated at every level. I also contributed the same amount of money to the worship collections – a stretch gift for me. Father Jim Callan, a priest at Spiritus Christi in Rochester and Elmira, NY, said recently that once you give the money, it is given and there is no loss. I find that to be true and wish I could impart that wisdom to all those who contributed from scarcity rather than from plenty.

Another sameness: there are books for sale. Books are my downfall and since I cannot take money with me when I die, perhaps they will either cremate all my books with me or, better yet, give them to an institution that could use books on preaching and new church planting and making “tithers out of tippers” and church history. Not to mention seven or eight versions of the Bible in sizes ranging from carry-able to not easily portable.

One other sameness – and the basis for our gathering – God was present. In one venue as head of a Trinity in the other, as God, Creator. Not only was God present, so was Jesus, the foundation of the Christian faith, and the Holy Spirit, mover of souls. The question of Trinity in these settings seems unimportant to me, though I am sure that others might see me as heretic for my lack of caring. I think that however one comes to God, it is the journey that is important, not how you pray.

At one meeting there were many references to acceptance of all avenues to God – letting the broader community know that Muslims and Jews and Hindus and others all seek God, just using a different avenue. At the other, inclusion and reconciliation were important words but the way to God was only through Jesus.

If you know me and have read this far, you might wonder how I bridge the differences. Sometimes, I wonder the same. Let me give an example: my preaching appeals to both groups as does my style of worship. I can meet individuals wherever they are on their life’s journey and not condemn or tell them they need to change their thinking. I can sing the old favorites but prefer the new with upbeat music and find one praise song sufficient. I love all and welcome all to our church family. As a result of our worship, I try to send congregants out as Jesus-people, looking for the marginalized, or send them out knowing they are loved and cared for by the same God that so many other Christians and non-Christians recognize and pray to. I try to affirm community and how we can be active both within the church walls and within the larger communities where our homes are.

When I show my preferential “colors” is in small Bible study groups where I remind the participants that the scripture was not channeled to those who are named as writers of the gospel and again, in book groups where the books I select are contemporary and pushing the envelope of our Catechism teachings. I also talk to an individual about an all-loving God, not the Santa Claus God of childhood that kept a naughty-and-nice list and rewards us accordingly.

Bridging these two worlds of Christianity is frequently uncomfortable and I too often find myself wishing for one over the other. Then, in my more sane and objective moments, I remember that I am better off when I see my theology as residing on a continuum rather than at a solid end. I grow when I offer two views to those who ask me questions. And I grow when I see many points on that continuum – those points remind me that God is found in every experience, no matter the label.

Let the people say “AMEN!”

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