Friday, December 10, 2010

Ebb and Flow

One mystery to me, in the formation of spiritual community, is the experience of ebb and flow.  Sometimes we, at Circle of Grace, engage with enthusiasm and excitement and at other times, we are ebbing and it seems like only a few of us straggle in on Sundays - the faithful, the hurting or the urgently seeking.

The unfortunate thing is, as pastor, those ebbing times affect my energy and creativity.  My dark side blames myself and assumes more responsibility than is healthy.  When we ebb there are things I don't do: calls I don't make, plans I don't escort to fruition, sermons I recycle rather than engage the text in a meaningful way while holding the community in prayer.   I get discouraged and my personal energy ebbs.  It is a chicken and egg question.  Do my actions (or lack thereof) contribute to the ebb or are they a response to the ebb?  Or both? Or is it all a viscous cycle? 

Either way, in times of ebbing, I find myself the least faithful.  My prayer life suffers.  My sermon preparation suffers.  I question my ministry. Has Godde truly called me to this work or is this all about me?  

I don't have answers to any of these questions.  Well, I do know it is not all about me.  And I do recognize my dark side (for those familiar with the enneagram I am an almost redeemed four). My internal conversation in ebbing times is my struggle with my dark side: doubt, fear, hopelessness.   

I am not proud of any of this but I need and want to be honest.  This blog is about the good and the bad of creating and participating in christian, feminist, ecumenical, spiritual community.  I am sure I am not the only one among us who wrestles with this.  Several blog postings back I talked about Circle of Grace as an elephant orphanage.  It is certainly one of our calls.  The down side of it is letting go of people who have become spiritual family when they return to their tribe.  It is another time we ebb.

Recently, in keeping with our feminist commitment, council members have taken on even more responsibilities.  Everyone is on a learning curve.  I, personally, have been on a learning curve for the past seventeen years.  As we transition in our collective and personal responsibilities things get lost or left undone.  When things are lost or left undone, we ebb.  We are a small community.  We are an intentional community.  And in our seventeen years there have been many times of both ebbing and flowing.  Looking back, all the ebbing and flowing seems organic.  But living through times of ebbing is always a challenge and never feels good.  

Frankly, I'm ready for some flowing.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

What if There is No Godde?

I'm not asking the question you think I am.
I am asking a question that makes my heart ache.

What happens to children who are raised with no concept of the Sacred?  My question might better be put:  what if there is no Godde in the lives of children?  How much do they miss out on?  How do they learn to think beyond themselves and the immediate present?  What ideas or experiences  counteract the messages of the dominant culture in the mind and heart of a child?  I wonder.  

I wonder about these things all the time because my childhood was so filled with the wonder of creation, with sacred encounters that I had words and stories for because I was nurtured spiritually.  I learned songs that formed my theological understandings.  I heard music that soared, inviting me into wordless wonder.  I was told stories that challenged me to think about the meaning of my actions, my relationships and my life.

I wonder about these things especially now in the Advent and Christmas season.  I ache for children who spend this month focused on 'stuff' and never experience the quiet joy of hope, the silence of peace, the mystery of longing, who are never encouraged to encounter  Godde in the sacredness of human relationships.

And then there is the problem of children encountering Godde as a concept.  It is one thing if children, left to their own devices, touch the holy in play, in creation, in relationship and quite another when, untutored, they come to believe (by default or by interpreting the messages of the culture) that Godde is either an invisible Santa Claus or invisible tyrant.

How can children learn about Godde when they are not given any language or stories, any encouragement, to think about the Sacred?  They learn from the adults around them what matters.  They learn from the adults around them how to be in relationship with spouses.  They learn how to parent from they way they are parented.  And they learn what it means (and how) to be in relationship with Godde from the adults around them.

Of course, this can be both good and bad but I like C.S. Lewis's assertion in his collection of lectures, The Abolition of Man, where he posits that teaching children the concepts and values of good and evil is important not so much because they will mirror the parents' (or church's) understanding of what comprises good and evil but because they will know that good and evil, itself, exists.  (for those of you uncomfortable with the idea of evil- I promise to go there another day.)   

Further, I would assert that teaching and modeling for children relationship with Godde grounds them  in knowing that Godde even exists.  Then, as they mature, they will develop relationship the Sacred on their own.   But if they never have the idea that Godde is encountered in relationship they might never enter consciously into that relationship.  

These days our kids spend countless hours before the screen, entranced by mindless television or video games.  When they are outside, it is often to participate in organized sports.  The 'go outside and play' directive has become uncommon.  So children have fewer and fewer opportunities to meet Godde in nature, in creation, in the changing of the seasons, in the exploration of the world around them.  And I have witnessed a certain callousness that surprises me when they do encounter the natural world.  Nature is not met so much with wonder  as it is as challenge, something that needs to be either controlled or endured.  It seems to have less reality than the current video craze.

My heart aches.  It aches for all the children who are missing out on something profound and spectacular.  For all the kids who are, in the words of Marian Zimmer Bradley, 'head blind' - or perhaps 'spirit blind' or 'soul blind'.   There is a reality, a majesty and a mystery to be encountered that cannot be perceived when the spirit of the child is not nurtured.  And if not nurtured, then Godde, creation, the universe are alien.  The self can be tempted to become the center of its known universe.

My heart aches.  For them.  For us.  For our world.   If you are a person of spirit, I urge you to share your story with a child.  I urge you to help a child encounter divine mystery in a snowflake,  a cloud, a breath of wind, a symphony, a tear drop, a loving act or a stand for justice.  Tell your story not because you want a child to become like you or believe like you, but because you want to introduce a child to her or his own spirit.  And because you have the honor of introducing that child to Godde.

Monday, November 29, 2010

What Makes a Spiritual Community Christian?

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.    

Friday, November 19, 2010

What makes a spiritual community feminist?

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? 


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Circle of Grace as an Elephant Orphanage

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 said 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 (like 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.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Identity Crisis

Truth be told, over the past seventeen years we have struggled to figure out who we are.  As in, what exactly is Circle of Grace?  It requires enough thinking to make my head hurt.

We are the same thing now as we were in the beginning, it just takes years to let go of assumptions and preconceptions and live into our organic reality.  When we first started we wanted to be a church- and we are a church- but over the years we have had to redefine what 'church' means- or at least challenge our individual and collective ideas about what it means.  Maybe we are closer to being a spiritual community. Because we are not connectional or denominational how we define ourselves is not preset.

This is what I know:
          We will never own a building.
          We will never have programs that involves teams or sports.
          We will never be large.
          We will always be intimate spiritually and personally.
          None of this is easy.

I confess that my struggle is often with internal formless expectations.  For a long while I thought that our goal was to grow and become self-sustaining.  I hoped for a membership large enough to support my addiction to ministry so that I could pastor Circle of Grace as my full time calling.  It is my full time job but the work doesn't support me financially.  (I'm not talking about making $30,000 a year,  but just enough to sustain a simple life style.)   I'm pretty sure that will never be the case.   My struggle/problem for years has been that it must mean I'm not doing something right.  Why aren't we growing into something financially viable?  Why can't the community support its pastor?  Why can't we have our own building?  

I admit, as pastor, there are probably lots of things I haven't done right.  I have been on the longest, steepest, seventeen year learning curve that has ever been devised.  But I don't believe it is any of my shortcomings or mistakes have hindered our 'growth'.  

Instead, I have come to believe that  we are called to be is spiritual healers in a world filled with spiritual abuse.  That's who we are.  We gather in folks who long for a way to connect with Godde, whose Christian grounding is important to them, but who have experienced judgment, abuse, discrimination, sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ageism, or ableism in the name of all that is holy.   

Who we try to be, who we feel called to be, is a reflection of the kin-dom of Godde.   Our perenneal question is: who is not at the table?  Most recently, we are aware that we need more men and more heterosexual people sharing the bread and wine.  How do we get all kinds of people at our table, in community, sharing life?  The short and long answer is that we try to make a safe space.  If you come, all of who you are will be welcomed.  A challenge?  Absolutely.  But we have managed to be safe haven for people with mental health challenges, physical disabilities, different races, genders, classes, understandings...
Those who leave are often those who are uncomfortable with differences - both in the expression of humanity and in the variety of theological understandings.

So we are kin-dom builders.  In our small way, in the cosmos of our community, we work to live out the kin-dom within and between us.  It is our holy work.  And frankly, it's not work that is ever going to draw in the crowds, not work that is ever going to attract big givers or appeal to those who desire the absolute sureness of their beliefs.

We are a church, a spiritual community, a gaggle of stragglers, visionaries, dreamers, mystics,  scholars, laborers, and seekers struggling to be Godde's dreaming enfleshed in the world.
It doesn't pay well.
It is not self-sustaining.
It is not large.
It is not easy.
But it is a life-giving, soul-healing opportunity to live authentically.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


When my daughter was a freshman in college and home on winter break she and a bunch of friends sat up all night gabbing and laughing while I tried to sleep in the back.
 "What were y'all talking about all night?" I asked the next afternoon.
"Sex." she laughed.
"What about it?"
"We want it."

It really doesn't get any simpler than that, does it?  Really, that's how most of humanity is programed.  We reach a certain age and our hormones begin to percolate big time.  We begin to explore who we are relationally and attractionally (is that a word?).  And some of us find the opposite gender rocks our boat.  Some find themselves to be same-gender loving.   Some are drawn to both genders (how lucky is that?!).  And our intersex friends may or may not experience sexual drive.  

Then there's the gender thing.  Again, some (1 in 20,000) of our intersex siblings must find their way through the ignorance and 'no person's' land of being born gender-ambiguous. (Which has much to teach us all about what it means to be human!)  Some of us are, as the Zuni Indians would say, "two-spirited people", people born experiencing our gender in opposition to the physical expression of our bodies.  It's all a part of the wonderful the multi-layered, multi-hued, creative impulse of Godde.

So how did we humans get it all so screwed up?  Both sex and gender are used to exert  power and control.  At its worst it manifests as the subjugation of women, hatred of gays, lesbians, bi and transgendered folk, physical and sexual abuse and rape.   The closest, most tender, most vulnerable parts of ourselves are turned and used against us.  I'm going to name it here: it is the patriarchy.  It is a system of power and gender hierarchy that in its worst forms is an expression is evil.  Yes.  I said it.  Evil.

Unfortunately, theologians have historically been men of the dominant culture, viewing the world through the lenses of privilege while assuming that their experience of the world was universal.  While most of these thinkers and theologians were good men with good spiritual intentions, they were not able to see beyond their own 'cultural boundedness'.  They never challenged the basic assumptions of the patriarchy so, historically, we have been stuck with fairly rigid perspectives on gender and sexual expression.

Here's where I want to suggest a different way of thinking about sex and gender.  Contemporary feminist and womanist theologians have challenged and continue to challenge patriarchal assumptions and have moved theological dialogue forward. (thank you!)  Acknowledging their influence, I want to talk about where I have come to about sex and gender.  

It is so utterly simple: it ain't about who you have sex with it's about how you love, how you are in right relationship with another.  

I do not believe there is any way Godde wants us to fret, worry or be suffocated by guilt and shame over our sexual orientation or gender (ambiguous or otherwise).  

Really?  I want to ask the big boys, Really?   You're all worried about who and how someone is expressing sexuality.  Isn't the more important question that we should all be worried about, 'how do we treat one another?'   

Here are the questions I think we should be asking:
1-  Is my action/expression exploitive of another?
2-  Am I loving and respectful of my partner and myself?
3-  How do my actions/life answer the question: Am I loving Godde with all my         heart and mind and strength and am I loving my neighbor as myself?

Those questions are both complicated and simple enough to beg each of us to think and act with loving integrity.  

If we think about those questions when issues arise like, oh, the Bishop Edie Long case, our questions of him would be not about which gender he may have had sex with, but whether or not his relationships were exploitive or loving, respectful, and filled with integrity.  Self-loathing doesn't leave much room for those questions.

As the weeks go by and we are faced with an epidemic of suicides by LGBTQ youth I hope we respond not by debating tired old theology based in the inherently abusive system of the patriarchy.  Instead, let's begin a new conversation.  One that starts with Creation as the artistic expression of Godde and ends with a call for all humanity to be in relationships that are loving to one's self and the other.

Monday, October 4, 2010

How Do You Know If Something Is True?

     One of the first questions a thinking spiritual person needs to ask is: "How do I know if something is true?"
     It's important to ask because there are lots of different 'authorities' for truth.  Historically, people have known things were 'true' by the following reasons:
          1.  Because the community collectively agrees something is true.  The community agrees on a certain interpretation of events.  As in: we were liberated from slavery,  we experience that as an act of God, so from now on we when we tell the story of our liberation we will talk about it as an act of God.  It is the community's truth.  The community's truth becomes personal truth.

          2.  Because our religious leaders (i.e. the church)  tell us it is true.  In this scenario people defer to religious leaders.  The final authority on spiritual matters and biblical interpretation is the Church.  A good example of this is the Roman Catholic Church whose final authority lies with the Pope.

          3.  Because the Bible says it's true.  This understanding was revolutionary in its day.  No longer did people look to the Church as their authority for the 'truth'.  The advent of the printing press and the Reformation commitment that people (including women)  learn to read the Bible for themselves shifted the understanding of the Church as authority to the Bible as authority.  That is where many religious people are stuck today:  It's true because the Bible says so. And don't get me started with the ideas of truth and facts.  The rise of scientific inquiry set theological thinking on its ear.  As we began to value scientific fact we forgot to make the distinction between fact and truth.  Here's a thought: the Bible may be true and NOT factual.  But that is a whole other rant!

          4.  Because my experience says it is true.  This is where feminists weigh in.  If someone, anyone, any book, any thing, tells me that something is true that does not resonate with my experience then it is not true for me.  So what if it resonates for someone else?  Then it (whatever 'it' is) is true for them.  Which leads us to understand a world in which there are many truths.

     Clearly, I subscribe to the last idea of spiritual authority.  Are there problems inherent with this  perspective?  Yes.  But there are an equal number of safeguards.  The greatest one being that those who fall in this camp accept that there are many (often conflicting) truths.  But if your life experience is challenged by what another is saying is 'true', the onus is on you to trust yourself.  By the same token, it is incumbent on each of us to honor that what is true for me may not be true for another.

     Why is any of this important?  It is not to water down faith, as some claim but, rather, it deepens our own relationship with ourselves and with Godde.  It is important that we not try to shove ourselves into someone else's relational understanding of the Sacred like so many Cinderella stepsisters and find   ourselves trying to fit into some preconceived understanding of relationship with Godde.  Claiming the authority of our experience leaves the door open for growth and change, for our understandings to unfold as we experience life and love, tragedy and grief, spiritual events and Godde over time.   To whit:  it is not a static understanding of truth, but an organic understanding.

     How do you know something is true?  Or as my seminary professors would ask: what is your final authority?  Can you trust yourself?  Your experiences? Your integrity?  Your willingness and ability to grow and change?

     How do you know something is true?  The answer to that question really matters.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What I learned at Retreat

       The annual Circle of Grace Retreat closed Sunday with our worship back at home.  Twenty-seven people (including eleven kids ages 6-15) gathered in the mountains to think, learn, pray, sing and 'do art'.  As background for those who don't know me: this was not my first rodeo.  Circle of Grace has gathered for a retreat nearly every year.  Each time there has been a different combination of people, different themes, different spiritual practices, even different times of the year.
     Every time we go away and spend days and nights together we learn more about one another, laugh more, eat more, sing more and pray more.  I am always in 'running' mode: keeping an eye on the details and the schedule, but sometimes I am also able to be, to sit, to listen, to share.  And it is in those times that I learn a lot.
    Here are some things I learned (or relearned) at this (and other) retreat(s):

  1.  I don't get as uptight when I remember that people are funny and let myself be amused.
  2. It is good for me to remember that I, too, am quirky and funny and it is okay when others are amused at my expense.
  3. It is still true, as Art Linkletter told us: kid's say the darndest things.  To my point, the highlight of the retreat for me was when the children led worship and one our kids wrote a prayer that included the line, "We hope you had a good weekend, Godde, because we sure did."  
  4. We all have something to teach each other, we all have things we can learn from each other.
  5. Being in community is a challenge.
     Here is some important stuff I re- remembered about being in spiritual community:
  1. I re-remembered that the bottom line of what we are asked to do in spiritual community is this:  we are asked to show up, to be present and bring all of who we are.  That means to bring our broken bodies, broken hearts,  our mental health challenges, our questions, our anger, our distrust as well as all of our good stuff: our sense of humor, our artistic inclinations, our voices (no matter how off-key or hoarse), our hopes and dreams, our love, and the dailiness of life.  Our art project was to make collages using images and words that reflect who we each are as individuals.  Mine included images of family, shared meals, emotionally traumatized grandchildren, being on a difficult journey with the scriptural reminder to 'be not afraid' in the background, and images of spiritual ecstasy.  I try to show up with all of who every time we gather and invite each member of the community to do the same.
  2. No one is perfect.
  3. I am not perfect. (shit)
    Last, though certainly not least, is the challenge of being christian, feminist spiritual community requires so little and so much.  After we show up, then what?  How do we navigate through the waters of our differences?  How do we deal with conflict?  How do we be who we are called to be?   I was reminded or I relearned this weekend that in addition to showing up there are only two (okay, three) other things we have to do.  
  1. We need to claim each one as a child of Godde.
  2. We need to be willing to share the 'Table' with one another and
  3. We have to let go of trying to control the outcome of any situation, believing that if we have shown up, seen each other as children of Godde, broken bread, drunk the wine and shared the stories, then it is time to turn all outcomes over to Godde.  That does not mean we don't continue to work on relationships or issues that arise in community, but that our tasks are grounded in viewing one another as Sacred beings and making room for one another's differences and flaws.  Our commitment to working it out is embodied by our sharing holy meals.  
     Turning things over to Godde, relinquishing control, those are hardest for me to keep in my brain.  I find it difficult to believe there is not some way I can manage a situation.   I have to keep learning this over and over.  I am not in control. I am not in control.  I am not in control.  So I work on the other stuff: showing up, breaking bread, and seeing children of Godde everywhere.  And I am grateful I have plenty of loving people in my community who remind me when I forget:  I am not in control.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Re-Imagining the Wheel

When there was a Re-Imagining Community (based in Minneapolis/St. Paul), Circle of Grace was a member.   The Re-Imagining Community was an ecumenical movement working to challenge the patriarchy in church and society.  One amazing year about half of us were able to go to Minneapolis and attend the Re-Imagining Conference.  Feeling like we had set out on a journey without a map (creating feminist, progressive, spiritual community) we eagerly looked forward to meeting people who might loan us a compass.
What we found was an amazing community of mostly women who were wrestling with our common issues in the setting of their traditional churches.  The lectures we attended, the workshops and worship experiences were all forward looking.  As amazed as we were to share the energy and the excitement of our time there and to meet others who shared our passion for ‘new wine’- we found that we were the ones actually doing/living the work.  The ones living the theory.  Independent of the mother church.  (that includes: independent of mother church paycheck, healthcare, retirement benefits, physical structures, developed educational materials, polity, et. al.- the price we pay for apostasy.)
That means we reinvent a lot of wheels.  One of those wheels is the idea of membership.  People bring a lot of baggage to idea of membership.  
I’m leading up to something here.  Last Tuesday we had our monthly council meeting.  At it we welcomed a new member.  That may seem very ordinary, but coming up with a concept of membership has been a long evolutionary process for us.  Early on, people had a lot of negative feelings about ‘membership’.   The baggage they brought with them was that membership was coercive and restrictive.  Membership, we were clear, did not mean a person signed on to a list of theological tenets.  No indoctrination.   What we ended up with as a statement of membership is that someone became a member ‘by declaration’- meaning: you’re a member if you say you are.   When we applied for our 501(c)3 status our statement of ‘membership by declaration’ ignited a flurry of letters back and forth with the IRS.
It worked for a while, but there are problems inherent with that idea.  The main one is that it is hard to value a relationship that asks nothing of you.  It’s also difficult for a community to work when there is no stated accountability or mutuality.  Our understanding of membership didn’t jive with our understanding of community.   
Over the years our elected council has had numerous conversations about membership: how does one become a member?  what does membership mean?   Our most recent agreement is that to become a member a person is invited to meet with the council and share her or his spiritual journey, give time for the new member to ask questions of any council member, for one or more of us to share parts of our spiritual journeys (to reflect our commitment to mutuality). and then for us to read and commit to our covenant together, the council representing the entire community.  (see our covenant on my first post)
This past Tuesday was our first actual experience of receiving a member this way.  It was amazing!  Our friend came with her daughter and shared her journey of spirit, her struggles, her joy, her anger, her passion.   Then two members of council shared some of their journeys.  We talked about making a place together for many different understandings and beliefs.  What ties us together is not that we all believe the same things, but that we covenant to journey together.  
Then came the time to read the covenant together and make those promises to one another.  Any questions?  Oh yes.  We talked and wrestled and took seriously what we were covenanting together to do.  And when our newest member felt she could, with integrity, covenant with us, we did.  Together.   Then we prayed and thanked Godde.  
I experienced something profound in our sharing and covenanting.  Something meatier and deeper can happen now.  The ‘demands’ of our covenant on me, if I take them seriously, can and do give me structure for my journey, challenge me spiritually, and connect me more deeply with those whom I have made these promises.
We probably still have a lot to learn about what membership means.  We will probably continue to have conversations about it, may even change our understanding of membership again one day.  But as I sat around the table the other night, I found myself thinking that it is not such a bad thing to re-invent or, better yet, re-imagine the wheel every once and a while.  

Monday, September 6, 2010

Losing our Innocence

Something happens when we grow up and find that the Bible stories we learned as children are not literal stories.   'If they are not literal then they must not be true.'  Our child self says.
It can take a while to grow to the place that says 'these stories may not be factual, but they are true.'  It takes even longer to get to the place where one can say,' 'Today, this story is true for me and there are stories in this book that are not true for me today.'

Many folks mourn the loss of innocence of an easy faith.  Of a predictable Godde.  Of one right answer.  The ambiguity of life and faith becomes a great big ole stumbling block.  Developmentally, we are Thomases, "If I can't see it, taste it touch it, then it's not true." Or put more simply, 'Prove it."

But the loss of innocence can be the beginning of wisdom and righteousness.

When I think of the concept of social contracts and what I call 'spiritual contracts' I think of the many contracts to which we subscribe.  A social contract is the implicit agreement of a people that organizes society.  In the United States we are organized around the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Following that line of reasoning a 'spiritual contract' is the implicit agreement between members of spiritual group that organizes their group like the ten commandments and the Golden Rule (love your neighbor as yourself).   These contracts can be approached in a couple of ways.  One is, 'if I keep my end of the contract I (me and mine) will be 'safe' (physically, spiritually, economically...).   Or two, if I keep the contract I will be called to be a deeper, braver, more conscious person in the world, I contract to that which calls me to be a better person, that calls me to a higher ideal, regardless of my personal safety.

I may be simplifying things, but that's at the core of it.  Since 9-11 and Katrina, we have lost the last shred of our innocence in this country.  We realize that we can be and are as capable of evil as any other people.  But we have this thing, this social contract, that calls us to strive to be a better people.  It's called the constitution (and the bill of rights) and though we have lost our innocence (again) we have not lost our contract.  I hope it keeps calling us back to trying to be the nation that was dreamed into being, however imperfectly, over two hundred years ago.  The question is 'how do we improve our contract now that  some of its flaws have been revealed?'

The same goes with our spiritual contracts.  When we lose our innocence over our simple understandings of religion, do we throw it all out?  I should hope not (or I'm really in the wrong business) or should we examine how well we are fulfilling our contract?  Are we willing to fulfill a spiritual contract so that we might deepen spiritually,  become more fully human,  more conscious of of ourselves, others and the Sacred in the world?  Or are we holding on to that get-out-of -jail free card that keeps us from some imagined hell?

It's a challenge.   Lose your innocence and become angry, bitter and hopeless.  Or lose your innocence and become righteous.   Lose your innocence and become wise.  Lose your innocence and become conscious.   We're  all pretty much going to lose our innocence.  What is left is  how we  choose to respond to that loss.

Monday, August 30, 2010

show up and work it out

One of the rich traditions of the Christian church, from its inception, is that the community of faith is called together to live out spiritual life.  What are we doing at Circle of Grace that is so different?  Absolutely nothing.  What's so important about making spiritual community?  Absolutely everything.
People are often surprised to discover that the word 'gathered' is equally important as the word 'faithful' when we speak of the church as the 'gathered faithful'.   We get the 'faithful' part when we talk about spiritual journeying.  We get the faithful part when we explore spiritual practices, when we engage sacred text, when we encounter Godde in mountain, ocean, rock, stream, or the oil rings on asphalt ....But we often just don't get the importance of the 'gathered' piece.  Even when we gather we sometimes come come as a solitary soul seeking nurture from the sermon or the liturgy or music.  We come looking for that spiritual hit that keeps us going through the week.  I'm not saying that's bad, I'm just saying that's not all there is.
Here's my take:  we share meals together, we sometimes hang out, we know what's going on in each other's lives but we're not a social club.  We pray for one another and we pray together for our deepest concerns and greatest joys but we are not a therapy group.  We are so different from one another in history, race, sexuality, politics that there is no other place we would all end up at the same time.  What we are, and I believe this to the bottom of my gut, is a ragged band of disparate people called to embody the kin-dom.

Building community that reflects astounding diversity is part and parcel of the Christian call.  We Christians have been struggling to do (and not do) this since the first squabbles between Peter and Paul.  This past week the Rev. Janie Spahr was disciplined in the PCUSA because she performed a legal, same gendered wedding.   Peter won that argument.  (for those of you who are not familiar with early church politics- Peter and Paul went at it about who was included at the table.  Paul said everyone. He ultimately won the argument in the early church. Question: why are we still having this fight?).

We, at Circle of Grace, take on the struggle of making room for one another and learning to love one another against the common notion of what comprises a viable community because we believe we are called to be Godde's dream.  We are working to be a microcosm of peace, cooperation and interdependence  in a world that needs that vision on a global scale.

That is why, in our shared life, two spiritual practices are particularly important:  the practice of showing up and the practice of working it out.  Not glamorous as spiritual practices go.  But it's our practice and as we continue these practices (with greater and lesser degrees of success) an amazing thing happens:  our spiritual lives deepen and our relationships with the Sacred deepen.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

You know what I hate?

     You know what I hate?  I hate abuse.  Any kind of abuse: physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual- you name a form of abuse and I hate it.  It makes my stomach roll and my skin crawl. It makes me cry.   If I witness it, it makes me angry.  I intervene even when it is dangerous for me to do so.
     Abuse has many faces.  It can be violent and coercive or manipulative and seductive.  Abuse scars the body, mind and spirit and makes otherwise reasonable and intelligent people doubt or even hate  themselves.   And that's when the abuse happens after infancy and is short lasting.  Then there is intense, sustained abuse, both pre-verbal and after a child or adult can express her or him self with words.   There is no good, better, best kind of abuse.  It all hurts.  It all damages.  It all diminishes one's humanity.
     In my work as a counselor I have been in the presence of women and men who wrestle with the self-loathing and despair that is a bi-product of abuse.  While I won't linger on that thought, don't pretty it up: the consequences of abuse are devastating.  The length and intensity of the abuse only speaks to greater or lesser degrees of devastation.
     That doesn't mean I believe that people can't heal from the experience.  I do believe that people can heal.  I believe it with all my heart.  Will they be the same as if the abuse had never occurred?  No.  But each one must find the courage to confront the fears, shame, anger, hurt, self doubt and loathing in her or his own way and heal into their lives.
     As a pastor, I see the vestiges of spiritual abuse in many of the folk who make their way to Circle of Grace.  Now I don't know if I made that term up or not.  But I recognized when a spirit has been manipulated or coerced.  I see the evidence when a seductive spirituality ties a person into a closed system of belief.  I have witnessed the violence of spiritual abuse against a young schizophrenic woman who suffered through an 'exorcism' to cast out her demons and consequently felt like a failure and an unredeemed sinner because she was not 'cured'.   I have held a young gay man, sobbing in my arms, whose family pushed him to the ground and 'prayed' over him for hours to be released from his sin of homosexuality.  When he wasn't, the failure was his, not theirs, and he was kicked out of the family.   I have listened to many women and men who feared God's rejection.  I have wrestled spiritually and intellectually with those who are terrified of being cast into hell. I have spoken with people who hate the church and aren't all that interested in Godde because of their experience of  'religious' people.  If those things are not abuse, I don't know what is.
     That's one of the reasons  the issue of power and how it is shared at Circle of Grace is so important to  us.   It is important that each one take responsibility for his or her own journey.  It is important that we make room for our differences in understanding and practice.  It is important that we do not have a closed belief system.  We know that circular reasoning can be both compelling and seductive and that it is far better (and more difficult) to admit we don't have all the answers.  Heck, we don't even  have all the questions.
      If there is one thing I pray our community maintains for its lifespan it is that we retain our memories of what spiritual abuse looks like, feels like, tastes like and that we guard against it in our shared spiritual lives.  Because if there is one thing I hate, it's abuse.

Monday, August 16, 2010

How different can it be?

       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 their 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.

Monday, August 9, 2010

how it all started

     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 this is 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.