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.