Shortpost 1- guns

I wrote this thought in my church journal. It has no specific bearing on any church. It was just something that came to me.

Christians shouldn’t want guns. If we say we place our trust in God, why do we need weapons?

It has been on my mind that Christians arguing for guns as defense against humans seems backwards. Jesus was all about peace. Jesus said if someone slaps you, let them slap you a second time on the other cheek. He didn’t say retaliate, he didn’t even say defend yourself. Jesus told us to trust God. Shouldn’t that be enough?

Church #58, First UMC Rensselaer/ Iglesia Emmanuel

Date: 6/1/14

Church name/type:
The church is called First United Methodist and is part of UMC the United Methodist Church, but also goes by the name Iglesia Emmanuel

Pastor: Mariana Rodriguez

Style of worship:
The service was about half music, half message, with communion at the end

Language: Spanish was used extensively but portions of the service were translated either by a churchgoer or by the pastor, repetition style. I was able to understand much of the Spanish and it strikes me that the very thing I’ve complained about in the past- Christian phrases and special meanings- were the things I caught when in another language.

Useful takeaways:
The music was really great and there was a lot of it. I was at this church for around three hours. Granted the service started a bit later than advertised. The sign lists 2:30 as service. It was probably closer to 3:15. But the music was a significant part of the worship. Everyone was singing boisterously and clapping or using percussion. Several songs were mixed Spanish and English. A couple were Spanish only. Everyone was just having so much fun singing. It really felt awesome.

The sermon had some good points. It was of course a little harder to absorb because a lot of my focus was on the Spanish. Part of the sermon related how God cares for us and gives us good things. But it was also made clear that God doesn’t take away all troubles, so that we shouldn’t expect God to magically make everything great. This has a nice balance, although I think it needs much more elaboration to fully make sense. And as I said, the Spanish translation may have contributed to loss of part of the message.

Communion was really nice. The entire church stood in a circle and we all took communion at the same time. Its kind of hard to describe why this felt so nice. I think it may have been the intimate number of participants. There were about 12-20. After this we sang again.

Problems/Improvements: I had a disappointing conversation with the musician after church. He had asked me elaborate why I no longer worshipped in the Catholic Church. I started to talk about church governance and the Catholic Church not being able to listen and change. He pointed out the the people could be corrupt. I answered that the leadership could be corrupt too. I said I thought there were many ways to read the bible and interpret it. He started to argue that the bible is very clear, you just have to read it. I tried to point out some discrepant interpretations for verses, but the conversation just kept going back to him saying, “No it is very clear.” I found myself saying, “I respectfully disagree.” He just pointed out how the bible is clear. Again.

Church #57, South Bethlehem United Methodist Church

Date: 5/25/14

Church name/type: South Bethlehem Church, UMC

Pastor: Mark Ledbetter

Style of worship: Formulaic but very friendly; probably a lot of room for creativity within the segments of service

Useful takeaways:
Children’s Moment: This was delivered by a layperson (or maybe a deacon or Deacon equivalent?) named Paul. He talked about parties and invitations He said heaven is going to be like a party. There may be people we don’t expect, but God loves us all and he’s the one sending the invitations. It was kind of a nice reminder that we need to be good to everyone, not just those we like or those we’d invite to a party.

The sermon was titled ‘We are not alone’ – that is, of course to say we always have God. This idea is a bit of a cliche and pastor didn’t delve too deeply into it except as something of a reminder. A more interesting bit to the sermon was an emphasis on allowing the world to see Christ in us every day in what we do. Pastor kind of spring-boarded off the children’s time message that we need to remember to show others goodness and qualities like: justice, kindness, compassion. He pointed out that there is no room in our lives for: bullying, racism, homophobic jokes, and slurs. And sometimes we must show love by saying hard things to loved ones when they make such hurtful remarks.
I have to say I really appreciate the depth of such a message. It is hard to teach others tolerance, just as it’s hard to hear it from others that we have been intolerant. I am actually kind of inspired hearing this message. It’s hard to explain why, but I guess as someone whose views have changed, I feel hopeful. Hopeful for myself and others, that we can continue to be shown new better ideas and accept them.

More along the lines of an item for awareness, this church is only a couple of turns off 9W, but it still manages to feel tucked away from everything; it has sudden rurality. The road I took to get to it has one sharp sharp turn, one steepish hill, and is narrow enough to be a candidate for one way if it was in the city. This is nothing the church could fix of course, but might be good info if you went say at Christmas in a snowstorm.

Understanding God by listening- both sides of my coin

My quest for church is also my quest for understanding the thing we call God. Notice I didn’t just say ‘God’? That’s because I don’t think it’s that simple. I’ve mentioned before how we all have an idea of who God is. Even atheists who think God is fictional have an idea what a person means when they start to talk about God. But people’s ideas can sometimes be so drastically different as to beg the question whether this could even be the same entity. How can we know who God really is? The two answers I’ve received are 1) reading the bible 2) communing with God through prayer. Now, I think the bible has some serious problems. Although it is an actual physical thing we can hold, I’m not sure how good a ‘proof’ it is in terms of telling us definitively who God is. I’ve spoken to this before, but in short it’s an ancient reretranslated book that few people can agree on how to interpret. So I’d like to instead speak to communicating with God directly by praying and listening. Here are my conflicting sides of this ‘talk to God’ coin.

Side one:
Only my stupidest, most frivolous and inconsequential prayers have ever been answered. I once asked for a parking space, boom! There was one. I asked for the elevator to hurry up, ding! There it was. I asked for God to allow someone’s asthma attack to end. It got worse. I asked for God to spare the life of my friend’s sick infant. No. And so on.

I have been told that God listens to his children at prayer and gives them good gifts. My own experience suggests that God does this only for very small matters, as if he either does not care or hasn’t the power to work on larger matters.

Side two:
Something like a decade ago I occasionally had the ability to predict unlikely things. A coworker at a kids camp lost his wedding ring at the camp. I mean- a camp full of dirt and trees and a large lake. I told him, “Don’t worry you’ll find it.” He did. How did I know this? It could have been at the bottom of the lake for all I knew. The second clear example I remember was when a friend of mine was sick with cancer. I was thinking of him and almost in this meditative state asking in my head, “Will he be ok?” In my mind I saw a thick book open to the middle. There was text on both pages too tiny to be read. Overlaying both pages, right across the middle of the book in black text I saw the word YES. And my friend recovered and is in remission.

The other side of my coin tells me that something special happened to me during that brief period if my life and I was able to see answers before they came about.

What do both sides of my coin mean? Well they perplex me. I know that many people have also had similar coin sides. Many pray and still lose loved ones. Many pray and are seemingly granted a miracle or divine contact. I’m still thinking about this one; still open to possibilities. I hope it isn’t too corny of me to say I see God in those possibilities.

Peers in church

This is something I’ve been mulling over for several weeks but haven’t come to any big new conclusions or revelations. I’m wondering about the role of peers in church. I think we all have a certain expectation that a church should feel like our home. One way of making sure a church feels familiar and comfortable is to find a church populated by our peers. It certainly helps to find a church of the same variety or denomination we were raised in. Apart from that there are other factors that make a church group feel like our peers. What do the attendees look like? Do they resemble ethnicities we are used to interacting with? Are they from our socio-economic bracket? There are many factors that make the people we meet easier or harder to relate to. Something as simple as growing up during the same handful of years and watching the same television create a shared background. I find these factors increasingly relevant to the church project. It takes more effort to relate to the churches of predominantly black attendance. It takes more effort to relate to churches that speak another language during service. It takes more effort to relate to churches with members who have not had the financial privileges I’ve had. For me the project is partly about intentionally pushing myself beyond this boundary. I could stop at any of the churches I find full of the familiar. But I think I need to see more because there is more to be seen. I don’t see an ending yet, so I don’t know how this will all wrap up. I just know I don’t want to stop. Not yet.

The cross a pictorial symbol

So, out to lunch with my friends John and Evelyn we discussed churches and finding the right fit. One of the things that came up was a nice pictorial symbol involving the cross itself which I had not heard before. The cross in a literal, visual way is two bars crossing each other. One points upwards and the other crosses it horizontally. John described this as two keys to one’s faith experience. The bar pointing upward represents a focus on God and his honor and worship. The bar crossing horizontally represents social justice. Put differently, this is the great commandments: Love God and Love your neighbor. Seems like a solid way to think about one’s faith.

Church #56, St Timothy’s in North Greenbush

Date: 4/27/14

Church name/type: St Timothy’s Church, ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church America)

Pastor: Greg Tennerman

Style of worship: Parts of the service were organized into a particular order, but each portion was approached casually

Useful takeaways:
The entire service with hymnal page numbers and bible selections was printed on the church handout. There’s virtually no way to get lost and if you did, the pastor seems chill enough that it would be ok.

Another great thing, the seats are cushioned, with a rounded lower back. I’ve actually never seen seats like this. I don’t know if they work for everyone, but the little bit of low back support was really nice for me.

The sermon was about Doubting Thomas. It’s kind of tradition to tell this story on the Sunday following Easter because it’s the only story we are sure happened (first half anyway) on this Sunday. The interesting thing about the story is that Jesus appears to his frightened disciples and tells them to pick up where he left off. Then a week later they are still spending their day in a room with the doors locked! They haven’t gone out and taken a chance on Jesus’ words. They haven’t spread his news or healed anyone or helped the sick. This serves to remind us that the disciples are like us. We hesitate. What is it we are waiting to begin? What good thing should we be starting that we are not?

The last question the pastor posed was about signs of the resurrection. Of course we just had Easter and so the resurrection is still very close in terms of church calendar and in our minds. He gave some examples and told a few stories of miraculous (and possibly miraculous) occurrences. My favorite was the fish story. At one point the pastor owned a large fish tank with one little fish inside. One day, Good Friday no less, the fish went missing. Everyone assumed it managed to jump out of the tank and died. Come Easter morning, the fish was there swimming around like nothing happened! The question the pastor asked us was this: Is it proof of the resurrection for you? I love the open-endedness of this question. People see their faith very personally. And in different ways from each other. Of all the stories we hear, some speak to us and some don’t. Every person gets to decide what speaks to them. I like that.

Problems/Improvements: No one actually greeted me on their own before or after the service, although I did get a lot of smiles. It’s a little tough to say for sure how I might have been greeted had I not immediately tried to find my contact new friend Marilyn after service. The other unusual thing was the large number of visitors present for a baptism. Definitely not a typical week, so I guess I don’t really know if the greeting style needs work or not.

One other thing that is less a problem and more an unusual thing, is the building. It’s clean, painted and kept well, but not shaped much like a church. I thought it was an elementary school. I was going to park at the ‘school’ and examine my map program again to find the church when I realized I was at the church. Again not so much a problem per se but something to be aware of should you be having trouble finding it.

Gender Essentialism ramblings

Right now there is a lot of talk in some evangelical circles about whether or not patriarchy is harmful as a model for Christians.* I am mostly seeing this peripherally because I am not in such circles. I follow exactly one blog that speaks to this issue, so I can’t claim to know all the specifics of what’s being said. Patriarchy among Christians refers to separate roles for men and women in families and in society, with the expectation that women are subordinate to men. In its very mildest form this is sometimes referred to as complementarianism. Both terms could be classified as gender essentialism. Those who subscribe to gender essentialism believe that gender is so important that it can and should dictate the proper role for you in some, if not all, aspects of your life. Common roles assigned to women are those involving childcare and housework, with the expectation that men are better suited to working outside the home. There are Christians who believe that women should never attend college, instead staying home until their father finds a worthy husband for them. On the other end of the gender essentialism spectrum, there are Christians who believe women can get a higher education, work outside the home, or pretty much anything men do, but a wife should defer to her husband for final decisions of import to the family. All along this spectrum wives are expected to subordinate to husbands in some way. Sometimes this extends to fathers directing and controlling their daughters. Often this also means females are seen as unfit for Christian leadership positions. My travels have shown me many churches in which there is a clear prohibition of women to pastorship.

I think it’s time Christians ditched gender essentialism. Some already seen to have done this. I strongly suspect UCC has no specific instructions anywhere for how females should act differently than males. In fact, in 2011 they made a resolution regarding sexual orientation and gender identity that suggests churches should do more to fight discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. I think Christians still debating approval of same-sex relationships will find themselves on shaky ground if they try to toss out one-man-one-woman, but keep gender roles intact. And vice versa. Once you decide same-sex relationships are ok, it seems to me gender roles automatically have to go out the door as well. If you base your marriage ideal on different roles for the man and the woman, what will you do when there is no man? Or no woman? Some might see this as an argument to keep both gendered roles and ‘traditional’ marriage. I see it as exactly the opposite. I resist the idea that as a female I need to like pink, or enjoy shopping, or cook, or care for babies, or any of a hundred different things society sees as my place. By the same token, I resist the idea that I must submit to my husband as a matter of course, or be barred from pastorship if I felt called to it. And if I’m deciding gender should not define what I do in my life or my marriage, I can’t very well tell others that it should make a difference in their marriage. It all goes together; gender essentialism and woman/man marriage are a package deal. Keep it all or lose it all. I favor losing it all.

I see much of the gender essential viewpoint as stemming from the teachings of Paul in the letters of the New Testament. In recent years I have started to recognize the heavy emphasis on Paul over Jesus indicated in certain Christian teachings. I think this is a mistake. There is a reason we call ourselves Christians and not Paulians. In many cases Paul taught things Jesus did not. I think it’s possible Paul sometimes overstepped his bounds in what he taught the new Christian communities. I also think it’s possible we overstep in how we view these letters, which are just that- letters. As I recently pointed out to a friend, I would never pick up a love letter someone wrote to his wife and decide it could tell me how I was to live my life.

There are some real problems with gender essentialism I think don’t fit with the good Christianity purports to do in the world. Putting people into different boxes makes it hard on them in case they need to get out of those boxes. Husband ruling over wife might work just fine in some cases. What if the husband is abusive? What if the husband makes bad financial decisions? What if the wife wants to make even one decision on her own? How many exceptions to the rule are needed before we can get past the rule and throw the boxes out altogether?

*The primary story involves Doug Phillips of Vision Forum. This itself is a lengthy story, but to be as brief as possible, it’s a sex/sexual scandal. Phillips claims he fell into an “inappropriate relationship” outside his marriage. The woman in question claims she was “methodically groomed” for abuse and manipulation by Phillips because he was set up as a figure in highest authority over her from age 15. This directly speaks to patriarchy because of its implications that women are to answer unquestioningly to men.

Easter, JC Superstar Again

The other day I was singing through the album Jesus Christ Superstar with my atheist housemate. It’s something I like to do around Easter. The musical speaks to me strongly and forces me to really think about the Easter story and my own beliefs. This year the thought occurred to me: I think we do ourselves a disservice by not imagining Jesus as a human. Jesus Christ Superstar very much paints Jesus as someone who is fully human, who doesn’t clearly understand God’s purpose for him, who hopes he’s getting it right and, ultimately, someone who fears death. The pain Ian Gillan expresses as Jesus is clear, and horrible. To see Jesus as God who knew what was coming and could expect to wind up in heaven as basically a prince at the end, misses a huge part of the story. Seeing Jesus as human allows us to imagine that it could be us there on that cross, in pain and dying, wondering what it all was for. Seeing Jesus as human lets us feel his death in a more real way.

But wait, I can hear you saying. Most Christians make a point of saying that Jesus was both God and man! True. But conceptually this is not an easy thing to understand. The early church worked itself into hysterics trying not to swing too far in either direction. Since then the terminology has always been along the lines of “fully God and fully human”. But in taking this superposition-like stance I think we lose something. When we try to see Jesus as both God and man, we wind up seeing him as neither. Jesus death as death is almost a revelation to us. I think we need to try to see Jesus as merely human at least once in the course of our faith journey, if for no other reason than to remind us how barbaric the human race can be. Once upon a time we considered questioning the established rules as so dangerous, that we tortured and killed a man over it. Have we come far enough since then? Putting aside the foreordinance of Jesus’ death, it becomes a great tragedy, one we must avoid repeating. Putting aside the idea that Jesus was God, the story is still terrible; the story of a human who died, in great pain, believing himself almost completely friendless. Putting aside even the emotional agony, Jesus’ death is still a death, and one that was orchestrated and carried out by humans on purpose to another human. We need to be more shocked by this, and by the knowledge that even two thousand years later we haven’t completely figured out how to stop killing each other.

Church #55, Terra Nova Church

Date: 4/13/14

Church name/type: Terra Nova Church in Troy, a nondenominational variety of Evangelical, affiliated with Acts 29

Pastor: Ed Marcelle

Style of worship: not overlong, sermon bookended by praise, communion is possibly every week

Useful takeaways:
I liked the way we were given the option to choose either juice or wine as the sacrament. The individual holding the cup actually held two cups. They were clearly labeled ‘juice’ and ‘wine’. No big deal, no explanation needed, take the one you prefer. Perfect!

Crowd- This church has a mostly young demographic. This is important because it helps the probability that the church will stay vital and alive. I’ve seen churches struggle with aging membership. To not have to worry about it on an immediate ongoing basis is nice.

I had some real issues with several of the things said in the sermon. I tried to write the pastor’s words down as faithfully as possible, but in many cases I’ll have to paraphrase. The sermon was in regards to verses from Luke 13: 18-21 and 22-30. The first bit is a couple of metaphors about the Kingdom of God. First it’s compared to a mustard seed which grows to an enormous tree that birds may roost in. Next it’s compared to a small bit of yeast which makes a ball of dough rise. Neither metaphor for growth is really a problem as such, but it becomes important to know just what the Kingdom of God means. I always took it to mean heaven. In my interpretation, heaven is given an expansive quality. Maybe it keeps growing as more people enter? Heaven will never be full!

The pastor seemed to go in a different direction. Eventually it was clear he saw the Kingdom of God in terms of people on earth who are getting it right- the correct type of Christians bound for heaven. He went on what felt like a tangent about how important it is to get the Christian message out. Conversion. He seemed adamant that we basically become obsessed with our Christianity, that we need to never lose sight of it and always seek to spread the word to others. He even used the metaphor of a virus spreading from person to person, which, is a little weird, right? Should we really think of Christianity as something that invades us without our permission and makes us ill? But it sounds like what we actually want isn’t important. The pastor made a point of saying we need to stop shying away from the word submission. He then immediately followed up by reminding us that “Men are called to be the head of their household.” These two things are both issues that deserve their own posts, but I’ll try to be brief. The idea of submission is tricky. Who or what are we submitting to? Anyone can claim we ought to submit to them. Anyone can claim it’s because God says so. But submission is another way of saying, stop questioning. That’s just not something I’m in favor of. Maybe as a theme there’s a good way to use submission…but I haven’t found it yet. This coupled with the immediate reminder that wives submit to husbands suggests a hierarchy common to Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches. Namely that women answer to men, who answer to the male pastor, who answers to God. It is foolish to suggest that all men will know better about spiritual things than all women. At least with a pastor there is some training that had to happen first.

Taking things back to the Kingdom and it’s growth, pastor said this is hard for us to see because the Kingdom in Anerica is not that big. He said- there’s maybe 1%-3% Evagelicals here? So right away that excludes me, as I don’t self identify as Evangelical. Thanks for leaving me out of the kingdom, dude! The pastor went on to describe incorrect ways of looking at the Kingdom, including pluralism and universalism. I found his descriptions of pluralism and universalism to be rather shallow. He described people who say all religions are right and that there’s no difference between a Christian and a Muslim or a Buddhist and a Christian. Then he challenged us to put these pairs of people together and tell them they are exactly the same, to see how well it goes over. That strikes me as a very flawed understanding of what is meant by universalism and pluralism. I don’t place myself in either category, so maybe I can’t speak to this fully, but as I understand it, neither of those schools of thought claim that everyone is identical. It’s about where the focus lies. Is the focus on our differences or our similarities? Pluralists and universalists seem more about seeing similarities and understanding that decent people can come from any religion, not just one special brand of Christianity.

And finally there’s the assertion the pastor made about an inclusive heaven. He said that there are people out there who think everyone gets to go to heaven. Ok, that’s true. But he followed by saying, “if all go to heaven, there is no good and evil, no consequences.” This is blatantly false. Does this pastor actually think that God is the only thing stopping humans from killing and stealing from one another? Does he see all atheists of incapable of self-restraint? Of course there are consequences for evil here on earth. If I punch someone in the face, I can’t just tell people, “I recently became an atheist so it’s fine!” I’m going to need to face an angry bruised person and probably the police. There are actual secular reasons for the things we do on earth, and I’m surprised the pastor can ignore this so nonchalantly.

The entire sermon was one I had very little use for. It seems like the pastor hasn’t actually met any of the groups he criticized. If he has then he clearly hasn’t gotten a true understanding of where they are coming from. That strikes me as an important piece of knowledge for one who wishes to convince others.

Overall: Actually this was one of my favorite weeks. I met someone through the blog who invited me to this very thought provoking church and then stayed around to talk with me afterwards. It’s clear we don’t agree about some stuff, but the talk was good. I like meeting people invested in their faith, and hearing what they have to say.