The Ordination Paper of Brittany Caine-Conley
Member in Discernment at Sojourners United Church of Christ
Prepared for the Shenandoah Association of the UCC
Introduction: The Still Speaking God
God is still speaking. This simple phrase, which seems both straightforward and affable, is actually a revolutionary statement when pitted against the obstinate rigidity of fundamentalism and, conversely, the despairing claim that we are on our own, without any holy intervention.
This still speaking God does not live in the existential order, the place where things exist and are contained and grasped and manipulated. Instead, God lives in the vocative order, where untamable events call and call and call, drawing us outside of ourselves and outside of what we fathom as possible.
The claim that God calls us into the church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be servants in the service of the whole human family, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory, is not a claim of God’s existence, but God’s insistence.
The Church was founded in the way of Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, in whom God has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the whole creation to its Creator. And yet this Church, this entity, this order, this construction which attempts to contain and maintain God, must consistently and faithfully hear the deconstructing, reinvigorating and insistent call of God.
We hear this insistent call of God by way of the Holy Spirit, who is creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races. As this Spirit of goodness moves in and around and through and between us, we are drawn toward the kingdom which has no end, God’s dream of a mended, reconciled and peaceable creation.
God is still speaking, indeed. As God whispers, shouts, sings, cries and calls and calls and calls, surely I must answer.
Theology is, technically, the study of the nature of God and religious belief. Since God and religious belief are big, amorphous, always happening, always growing, tricky yet simple, and uncontainable types of things, so, therefore, should be theology. Instead of speaking about theology, I prefer to utilize both the term and the concepts of theopoetics. While theology often calls for systemic truth, easily captured answers and an emphasis on logic, theopoetics calls for imagination, mystery, and embodied experiences of the divine.
By adopting a theopoetical stance, I’ve found myself untethered from the normalization and domination of institutionalized dogmatics. Within this imagination, mystery and embodied experience of the divine, I hear God calling and calling and calling. At its most basic level, the call sounds like this: Madly follow a parabolic messiah who deconstructed the conventional structures of society and religion, always gazing with a hope beyond hope at God’s dream, which we cannot fathom but inherently understand.
My theopoetical perspective can be summarized in three frames of reference: Deconstruction as the Hermeneutics of the Kin-dom, Jesus as Parable and Parabler, and the Absolute Future of God’s Dream.
Deconstruction as the Hermeneutics of the Kin-dom of God
The ideals and framework of deconstruction give us a glimpse of this all-encompassing but sometimes fleeting thing that we call the kingdom, or kin-dom, of God. I like to refer to the kin-dom as God’s dream of a mended, reconciled, thriving and whole creation. Deconstruction helps me to describe how such a dream might feel and function. So what actually is deconstruction? It’s impossible to fit deconstruction into a single, narrow, tidy definition. And since it’s impossible, I’m going to follow my deconstructive inklings and attempt to define it anyway! My views of deconstruction have largely been influenced by the ideas expressed by John Caputo in What Would Jesus Deconstruct?
First, I wish to state what deconstruction is not. Deconstruction is not destruction. When a thing (a text, an institution, etc.) is deconstructed, it is not pulled apart until nothing is left. On the contrary, deconstruction rejuvenates, reimagines and brings forth new life. Deconstruction is not negative; it never proceeds without love. Contrary to the view of its opponents, deconstruction does not proceed with a nihilistic pessimism, it proceeds with hope; with a hope beyond hope. Also important to note is that deconstruction is not something that you do, it’s something that happens. Constructions—like the church, for instance—are auto-deconstructed by the events (undeconstructables such as God, justice, democracy, etc.) that they attempt to contain.
Deconstruction as a framework was developed and utilized by French philosopher, Jacques Derrida. While Derrida’s post-structuralist, postmodern philosophy has influenced postmodern theologians, other theologians have branded deconstruction as nihilistic and depressing. However, in the introduction to What Would Jesus Deconstruct, James KA Smith claims that, “The church doesn’t need Jacques Derrida in order to be deconstructed, because its got Jesus!”
So what, then, is deconstruction, what does it have to do with Jesus and how can it be viewed as the hermeneutics of the kin-dom of God? Smith shares his perspective: “Deconstruction is a work of love, and deconstruction happens because it is animated by a vision for something different. Just as the law is deconstructed with a view to the advent of justice, so the church is deconstructed with a view to the advent of the kin-dom.” Deconstruction is something that takes place within a text, within an institution, within anything that has been constructed, and it happens because these constructions attempt to harbor, to contain an uncontainable truth. A truth such as Jesus.
Smith continues, “…Jesus’s vision of the kingdom deconstructs all our domestications…the whole project [of John Caputo’s work in deconstruction] is animated by a passion for just institutions—a desire to see things otherwise, to see an institution opened to the Other, to the future, and most importantly, to Jesus who will surprise us.” Deconstruction is a process of opening up, a process that rejects our domestications and forces us to take a different look at the church and at the Jesus we are called to follow. As a hermeneutics, deconstruction provides a style to interpret the kin-dom of God or dream of God.
An important aspect of deconstruction is the concept of an “event.” An event is something undeconstructible, something truthful that lies within a name, a text, an institution, etc. Events belong in the vocative order; they draw us, call us, pull us out of ourselves; they are the call and what is being called for. While events are vocative, names and texts and institutions and systems and all constructions belong to the existential order; they are what actually exists; they are real, tangible things. As an example of the difference between an existential name and the vocative event that the name harbors, Caputo identifies democracy: “Anyone who hears what is resonating in the word ‘democracy,’ (or ‘Christianity’), anyone with an ear for its poetics, for what it promises and recalls, knows that no existing democracy, nothing that dares call itself a democracy today, is up to what is called for in that name.” Democracies as we know them do not demonstrate what is called for by the idea of democracy. This same premise can be applied to Christianity. Surely, those of us who claim Jesus, we the church, do not ever fully function in the way that God’s call, God’s name requires of us.
Another example of the contrast between vocative and existential is that of justice and law. Systems of law are constructed to promote justice, to make justice a reality, but they inevitably fall short of justice and often exacerbate injustice. Caputo says that, “Justice in itself does not exist but it is something we demand and something that is demanded of us,” and then concludes, “In the deconstruction of the law, the law is exposed to the call of justice in order to provoke the reinvention of the law, thus offsetting the tendency the law has to close down around itself. Justice aerates the law, turns its soil, keeping it just.” The same can be said about the Christian church. Deconstruction causes the event of Jesus, the call of God’s kin-dom, to break through the institution, keeping it in check and forcing it to constantly renew itself as the Spirit moves.
This event, Jesus and the kin-dom, is risky business. We may say we want the truth, that we invite Jesus into our hearts, but when Jesus actually gets close we may turn and run the other direction because he looks ominous, frightening, ugly, and even smells bad. The church would prefer a sanitized truth, one that has been cleaned up, white-washed and made to look sparkly and attractive. We must be reminded that the truth is not shiny, that the truth will set us free but only by flipping our life inside-out and upside-down. Caputo says that truth spells trouble, Jesus spells trouble, and that, “The next time we look up to heaven and piously pray ‘Come, Lord Jesus,’ we may find that he is already here, trying to get warm over an urban steam grate or trying to cross our borders.” To Caputo’s portrait of Jesus as the homeless person or undocumented immigrant I would add the drag queen, the young Syrian, the tattooed bartender and every other face that has ever been on the margins of the Christian empire. This Jesus, the one of the New Testament, and the one we continue to follow today, demanded nothing less than a radical metanoia, a change of heart. In “Power/Knowledge and Liberation : Foucault as a Parabolic Thinker,” Marc Lalonde states Jesus’ demand as such:
In many ways, did not Jesus illuminate transcendence through transgression of the status quo? Did he not wander in small groups, engaging in sporadic and local struggles with the political and community leaders of Judah? There was no attempt to organize an institution to replace the existing structures; instead, Jesus not only preached metanoia but lived it, allowing those around him to experience liberation through a radical reorientation of perception and life practices.
Jesus called and still calls his followers out of current constructions and realities, toward the transformative, upside-down, ugly, radical and sometimes chaotic kin-dom of God.
Practically, adopting a deconstructive stance allows me (and hopefully us) to move with the Spirit that continues to call and challenge. The deconstructive stance demands that we do not hold on to our constructed truths with clenched fists. As we realize that change is required or that our previous beliefs don’t hold firm, we must allow the Spirit to guide us through the difficult task of letting go and looking toward a future that we don’t yet understand. Jesus deconstructed the norms and institutions of his time, and we must allow him to continue to do the same today.
Jesus as Parable and Parabler
Jesus was (and is) a parabler and a parable that deconstructed what was known and assumed. Parables function deconstructively. Jesus utilized parables to deconstruct what his listeners assumed about religion and the kin-dom of God. Parable has particular purpose in teaching and in literature. In The Dark Interval, John Dominic Crossan expresses the literary purpose of parable. He states that while myth creates a world, parables subvert the created world: “Myth proposes, parable disposes.” Parables open up space for something entirely new and unexpected to happen. Crossan explains why the parables of Jesus are so important:
Parables give God room. The parables of Jesus are not historical allegories telling us how God acts with mankind; neither are they moral example- stories telling us how to act before God and towards one another. They are stories which shatter the deep structure of our accepted world and thereby render clear and evident to us the relativity of story itself. They remove our defenses and make us vulnerable to God. It is only in such experiences that God can touch us, and only in such moments does the kingdom of God arrive. My own term for this relationship is transcendence.
Even though Jesus’s parables have often been sanitized, domesticated, or explained away as allegory, it remains clear that they contained a subversive character that deconstructed normalized assumptions and truths. Two great examples of this subversive character are the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the good Samaritan.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” — Luke 13:18-19 (NRSV)
Like any passage of Scripture, this parable can be and has been interpreted in many ways. The different accounts of this parable in the synoptic Gospels and in the gospel of Thomas explain the mustard tree in varying ways. From a branch, to a shrub, to a tree, to the greatest of all trees, the evangelists all had something different in mind when explaining the flora that Jesus compared to the kin-dom of God. It seems that a popular image of the tree in this parable is a large and towering one that is stronger and more regal than every other tree. Mainstream imagery and commentary would liken the mustard tree to the mighty cedar of Lebanon. However, in reality, a mustard plant is at best a shrub and at worst a weed. Jesus compares the kin-dom of God to a shrub, which is starkly juxtaposed to the imperial power of a kingdom that would be similar to a mighty cedar. Jesus deconstructs our assumptions about the kin-dom of God.
Mustard bushes, unlike cedars, never grow big and strong, and yet they are invasive plants that pop up everywhere and take over in nondescript ways. Religious leaders wanted the church to grow like massive trees, but Jesus suggests that the kin-dom will spread like wild weeds. Bernard Brandon Scott explains this reversal:
An empire is more like a cedar of Lebanon. But Jesus’ parable burlesques this assumption. It pokes fun at our expectation that an empire must be a mighty anything. Caesar’s empire or Herod’s client kingdom might have such pretensions. But for Jesus, God’s empire is more pervasive that dominant. It is like a pungent weed that takes over everything and in which the birds of the air can nest; it bears little if any resemblance to the mighty, majestic, and noble symbol of empire of Israel or Caesar. Take your choice, says the parable.
The stout and hardy religious institution is deconstructed by the wild and wayward kingdom!
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.“Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”— Luke 10:25-37
This parable is well known. The phrase “good Samaritan” is widely used to describe someone who does a good deed for another. However, when viewed as a simple lesson on morality, it loses its insurrectionary genius. I was struck by this paragraph in Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, which suggests that it is important to retell parables in modern language and within current contexts in order for parables to retain their stark messages of paradox and reversal:
Today even the most biblically illiterate Westerner “knows” that a Samaritan is compassionate and that Pharisees are “bad-guys.” But this is precisely not what any first-century Jew would have thought—Samaritans were the hated half-breeds and Pharisees the most popular of the religious leaders. To have the proper impact on a typical conservative American congregation in the twenty-first century, a preacher ought to consider retelling the story with the man in the ditch as a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, the priest and the Levite as two upstanding local pastors, and the Samaritan as a fundamentalist Arab Muslim (or perhaps an atheist black feminist!).
This suggestion for a culturally appropriate retelling was wonderfully executed by Clarence Jordan during the Civil Rights era in his Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts. Jordan tells the parable as such:
One day a teacher of an adult Bible class got up and tested him with this question: “Doctor, what does one do to be saved?” Jesus replied, “What does the Bible say? How do you interpret it?”
The teacher answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your physical strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” “That is correct,” answered Jesus. “Make a habit of this and you’ll be saved.”
But the Sunday school teacher, truing to save face, asked, “But … er … but … just who is my neighbor?” Then Jesus laid into him and said, “A man was going from Atlanta to Albany and some gangsters held him up. When they had robbed him of his wallet and brand-new suit, they beat him up and drove off in his car, leaving him unconscious on the shoulder of the highway. Now it just so happened that a white preacher was going down that same highway. When he saw the fellow, he stepped on the gas and went scooting by. Shortly afterwards a white Gospel song leader came down the road, and when he saw what had happened, he too stepped on the gas. Then, a black man traveling that way came upon the fellow, and what he saw moved him to tears. He stopped and bound up his wounds as best he could, drew some water from his water-jug to wipe away the blood and then laid him on the back seat. He drove on into Albany and took him to the hospital and said to the nurse, “You all take good care of this white man I found on the Highway. Here’s the only two dollars I got, but you all keep account of what he owes, and if he can’t pay it, I’ll settle up with you when I make a pay-day.”
“Now if you had been the man held up by the gangsters, which of these three—the white preacher, the white song leader, or the black man—would you consider to have been your neighbor?” The teacher of the adult Bible class said, “Why, of course, the nig—I mean, er … well, er … the one who treated me kindly.” Jesus said, “Well, then, you get going and start living like that!”
Jordan recreates the parable of the good Samaritan in a way that subverts normalcies and expectations about race. His parable deconstructs the powers and systems of racism and names the outsider, the black man, as the one who is living God’d dream. If I were to rewrite the parable, I’d put a white male politician from the religious right in the ditch, have a Bishop pass him by and a wealthy Christian author with impeccable teeth cross to the other side of the road. My Samaritan would be a gender queer, mixed-race teenager who has had an abortion and can’t speak English. The outsiders are in and the insiders are out, that’s the radical, parabolic claim of the Gospel.
Jesus as the Parable
One of Jesus’s best teaching tools was his use of parables, but the greatest, most poignant parable was (and is) Jesus himself. The arrival of Jesus, the messiah, as a newborn to unwed parents who were poor and filthy wasn’t exactly the good news for which the Jews were yearning. They desired a stately king to come and set things right, to rule God’s kingdom with a powerful hand and imposing stature. Instead of this strong messiah, they got a wandering teacher who spoke in provocative parables and touched lepers. Jesus’s life was a parable, but the crux of reversal and paradox was his death on the cross. Crossan explains the utter terror Jesus’s disciples must have felt at his death:
There was the Cross, and the immediate conclusion was that it represented the divine rejection of Jesus. But if Jesus’ parabolic vision was correct, then the Cross itself was not rejection but was itself the great Parable of God. Now, and probably only now, they finally understood what Jesus had been telling them all along. The Cross replaced the parables and became in their place the supreme Parable.
The death of God on a Roman cross, executed as an insurgent against the imperial power. There is no greater turnabout, no greater surprise than this. In a stunning statement of deconstruction, Crossan says this about the ultimate parable: “Each time the Parable is in danger of becoming fossilized and turned into a myth, it subverts its own domestication and breaks the very structures that would contain it.” The Parable of all parables—Jesus, son of God, murdered in embarrassing fashion—deconstructs the institution that attempts to harbor and contain it.
The Absolute Future of God’s Dream
Another key of holding a deconstructive stance is understanding the difference between the future present and the absolute future. The future present is simply a continuation of the present; it’s a future that makes sense with our current reality. This formulation of the future provides us with nothing different, nothing surprising; we continue as we are with no discovery and no radical transformation. Alternately, the absolute future shatters the horizon of all of our expectations and conceived possibilities. It is my opinion that the church has been strolling along a path toward the future present, a future that looks quite similar to what is and what has been. However, as the body of Christ, we are called to nothing less than to dream of the absolute future, a future where God’s dream abounds in ways that we could never fathom. We’re called to dream about this absolute future, but also to live it day by day.
Caputo claims that to be religious is to be a searcher, that we religious folks must be the ones to dream of things that have never been done and ask “why not?”. He connects the significance of the absolute future to conceptions of the spiritual journey, the path, the step/not of following Jesus. If we were attempting to arrive at the future present, we would not be on a journey at all. Part of the inherent richness of a journey is that you don’t really know where you are going, that at any point you could take a misstep, or obstacles could arise that make your way forward seemingly impossible. Caputo says this about the journey and the absolute future: “Real journeys are full of unexpected turns and twists, requiring a faith that can move mountains and a hope against hope, where one does not see what one was trying to do until the journey is completed, which postmodernists call the “absolute future.”
If we were simply to become what we already are, if the church was to continue to be what it already is, there would no room for transformation, no hope of metanoia. It’s important to remember that our religion centers around the most outstanding shattering of a foreseeable future: When God showed up as a poor, homeless man, who spoke in riddles and hung out with local untouchables. If we wish to follow this God, we too, must be radical spiritual sojourners, getting lost on a mangled path that leads to God knows where.
Part of yearning for this absolute future means following a vocative God who is weak, powerless and mad. Before throwing stones at me for the last statement, stick with me for a few. I’ll begin by reiterating a truth that seems self-evident but is often sanitized and glorified: Our entire faith, the whole Christian narrative, hangs on the crux of an event where God was completely weak and powerless, where God, was executed. God chose to relate to us, not through military strength, societal power or reasonable explanation, God came to us through the foolishness of the cross. First Corinthians 1:22-25 tells us that:
Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
Deconstruction and the absolute future live within this madness. Caputo says, “There is something wonderfully mad and anarchic, something parabolic and hyperbolic, about deconstruction, an unmistakable madness there for justice and the gift centered on the affirmation of the possibility of the impossible.” Jesus asks us to love our enemies, which is completely mad because that would make us weak and powerless! The key to the kin-dom is to love those who hate you and whom you are supposed to hate. Loving the lovable is completely possible, but loving the unlovable, the ones who are impossible to love, is God’s dream. Loving those who you should hate, showing them reckless hospitality (because what is hospitality if it isn’t reckless?), giving them a gift that will never be returned, that is complete madness, it’s impossible.
Love means to surrender to the impossible, and that’s exactly what a deconstructive view of love would predict: Loving those who cannot be loved. Love is only love when it’s impossible to love. Hope is only hope when hope seems least possible. Faith is only faith when faith is impossible, for it we had the answers, faith would have no place. Hospitality is only hospitality when it seems impossible to invite the other. Forgiveness is only truly forgiveness when an unforgivable act is forgiven. God’s kin-dom is a completely mad, strategic reversal of power and powerlessness, strength and weakness. Jesus, as the provocateur of the kin-dom, deconstructs everything we know about being reasonable, powerful, strong human beings, pointing us to a future of God’s dream that we can’t quite comprehend but desire with our whole selves.
The UCC: History, Theological Roots, Polity and Practice
The United Church of Christ is a richly diverse conglomeration of people and communities attempting to live God’s dream of a mended, unified and uniting creation. I will discuss history, polity, theology and practice in the following sections: Roots and Traditions; Theology, Justice and Diversity; and Polity and Practice.
Roots and Traditions
As someone who appreciates holy subversion and holy revolution (and holy deconstruction!), I love to learn about the many streams of dissent, renewal, and reform within the Christian tradition. I am fascinated by the many diverse demonstrations of Christian community which have spun (and re-spun) away from common foundations. On the other hand, many proponents of a catholic Church will bellow toward the hundreds of denominational identities. Written within an overarching Church story that contains continuous divisions and a lack of communion around Christ, the history of the United Church of Christ illuminates a hopeful vision of divergence and convergence.
The UCC is a union between four traditions: The National Council of Congregational Churches, The General Convention of Christian Churches, The German Reformed Church, and the German Evangelical Synod of America. While the different denominational structures were unique in theology and ecclesiology, they shared a desire to unite under the headship of Christ. In his essay about the merger, Rueben A. Sheares explains how their similarities were stronger than their differences: “They agreed that Christ and Christ alone is the Head of the Church. To be drawn to Him is to be drawn to one another. To perceive the unity in Jesus the Christ is to feel pain over the dismemberment or the separation or the division that exists within the Body of Christ.”
The Congregationalists, who grew out of the Puritan movement which put down roots in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, first merged with the Convention of Christian Churches, a conglomeration of Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian offshoots. Likewise, the German Reformed Church, a people grounded in the Heidelberg Catechism, first merged with the German Evangelicals, a Reformed and Lutheran tradition carried to America by German immigrants during the second quarter of the 19th century. These initial unions paved the way for the final union between the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Churches in 1957 at the Uniting General Synod.
A finalized union of the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Churches seemed, at times, unlikely. Some groups within the Evangelical and Reformed denomination were wary of joining together with an already established congregational polity, and desired a more organic process than the Congregationalists offered. Anti-union Congregationalists refused to acknowledge the power within the General Council to make decisions on behalf of the autonomous churches and even presented a civil case against the council. Even though the anti-unionists won the initial case, it was eventually overturned, eliminating all legal barriers for union.
Through this process, the Evangelical and Reformed Church was surprisingly optimistic about the union. President of the Church, Louis W. Goebel stated:
So long as they continue to extend to us the hand of friendship and fellowship, it would seem to us that we, who are members of a church committed to the principles of the union of Christ’s Church, are bound to continue our willingness to accept that…hand.
Perhaps this attitude was presented in haste, since it allowed for a constitution to be drawn up before union, which was contradictory to the Evangelical and Reformed Church’s initial position. Even with such trouble, turmoil and hasty decision making, the groups were able to form together to create the United Church of Christ.
As I mentioned previously, I find hope in the fact the UCC arose from division and communion. Often, holy dissent resulted (and still results) in fracturing and splitting within established denominations and churches. There seems to be some fine, invisible line between necessary, transformational subversion and bitter, unhealthy schisms. Obviously, we would not be in this denominational place today without the faithful actions of dissenters who broke away from Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, and other traditions. However, it is heartwarming and awe-inspiring to realize that there were (and still are) those who upheld union and commonality instead of petty differences of polity and insignificant variations of theology. For me, it’s a vision of breaking away from restrictive religion to reform with energizing faith. May we continue to follow this vision.
Theology, Justice and Diversity
Since the UCC emerged out of four distinct strands of Christianity and continues to leave room for holy diversity, it’s theological identity remains assorted yet unified. Lee Barrett points out four theological worlds evident within the UCC: The world of estrangement and reconciliation as presented within neo-Orthodox and post-liberal theologies; the world of benevolence and reform as represented by neo-liberal and social gospel movements; the world of oppression and liberation seen within liberation theologies; and the world of sin and redemption, witnessed within evangelical movements. His classifications of theological worlds are helpful, since typical terms of “liberal” and “conservative” lack any helpful clarification and create ideological binaries which are limiting and problematic.
In terms of my own theological leanings, I tend to invest my beliefs within trends that minimize oppression and maximize release of the captives. I am drawn toward liberation theologies, theopoetics, deconstruction as the hermeneutic for the kin-dom, process theology, Christopraxis and as I expanded earlier, taking up our crosses of parable and madness. I agree with Frederick Herzog when he states that:
Of first importance is no longer our Christology but our Christopraxis: it is Jesus’ justice struggle that first engages us. We do not have the leisure to reflect abstractly on the suffering of God, for Jesus leads the caravan of the despised into struggle with evil.
Theological processes such as the systematic approach seem to lack teeth; for me, they don’t hit the ground running.
My liberationist tendencies seem to fit well within the UCC theological spectrum, as I already noted that Barrett considers liberation as one of the four theological worlds. However, a question remains: How do I reconcile with the orthodox/neo-orthodox and evangelistic trends within the UCC and the church at large? There is no simple answer here and this question will remain a tumultuous challenge for me. While I appreciate unity and I long for communion within the diverse Body, I also realize that no church can be everything for everyone and that prophets of justice will be hated.
There are many ways to address difference and build bridges. There are certain talented souls who can bring together oppositional groups and find commonality in difference. There are folks who address inequality head on with public witness. Typically, I am frustrated by the apathy and fear which call for standing by, remaining silent, and allowing the norm to conquer the just. This happens all too often within groups, communities and churches that are situated within privilege. They call on Jesus but, for a multitude of reasons, refuse to call out injustice and systems of oppressive power. Feelings of cozy fellowship cannot be allowed to stamp out the subversive call of radical love. Barrett pronounces, “The old yearning for ecclesial unity must not be allowed to muffle the cries for justice.”
This call of radical love proposes that justice/witness and theology walk hand in hand. I often proclaim that my calling is to stand at the intersection of theopoetics and social justice and jump toward the chaos that passes by! Unlike many denominations that simply perceive justice in a programmatic and accessory manner, the UCC acknowledges that justice and peace are central components of the gospel and the church.
According to the “Understanding the Issues” section of the UCC Justice and Witness Ministries website, “Doing justice, seeking peace and building community are central to the identity of the United Church of Christ.” The page lists areas of justice in which the UCC has committed hard work and advocacy. These issue areas range from bullying to immigration to low-wage workers to torture awareness to physician assisted suicide. It seems that the UCC is not afraid to tackle difficult conversations and push beyond religious appropriateness in order to stand with those who are in need of compassion and care.
For me, this up-front acknowledgment of divisive topics is a breath of fresh air. It appears that most denominations claim justice as an important endeavor, but the claim stops there; in terms of actual praxis, justice gets left behind for the sake of bureaucratic control and system “togetherness.” I am amazed that controversial topics like abortion appear front and center within the UCC’s justice framework. I’d be hard pressed to find a statement like this one, “As a human rights issue, reproductive justice promotes the rights of people to bear children they want to have, to not bear children, to raise the children they do have in safe and healthy environments, and express their sexuality without oppression,” promoted by any other mainline church.
By advancing the primacy of social justice, the UCC has made a clear statement about the importance of diversity within Christ’s Body. The UCC has invited those on the margins of the Orthodox church to participate fully in God’s dream of a mended creation. This inclusivity and focus on diversity extends beyond church membership to the polity and ecclesiology of the UCC. Even though the wider voice of the church pushes the boundaries on topics of social justice, the UCC leaves room within its organization for difficult conversations and dissenting voices. I am intrigued by the concept that a passionate church in conflict can still be the united Body. When reading John Thomas’, “A United Church That Stands for Something,” I was fascinated by his reworking of a Dale Turner quote: “A church in conflict that stands for something is better than a happy and comfortable church that stands for nothing.” I love the premise of a community proposing prophetic, difficult stances while still engaging in important conversation and making room for all. Honestly, it seems to be an impossible balancing act, but attempting the impossible is our deconstructive call from our vocative God.
This improbable balancing act is one reason that I deeply desire to be authorized for ministry within the UCC. I delayed beginning the process of ordination previously because I was afraid of the typical limits and boundaries set forth by institutionalized systems of church. I don’t want to contribute to a system that preaches the love and greatness of God but then, practically, projects the radical composition of the gospel as inappropriate and reverts to the normalized status quo. Consequently, I believed that my ministry would take place outside of the authorized and ordained system. Within the past several years, however, I have felt my being moving toward the UCC. With its strong emphasis on justice, its prioritizing of diversity, and its audacity to stimulate difficult conversations, I believe I have found a home within the UCC. Unity within heterogeneity is surely God’s dream.
Polity and Practice
The United Church of Christ celebrates autonomy and covenant within its polity, walking the difficult but important line of both/and. Local church autonomy and larger church accountability have both been spots of tension through out the history of the UCC. However, when approached in a holistic manner, autonomy and covenant work together to create fully-formed, diverse identities within the Body of Christ that thrive together in ubuntu.
According to Donald Freeman, “…the assertion of local church autonomy, along with the autonomy of instrumentalities and institutions of the church, has been one of the most controversial features of the polity of the United Church of Christ.” The congregationalist stream of the UCC desired more autonomy after the merger, while others felt more comfortable with a centralized system of power. Freeman, in “Autonomy in a Covenant Polity,” argues that much of this tension results from a reductionism of the definition of autonomy, which presents autonomy as freedom from the powers of oppression. To overcome this reductionism, he suggests a more robust definition, in which autonomy promotes mutuality. I appreciate Freeman’s words on mutuality: “Mutuality, for instance, is neither [dependence/separateness], and indeed it has been argued that only persons and social units with a fairly clear sense of who they are—autonomy!—have what it takes to own covenants and maintain mutuality.” It seems that communities and persons who are unable to fully become themselves and live into their own beliefs (or, who do not have the opportunity for autonomy) are therefore unable to form healthy covenant with others.
Recently I watched a video of children responding to the media storm surrounding Caitlyn Jenner and one very wise young person stated, “If you’re not yourself, then who are you?” This is a powerful statement at an individual level, but it also stands true for communities of faith. I’ve seen the damage that can be done when communities and individuals are constricted and forced to assimilate or dismantle. I firmly believe that the spirit of God is never coercive, constricting or normalizing.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this section, the word that comes to mind for me as I consider the mutuality between a self-identifying autonomy and a interdependent covenant is ubuntu. Ubuntu is the idea that my humanness is wrapped up together with your humanness. Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains it this way:
Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu, u nobunto’; ‘Hey so-and-so has ubuntu.’ Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, ‘My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.
What better way to describe an interdependent mutuality than to call it a bundle of life?! During an interview, Tutu proceeded:
God’s dream is that you, and I, and all of us will realize that we’re family; that we’re made for togetherness, for goodness, and for compassion. In God’s family, there are no outsiders, no enemies. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Buddhist all belong. When we start to live as brothers and sisters and to recognize our interdependence, we become fully human.
I love this vision. Obviously, Tutu’s call for ubuntu stretches far beyond the UCC and Christianity, but his words ring true for any denomination, group or community that attempts to follow the Way. As individual parts of Christ’s Body we are called to be fully ourselves and to affirm the full identity of others. Let us navigate the tricky waters of covenant with one another in the midst of covenant with God, radically seeking out unity in diversity.
This concept of unity in diversity can also be applied to the sacraments. It seems that the UCC has an opportunity to transform the understanding of sacraments from exclusionary rituals to embodied experiences of radical love. This transformational sacramentology is spelled out by Louis Gunnemann in his two essays, “Baptism: Sacrament of Christian Vocation,” and “The Eucharist: Sacrament of Discipleship.” Gunnemann claims that the purpose of Baptism is to share in Christ’s Baptism; that this likeness with Christ is our vocation as Christians. He rightly notes that within this Baptismal emphasis, “the Church will be able to address the problems of community, justice, peace and reconciliation in our time.”
Due, in large part, to my Anabaptist catechism, I agree with Gunnemann that Baptism should be less about religious rite and more about incorporation into a Body which works toward reconciliation and peace while risking all known securities. My Methodist friends demand that Baptism is not about our choice but about God naming and claiming us. In that case, however, the act of Baptism actually becomes about us; it signals our own worthiness and makes us feel good. There’s nothing at all wrong with celebrating God’s foolish love for each of us, but this sort of ritual prepares people for inaction. A Baptism of Vocation (or a Baptism responding to the insistent call of our vocative God) taken on by someone committed to following the treacherous way of Jesus is all about action and risk that propels us outside of our current horizon of possibility and hope and pushes us toward the risky journey toward God’s absolute future.
The same comparison is true for the Eucharist. A table which represents our own personal salvation can easily produce self-serving guilt. An experience that brings us together with the One who showed the way, with our own community, and with the entire world can be life-altering and creation-altering. As we remember Jesus’ unorthodox example of faithfulness, we become thankful for God’s goodness and join together is Christ’s redemptive mission. Holy Communion should be a practice that demands and yet enables discipleship.
Hopefully an ideological shift concerning sacraments will also propel a practical shift in their administration. Isn’t it fascinating that young people are sprinting away from the convoluted rituals of the Church but, instead, are flocking toward the unhealthy and sometimes dangerous rituals of other groups, such as Greek fraternities and street gangs? I wholeheartedly believe that we all desire initiation into something that is greater than ourselves. If our sacraments are reimagined within the radical dream of God, perhaps more people will desire to be initiated into the topsy-turvy, reconciliatory Way of Jesus.
What does this reconciliatory Way of Jesus have to say about authority, power, and being set-apart for ministry? Pastors, priests and ministers are often held highly as God’s anointed, while laity can be overlooked, abused and confused. However, the UCC seems to bring clergy persons down toward the status of the laity, with a mixing of the embodiment and empowerment models of ordination. Like the UCC, I have a difficult time choosing one model over the other; I appreciate the minimizing of hierarchy within the empowerment model but also see the need for prophetic challenge, which is more accentuated in the embodiment model.
Questions and concerns regarding ordination arise when people possess differing views of call and power. (Or, they arise when power dynamics are not acknowledged at all.) There are a multitude of ideologies concerning God’s call to particular people. The embodiment model of ordination, as laid out by Barbara Brown Zikmund in “Empowerment and Embodiment: Understandings of Ministry the United Church of Christ,” suggests that some people possess special gifts that enable them to have a special relationship with God, and therefore they have a responsibility to pastor those without that special connection.
In contrast, the empowerment model emphasizes function over predestined giftedness. This model, arising out of congregational communities, keeps ministers on the same horizontal plane is laity; they are simply thrust into leadership in order to ease the functions of the church like preaching and administering the sacraments. Empowerment actually gives the “set-apart” less power than embodiment, since their voices are thought to be no more prophetic and no more righteous than other members of the community. Leaders within the empowerment schema are situational leaders, not necessarily capable and called to lead in other settings. While I appreciate this empowerment arrangement for its deemphasis of hierarchical authority, it leaves little room for prophetic challenge. I believe the Way of Jesus hangs its hat on prophetic challenge. Leaders who are bolstered by the local congregation will not, typically, push for faithfulness if that challenge will put their jobs and public approval ratings in jeopardy. In contrast, the embodiment system gives leaders more legitimacy and commands that laity follow the “gifted ones” into unknown places. The embodiment culture may provide the means for prophetic challenge, but it also provides the probability of corruption and exploitation at the hands of power-mongers.
Perhaps the UCC is on target by walking the thin line between embodiment and empowerment. I’d like to believe that an intertwined balance is possible, but I also have difficulty with the idea of an all-mighty providential God calling particular people into positions of leadership, whether it be for reasons of functionality or giftedness. My hesitation flows out of my theological disdain concerning the concept of omnipotence, but I just can’t get on board with the orthodox approach to God’s call.
I’ve come to believe that Gods continues to call and call and call, beckoning each of us to come and follow the Way of love and restoration. This concept of call has less to do with what we do and more to do with how we do it. Yes, some people have personalities and skills sets that lead to teaching and preaching and spreading the fabulous news, but we all decide how to use our lives. Some of us have chosen to commit our employment to the Way of Jesus by pursuing authorized ministry, but plenty others have chosen the follow the Way while working in schools or restaurants or factories. I believe that, sometimes, vocation and call apply to employment, but they always apply to purpose. The insistent call of God shapes our purpose.
Barbara Brown Taylor helped me to put words to my convictions about call. In An Altar in the World, in the chapter titled “The Practice of Living with Purpose,” Taylor describes all of the jobs she’s taken and how she was able to respond to God’s call within them:
…I went on to use martini glasses on serving trays, saddles on spotted ponies, communion bread and wine, newspaper stories, bouquets of flowers delivered to nursing homes, suppers cooked for friends, checks from my checkbook, and green ink on student essays as purposeful meals of engaging my vocation. Every one of these tools gave me ample opportunity to choose kindness over meanness. Every one of them offered me the chance to recognize the divine in human form, inviting me out of myself long enough to engage someone whose fears, wants, loves, and needs were at least as important as my own.
Later, Taylor adds, “No work is too small to play a part in the work of creation.” She points to the reality that we all have a choice each day to follow the upside-down, subversive call of God, or to follow the many other calls that inundate our lives.
Several years ago, my mentor provided me with sound advice. She realized my skill set and my desire to teach and lead, and she said, “You have tremendous potential to either tear down the world or build it up.” Many have gifts for ministry; some use those gifts to make exorbitant amounts of money or to oppress entire people groups for the sake of power and control. It is my guttural prayer that we all, no matter our skills and passions, choose each day to seek out and hear the still, small, weak call of justice, interconnectedness and reconciliation.
I didn’t grow up in the church, but I was a Christian. I believed in God and knew about Jesus and celebrated Christmas and even went to church sometimes. Of course I was a Christian, because what else could I have been? I had a few friends who were Jewish and maybe one who was Muslim, but if you weren’t one of those other things, you were Christian. I knew some folks who were overtly religious and seemed to be very excited about Jesus, but that certainly wasn’t the norm. At some point, I began to wonder about these religious people. They seemed happy. It looked like they had their lives together. I thought, perhaps, I should give this church thing a try.
My dad also desired a change, so we started going to church together the summer before my senior year of high school. We were attending a Brethren church outside of Harrisonburg, and I didn’t know what Brethren meant, but the church had a band playing the worship music and I got to wear jeans to the services, so this church seemed new and relevant. I honestly can’t remember a lot of the teaching I heard when I was first there, but I remember being emotionally overtaken by the possibility of being saved. I remember kneeling at an altar, and I was inundated with tears but I repeated a prayer to invite Jesus into my heart. My dad and I were baptized in a river and I knew with absolute confidence, that being saved was the only way to be.
I was diving into a life that I believed God wished me to live. I wanted to continue that Christian life in college so I moved into a “substance free” dorm my freshmen year at JMU and explored many Christian groups on campus such as InterVarsity, Campus Crusade for Christ and YoungLife. I ended up sticking with InterVarsity. I attended large group worship and joined a small group. I continued to exist in a world where I viewed being saved as a shiny, happy, uplifting reality.
During this same time I joined the women’s rugby team. I had a strong identity as an athlete and I was excited to find a new team and a new sport. I instantly fell in love with the game of rugby and quickly found familiar community within the team. They became my strongest influence and my best friends.
I was growing in two very distinct and opposing directions. I had a small group Bible study that I loved; I loved learning about the Bible and digging deeply into faith. But I was also immeshed in a community of friends who didn’t claim faith. They didn’t fit into my understanding of a moral Christian lifestyle, but they heard me and cared for me and they were completely authentic. The rugby team felt most like community to me. Also, I stopped going to that Brethren church, as I heard the pastor talk more and more about money and equated the depth of our love to the size of our tithe. I heard him speak many times about how homosexuality was ruining the traditional family. I was new to faith, but his proclamations were not lining up with the God I was experiencing and the Jesus I was learning about. I continued to juggle these experiences. I genuinely desired to fall more deeply in love with the God of the Scriptures, but reality was confusing.
As I continuously wrestled with the conflicting actualities of faith and religious life, I also became less adequate in suppressing my questions about my own sexuality. Up until this point in college, I had never allowed myself to even remotely consider my same-sex attractions or the palpability of a same-sex partner. It just wasn’t a possibility. I didn’t know any gay people. I couldn’t fathom what would happen in my life, if I were gay. So I didn’t think about it or consider it. I simply went about my teenage years making sure to excel in academics and athletics and every extracurricular activity I could manage.
Then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t ignore the topic of homosexuality any longer. I was hearing about it in my Christian circles, and I was experiencing it through my first ever friendships with gay and lesbian people, particularly with some very good friends on my rugby team. At first I was taken aback by the openness with which some of my friends lived. They openly talked about their girlfriends and even held hands in public! While other friends of mine felt the weight of shame and kept the truthfulness of their relationships and sexual identity closed-up and only accessible to the closest of friends. My mind and my conscience were churning, constantly.
During my junior year of college, I became quick friends with a new member of the rugby team. As our friendship grew, I began to notice familiar feelings. Feelings I had experienced in a few previous friendships, feelings that went beyond the common care, concern and closeness experienced by friends. After some time, our friendship transitioned to something more. We were both confused and a bit surprised by our connection. We weren’t sure how to proceed, but we decided that we wanted to, identifying that our feelings for one another surpassed that of philia and moved into the realm of eros.
We didn’t tell anyone, not one soul. We were both scared and didn’t know how to approach the realities of a same-sex relationship. And I had clearly been taught that homosexuality was inherently sinful. We lived a secret. And our secrecy would quickly become toxicity. As I attempted to uncoil the conflicting actualities between a religion that would ostracize me and a realization of my true sexual self, I began a slow descent into darkness. I needed help, I needed support, I needed to share, but I felt utterly and devastatingly alone. I was so gripped by fear and shame, that I didn’t know what to do.
So, I prayed. I prayed a lot, and when the God who hears prayers and transforms all, didn’t fix or shift or change my desires, my prayers became shouts and cries. And yet, I was still alone, confused, terrified and not, in the least bit, straight. When my secret girlfriend abruptly ended our relationship, I was devastated and all the more alone. I sank into a deep depression. I stopped eating. I couldn’t sleep. My impeccable grades began to slip. I hated myself. I wanted to die.
The uplifting promises of Christianity seemed like a distant memory, or a cruel joke. In my failed efforts to hide my identity and then pray it away, I had fallen into a place of complete loneliness, complete hopelessness and complete despair. I didn’t see the point of continuing to live because I couldn’t see a way out. I didn’t see a positive option for my life. Thanks to a counselor, anti-depressants, and parents who let me move back in, I graduated from JMU.
Then I moved to Charlottesville for grad school. While I had begun to emerge from my depression, I still had difficulty parsing out the complexities that caused it, so I decided to share what had happened. I shared with two groups: My long-time best friends, and my small group from college. It’s interesting to compare their responses.
The responses from my small group were kind, and they focused on temptation and confession and the healing that can come from the Lord. My best friends were simply upset that I had kept a secret from them, and they expressed deep empathy toward my despair. And then one of them said, “Britt, we’ve known you’re gay since the 7th grade.” My best friends wanted to talk about my sexuality, my small group wanted to talk about my redemption. And all the while, I was still confused. I still didn’t see the plausibility of being fully myself, in terms of both faithfulness and sexuality. For some reason, I still desired a relationship with God.
Since I yet believed that I could not be a Christian and a lesbian, I set out to convince myself of the possibility of dating men and pursuing a traditional Christian family and life. I went on a lot of first dates. And they were nice guys with nice stories and nice hopes for the future. But my plan of forming myself into a prototypical Christian woman wasn’t working. My mother said I was just too picky. Perhaps I was just never made to be prototypical.
During my time in grad school, my theology began to slowly shift from the false binaries of right and wrong, Godly and unGodly, to a more expansive conception of the wideness and deepness of God’s mercy and presence. And I began to ponder further education on faith and the Bible and Christianity. After graduation, I moved back to Harrisonburg and took a job as an elementary physical education teacher. I churched shopped. I wanted to find a place where I could grow. I landed at a nice church with nice people. I tried to fit and play the part but I felt restricted and grounded and largely without the opportunity to contribute my gifts and passions. Eventually, I became connected with a pastor named Amanda who told me about a new faith community that was in the works. She told me that this new community would be oriented to young adults and focused on mission. It sounded like a perfect fit.
I quickly found myself on the launch team for RISE. I soaked up the weekly leadership meetings where we would learn about ourselves, learn about each other, learn about leadership and ultimately learn about God’s dream. I loved it. I was learning and growing and contributing. I connected with amazing new friends. I particularly connected with Lindsay, a 22 year old from Minnesota who was beginning the Physician Assistant graduate program at JMU. Our friendship began over a tennis match and grew as we supported each other as leaders in a new faith community.
I began to have deep feelings toward Lindsay but I repressed them. While my theology had transitioned I still didn’t see the possibility of a same-sex relationship. It seemed too difficult, too much of a societal battle. I was also convinced that Lindsay didn’t have romantic feelings for me and never would, as I was aware of her traditional, conservative upbringing. So I continued teaching, continued coaching, continued serving RISE and continued spending a significant amount of time with Lindsay. My friends noticed the connection between us and urged me to express my feelings to Lindsay. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to ruin our friendship or make things awkward for our community.
Then, during a social gathering at my apartment, my dear friends brought up the topic of my past same-sex relationship. This event pushed Lindsay and I into a space where we began to discuss our relationship; what it was, what it wasn’t and what we wished it to be. We identified our feelings for one another but doubted the probability of a relationship. What would it mean for our faith community? What would it mean for our families? I was not comfortable with a secret relationship, Lindsay was not ready to enter a same-sex relationship in the public sphere. We turned around and around, trying to discern the correct path for us as individuals and as people who cared deeply for one another.
After some time and some prayer, Lindsay and I decided we were ready to move into a romantic relationship. We realize now, that our decision, while the correct one, was a bit premature. While we enjoyed connecting with one another in a deep and meaningful way, the realities of coming out to our friends and families proved too weighty of a task. Overwhelmed as individuals and as a couple, we had to take an intentional break from one another, to work on ourselves and to examine our fears, unhealthy tendencies and any hope we had for continuing our relationship in the future.
This was an incredibly difficult time for the both of us, and for those attempting to support us. I continued wrestling with God, especially since I had just made the decision to enter a Master of Divinity program at Eastern Mennonite seminary. Through my time as a leader at RISE I learned that I loved ministry. I loved connecting with people and building community and figuring out what it looked like to pursue God’s dream. I desired to learn more about Jesus’s radical revolution of love and I felt God moving through my impulsive and passionate dreams for a vocation of ministry.
I was overwhelmed with excitement about starting my theological education. However, I felt a palpable amount of trepidation on sharing my full self, and most obviously, sharing my sexual identity. During my first month at EMS, Lindsay and I were focusing on self work and individual discernment, but by late fall we had moved to counseling and discerning our future together. In November, we mutually named our desire to reengage our romantic relationship, realizing the joyful and beneficial possibility of sharing our lives.
I didn’t share this event with anyone at the seminary, even those I considered friends. Before I started the school year, I was able to form connections with some previous students who alerted me to the reality of an institution that was not overtly open, accepting or safe for the sexually marginalized. I was told, however, that many individuals within the community would be safe and loving and would welcome my full personhood. As I cautiously navigated my first semester, I found the previous assertion to be true, as I did not feel safe or comfortable publicly sharing my full self. And I had a difficult time knowing where to find those safe people, as I never heard anyone explicitly name that persons who identify as LGBTQ were welcome or cherished in that space. I have attempted to explain in many communities that unless LGBT persons are explicitly welcomed in a space, particularly in an institution of religious affiliation, the assumption and the reality is that we are not welcome. There have been too many instances in my own life, and in the lives of others I know, where we’ve heard that all are welcome and accepted, only to find out otherwise. Within the church and its institutions, no space feels safe unless its named as so.
While I never lied about my sexuality at EMS, the first place where I felt the ability to be completely honest was in my formation in God’s story small group. It was the only place my first year that I felt I had the opportunity to be my whole self, my authentic self. The space created by my group leader, Dawn, was one of mutual respect and narratival connectedness and it wasn’t a space dictated by fear or by the need for theological certainty or normalized religiosity.
Without that opportunity and without the love and leadership of Dawn, I may not have continued at EMS. I felt myself growing more distant from the community, choosing not to engage in many social gatherings or times of connection, because I felt that if I talked about my girlfriend during casual conversation, the conversation would derail, that this would all of a sudden be about that. I furthered my distance because of my fear of being labeled or boxed in due to my sexuality, when I simply wished to valued and respected for my academic integrity, skills as a minister and passion for following Jesus.
My second year, I began to figure out where I could share and I connected with many friends who loved me, supported me, and encouraged me to be fully myself. I was very grateful for those folks. However, I also experienced many situations that left me feeling uncomfortable, alone and threatened. The conversations, comments and situations that deeply wounded me were never intentionally directed toward me. I sat in classes where classmates unknowingly compared me to adulterers, or compared my relationship to alcoholism, or named my sexuality as the evilest of all evils. During those times I felt silenced. It was a challenge to learn about Christ and about the church in a space where I felt unable to be myself.
During the fall semester of my third year I experienced a tipping point. I had just celebrated a joy-filled engagement to Lindsay, when I walked by the announcement board at the seminary and was filled with sorrow when I realized my engagement would not be posted or celebrated there. My frustrations began to push me toward action. I also began to consider possible options for my senior capstone project and it made sense to me to address sexuality as a component of my research and presentation. Realizing that I did not want to begin a new conversation as I was exiting the seminary community, I sought the advice of several faculty members and shared with them glimpses of my experience. They helped me discern the choice to share my story in a public arena.
As I shared the story I’m telling here, I received mostly positive feedback. However, I confounded my conservative professors who previously celebrated my theological work. I heard rumblings that one even mentioned that maybe I shouldn’t be able to graduate. Fortunately, the seminary dean and the majority of the professors were incredibly supportive. I graduated at the top of my class and was given the award for academic excellence in Biblical scholarship. While being the first openly queer person at EMS and tackling the normalized environment there, I became even more aware of my call to ministry. I heard God calling and calling and calling, drawing to spaces where I could minister to others who have experienced spiritual trauma.
During seminary, I moved to Staunton to start a small house church community, not knowing what would happen or if anyone would want to journey together. But people did journey together, unexpected people. The group included single moms and recovering alcoholics and friends with disabilities and lesbians who had been kicked out of churches and confused people and excited people and people who did not know that Jesus is for them. It was a glimpse of God’s dream.
Embark, that small house church community, came to an end after two years. What went wrong?People asked. And I always said, let me tell you what went right. Just because Embark didn’t live on with a building for a full-time pastor or a denominational stamp of approval, Embark laid tracks in Staunton for a different way to follow Jesus. People’s lives were transformed. We planted seeds for God’s dream that will bloom one day. We may not have had the critical mass of people who were ready to lead a small, subversive community, but we created a sanctuary of hope. We helped each other realize that sometimes, the expectations of the status quo are not the same as Jesus’s radical revolution of love. And as far as my own personal transformation, Embark completely deconstructed my notions of what church could or should be. I learned that church can be spreading compost together. I experienced Jesus during freestyle rap battles. I found out that church is reconciliation between two very hurt friends. Where God’s love runs amuck, there church is.
As my time at seminary and at Embark drew to a close, I had discerned that the UCC was my denominational home. Lindsay and I decided to move to Charlottesville, in part to become members at Sojourners. I had preached a couple of times at Sojo and knew I wanted that community to be where I discerned my call.
Being a Sojourner and connecting with other faith communities in Charlottesville has helped me to discern my call. I do a weekly book study at Charis, an intentional community associated with the Episcopal Church. I’ve been working part-time as an outreach coordinator with the college ministry at Westminster Presbyterian Church. I have been contributing to the Christ Room initiative at Casa Alma, the Charlottesville Catholic Worker movement. During my time at Sojourners, I’ve had many opportunities to preach and create education and justice events.
As the vocative God continues to call and call and call, my own particular call has become more clear. I am called to teach, to preach, to organize and bring public witness to God’s dream of a reconciled, united and uniting creation. I have been reluctant to name myself a pastor, as I don’t envision myself pastoring a parish in the traditional sense. Also, I have been drawn to many forms of ministry, such as college ministry, Christian education, justice organizing and planting churches. Recently, some friends in faith held a discernment space for me. We all had a good chuckle when it was obvious that I’m reluctant to call myself a pastor, but it is a pastor that I am called to be. I am called to live inside the tension of reclaiming what a Christian pastor is and should be. My friends in faith named my gifts with the following words: Substantial, leader, creativity, reforming, trustworthiness, charisma, and welcome. Their words affirmed my desire to gather community and transform the world in the Way of Jesus.
Practically, this vocative endeavor is flexible. I enjoy partnering with established communities who have the desire to reach outside of their church walls, but maybe don’t have the know-how or person power. I love to organize people of all faiths to do public theopoetics and public witness. As a teacher, I have always loved walking with others in the messy journey of transformation. I’ve been encouraged by the opportunity to write for New Sacred, the UCC blog. Preaching is one of my greatest joys. In the midst of such divisiveness and vitriol that is present in my community and around the globe, I feel particularly called to shepherd Christians in the process of making justice and standing with the oppressed.
The Charlottesville community is stewing with possibility. There are many Christians here who are questioning what it means to follow Jesus in tangible ways as we work toward justice and God’s absolute future. As in all important and complicated tasks, there is a lot of tension surrounding how to engage oppression and particularly, how to engage oppressors. My call here and now is to live inside this tension. The journey will be wrought with obstacles and dead ends, but, hopefully, will overflow with metanoia and impossible love. God is calling and calling and calling. It’s time to respond.
May it be so.