Answers Will Vary

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

I heard the whispers. I saw the quiet exchanges between the ones in the know. I watched this play out among the most powerful of my peers. They knew something and I was going to find out what that was. Information is power.

I waited.

I knew it was just a matter of time until one of them slipped up and told me what they knew.

Yeah. That’s right.

This wasn’t my first rodeo.

I mean, did they think I was born yesterday?


They gave in within an hour and I didn’t even have to ask them anything. They came to me as I sat in my converted office which doubled as a jungle gym what with us being in the second grade and all.

The secret was a good one! It. Blew. My. Mind. Each word they shared was better than the last. Ready for the secret?

The answers to the odd numbered math problems are in the back of the textbook. Just sitting there, waiting for us to use them. Talk about a #lifehack, this was golden.

Take a minute to catch your breath. That was a lot to take in.

As a kid who turned in every math assignment with several worn holes in the paper from my  baffled work that had to be erased and gone over again and again, this was music to my ears. This was evidence that I was obviously on God’s good person list with this piece of info! I was blissful.

I put this new knowledge to use immediately, finishing my math word problems assignment in 2.25 minutes, just a mere 27.75 minutes from my usual. Nothing suspicious here.

I marched up, handed that work to Mrs. Johnson and waited for her accolades. I was baffled when I saw her put that red pen to use. She handed it back with a big fat “0” at the top of the page. Looking back I should have likely been suspicious when most of the problems shared the exact same solution which was: “Answers Will Vary”.

Sigh. I may have peaked in the second grade.

There’s a joke meme that I have posted on my Facebook page in the past that reads “It turns out being an adult is mostly just googling how to do stuff.” Most people read the first three sentences when they search something on Wikipedia and that’s it. Most of us take in absolutely overly simplified explanations and act as though we have a PhD on the topic.

Seven-year old me just wanted the boring parts over with so I could get back to doing what I wanted to do. It was a very basic thinking pattern. Math boring; must stop. I can do that by copying all the answers in the book and move on from this moment.

This type of thinking makes sense in a seven year old, but far less sense in a 37-year-old. And yet when I was 37, I found myself wanting the quick answer while I was waiting to hear if I got a position I had interviewed for and very much wanted.

I turned to the internet like it was a magic 8-ball and knew everything. I searched online using this question: “Am I going to get the job?” And I searched this on several different search engine sites as though each may reveal more of my future… the things we do in lieu of feeling always surprises me.

I knew it was silly as I did it. The questioning allowed me to do something with all that nervous energy and I found it amusing. That was the payoff of doing this search. What it didn’t do, though, was yield a definitive answer or help me in anyway.

In my life, I have observed many times that the insistence of an immediate answer leaves me feeling empty when I get it. This is usually because I wasn’t asking the true question that would assist in meeting my needs. I was just trying to distract myself until I knew the outcome. It is a fear-based way of being for me.

Ultimately, the thing I was looking for most that day was an assurance that I was worthy of such a job and that I would be okay if I didn’t get it. Evidently the internet has yet to produce the self esteem and affirmation we long for, available by clicking a link. Give it a year. The internet has been busy with the election, after all.

I am a person of faith who has chosen to walk a Christian path. That’s never really varied for me, even when I lost a faith community after coming out as a queer, gender diverse person, I knew this was still my path. The way I understand and live into the call as a Christian has changed but my willingness to walk a Christian path has never wavered.

I spent most of my early life developing a belief system that I had all the answers and humanity needed me to tell them. I had the solution and they needed it. I have spent the last 16 years of my life letting that go and opening myself to the mystery and wonder that comes with living and being in the world, among each other, seeking love, seeking life, seeking Spirit.

When I do not have the answers, I get to do some things that are pretty great: I get to replace the closed-fisted certainty with an open handed wonderment. I get to hear your experiences and allow them to expand my sense of who God is and who we are in relation to God. I get to stop faking it when I just don’t know what to do with suffering. I get to be authentic and a person of faith.

I used to think that faith was the goal God laid out for me, as though the searching would give me an object to hold up and say “See what I got? Isn’t it shiny? Isn’t it amazing? I win!” Faith was to be obtained.

There was such a massive arrogance to how I thought about the role of faith and my call in that. A few minutes with me back then would have you asking, “Is it getting smuggy in here?” Yea. I brought the smug.

My faith was aggressive absolutism that I lived in as though I was waiting to get to the afterlife and say, “See, I told you!” I have learned that when the motivation is to be right the action I am taking is likely wrong.

Parables are the original word problems for Christians and none yield a direct answer. Jesus used juxtaposition regularly to get us out of the data and into the questions. Faith isn’t the ultimate answer to who God is and who I am to God. Faith was never the destination. Faith is the vehicle of how I get to live with you in the world and how I get to understand what love is and what love isn’t. It’s not to be obtained, it is for us to make use of in  our seeking God.

What a mistake we make flipping furiously to the answers. What a mistake we make thinking the supplied answer was ever the point of the work. What a mistake we make when we allow an answer to snuff out wonderment.

I have had such a sense of relief when I realized the whole point of this assignment of life isn’t in deriving the answer and arriving at faith.

Faith is the pencil.

Faith is the paper.

Faith is the eraser.

Faith is what we get to use to figure and wonder at the questions that come in living.

I want answers often, especially recently for this season I have lived in. Here’s where I hurt myself in that wanting of answers: when I mistake having a stark and clear answer for a spiritual solution, I am left empty. Answers aren’t all that filling or satisfying when I hunger for relationship with God and with others. When I can replace answers with wonderment my spirit is strengthened and bolstered. Wonderment is life giving.

I have found my most honest words and thoughts I have had when faced with life’s questions are on paper riddled and marred with my attempts, stained with all my tries and mistakes. That is the clearest evidence of my willingness to engage in the questions. Those questions are all the same in front of each of us. All the big life questions cut across all aspects of humanity no matter the culture or language. We are all grappling with making sense of the world around us. That’s the work. That’s the living. And I guarantee, if we really do the hard work, our answers will vary. They were meant to by design.

Speaking Truth is a Duty

guest post by Kay Huggins, Interim Executive Director, New Mexico Conference of Churches

I’ve been speaking with pastors over the past two months and although I have 5 specific questions, the content of these conversations is deep and wide. A few themes are emerging:

Hope: I anticipated hearing at least a few complaints, but frankly, there have been precious few. Most pastors experience great satisfaction and joy in their callings; some feel overwhelmed; but, rarely is heard a discouraging word. Moreover, the sense of hope is linked to growth among the members and leaders of the churches: new ideas, new visions, new challenges and new opportunities are combining to create new steps for Jesus’ followers.

Relationships: Every pastor, at some point and always in a unique manner, identified ministry as grounded in strong relationships: with family, colleagues, members, neighbors, and friends. Moreover, all affirmed that their effectiveness in ministry is directly related to these relationships. Most spend time and energy being with others — so that together, they will be strong for doing the ministries entrusted to them.

Speaking out…together: This theme included a bit of sadness and/or frustration. Almost every pastor interviewed expressed a passion for speaking the truth of our Christian values and convictions in a bold and free way; but also expressed was the persistent awareness that in our culture, the voice of many churches is inaudible. The “Christian voice” has been kidnapped by evangelical or conservative churches and the progressive or socially engaged churches have been put on mute. The pastors I interviewed longed for to speak out, together, and be heard.

In these days of political turmoil and distress, the voice of the silenced progressive, socially engaged and liberal Christian churches is needed. A very helpful article, “Unprohibited speech“, Christian Century, July 20, 2016 reminds:

“There’s no law against religious leaders speaking and living out the truths of their faith…What (by law) is prohibited is an explicit endorsement of a candidate.”

This is followed by a stirring string of strong words churches may speak.

“Churches are free to say that a candidate who threatens opponents with violence is undermining the basis of community.

They are free to say that a candidate who targets people of one religion for discriminatory treatment is attacking the basis of everyone’s religious freedom.

They are free to say that campaigning by name-calling and personal insult is an affront to reason.

And they are free to say that a candidate who sneers at the disabled, ridicules people because of their appearance, and promises to engage in torture fails to understand that all humans are made in the image of God.”

Dear ecumenical community, we are old and young, rich and poor, Protestant and Roman Catholics living in New Mexico; let us speak up as individuals, as church leaders, as congregations, as an ecumenical community of believers. Let us claim the freedom we have to lift up our distinct and deep Christian values…especially within the current political context.

Share with me your statements and I will share them with the ecumenical community of the New Mexico Conference of Churches.

I remain, steadfastly, Kay Huggins, Interim Executive Director.

The Words that Shape Us: From “Hosanna” to “Crucify”

by Talitha Arnold

Palm Sunday, 2016

It was a mob scene that first Palm Sunday. People lined the road into Jerusalem, shouting, waving branches, throwing their cloaks on the ground, reaching out to touch the man on the donkey, everyone chanting “Hosanna! Hosanna!”

And it was a mob scene five days later, when some of those same people squeezed into the courtyard of the Roman garrison to shout “Crucify! Crucify!” Same man. Same crowd. Different words.

Mobs are like that. They can turn on a dime. One day everyone is shouting happy Hosannas and life is great.\ The next thing you know, it’s all cries of “Crucify” and death.

Throughout Lent, we’ve explored “the words that shape us” as Christians. The story of the first Palm Sunday and the week that followed remind us of the power of such. words. So does our own time, 2000 years later. “Christian values,” “Biblical principles,” and the name of Jesus are much in our news these days. Not because it’s Holy Week, but because we’re in a presidential campaign season, and there are a lot religious words bandied about. Indeed, in some political circles, candidates must claim their Christian credentials in order to garner votes.

At the same time and sometimes in the same breath, there’s talk of banning Muslims and building walls, labeling immigrants as rapists and murderers, and encouraging violence against one’s opponents. As a Christian minister, I find such hatred and fear-mongering the exact opposite of what Jesus Christ both preached and practiced. As we who are Christian head into our holiest of weeks, it might be good to remember what he actually did say and do.

For Jesus, his teachings of “turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love your enemies” weren’t just feel-good phrases. They shaped his life. Throughout that life, Jesus showed the power of love to overcome fear. He reached out with love to embrace people who were afflicted with leprosy or mental illness who were banished from the community. He crossed the divisions of race and religion, telling stories of Good Samaritans, welcoming people of all backgrounds, and eating with “outcasts.” He respected women, honoring those who wished to learn (Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus) and those called to lead (Mary Magdalene–”Apostle to the Apostles”).

Jesus also knew first-hand how hard it is to choose the way of love and non-violence. There were times when his own anger or exhaustion got the best of him. He got cranky with a woman who wanted him to heal her daughter. The day after Palm Sunday, he zapped a fig tree and overturned the tables of the money-changers. The Gospels record how often Jesus went to a “lonely place” to pray. I think it shows how much he needed, in the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., God’s “strength to love.” We do, too.

Overcoming fear with love “is not for the timid or weak,” affirmed Cesar Chavez, leader of the Farmworker Movement. “Non-violence is hard work.” Jesus knew that, all the way to the cross. At the Last Supper, he knelt to wash the feet of all the disciples, including Peter who would deny him and Judas who betrayed him. Later when the religious leaders came with their band of thugs to arrest him, one of the disciples cut off the ear of a servant named Malchus. “No more of this!” Jesus commanded. “Put down your sword.” Then he healed the man who helped arrest him.

At any point that night or through the next day, Jesus could have called his followers to arms. He didn’t. Moreover, as clearly demonstrated in the fate of a fig tree, Jesus had the power to zap Pilate, Herod, and all the legions of Rome if he’d chosen. He didn’t. Instead he chose the power of love. “Father, forgive.”

The journey of this Holy Week that begins with tomorrow with Palm Sunday reminds all who would claim the name of “Christian” that to follow the way of Jesus Christ is to follow the way of the one who chose the way of life and love. To accept the call of “Christian” is trust the power of love to overcome fear and hatred. And it is to commit one’s self and one’s life to that hard work of love.

The story of Holy Week that we begin tomorrow shows us–and our world–how to express real Christian values. Saying “no” to violence and hatred is a good place to start.

It’s where he did.

Patrick: A Model for All People of Faith

by Kenneth McIntosh

It’s no wonder that celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day is huge in America, where people of Irish ancestry outnumber the population of Ireland 5 to 1. Saint Paddy’s festivities take the nature of a celebration of ethnicity, in large part due to the fact that the Irish had to struggle against prejudice in order to be regarded as equal in this country. But there’s often something lost in the celebrations of ethnic pride and the bacchanalia of Saint Patrick’s day: we forget the spiritual legacy of an exceptional historical figure. Patrick is a model not just for Catholics or Irish but for all people who value justice and faith.

There is a curious contradiction in studies of Patrick: one the one hand, we know him better than any other person who lived in Western Europe in the 5th century. He alone bequeaths us an autobiography that reveals the inner psychology of a person who lived in that time and place. Yet it is also true that we know very little about him; Patrick tells us only what he deemed valuable to reveal under a particular set of circumstances. Patrick’s Confessio is, like the epistles of Saint Paul, written to address a specific occasion (in Patrick’s case, a summons to return to Britain for a church trial). There are many things –which modern audiences are interested in– that Patrick saw no reason to reveal.

Patrick was born sometime between 360 and 400 CE. Historians have long opted for the latter date, but recent revision of dating Patrick’s writing advocates an earlier timeframe. For this article, I’m favoring a birth date around the turn of the century.

One thing we do know, he was NOT born in Ireland. The person most associated with Ireland was born as a Briton, in a town called Bannaven. Patrick’s own statement about his birthplace is unfortunately impossible to correlate with a modern place, since his is the only reference to Bannaven. There is strong reason to believe it may have been in modern day Wales, likely in Pembrokeshire; yet other historians argue for a birthplace in southwest Scotland, and I have an English friend who is sure Patrick hailed from Cumbria which is now part of England. It seems everyone wants to claim Patrick as their hometown hero.

He came into life as a Romanized Celt, part of the far-flung Empire. After three centuries of occupation he would have dressed, followed customs, and spoken like a Roman. Officially, the entire Empire was Christian following the edict of Theodosius and Gratian in 380, making Christianity the Imperial religion. Although all citizens of the Empire were now ostensibly Christian, for many their forced conversion was only skin deep and Patrick by his own confession was only nominally Christian.

In the year 410 the Roman Legions completely withdrew from Britain. For three centuries Rome had striven to demilitarize the occupied populace, to discourage rebellion; thus when the Imperial armies withdrew the Britons were left as sheep for the wolves (Irish, Pictish and Saxon) who rushed in to divide up the island. Large numbers of people living on the West coast of Britain were taken as slaves by Irish raiders. Patrick, 16 years old, was one of those captured.

Patrick spent six years in Ireland as a slave. Lacking human solace, his nominal faith became real. He says that he prayed more than 100 times each day. He not only spoke to God, but he learned to hear God’s voice speaking inside of him, and that led to the first great miracle of his life.

When he was 22, Patrick heard an inner voice, telling him “Get up! Your ship is waiting!” The boat that God indicated as his escape from bondage happened to be on the other side of Ireland, more than a hundred miles to traverse alone, an escaped slave who faced torture and death if caught fleeing. Nonetheless, Patrick acted upon this revelation and fled, eventually reaching the boat and—after a circuitous 2 year voyage—returning home to his family and friends in Bannaven.

His return was unprecedented: for someone to escape bondage in Hibernia and return to the Roman Empire was akin to Lazarus returning to life. Yet this is where the story takes an unexpected turn. Back among his kin and the culture of his childhood, Patrick had dreams at night. He heard “the voice of the Irish” in the local dialect of his captors saying “Come walk among us again” to share the Good news of Jesus.

It was beyond daunting to think of returning to the island of his bondage, especially as there was still a death threat on his head for escaping, yet incredibly Patrick obeyed the summons to go back to Ireland. Prior to his return there was a time of training and ordination; Patrick offers no details but there is speculation that his training might have taken place in France where Egyptian spiritual traditions had earlier taken root.

Patrick was enormously successful at sharing his faith among the Irish. Though he was—as far as we know—unarmed, he survived and flourished even as an escaped slave. His Confessio tells us that he observed the Irish custom of giving honor-gifts to regional chieftains, seeking their blessing for his ministry in each clan territory. His very presence attested to the authenticity of his message—risking death among the Irish, he modeled the reconciliation of Christ that he proclaimed.

Perhaps most important, Patrick held Irish culture and customs in high regard. The Imperial means of evangelism was to occupy a territory (usually urban) and enforce Roman culture—and Christian faith—upon the populace. Patrick, by contrast, came without force and sought cultural bridges, ways that Christianity could be understood from an Irish cultural perspective. In the fifth century Hibernians had a complex society, extraordinary fine arts, and a nature-based religion. Scholars in the Roman Empire saw all those outside the Imperial fold as “Barbarians” but this largely reflects their xenophobia. Patrick, by contrast, was able to see the beauty in Irish society.

In Ecclesiastical art, Patrick is most often portrayed holding a three-leaf clover, due to the legend of his using the shamrock to communicate the concept of Trinity. There are no extant accounts of his doing so that date to the Early Middle Ages. However, this legend may be seen as typical of the general attitude Patrick had toward faith-sharing; that is, when explaining the new faith, he would have used experiences common to his audience.

By the end of his life, Patrick persuaded great portions of the Irish in the central and northern parts of the Island to receive Christ as their heavenly sovereign. However, this tremendous achievement seems to have been poorly received by his Christian colleagues back in Britain. He was summoned to an Ecclesiastical trial of some sort. We don’t know the details. Were his fellow church workers jealous of his success? Was he creating the wrong kind of Christian churches—not Imperial in nature? Did the gifts that he gave to chieftains cost too much, so that his mission ran over budget? We don’t know the answers to those questions, but we do know that the summons upset Patrick terribly. “I almost fell into the wreckage of sin” he tells us.

Patrick’s faith was bolstered by another voice from God. “We are very angry with them” (IE, the church authorities in Britain) God said—and that gave Patrick strength to carry on. Notice how in each crisis of Patrick’s life, it was a direct experience of God’s voice—not through another priest nor through the Scriptures, but directly heard by the saint—that enabled him to fulfill his extraordinary mission.

After his death, Patrick left behind an amazing legacy. He ushered in the so-called “age of saints and scholars” lasting from 500 to 1100 AD in Ireland. This included a great tradition of scholarship. Patrick regarded himself as “rude and uneducated” yet he established faith communities in Ireland that became the centers of literacy and scholarship for all of Europe during the Early Middle Ages.

He championed social justice. Because of his time spent in slavery, he despised oppression. When King Coriticus—theoretically a Christian monarch—took captives to be slaves, Patrick wrote a letter damning the king. “If you don’t love your neighbor, you are not a follower of Christ” he told him.

An often overlooked aspect of Patrick’s legacy is his mysticism. He certainly valued the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments—in his relatively short writings there are hundreds of allusions to the Bible—yet in the great existential decisions of his life it was an unmediated Divine voice that guided him. If not for these direct communications from God, he would never have escaped from Ireland, never have returned to Ireland, and would not have stayed to complete his mission there. The Celtic Christian tradition that followed in his wake has been characterized as a form of “nature mysticism.”

So what can Patrick mean for us today? According to the latest Pew survey, the largest religious grouping in the US is now comprised of those who identify as “no religion.” What can a fifth-century saint say to that reality?

I believe Patrick’s concern for social justice is more important than ever before. Violence, prejudice, climate change, and poverty threaten humanity. Religious leaders in diverse traditions—from Pope Francis to the National setting of the United Church of Christ—call us to action on behalf of the poor, and of refugees, and those who are still slaves in our world today.

At the same time, Patrick’s mysticism may be the most relevant aspect of his legacy. Jesuit Karl Rahner, one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, predicted that “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” Patrick’s experiences hearing the Divine voice throughout his life testify that “God is still speaking” in the 5th century and the 21st. Many activists became embittered and desperate in their struggles against the tides of injustice—work for God’s peace can devolve into the shrill rhetoric and anger of unenlightened political action. The mystical experience of the Divine word, encouraging and guiding action, is an essential component for the spiritual pursuit of social justice.

So I wish all of you a glorious celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day. And, in the midst of the green beer and parades, I hope you will pause for a few minutes, take stock of your spiritual practice, and ask yourself “What would Patrick do?”

photo credit: Kenneth McIntosh; Medieval Sculpture of Saint Patrick at Rock of Cashel, the seat of Irish Christianity in the Middle Ages.

The Three Great Pathways that Jesus Chose but Many Christians Have Missed

by Kenneth McIntosh

pew religious landscape 2007 vs 2014 pie charts

I came across this pair of pie charts on Facebook last week and immediately noticed that those who are “religiously unaffiliated” claim as much of the pie as any other group. At 23% they are virtually tied with Evangelical Christians (24%), just ahead of Catholics (21%) and decidedly ahead of Mainstream Christians (15%).

Despite this trend, I still hear respect for Jesus—in popular culture, on social media, and in private dialogue. It would seem that much of the world agrees with that famous saying of Mahatma Gandhi, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike Christ.”

As people who identify by that word “Christian” it behooves us to ask: Where do the two part ways? Why do so many people like Christ but not those who bear his name?

The passage of Scripture that begins this season of Lent—the Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness, as recounted in the Gospel of Luke—may be one good place to answer those questions.  When tested, Jesus chose three great paths to freedom—ways of living that characterized his life. When similarly tested, many of his followers have failed to choose the same pathways; and I have to confess that I also have at times failed to choose these directions of freedom.

When we hear the word “temptation” most of us think of various vices; the temptation to have an affair, or to become an addict to alcohol or—less severely—the temptation to eat donuts for lunch. This Gospel story corrects that notion. Vices, per se, are not the greatest evil. The real temptation in life is to forget who we are. The devil keeps challenging Jesus, “If you are God’s child.” And he keeps challenging on this point just before Jesus is about to set about his great life work.

You and I need to keep our eyes on the prize, to remember what the real goal of life is and what real failure is. Failure is not downing shots of vodka, watching dirty pictures or emptying a box of Twinkies (although we may be prone to all three of those things if we believe that we have already failed). Failure is forgetting that we are God’s children and failure is forgetting that we have an incredible mission to love and restore all of God’s creation. To forget our identity in God, and to forget our glorious mission in the world—that is what it means to give in to temptation.

The first temptation is for Jesus to turn stones into bread (which is rather compelling after fasting for weeks on end). It is the allure of materialism, the belief that our happiness comes from things. Of course, physical things are not bad in themselves; we are indeed material beings inhabiting a material world. Food, clothing, shelter—these things are good. For that matter jewelry, perfume, a membership at the gym, or a prize collection of baseball cards can all be good as well. The problem is when we forget the relative importance of things versus love; when we forget that the things we own say little about our Divine identity and purpose.

We in the wealthy developed nations fall most easily into this pitfall because we have managed to attain so much. It’s been calculated that if everyone on earth used up the same amount of raw materials, fuels and so-on that the average American consumes, it would take four worlds to sustain the earth’s population.

When Jesus retorted to the tempter, “Humans shall not live by bread alone,” he affirmed the pathway of Simplicity –of being content with fewer things, and with things that matter more. That’s a great recipe for a life that depends on a vital connection with God, and that enables all of God’s other creatures to live in peace alongside of us.

The next temptation is that of coercion. The devil says, “I’ll give you power—let me show you how.” This is upping the temptation scale; the first temptation is rather lame, materialism appeals to humans at the level of the reptilian brain stem, the animal nature. Coercion is a better temptation for brighter people, because bright people know the world is askew and wish to change it—and if we can knock the world into shape then everyone will be happier. That’s how the devil presents the case.

Beginning with the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, Christians have chosen the way of coercion. Today, half of the candidates for the US presidency in 2016 embrace that same path of coercion. We will make America a Christian nation…we will make people follow Christian principles. The way of coercion—this is what Gandhi had in mind when he said “I like your Christ…but your Christians are so unlike him.”

Jesus, in contrast, chooses the path of Service. God knows that people transform not because they are forced to do so, but because they see examples of sacrifice. Ultimately, the way of Jesus is the way of the cross—the way of costly love. This is why Mother Teresa is so well loved, and Franklin Graham…less so.

The devil’s final assault is the temptation of privilege. Can’t you just hear the devil saying, “Hey, Jesus, why don’t you throw yourself off the top of this tall building? Ordinary folk, they’d fall and end badly. But you’re special. Angels will catch you—won’t that be cool? Won’t people just be so impressed with you?”

You don’t have to spend long in the corridors of Christian influence before you can spot the temptation to privilege and fame. It may not be stated so bluntly, but I’ve sure caught the tone of Christian messages that say, “I’m really exceptionally cool and successful—and you can be too if you come to my church.”

But Jesus responds by choosing the way of Humility. We are called to the spirit of Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant(Philippians 2:5-7, ESV).  No one in history has had a more perfect God-consciousness than Jesus, yet he chose to live as a very ordinary Middle Eastern peasant, subject to all the hardships of common humanity. And today, despite the increase of those who are spiritually unaffiliated in North America, some 2 billion citizens of earth still own the name Christian, having been influenced by the suffering servant.

As we begin the season of lent, perhaps we should not think so much of what we can “give up,” as much as we should think about the life-ways that Jesus chose. Take a moment, and cement in your mind the three choices that Jesus made in the wilderness: Simplicity, Service and Humility. Ask yourself: what can I do to walk on these paths during this Lenten journey?

United Church…of Christ

by Tyler Connoley

I’m sure you’ve had this happen. Someone asks what church you belong to, and you tell them you go to Such-and-So United Church of Christ. They respond, “Church of Christ. Is that the one that doesn’t have instruments?” Then you try to explain that the United Church of Christ is different. We’re progressive and inclusive. You begin telling them about the history of the UCC, how we we trace ourselves to the Congregationalists, and the Evangelical and Reform, etc. Their eyes glaze over, and they say, “Oh look, there’s Mary, I’ve been meaning to talk to her.”

Ron Buford taught me a trick that made it so this never happens to me anymore. He said to say, “United Church” then pause and say, “of Christ.” Ron has a passion for the UCC and our uniqueness, and he said this way of saying our name emphasizes that uniqueness. (It’s also because of Ron’s influence that our current UCC logo has those two phrases stacked in different fonts.)

As I’ve learned to say United Church . . . of Christ, it’s helped me to think more deeply about our identity in the UCC. We are a united church, and we are of Christ. Both of those things are important to our identity.

As a non-credal church, we value our theological diversity. We embrace gay Christians and Christians who think gay relationships are a sin. We allow for many different ideas about the divinity of Jesus. Even our identity as a Just Peace Church is rooted in our commitment to be a United Church. When General Synod was asked to declare the UCC a pacifist denomination in the 1970s, they commissioned a study. At the end of that study, the General Synod decided that our diversity required us to acknowledge multiple theologies around responses to war. We committed ourselves to working for Peace with Justice, and allowed individual members to decide what was right and wrong for them.

Some people have difficulty with our identity as a United Church. I had a seminary colleague who was troubled by being part of a denomination that ordained clergy to serve as military chaplains. This person ended up becoming Quaker, valuing theological purity on issues of war over the UCC’s diversity.

On the other end of the spectrum, we are also “of Christ.” We celebrate lots of different ways of being Christian, but we still unite in a desire to follow Jesus. Rather than emphasize a diversity of religions, as the Unitarian Universalists do, we have chosen to stand within one particular tradition.

One of my heroes, Huston Smith, is an expert in world religions, but continues to identify as a Christian. To those who like to dabble in lots of different faith traditions, he says, “If you want to find water, stand in one place and dig as deep as you can.” That’s what being UCC is for me. I certainly find wisdom in other religions, and value my interfaith partners. However, I’ve chosen to stand in one place and dig as deep as I can, rather than dig shallow holes in several different religions.

When people ask me what the United Church of Christ is, I don’t say we’re the most-progressive Christian denomination — even though we’ve certainly led the way, on issues from ordaining women to civil rights. Instead, I tell people we’re the most-inclusive Christian denomination. We are as inclusive as one can possibly be, while still holding onto the Christian tradition. We are the United Church . . . of Christ.

Why We Need to Say It

by Tyler Connoley

Shortly after Pope Francis visited the United States, the news-o-sphere exploded when lawyers for Kim Davis, the county clerk who gained national attention for her opposition to same-gender marriage, announced the Pope had met secretly with Davis and commended her for her courage. Initially, the Vatican refused to comment on the meeting, and in subsequent days they made statements saying Davis was part of a larger group and did not receive a private audience.

We may never know what really happened that day, because there appear to have been no cameras, sound recordings, or videos, and its now a matter of “he said, she said.” However, for millions of LGBT people in the world, the meeting confirmed they already believed — all Christians, be they conservative protestants or environmentalist Catholics, are anti-gay. Christians, so the common wisdom goes, can disagree on many things, but they will always come together on their hatred of LGBT people.

Now, I can hear you spluttering already: I’m not anti-gay! My church is welcoming of everyone! I belong to the UCC, because I love how affirming they are of LGBT people!

I’m sure that’s true. What I’m highlighting is how Pope Francis and Kim Davis helped fuel the common misperception that all Christians are anti-gay — even you.

And that’s why we have to say it. It’s not enough to say, “We welcome everyone,” because LGBT people will assume that doesn’t mean them. We’ve been burned too many times by people who appeared liberal on issues like homelessness and the environment, but remain firmly opposed to same-gender relationships. We’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and when we hear that the Pope met with Kim Davis, we think, “Of course. That makes sense to me.”

So, does your church celebrate everyone? And when you say that, do you mean people in gay relationships and people whose gender is queer? If so, then you better say it directly, because their are a lot of LGBT people who assume you don’t mean them when you say, “all are welcome.”

How My Gay Brothers and Sisters Bolster My Faith

by Ken McIntosh

My gay sisters and brothers have given me a tremendous gift—they are the witnesses that enable my own faith to withstand its most severe challenges.”

I begin this article with a confession. I should probably have used the #IWASKIMDAVIS hashtag for my Twitter and Facebook posts last month, because I’m one of those older ministers whose views have changed, and I’m chagrined to think of some of my past sermons and comments. My Christian life began in the Evangelical camp and I remained there for more than a decade. “You can only know what you know” and for years the only theological writings that I came across were of the typical and unfortunate category labeling “homosexuality” as a choice and a sin. Given that background, when I came across GLBT Christ followers, I could only see them as a challenge—challenging the presuppositions that I held.

My sister proved to be my salvation in this regard; without her I might still cling to a very limited view of God’s mercy, along with a hyper-literalist approach to the Bible. She has always been a model Christ-follower in our family (although I’m the one with the formal degree in theology). Simply by being herself, Joyce witnessed to me that my spiritual siblings who loved their partners of the same sex are as faithful to Christ and as transformed by the Spirit as I (nay, they are more so). And I’ve come to realize that my gay sisters and brothers have given me a tremendous gift—they are the witnesses that enable my own faith to withstand its most severe challenges.

As the culture wars heat up I’ve become intensely aware of how Christians get painted with a broad brush stroke. That came to a head a few weeks ago when a long-time friend told me “You’re not a Christian. If you choose that word to self-identify that’s your right, but I know Christians and you’re not that.” Now, she meant that as a compliment—her way of acknowledging that I’ve become a more inclusive and broad-minded person. But it also stung, because that accusation divides me within myself. Bombarded by the statements of right-wing politicians, preachers and ordinary believers, I struggle with doubts. Have I hit upon a truer faith now, or am I deluding myself to remain in a religion that has so long been characterized by oppression? Why couldn’t I have chosen a religion like Buddhism or Jainism that isn’t regarded as evil? Yes, I’m part of a big UCC family, with many inclusive fellow believers, but our numbers (around a million) are pretty small compared to more conservative groups like the Southern Baptists (15 times as many). And then I keep hearing old friends tell how they’ve left the faith and are so much more congruent embracing atheism (they do a good job evangelizing for their non-faith).

So am I crazy to keep believing? Thank God for the example of gay believers—they give me hope to keep on. If any group has reason to feel the sting of Christian guilt-by-association, it’s them. They’ve been told for centuries that their faith is illegitimate, that they are shameful and unloved by God. Yet their experience belies those lies and they continue to proclaim love for Jesus.

I read John Fortunato’s book Embracing the Exile: Healing Journeys of Gay Christians. He recounts the long and difficult struggle of growing up being both Catholic (sincerely devout) and gay. At one point he complains to God about his fellow believers saying “They call my light darkness! They call my love perverted! They call my gifts corruptions. What the hell are you asking me to do?” And then John Fortunato hears God’s voice, clear and unmistakable. “Love them anyway,” God said. “Love them anyway.”

I think of a trusted colleague in ministry, a gay man who reminds me that our calling is to assist all UCC churches to prosper—not just the Open and Affirming churches, not just the Progressive Churches—but all the churches in our conference.

I think of the young woman with a spikey hairdo in my church who wears a “Gay Christian” t-shirt and engages people in dialogue when they comment on that, taking on the role of an educator for the misinformed.

And if my gay companions can wear the label “Christian” despite the toxicity that’s been pinned onto that, then surely I can. Jesus is indeed fortunate to have such faithful followers—and I am blessed to be surrounded on earth by such witnesses.