This is the Ordination Paper that I will present at my Ecclesiastical Council, which is scheduled for next Sunday, November 13th 2011. I will present the paper at my home church to a gathering of clergy and church members from the Fairfield East Association, in the Connecticut Conference, of the United Church of Christ. After I present the paper I will answer questions from the assembled body and then a vote will be taken to determine if my ordination has been approved "pending call" - which means I will be officially ordained after I've received a call to a church. Prayers are welcome!
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Psalm 139: 1-6
The sound of loose gravel shifting beneath my feet breaks the silence as I crest the hill leading up to Tiedemann Field. Tucked away on the grounds of a private school in western Connecticut, this tumbling expanse of soccer pitches and softball diamonds is my sanctuary. Embraced on all sides by wooded glory, the rustle of fallen leaves and the lonely caw of a distant crow are the only sounds accompanying the slow steady cadence of my own breathing. It is here in the solitude of a Sunday afternoon that I find the room to stretch my legs, to let my mind wander, and to open my heart to God. It is here that I talk to God. It is here that I listen to God. It is here where the veil between the material and the spiritual, at least in my world, is at its thinnest.
When I need to talk to God, to vent to God, to rave and rant at God, I run.
The words tumble out of my head so rapidly my body is forced to propel itself along in earnest just to keep up; turning my thoughts and fears over to divine ears as fast as my legs will carry me.
When I need to listen to God, to feel the presence of God, I walk.
Slowly, methodically, attentively. Allowing deep longings to rise up, quelling the inner chatter, and listening for God in the spaces in between.
Listening for God in the spaces in between.
This is the definition of theology that resonates most with me. We listen for God, we look for God, and we feel the presence of God in the vague, shadowed spaces that drift in between our existence in the material world and our understanding of the spiritual world. We search for language, images, and emotions that best describe our encounters with these spaces, in an attempt to bring order and meaning to that which is otherwise indefinable and unknowable. Theology is the bridge we build between the known and the unknown, between God and ourselves.
For some, this bridge takes on a solid unshakable form with extensive, ornate levels that tower towards the heavens while resting on a seemingly sound and sturdy footing.
For others, this bridge to God is strung together with fishing line and cotton thread.
It’s a seat-of-the-pants, cargo-net-like contraption with shaky handholds, unsure footing, and gaping holes in between. It twists and billows in the wind, changing form with every gust, and at times sagging beneath one’s weight, swaying dangerously close to the jagged rocks below, yet manifesting enough resilience to spring its occupant high up into the clouds on the rebound.
The theological bridge that best fits the way in which I encounter God is a cross between the two.
My faith is anchored in the hardwearing bricks of scripture, tradition, ritual and sacrament, but the structure that rises up from these sure footings is malleable and ever changing.
In this manifestation of Theos and logos, language and belief are fluid.
Ebbing and flowing. Coming and going.
Birthing and dying. Shrinking and growing.
With a gardener’s eye pruning the excess, the unnecessary, the no longer needed. Letting the sturdier offshoots spread at will, never quite knowing exactly where they will lead.
Theology for me flows in both the mystical and the practical. I go to church to worship God, to be in community with others who worship God, and to both serve and be held up by that community, and God. But when I need to talk to God, to listen to God, to meet God in a thin place where silence reigns, I come to this hilltop sanctuary. Where leaves tumble across the grass, where the wind whistles in baring branches, where shadows and sunlight continually shift form and place, changing perspectives, altering the colors, blurring the outlines of the world, and giving me a fleeting glimpse of the spaces in between.
I was 11-years-old when I first felt touched by the hand of God. But in my youthful perception that hand was on my back shoving me out the door. Born and raised in the Catholic Church, the Catholic school system, and Catholic consciousness, there I was peering over my prayer-clasped hands in my First Communion photo knowing deep down in the marrow of my bones that God-would-always-love-me-no-matter-what. But I learned early on that those who build theological bridges of stone and steel do not take kindly to upstarts who question the builders’ methods of construction.
Why put this stone here when it could just as easily go there?
Why weld into place that which would serve a greater function if allowed to swing freely?
Why follow an incomplete and faded blueprint without first acknowledging the potential errors it contains?
These questions did not fit into the theological framework in which I was raised. The cartoon Jesus with children gathered at his feet that I was shown as a child had in my adolescence morphed into an intolerant Lord who demanded obedience or else. My God of Love had been replaced by a God of Fear. So I leapt off the bridge, leaving my only understanding of God behind.
I spent twenty years playing in the waters and the hills at the foot of the bridge. Distracted by the currents and the tides, the valleys and the peaks. Making no effort to find another bridge to cross to God. Making no effort to build my own.
I did not talk to God because I believed God had no interest in talking to me.
Theos and logos were of different worlds. And logos, the rational world, is where I wished to be.
Then something happened that changed everything.
Twelve years in the past, at another time, in another place, on another hill, I heard the voice of God. On that day I was going downhill, horizontally, sliding painfully along the pavement at 30 mph with a $3,000 bicycle clamped between my legs. It was the culmination of 15 years spent racing and training. Frittering away my Sunday mornings nosing the front wheel of my bicycle onto painted white Starting Lines, chasing the elusive sense of fulfillment and glory that only athletic prowess could bring. Or so I believed.
On that day there was no glory in my exploits, only a humbling ride in the back of an ambulance, followed by six months of recuperation from a fractured pelvis.
On that day the fog that had settled in my life, obscuring all that lay beyond the insulated hills and valleys in which I spun my wheels, began to lift.
On that day I had no choice but to lower the volume in my head and intently listen to whoever it was I swore was calling my name.
It was on that day God whispered in my ear, “Enough.”
That time and place seems far away as I kick through the tall grass at the edge of Tiedemann Field.
The time that I first put on the cloak of “seeker” and set off to find the God not of my childhood, but the God who had beckoned me from the silence that followed when my world came crashing down. The God who obviously had some great plan for me, or so I wanted to believe, to cause me to even consider leaving the familiar hills and valleys of my life behind.
I took tentative steps at first. I joined a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship where questions were welcomed and encouraged, the services were free of the God-Of-Judgment language that I encountered in my youth, and as a gay woman I was welcomed with open and accepting arms.
And it was there that I found my voice.
I had spent a lifetime locked in silence, burdened by the double whammy of a childhood speech impediment and a natural inclination towards shyness. But I long had a love for expressing myself through the written word. With the encouragement of our Fellowship's minister, I stepped into the pulpit one Sunday and it was like stepping into a world that was brazenly new yet comfortably familiar. On that day God whispered in my ear, "This is where you were meant to be."
But when the suggestion that I go to seminary came up over and over again, I resisted, over and over again. Ministry was too hard. I was too old. I already had a fulfilling job. It would take too long. I was too introverted. I was too busy. It would cost too much. I was too afraid.
These excuses, how they served me so well. They've kept me safe.
They’ve kept me small. They’ve kept me locked inside my shell.
The voice of Alanis Morissette flows from my iPod as I slide my hand over the rough surface of the boulder that sits on a rise at the edge of the field. Why did I need an expensive piece of paper to claim the title of minister anyway? I was already ministering. In the pulpit. In the classroom. At the crisis hotline. In the soup kitchen. At the shelter. In the thrift shop. At the senior center. Did I really need to have an R-E-V in front of my name to make a difference? Was it arrogant to presume that God was calling me to make this my profession? And if God was calling me, why was I not listening?
When a new job pulled me from New York to Connecticut in 2001, I went back to school part-time to obtain a bachelors degree in Religious Studies. I was 36-years-old, I was a first-time college student, I was working full-time, and it would take at least five years to complete my degree, but I knew I needed those five years to further discern whether the every growing chorus of voices I was hearing was leading me to where I was meant to be. In the meantime I settled into a new UU congregation, and with my faith identity beginning to take shape I was ready to test the waters of church leadership. I joined the Sunday Service, Membership, and Social Justice committees. I assisted with Religious Education and became a Covenant Group leader. I created and led my own worship services and began more and more to feel like ordained ministry could be the right path for me. Where else could I express my passion for preaching, teaching, and serving?
But something was missing.
Here on Tiedemann Field I often encounter that something, that someone, who was missing.
Walking in the distance ahead of me is a lone figure. He wears the prerequisite white linen robe and walks in sandaled feet—the image seen on all the Mass cards and Children's Prayer Books of my youth. He's always just ahead of me. Turning corners, cresting hills, moving in and out my field of vision. But still I follow. Sometimes I lose sight of him all together as the path in front of me twists and bends and rises and falls. Sometimes I find him walking right beside me, lending certainty to the path that I’ve chosen. And other times I’m convinced that he's behind me giving me a proverbial shove down the road less traveled by. Twelve years ago I set out on a journey hoping to rediscover the connection I once had with God, but I was missing a centering element - a stable ground on which to continue to build my faith. I was missing Christ.
As a UU I had the freedom to explore many spiritual paths but after seven years of path hopping I discovered that I was most comfortable on the one that brought me there. It was time for me to return to my religious roots and reexamine what it meant to wear the label of “Christian.”
And as I walk the familiar paths of Tiedemann Field the words of T.S. Eliot echo in my mind:
"the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
My desire to return to my Christian roots was due partly to what I was learning and experiencing in college as a Religious Studies major. Classes in Christology, Mysticism, and the Western Religious Traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) awakened in me a new understanding and embracing of Christian belief and practice. I began to sort through the Christian baggage I had been carting around for years and discovered that the things I had placed in the bag as a child looked quite different when viewed through adult eyes. I sifted through words and concepts like prayer, grace, sin, redemption, incarnation, and salvation, and began to look at them in new ways. I read the words of Isaiah along side the teachings of Jesus in the gospels and found a spiritual basis for the always present drive that I’ve had to work for social justice - to act on the overwhelming sense of empathy and compassion that I felt for those who were suffering under the yokes of poverty, prejudice, and oppression. The further I revived my Christian beliefs the more I longed to express them in community; and I soon came to the painful realization that my beloved UU congregation offered me neither the language nor the forum in which to do so.
In Unitarian Universalism I found my voice, but it was in the United Church of Christ that my voice found a home. When I began attending a UCC church on a regular basis in 2005, my calling, which had up until then been vague and amorphous, began to take on shape, form, and purpose. What had been off-center suddenly clicked into place, and my previously tentative steps towards the ministry progressed into a purposeful stride. I arrived on the doorstep of my current church, King Street UCC in Danbury, shortly before the arrival of their newly called pastor, the Rev. Cindy Maddox. As a first-time senior pastor, Cindy welcomed my eagerness to wade into the ministry pool. I led Worship when she was out of town, co-led Adult-Ed and confirmation classes, served as the Religious Education Ministry Team Leader, Sunday School Superintendent and Sunday School teacher, and sat on the Ministry Council. And Seminary, which had been languishing for years in the “what if?” column of my life plan, was moved solidly into the “definitely when” column.
As I enter the woods at the far end of Tiedemann Field my stride breaks into a run. Negotiating the unmarked, leaf-strewn paths is tricky but it induces a satisfying adrenaline rush, as I leap over fallen trees and duck under low-hanging branches. Few paths are worth taking if there is no sense that one has grown from having to overcome obstacles along the way. In May 2007, I graduated from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT with a BA in Religious Studies. In the fall of 2008, I began my studies at Andover Newton Theological School in Boston, MA and was blessed to receive a full-tuition Presidential scholarship. I chose ANTS because it offers the experience that every working pastor I’ve spoken to wishes they had in seminary – an equal mix of the theoretical, the practical, and the spiritual. I love that every class begins in prayer, challenges us as students to think beyond the theological boxes that we’ve encased ourselves in, and offers us ways to put what we’ve learned into practice in the real world.
In the summer of 2010, I was blessed with the opportunity to serve as the acting pastor at King Street UCC while the Rev. Maddox was on sabbatical. For 13 weeks I led worship, provided pastoral care, held office hours, and had my first opportunity to preside at a graveside service.
I enjoyed the creative challenge of crafting weekly worship and writing sermons that both challenge and inspire the listener to live out the Good News, but during that summer it was the smaller, less visible moments that solidified my belief that I made the right decision when I said “yes” to God’s call. Visiting congregants in the hospital, providing rides to doctor's appointments, sitting with them for hours after they've learned a loved one has died, and just hanging out and catching up during coffee hour. This is a big part of what ministry is about, and I loved every moment of it.
As I emerge from the woods and jog along the outskirts of Tiedemann field, I contemplate how far I have come in the twelve years since I began this journey, and I my heart leaps in my chest at the thought of the many unseen paths that lie before me. But I know I will not walk those paths alone.
Theos and Logos are no longer separate entities for me. They are infinitely entwined, with the branches of one irreversibly tangled with the other. God and the word/Word, God and service, God in the Kingdom above and beyond, and the Kingdom of God right here, right now.
So what does my theological bridge look like now? And how has it changed since my youth?
I ponder these questions as I stop moving forward and pause to take a rest beneath a tree…
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
Psalm 139: 7-12
The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor revealed that when she was a child, she would lie in the middle of the grassy field behind her house and pretend that she was stretched out on God's stomach.
I love that image. Many of us tend to picture God as being above us, all around us, or within us. It's odd to picture God as being below us (that spot is usually saved for lesser, more demonic beings). Yet there is something comforting about picturing God as being the ground itself. God is not up there, out there, or out of reach. God is as close as the soil that slides between our fingers. God holds us up, yet is always there to catch us when we fall. God is where we can sit and rest, or lay our heads when we grow tired of moving forward. And no matter how fast we run, or how much we try to get away, God is always right there, beneath us. Scuffing up the soles of our shoes and surrounding us with all the beauty that is our natural world.
I believe that God is by nature relational, triune, and mutable. I believe that God craves relation and communion with us and with the created world; and we in turn crave relation and communion with God, the created world, and each other, because we are created in God’s image.
I believe that God is triune. God is one nature containing three faces, or masks. All three stand behind each mask, but we only see the one that chooses to show itself up front. Because God recognized that we need guidance, God revealed God’s self to us in scripture in the form of a Parent - encouraging, loving, punishing, judging, and forgiving. Because we could not comprehend God in God’s true form, God became human in the form of Jesus Christ, the Son. Because God as Jesus could not live forever in human form, God continues to act in this world in the form of the Holy Spirit. God is three persons acting in relation, and those three persons act in relation to creation through history, as scripture tells us, which reveals that God is neither stagnant nor unchanging.
I believe that God is capable of feeling love, anger, disappointment, mercy, and joy, among other emotions; and because I believe that all of creation is a manifestation of God, the changing nature of creation denotes the changing nature of God. I believe that God is the creator and sustainer of all things material and spiritual, and that God created humanity so that God could come to know God’s creation through us – through our experiences in the material and spiritual world.
I believe that God so loved our world that God revealed Godself to us in the form of Jesus Christ.
Through Jesus, God entered human space, and a human being entered God’s space. By becoming one of us, God made ordinary human experiences extraordinary, simply by experiencing what can only be experienced in human form – what it’s like to be born, to feel pain, to feel love, to suffer, and to die. It was also extraordinary that a human being, in the form of the man known as Jesus, had the experiences that only God can have. Jesus acted in God’s space when he prophesied that the Word of God and the messenger were one and the same; he did it when he forgave sins that were not committed against his own person, an act that only God could perform; he did it when human beings responded to him as they do to God, as when he commanded them to “Follow me” (Mt. 9:9); and he did it when he conquered death and was resurrected to eternal life. Through Jesus, God showed us in word and in action the potential that we have to walk in the ways of God. His ministry stands as a concrete example of how we are meant to live in this world. Jesus the man of Nazareth was the embodiment of God’s radically inclusive love, and through Jesus God calls us to hold each other in love, just as God holds us in love. Jesus dedicated his life and his ministry to lifting up the “least of these” – the poor, the oppressed, the weak, and the marginalized – and it is by mirroring this ministry that we are called to be disciples of Christ.
I believe that God continues to act in our world through the work and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit, God speaks to us, acts through us, and transforms us. The Holy Spirit is a woven, continuous, invisible thread that connects us to each other and us all to God. When we recognize the attributes of Christ in others – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control - we call these attributes the fruit of the Spirit. We see God/Christ in the form of the Spirit indwelling in human form, and we get a taste of what it must have been like to be alive when Jesus walked the earth. I believe that the work of the Spirit is representative. The Spirit re-presents Christ and brings Christ into the here and now, and the Spirit inspires us to create a new way of life both for us as individuals and for our communities.
I believe that God created humanity to experience this world of matter as creatures of matter, and because this is a finite world we too are finite creatures. Death is not a punishment for our sins any more than death comes to a rose because it has wronged its creator in some way. Death is not the end that we perceive it to be. It is part of the cycle of life, and while we recognize ourselves as being part of the biological cycle of life – in which our decaying matter feeds the earth to bring forth new life – we are shielded from seeing the full circle of the spiritual cycle of life. We only see a small segment of it, thus we see death as an end, a loss, a move into physical non-being, a taking away of the form in which God created us, a brokenness that must be healed. The three disorders that theologians have traditionally said arose from our brokenness – sin, evil, and death – are, I believe, not unnatural, but completely as God intended it to be. We sin because God gave us the gift of free will; here I agree with Pelagius, who said that if God gave us no other choice but to choose good, or if we were incapable of choosing good on our own - as Augustine claimed - then our will would not be free at all. I do not believe in a narcissistic God who created us simply for adoration; or a tyrannical God, who created us to fail if left on our own. I believe God delights in watching us as we learn how to live in this world; and we cannot learn unless we have the ability to fail.
I believe we create evil in the world because we are imperfect beings who make bad choices, and the result is disharmony in our relationship with God, with creation, and with others. I agree with the liberal feminist position that interprets the fall of humanity not as a fall into a bodily, finite existence but as a fall into injustice. God put us in this world as finite, imperfect creatures, but our sin (the break in our relationship with God) was to organize our world in a hierarchal structure built on an unequal distribution of power, which led to the evils (the break in our relationship with each other) of domination, oppression, and exploitation.
My understanding of the function and origin of sin informs my understanding of the function of atonement. In my youth as a Catholic, my Christological focus was on the cross - in particular, on the crucifix – on the suffering image of Jesus, the one who died for our sins, hanging above the altar for all to see. Getting Jesus off of that cross and fleshing him out as a living, breathing, loving human being has been a large part of my Christological focus as an adult. I began to see him as a great moral teacher, a social activist and political revolutionary who was executed by a totalitarian regime and a religious tradition that elevated the letter of the law above the love of God. Taking Jesus off of the cross was a necessary step for me to make him more real - to land him in a time and place, amongst a people who were desperate for his help. The historical Jesus, the human Jesus, acted as a bridge between the human and the divine; a connection I could see even if at the time I still questioned whether Jesus himself was divine.
But as I grew in my faith, Jesus without the cross was not enough. The deeper I delved into the Jesus of liberation theology, the more I began to recognize the need for the cross - the need to see it in a whole new way. It is the suffering that Jesus experienced on the cross that links the oppressed to God. A God that does not understand our suffering is a distant God, an unmerciful God. Furthermore, a Jesus that does not understand suffering, cannot hold us up when we are crumbling beneath the weight of the world. A cross-less Jesus is a safe Jesus. This Jesus is a mere teacher of the golden-rule who never challenges us to face our demons, to risk alienation and pain, or to carry our cross and the cross of others knowing that God is with us every step of the way. A bloodless Jesus speaks to the comfort of the privileged, not to the pain of the oppressed. Jesus needs to suffer and die, so that he can come alive again right before our eyes.
I believe Jesus conquered sin and death not by offering up his life as payment for a debt or as ransom, but by becoming the last sacrifice, the last scapegoat. According to this theory of atonement, Jesus is the last innocent person to be victimized and labeled as the cause of evil or unrest. Before Jesus it was a self-fulfilling prophecy to choose a scapegoat and eliminate that person or group in the belief that the problem would disappear along with the scapegoat. With the focus of the unrest gone, the problem would subside, only to surface again in some other form and with a need for another innocent victim to be sacrificed in its wake. Jesus was the first visible victim. As theologian Mark Heim proposes, “God was willing to be a victim of that bad thing we had made apparently good, in order to reveal its horror and stop it.”
I believe that Jesus did not die for our sins, but because of our sins. Jesus is our Savior because his death and resurrection had a saving aspect to it – the resurrection was meant to serve as proof that the cycle of vengeful violence could be broken; that the scapegoat who is murdered will return bringing peace not revenge, thus proving the futility of violence once and for all.
The gospel, the Good News, is that this world is not as God intended it to be, and that with God’s help we have the power to change it. I believe salvation – the redemption and renewal of humanity and creation – will be realized when the Kingdom of God is realized. I believe that we are called to be co-builders of the Kingdom of God. We are called to follow Jesus’ example and to work in partnership with God to build a world that is free of injustice, violence, suffering, oppression, poverty, prejudice, and marginalization of any kind. I believe that as individuals we are saved by Grace through faith alone, but it is faith that impels us to want to do good in the world, and it is only by acting on our faith that the Kingdom of God will come to be built. In scripture, Jesus names the Kingdom of God as being not yet (as a destination for the righteous in the end days) and already - “The Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:14). This implies that the Kingdom is currently being built but it is not yet complete. If God wanted to, God could create the Kingdom in an instant, but the implication that it is still in progress supports the understanding that it is being built at both human speed and Godspeed.
I believe that God craves communion, relation, with us and with the created world, and we in turn crave communion, relation, with God, creation, and each other. Eschatology is about the consummation of that relationship - the ultimate realization of our communion with God.
By following Jesus’ example we are doing our part to bring on the Kingdom of God - a new creation, a new earth, where God’s radically inclusive love is received and shared by all equally; where there will be no more gnashing of teeth and no more tears; death itself will be defeated, and humankind will be redeemed and restored to its original form as one who is made perfect in the image of God. But there is more to God’s gift then just the building of the Kingdom. Jesus promises us that once the Kingdom of God is at hand he will come back to us in a visible form. This is the promise of the second coming, the Second Advent. The second coming is a gift from God. It’s the return of our beloved friend, teacher, and Savior, Jesus Christ.
I believe that we are called to build the Kingdom of God through the formation and work of the Church. The Church has been charged with the duty of honoring and distilling the Word of God, both in its written form in the Holy Scriptures, and in its human/divine form in the person of Jesus Christ. It is in proclaiming the Gospel that we share the word of God; it is through service to others that we act on the word of God; it is by living in community that we embody the word of God; and it is in performing the sacraments that we participate in the word of God. Sacraments are “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible Grace.” Sacred rituals like Communion (the Lord’s Supper) and Baptism are useful for binding a community together in worship and in identity, but they also serve the dual purpose of allowing us to experience anamnesis – the active remembrance of Christ and his works; and prolepsis – the active anticipation, or foreshadowing of the promised Kingdom to come.
Through the sacrament of Baptism we enter into communion with all Christians and are brought into union with Christ. The sprinkling or pouring of water upon the forehead and the invocation of the Holy Spirit is a mark of the candidate’s acceptance into the care of the church; it is a sign and seal of their acceptance of God’s forgiving grace; and it is done with the recognition that he or she will continue to grow into full Christian faith and life. Through baptism, the child or adult becomes a member of Christ’s church and is welcomed at Christ’s table. In the UCC, the Prayer of Baptism calls upon God, through the invocation of the Holy Spirit, to “Create new life in the one baptized this that she/he may rise in Christ.” This calling upon God to send down the Holy Sprit and thus initiate the sacrament has its roots in scripture, in particular Matthew 3:16-17, which describes the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. By invoking these words, it is made clear that it is God who is calling the individual into the community of Christ, and therefore the ritual is not merely symbolic, but rather it is a sacred and holy act worthy of its inclusion as a sacrament. The invoking of the Holy Spirit through Baptism is reminiscent of the day of Pentecost – the day that the Holy Sprit was sent into the world to transform the Church, making it a sacrament of the Kingdom becoming a presence in this world, and foreshadowing the world to come. Baptism is therefore a “personal Pentecost” for the individual receiving the sacrament. Just as the Holy Spirit descended upon the world, the Holy Spirit descends upon each individual who enters into the communion of Christ through the sacrament of Baptism.
Through the sacrament of Communion we join together with all followers of Christ to remember Christ’s presence in our world, to honor his presence in the here and now, and to anticipate his return with the coming of the Kingdom of God. We recite the words that Jesus spoke at his last Passover meal and share in the bread and the cup in remembrance of him just as he asked us to do. The sharing of the communal meal at an open table also serves as a sign of the abundance of the Kingdom yet to come, where all will share in God’s bounty with no restrictions or exclusionary factors in place. The UCC Book of Worship beautifully states that Communion is “open to all Christians who wish to know the presence of Christ and to share in the community of God’s people.” In sharing Communion, we call upon the Holy Spirit to dwell among us and to act through us, as we live out Christ’s teachings in this world. We confess our sins communally before God and ask for and receive forgiveness as we recognize the ways in which we fall short of Jesus’ example. We offer up prayers of thanksgiving for the sustenance that God has given us through the meal, and for the unconditional gifts of God’s mercy and grace. The sacrament of Communion connects us with all Christians, past, present, and future, as we come together before God, in Christ, and with the Holy Spirit, as one.
This is the theological structure upon which I tread in this time and place. In some ways it is very similar and in some ways it is very different from the one that I built in my youth. In some areas I have restrung cable and re-trussed the supports to steady the sway that had been present in previous manifestations. In other areas I have removed whole sections or loosened the ties bound up by misconceptions and misconstrued ideas, setting them free to fall away or to reform in new and exciting ways. My theological bridge may look different in five or ten years, but only slightly I would say. The major rebuilding and restructuring has already taken place. But I know as I continue to grow and change, and the world around me continues to grow and change, my bridge will as well. That is the beauty of living in a world created, sustained and redeemed by our still-speaking God.
The United Church of Christ
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end---
I am still with you.
Psalm 139: 13-18
As I rise up from beneath the tree and continue on my way on Tiedemann field, my mind moves to the sharp distinctions that can be made between my Catholic upbringing and the Protestant tradition in which I now find myself. In fairness, I have not experienced Catholicism as an adult, but my adolescent understanding was that I was not to question those whom God had called to stand “in situ Christi” – in Christ’s place. I was not to interpret scripture on my own, I could not receive Communion without first confessing my sins to a priest, and I was to hold fast to the belief that there was only one, holy, Catholic (with a capitol ‘C’), apostolic Church. In converting to Protestantism I quickly learned that catholic can also be spelled with a small ‘c’, and that to be “one in Christ” is not beholden upon one’s pledging allegiance to one particular Christian tradition.
Although my conversion came about in the late twentieth century, I suspect I felt many of the same feelings of newfound freedom and autonomy that the Puritans and Pilgrims felt when they established the first Christian communities in New England during the mid-seventeenth century. For these early settlers, establishing a church centered on congregationalism, with a small ‘c’ led to the birth of Congregationalism, with a capitol ‘C.’ The Pilgrims were Separatists who broke off all ties with the Church of England believing that ultimate authority in all matters related to the church rested with the local body of believers, not with a central governing body. The Puritans did not wish to separate from the Church of England but rather to purify it, but they too resisted centralized authority. The Salem Covenant, adopted in1629, speaks to the understanding that God, and God revealed in scripture, is the only authority that we answer to, and that we bind ourselves to God and to each other in covenant as we live out our faith:
We covenant with the Lord and one with another, and do bind ourselves in the presence of God, to walk together in all his ways according as he is pleased to reveal himself unto us in his blessed word of truth.
In 1648, the Puritans drew up The Cambridge Platform, a doctrinal statement which proposed, “There is no greater church than a congregation which may ordinarily meet in one place,” establishing that the congregation itself is the highest level of ecclesiastical authority.
This emphasis on congregational authority, autonomy, and walking together in covenant flowed through all four traditions that eventually came together to form the United Church of Christ.
Established in 1957, the UCC resulted from the union of four antecedent denominations: the Congregational Churches, the Christian Churches, the German Reformed Church, and the Evangelical Synod of North America. The merging of these four denominations was preceded by the merging of the Congregational and Christian churches in 1931, and the merging of the Reformed and Evangelical churches in 1934. These four traditions had distinct differences but shared enough in common to facilitate their coming together as one. All four believed in the freedom of religious expression, in the authority of scripture as a guiding force in the life of the individual and the church, and in Jesus Christ as the sole head of the church.
The Puritans and the Pilgrims, both of whom were heavily influenced by John Calvin, eventually came together to form the Congregational Churches. Congregationalists placed a high value on education and stressed the need for educated clergy, which led to the establishment of the first colleges in America – Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth. For Congregationalists, spiritual practices and educational knowledge were both part of the process of becoming a more faithful Christian.
The mission of the Congregationalist Churches was to create a Godly society in which excessive materialism was eschewed, the focus was on the public good not the private, and accountability in ecclesiastical settings was seen to be for the public good. The Congregationalists were pioneers in mission work. They established some of the first mission organizations and worked on solving urban problems related to sanitation, immigration, and youth education – all for the public good.
The Christian Churches were birthed on the American frontier in the 19th century as a result of the Second Great Awakening, with churches established in New England, the middle Atlantic region and the south. These churches rejected denominational labels and sought to erase all boundaries by simply calling themselves “Christian.” As a group, they shunned confessions and creeds that were required in other churches. “Christian character” was the only requirement for membership, and the “right of private judgment and the liberty of conscious” were to be considered rights and privileges for all. In 1830, the Christian Church developed “Six Principles” based on these commonly held beliefs and practices, which closely mirror the principles stated in the preamble of the current UCC Constitution and Bylaws.
The Evangelical Synod of North America was established in 1840 by German immigrants who settled in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Iowa. They shared the same dislike for connectional authority as the Congregationalists. Each Christian was expected to make his or her own decisions about what was essential and what was non-essential in his or her theology and in the polity of the church.
The Evangelicals emphasized the expression of the inner devotional life, the sacraments, and the spreading of the Good News through evangelism. The denomination held three main principles which have come to influence the current United Church of Christ: pietism between orthodoxy and rationalism, no creed but Christ crucified, and what became the motto of Eden Seminary, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials freedom, in all things charity.”
The Reformed Church was founded by German and Swiss immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania and the mid-Atlantic region of America in the 1700’s. Unlike the Congregationalists who came in large groups and colonized early America, these immigrants came as individuals into existing seats of power. Its members were primarily working class and had close ties to the Lutheran church. These believers adhered to the Heidelberg Catechism and the Protestant belief in justification by faith through God’s free gift of grace alone. The Reformed tradition was at its center biblical, evangelical, and Eucharistic. The Mercersburg Movement, which grew out of the Reformed tradition, emphasized ecumenism – the understanding that we’re all part of the same church under Christ, the Eucharist as the center of Christian piety, and the lifelong need for Christian nurture – because there is no salvation apart from the church.
The Mercersburg Movement painted an image of the church as a river with many tributaries, each of which could trace their source all the way back to the Catholic Church. I pondered this connection and how it mirrors my own journey as I circumnavigated Tiedemann Field one last time. I came to the United Church of Christ because I was seeking a denominational home where I could express my faith in Jesus Christ and openly worship God in an environment that encouraged questions and welcomed all. I had heard that the UCC was the more “liberal” of the Christian denominations in terms of theology and its stance on social issues, but it took a television commercial with the tagline, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here” to make it real for me. When I saw the UCC “Steeple” ad in which two gay women are shown with their hands resting on each other’s shoulders, I could not help but cry. As an out lesbian I was struggling with the realization that there may be no place where I could go where I could be gay and Christian and be accepted. The welcoming and affirming stance taken by the UCC and many of its congregations was the reason why I was drawn to the denomination, but learning about the history of the UCC and the stand it has taken on issues of justice and social equality, is one of the primary reasons why I chose to stay.
The history of the United Church of Christ stands as a witness to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Through its reliance on the guiding force of the Spirit, this church has inspired people like Anne Hutchinson, a Congregationalist who risked expulsion from the Massachusetts Bay Colony when she opposed the doctrine of the elect; Lemual Haynes, who in 1785 became the first African American to be ordained by a Protestant denomination; Antoinette Brown, who in 1853 was ordained as a Christian minister, and who was the first woman to be ordained in any Christian denomination; Isaac Scott, who was ordained in 1852 by the Christian church and was the first African American missionary to be sent oversees; and more recently in 1972, William R. Johnson, who became the first openly gay man to be ordained as a Christian minister, adding to the United Church of Christ’s long history of welcoming and blessing the ministry of those considered to be “the least of these” by other denominations.
These achievements by individuals are not the only “firsts” that are representative of the United Church of Christ and its antecedent denominations’ willingness to take a stand on the side of justice and love. In 1810, Congregationalists established the first foreign mission society – the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (ABCFM); in 1839, Congregationalists worked to help free the slaves being held on the Amistad schooner; in 1846, Lewis Tappon, one of the Amistad organizers, establishes the American Missionary Associations, the first anti-slavery organization in the US with multiracial leadership; and in 2005, the UCC’s General Synod passed a resolution supporting same-gender equality in marriage, the first Christian denomination to do so.
The polity of the United Church of Christ is both congregational and connectional. The local church is a unit that functions both autonomously and in covenant with the other units that make up the UCC. Each local church has its own rights and responsibilities but each also holds a covenantal relationship, centered on mutual accountability, with the other local churches, the local Associations and regional Conferences, and the national Synod. The rights and responsibilities of each autonomous unit are guided, but not dictated, by the constitution and bylaws. Within the constitution and bylaws one will find an accounting of the responsibilities and rights of each autonomous unit but the document itself holds no power of regulation. Each autonomous unit is to hold “in the highest regard” decisions and actions made by the other units within the whole, but they are by no means compelled to adhere to or replicate those decisions and actions. It has been said that the Synod, the central body of the United Church of Christ, speaks TO the churches, associations, and conferences, but not FOR them – For “if the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” (1 Cor. 12: 17) In the UCC, each unit is connected to the whole yet each functions autonomously, and all come together in covenant to form the Body of Christ.
The UCC Statement of Faith serves a similar purpose, in that it is “understood as a testimony of the United Church of Christ to the faith commonly held among us in the words of our time,” but it is not a creed in the sense that all members must adhere to its statements of belief. The Statement of Faith was approved and accepted by the 1959 General Synod, and it reflects both the kinship and the tension that exists between traditional and contemporary beliefs. The Statement has appeared in three different forms since its acceptance in 1959, and each successive rendition reflects changes in our understanding of theology and language, and how both often need to be adapted to be more linguistically inclusive and accurate, more just, and more theologically appropriate in relation to how we speak about our faith.
The Statement of Faith has evolved over time just as the United Church of Christ has evolved since its founding in 1957. While the UCC is rooted in the tradition, practices, and beliefs of Christianity and the Protestant reformers, it also “affirms the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.” This is the church of the still-speaking God – the God who continues to act in history and continues to live in relation with us and the created world. This is the God who spurred those who established the four traditions which now make up the United Church of Christ, to come to a new world and explore new ways in which to live out Christ’s message and express God’s love.
During the Great Awakening of the 1730’s, the revivalist Congregationalist preacher Jonathan Edwards proclaimed that the church was charged with recovering the passion of a transforming faith that “changes the course of [our] lives.” I believe the United Church of Christ has made valiant attempts to recover that passion and to change the course of the lives of those who choose to walk with God, and the lives of those who are suffering in God’s world.
The sun is setting here on Tiedemann Field, and as it dips below the treetops it sprinkles the horizon with thin, feathered lines of orange and purple. I imagine that these lines that stretch over the horizon are evidence of the connection that exists between the created world and God.
My goal in my ministry is to show others that it’s possible to build a bridge to God without having all of the answers, and that it’s possible to walk with Jesus without having a foolproof blueprint in-hand to follow. I want to be a pastor because I have a passion for making the word, and the Word, come to life – in story and in action. The joy of my ministry is to take the words of the tradition and shape them into something that is theo-logically meaningful to the person in the pew, the person on the street, and the person who is in pain.
This is what I love to do. To take up the multi-faceted stone that is theology and twist it and turn it, marveling at how the light refracted from each side can be so different while emanating from the same source. My goal as an ordained minister is not to focus on one facet of the stone and hold it up as the one and only true reflection of God, but to explore and celebrate many sides of the stone, and guide others to hold tight to that which we can know - God is Love - and not to that which we cannot know. Ordination will allow me to drape the cloth of “profession” over the aspects of ministry that I have engaged in joyfully for many years as a lay person – preaching, teaching, guiding, leading, creating, listening, and simply “being” – the ministry of presence. But more importantly, ordination will allow me preside over the sacraments – To actively invoke the Holy Spirit and bestow the sacred gifts of Baptism and Communion upon all those who feel called to participate in the church created in Christ’s name.
Vocationally, I am drawn to small town parish ministry - where it’s possible to know every parishioner’s name, where Sunday’s are for preaching, and the pastor’s work revolves around every birth, death and life in between. I am also drawn to the callings of social justice ministry - where ‘serving Christ’ is done with hands and feet, and heart and mind, and where ‘giving back to God’ is done every day and in many diverse ways.
And I believe I have found a home to practice this ministry in the United Church of Christ.
As I head for the gravel strewn path that will take me home I thank God for taking the time to walk with me. For giving me the chance to ask my questions and air my fears, for helping me to sort through the distractions and chatter and to listen for God’s response - “Deus Caritas Est” (God is Love) - in the spaces in between.