Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Obama’s Church

Let me explain my denomination, the United Church of Christ! And, oh yes, and let me also introduce you to God!

A young blogger, on whom I try to keep tabs, recently opined that Barack Obama should have left his church. That was like a blow to the celiac plexus for me. Ooof!

Our denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC), is not one which people leave. They come to it because they know of its openness to all points of view and ideas. They know that, within our congregations, one can talk of the ascension of Christ or about gay marriage; and on those subjects one can articulate whatever opinion one cares to offer and that expression will not be met with ridicule, but with open, honest and constructive discussion.

We are a historic, old player in the protestant movement. We were the separatists in 16th century England that withstood enormous ridicule and physical abuse from the Crown. We fled to the Netherlands and gathered there to plan our futures. We traveled to America aboard the good ship Mayflower and settled the Plymouth Colony on the Massachusetts shores of the Atlantic Ocean. More of our company followed in other ships over the next several decades. We had more than 600 congregations in America before 1776. Eleven of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were members of one or another of those congregations. We founded some of America’s finest and most famous universities and colleges; such as Harvard, Dartmouth, Yale, Middlebury College and Oberlin College, to name just a few. (Oberlin, by the way, was the first college in America to award 4-year degrees to women!)

Our congregations were among the earliest of America’s abolitionists. “We were the first main-line denomination to ordain an African-American (1785), a woman (1853) and an openly gay pastor (1972).”

We advertise proudly that our doors, like Christ’s arms, are open to everyone. Color, gender and sexual inclinations have never been a barrier to acceptance in our congregations.

Our common denominator is an allegiance to the teachings and message of Jesus Christ and even that is open to various interpretations and to plenty of discussion.

Shortly after all the negative publicity that stemmed from Barack Obama’s own church, Trinity United Church of Christ of Chicago, our denomination released a statement showing how much it hurt to be criticized so much.

“Much has been said about the United Church of Christ in recent weeks, much of it hurtful for many in our country, including members of Trinity UCC in Chicago. That is why we are eager to share the broad and diverse story of the UCC, one that we celebrate.

“With all Christians, we rest in God’s amazing grace and God’s voice in the words of Scripture. Yet, the UCC is unique to some because we do not require uniformity of belief. We are a church of open ideas, extravagant welcome and evangelical courage. Our passion for democracy extends to both government and church, where decision-making rests within each congregation. We support liberty in our pulpits, just as we affirm the individual conscience of our 1.2-million members to agree, disagree and wrestle with life’s biggest questions in the spirit of love.
“…Our unity is not dependent upon uniform agreement, but in our shared allegiance to Jesus Christ. Ours is a risk-taking church, because ours is a risk-taking God.”

Our denomination believes deeply that God did not stop talking to us when it was finally decided which groups of writings would make up the official book we call the Bible. God is still speaking. We not only believe that, but we are trying to hear God and understand what message is being expressed to us.

In our struggles to discuss, debate and question, we make mistakes. We grow in faith as a result of those mistakes. We move closer and closer to hearing what God is saying to us today.

I’ve written a number of times about how important this denomination is to me. I grew up in it and was cared for and nurtured by it. In it I discovered there is a real and present God who I can experience and introduce to other people.

I was taught in Sunday School classes by a group of the most loving and caring old ladies that one could ever imagine – ever imagine, that is, their oldness and their love and care. Then, they were about the age I am now. Old Mrs. Beiser explained it all to me one Sunday morning. She told me who God is and I remember being startled by what she said; however, from that day to this it has always made crystal clear sense and I have never lost faith in the utter truth of what she taught me.

“God is love!” That’s what she said. And she pointed to the spot in the Bible where it said that and where it told me how, in the simplest possible language, I could know and relate to that God.

In my more mature years I would hear it said in more distinguished, erudite ways by philosophers and theologians. God is known in our relationship to another being. God is known as a part of an extraordinary triangle – one’s self, of course, and another being and then, and only then, God.

“If you want to experience God,” Mrs. Beiser said so wisely, her finger jabbing down at her open and well worn Bible, “you have to love all God’s children.”

“It’s not a great mystery,” she went on, “and it’s not magic or voo-doo. It’s simple as apple pie. If you don’t love, you can’t know God. If you do love, you know God because God is that love.”

To this day, I’ve never made it more complicated than that. That personal knowledge of God tells me what I must do. Justice! Fairness! Assistance! Compassion!

I love Pastor Jeremiah Wright and not in some condescending, patronizing way. I love him because he is a fellow journeyman with me, struggling to know what it is that love commands us to do. God is not complicated, but God’s will for us sometimes is. Pastor Wright’s sermons showed the enormity of that struggle, but, I'm here to tell you, he was rastlin’ with it.

I remember one of Martin Luther King’s last sermons. He was struggling mightily. The way wasn’t always clear to him. Sometimes he failed to do what God’s love would have had him do.

“Just like you,” he shouted out in this sermon, “I am a sinner!”

He paused for what seemed like a long several seconds and then, with a tear on his cheek, he continued, his voice cracking and the words in a whisper:

“But I want to be a good man, and I’m tryin’ so hard.”

That’s what it is for us in our denomination. We’re just tryin’ ever so hard to understand what it means to love. The answer is not always clear. We fumble around sometimes with the wrong words comin’ out. We keep tryin’ to understand what it is that God is sayin’ to us today.

I’m proud to be a member of the United Church of Christ. I’m proud of Trinity UCC in Chicago for all they do to express God’s love. I’ve been in that church more than once and I know what they do and what they mean to their community. I’m also proud of Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of that church, ‘cause I know he’s a lovin’ and kind man.


Visit the web site of the United Church of Christ

If you do visit this web site, be sure to watch the video clip that shows a portion of Bill Moyers address to our national convention. Moyers is a UCC member.

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