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November 1992 – We’re connected
Who I am, and why I am writing Connections.
December 1992 – If I were a Bishop
What I’d do that I don’t see bishops doing; what I’d avoid that I often see them doing.
January 1993 – Power in the church
We often think of power as bad, but God evidently wants us to have the power we need for doing what God calls us to do. But this “power to” is different from exerting power over other people. Power in organizations has several forms, each of which can be used for good or harm, as “power over” or “power to.” In Power Analysis of a Congregation, Roy Oswald helps us see where power is and how it works, in the church and other organizations.
February 1993 – Kindred spirits
God often communicates with us and ministers to our needs through other people, especially the kindred spirits who share our main concerns and communicate in ways we understand most clearly. But to find and be found by kindred spirits, we have to be honest and open in revealing our real beliefs and feelings. We also have to be careful and kind in handling what other people reveal to us. Author Marilyn Ferguson calls kindred spirits “conspirators”—” those who breathe together.” Others call them “resonators.” In A Testament of Freedom, Thomas Kelly calls them people whom we know to the depths, from within. Churches need to be places where we can find and connect with them.
March 1993– Tradition—it can lead us to God or away from God
Church traditions are like the gift wraps I enjoy constructing and saving. They can be beautiful, and they bring back fond memories, but they don’t stay usable forever. Traditions are like parents, too—sometimes valuable guides but sometimes obstacles to making changes we need to make. Tradition-breakers—Jesus, Luther, Wesley—started our church traditions, yet we often want to cling to their ways instead of being equally innovative in finding today’s ways to reach the sacred.
April 1993 – Step into new life
God continually leads us to new steps we need to take. Unfortunately, friends and family don’t always help us take the needed steps, because if we change, it changes the setting in which our friends and family live, and they may not find the new setting as comfortable as their present setting. Steps that seem tiny to others sometimes seem huge and are crucial for the person who needs to change.
May 1993 – Insiders and outsiders in the church
A church building and program that seem comfortable and welcoming to insiders can seem forbidding to outsiders, so it’s important for insiders to try to look with outsiders’ eyes. A church staff or committee can overlook needed information and ideas if all its members think alike and socialize together. A Sunday School class can turn off potential new members if its members are so comfortable conversing with each other that they ignore visitors. Laity feel like outsiders when clergy talk only among themselves or manipulate the system in ways that only they know.
June 1993 – God creates us with differences
In the church it’s essential to recognize that people have different God-given abilities, interests, and personalities, and to welcome all of them actively. Discovering the Myers-Briggs system of classifying personality types was a life-saver for me, because my way of approaching life is shared only by a tiny minority of the U.S. population. This Connections describes this system of describing personality types and suggests books for learning more about it.
July 1993 – A pebble can be powerful when used for God
God can make our tiniest abilities and seemingly feeblest tools powerful when we make them available for God’s use. In the Bible, the story of David and Goliath and the story of Esther, among others, show this happening. These stories give us valuable clues for discovering our own assets and making them effective for God’s purposes. In Turning Points, Max Christensen tells about people responding to “divine taps on the shoulder” in today’s world.
August 1993 – Lay Christians at work
God calls each of us to ministry. It’s not just the responsibility of clergy. And ministry isn’t done only through the institutional church. The places where people live, work, and go for social and leisure activities are the places where people are most likely to be reached with the gospel, and lay people, not clergy, have constant access to these places. In The Divine Milieu, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin assures us that being Christian does not add a burden of observances and obligations to our lives but rather gives meaning, beauty, and a new lightness to what we are already doing. In The Monday Connection, William Diehl laments that few churchgoers find spirituality in daily life and most churches do little to help them find it. He found that small support groups sharing the concerns of daily life could help. In How Can I Be Over the Hill When I Haven’t Seen the Top Yet? Patricia Wilson reminds us that being the church doesn’t just happen once a week in the church sanctuary, yet meeting and sharing with fellow Christians is essential.
September 1993 – Prayer in a busy world
In the church we too often give the false impression that being a good Christian is possible only for people who aren’t very involved in the real world. We portray silence, solitude, and plenty of time as essential for prayer. But as a Sunday School teacher of mine used to assure his students, praying on the run may be more important. In The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen reminds us that we don’t have to be like the monks who retreated to cells in the desert to pray. Rather, silence is a quality of the heart, a portable cell that we can carry with us wherever we go. This Connections also includes suggestions from authors Ron DelBene, Parker Palmer, and Chester Michael and Marie Norissey, who describe prayer methods that fit different personalities and settings.
October 1993 – What century is this? Christians don’t seem to know
We use computers, not abacuses or scrolls. We don’t communicate with smoke signals. But we still quote scripture and express our beliefs in words that are relics from the past. In worship services we pray “Our Father who art in heaven,” and we say “sitteth at the right hand of God.” This must make outsiders wonder “What century do these people think they’re in?” Our use of outdated words in church gives messages about God and human beings that deny what we otherwise claim to believe. Also, we still use some organizational methods that were designed for 18th-century rural America. Through these practices, we’re giving the wrong messages to today’s people.
November 1993 – Our stories connect us, but telling them is scary
Sharing our personal faith stories with each other can be scary at first, but it helps us connect with other people and with God. I’m sharing some of my story here. In Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am, John Powell reminds us that unless our minds and hearts are hopelessly barricaded, we’re different people today from those we were yesterday, so in order to know each other, we need to keep sharing our stories. In Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner points out that hearing others’ stories helps us recognize important features of our own. And Joanna Field, in A Life of One’s Own, observes that if we can’t bear to let others know our stories, we probably can’t bear to look at them ourselves in the ways we need to look.
December 1993 – The church and the world
Christmas is an especially hard time to say no to customs we need to say no to, like excessive spending and excessive eating. In The Once and Future Church, Loren Mead discusses how the world’s attitude toward the church has changed over the centuries, and what this change means for the church. In Freeing the Faith, Hugh Dawes challenges us to see the world as Jesus apparently did.
January 1994 – When Christians disagree
Christians often are among both the supporters and the opponents of an issue, because the Bible doesn’t give all-purpose rules and doesn’t specifically address all the situations we encounter in today’s world. In The Myth of Certainty, Daniel Taylor explains that Christians who disagree with us often seem like a threat to our assumptions about reality and truth, so they frighten us. In defense, people often use rigidity and even violence. Taylor finds that we’re confusing unity with uniformity when we insist that all Christians must come to God in the same way and use the same words for describing their experiences and beliefs. Hearing a variety of views and beliefs is valuable.
February 1994 – “Do this in remembrance of me”
Christians have different understandings, along with different names, for Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. Many disagreements about the observance of this rite focus on superficial aspects of it that keep us from seeing God in it. To me, its symbolism, which has appeared in many ways throughout history, not just in Christianity, asks us to give our lives and our selves, as Jesus gave his.
March 1994 – Many ways to worship
To reach younger people, many new fast-growing congregations are using worship styles very different from the styles older, long-time churchgoers are used to. But instead of complaining about new styles, we need to ask ourselves what’s really essential for worship. In Trouble at the Table, Carol Doran and Thomas Troeger affirm that most of us are most comfortable in worship whose practices are what we’re used to. But drawing on the best that each segment of our membership and the population has to offer can be important for carrying out our real purpose.
April 1994 – Sunday School
Many Sunday School classes use the same kind of lesson material and hear the same teacher for years, never exposing members to new viewpoints or new information. This kind of class can keep members from noticing when God is offering them new insight and nudging them to take new steps in their spiritual journeys. This Connections suggests ways to make classes more interesting and more conducive to spiritual growth.
May 1994– Christians aren’t God’s police force
The gospels show Jesus directing his strongest criticism toward the religious people who had appointed themselves God’s thought police. He told his followers not to try to weed out the people who disagreed with them but to practice love instead. When I hear Christians railing against people they think are breaking God-given rules, I feel like I’m back in the halls of my elementary school, hearing the principal roar at violators of trivial school rules.
June 1994 – God’s priorities and ours
Jesus’s number-one priority seems to have been demonstrating love in action, but our churches’ top priority often seems to be members’ comfort instead. Faithfulness requires constant attention to what Jesus’s priorities were.
July 1994 – We can’t stop with what we learned in kindergarten
For coping with adult life and doing what God calls us to do, limiting ourselves to what we learned in kindergarten or even in our earlier adult life isn’t enough. In The Paralysis of Mainstream Protestant Leadership, Edward Carothers calls this limited approach to faith starvation. For growing as Christians, continually being fed with new information is essential, as is continually reevaluating and occasionally revising our present beliefs.
August 1994 – Lay voices in the church
Many lay Christians feel their voices aren’t heard in the church. None of us as individuals can expect to call the shots in it, but if we’ve informed ourselves and thought about our beliefs, then expressing our views and concerns is important. This Connections suggests ways in which we can have a voice and be heard.
September 1994 – God speaks through our dreams
For many years I was baffled by scriptures that described God speaking through dreams. Then I discovered how to see meaning not only in dreams but also in other places where symbolic language appears, including visual art, literature, the Bible and other religious writings, and religious rituals. This discovery especially helped me understand a life-changing dream that came at midlife. This Connections gives pointers for remembering and understanding dreams, and suggests books that may help.
October 1994 – Who’s feeding today’s sheep?
Jesus says “feed my sheep,” but we often offer things the sheep can’t recognize as food. Older members often don’t see any need for the variety that younger people consider essential, but we need to pay attention to what food will attract today’s sheep, even if it’s food that we don’t find tasty. In Dancing with Dinosaurs, Bill Easum reminds us to design our worship for today’s people, not just for yesterday’s. In Looking in the Mirror, Lyle Schaller reminds us to ask first what we’re trying to do, and then whether we’re spending our resources trying to keep yesterday alive.
November 1994 – Broadcasting and narrowcasting
Many of the methods our churches use for communicating are guaranteed to reach only a few people. In Ministry in an Oral Culture, Tex Sample points out that half of the people in the U.S. live in an oral culture, but our churches are offering a lot that these people find meaningless and boring. He suggests how the church can reach them.
December 1994 – Here comes Jesus!
A friend who was drafted to play the role of Jesus in a Vacation Bible School activity was startled when the children shouted “Here comes Jesus!” as he entered the room. The experience made him reevaluate himself and his way of living. Isn’t “Here comes Jesus!” the reaction we all need to evoke in the people who encounter us in our daily life?
January 1995 – God calls us into community
God calls the church to be a community—a group whose members know and care about each other. That means showing each other our real selves, not false fronts. It requires acknowledging our differences and addressing conflict openly, not acting as if it doesn’t exist or ousting people who disagree with the majority. In The Incendiary Fellowship, Elton Trueblood says that what often passes for Christianity today is not burning conviction but a damp wick. He doesn’t think the church can be brought back to life by merely rearranging the lives of uncommitted people. In A World Waiting to Be Born, Scott Peck says churches are now the hardest groups in which to build community, and in The American Religion, Harold Bloom says urging the need for community upon American religionists is a vain enterprise. Years ago, in The Emerging Church, Bruce Larson and Ralph Osborne observed that congregations were emphasizing minor aspects of the church and ignoring essential ones. That still seems to be mostly true.
February 1995 – Seminaries—the church’s seed beds
A survey about seminary education showed that lay churchgoers, pastors, and seminary professors had very different opinions about what should get top priority in preparing pastors. Some gave top priority to indoctrination, some to exposure to a wide range of thought, some to practical training, and some to being prophetic as the church’s cutting edge, This difference shows the need for change, both at the grass roots and in the ivory towers, or at least for more information and better understanding. I found attending seminary exhilarating, despite having heard mostly negative views of seminaries earlier in my life.
March 1995 – The church can learn from business
God speaks through lay people and the world of work, not just through clergy and religious activities, so findings from the business world are sometimes helpful for the church. In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge gives useful pointers about how to be a learning organization—one which keeps increasing its ability to get the results it wants. Ezra Earl Jones also gives helpful advice in Quest for Quality. In an Atlantic Monthly article, Peter Drucker writes about the embarrassing non-results that many organizations get, and about how setting benchmarks and providing incentives to employees can help to produce better results.
April 1995 – A letter to a beginning pastor
Giving top priority to Sunday worship services, speaking lay language, composing sermons carefully, and taking laity seriously without letting congregation members set the church’s whole agenda are among the practices I wish beginning (and experienced!) pastors would follow.
May 1995 – Who will speak for the church?
This time when delegates to the quadrennial UMC General Conference are elected is crucial for the UMC’s future. Understanding the process, getting pertinent facts, using effective tactics for voting, and looking carefully at potential delegates’ qualifications are vitally important.
June 1995 – Rocking the church boat
Rocking the boat in the church can be harmful but is often helpful and badly needed. In Antagonists in the Church, Kenneth Haugk helps readers see how to distinguish between harmful and helpful boat-rocking. In an issue of The Parish Paper, Lyle Schaller reminds us that perpetuating the status quo is not the road to a transformed life.
July 1995 – What do these stones mean?
For us, the church is like the mound of stones we read about God telling Joshua to set up as a reminder of God’s action. In order for such stones to serve their intended purpose, we have to keep asking what they mean and whether we need to continue doing all the things that different ones of our stones commemorate.
August 1995 – Finding the real Jesus
Because I see Jesus portrayed in such a wide variety of ways, I try to stay on the lookout for more information about what he was really like. That effort has led me to some writings of the Jesus Seminar. Although there’s disagreement about all such writings, I’m dismayed by the many Christians who refuse to even consider the findings and speculations of scholars who try to learn about the life of Jesus and other aspects of early Christian history. In Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and in Jesus, A New Vision, Marcus Borg writes about the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus, a distinction that may help Christians get a better understanding of what they read in the Bible and hear at church. In Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, John Dominic Crossan gives helpful information and advice.
September 1995 – Reading under the eye of God
“We read under the eye of God,” said a monk many centuries ago, “until the heart is touched and leaps to flame.” Reading has been an important route to God for me. Here I list many of my all-time-favorite books.
October 1995 – Heresy
Some of today’s Christians are displaying arrogance and meanness that don’t seem to be Christian. Many Christians think of heresy as a thing of the past, when people were burned at the stake for expressing unacceptable beliefs, but concern about exposing and rooting out heresy is making a comeback. Jesus apparently didn’t demand uniformity of belief, so why should his followers? In a Christian Century article, Thomas Oden advocates preserving ancient rules and boundaries, while Lewis Mudge emphasizes the need to recognize our faith’s current best moral insight.
November 1995 – Looking back, looking forward
Beginning the 4th year of Connections, I review some of the topics I believe churches most urgently need to address.
December 1995 – Women aren’t second-class people in God’s sight
Much of what Christian feminists are saying is similar to what Jesus said and did. He rejected traditional rules and customs related to women. Looking back at my own life, I see ways in which I failed to recognize the brainwashing that surrounds us, that in so many ways treats women and girls as inferior or makes them invisible. Some of these ways are subtle, thus especially powerful: clothing, chivalry, ways of talking about money, and even rest-room doors.
January 1996 – God isn’t one of the guys
We claim that God is neither male nor female, but most of what we hear in church and elsewhere presents God as male. This usage gives the mistaken impression that men are more God-like than women, making women seem inferior. We often use only masculine words to refer to groups of people or people in general, too, making women seem invisible. It’s long past time to remedy this injustice, and the church should be actively taking the lead.
February 1996 – Seeking God’s will about homosexuality
We have no evidence of Jesus having mentioned homosexuality, and the scriptures that mention it seem clearly to reflect cultural practices, not God-given rules. As Marilyn Alexander and James Preston remind us in We Were Baptized Too, and Desmond Tutu reminds us in his foreword to the book, it’s long past time for the church to acknowledge homosexual people as children of God and stop discriminating against them.
March 1996 – Who qualifies as a Christian?
Different Christians have different opinions about what being a Christian requires. We disagree on whether being liberal or being conservative is right for Christians, yet Jesus was a radical.
April 1996 – Christians in ministry
This Connections discusses issues that were to be considered in May at the UMC General Conference, the worldwide UMC decision-making body, which meets every four years.
May 1996 – Our traditions aren’t God
Christians express their faith through a wide variety of people, practices, music, belief statements, and all sorts of other ways. Some inspire and enlighten us while others leave us cold or turn us off. We make a mistake if we claim that our favorite or most familiar traditions are the only right ones, or that a Christian whose experience has been different from ours isn’t a real Christian. We make traditions into idols.
June 1996 – Silence isn’t always golden
In Christianity in the 21st Century, Robert Wuthnow observes that although Christianity has always championed community, the church as it has now evolved is ill suited to provide community. He sees the church has become mainly an administrative convenience that provides few ways for its members to interact with each other. Some deliberate changes in our church meetings could help by encouraging attenders to talk and listen to each other.
July 1996 – Making conversation
I’ve been slow to realize the importance of my mother’s advice about “making conversation.” Making conversation with those around us at meetings and social events is actually part of obeying the teaching of Jesus.
August 1996 – The language of heart, spirit, and hope
When we don’t communicate warmth to attenders of our churches, we lose many of them. Some of our worship and other activities aim only at participants’ heads and fail to reach their hearts. In Fire from Heaven, Harvey Cox suggests that mainline denominations’ failure to help their members experience God’s presence and respond openly may be a major factor in these denominations’ decline. In Can Mainline Denominations Make a Comeback? Tony Campolo notes that transforming reflection happens in the context of action. I speculate that use of the lectionary may have removed a lot of the passion and spirit that our worship needs.
September 1996 – A desert journey
The Bible and other religious writings tell about people finding God in deserts, wildernesses, pits, and other barren places. Sometimes these are physical places, but they can also be metaphors for a spiritual experience. A recent summer trip to northern New Mexico and southern Colorado brought this home to me powerfully with a dream-like message.
October 1996 – A surprising response
My saying in the 8-96 Connections that using the lectionary might contribute to making worship dull brought the most responses I’d ever received, and most were from pastors defending the use of the lectionary. But participation in traditional worship services is declining in so many churches that I’m not convinced by these pastors’ insistence that their present methods are best. Their reaction leads me to look again here at what makes worship effective.
November 1996– New ways of being the church
In an Atlantic Monthly article, Charles Trueheart writes about congregations in which centuries of European tradition and Christian habit are deliberately being abandoned to clear the way for new forms of worship and belonging. Yet many churchgoers still ignore the evidence of church decline and refuse to make changes. In Church for the Unchurched, George Hunter reminds church members that today’s mission field is all around them and that they must speak its language if they want to reach its people. In Dakota, Kathleen Norris expresses her dismay at seeing towns and churches refusing to use information and skills that outsiders brought. In My American Journey, Colin Powell describes his feeling that the rock of faith that he was raised on had moved.
December 1996– Reminders of the early church
A trip to Greece and Turkey made me think about how we treat people whose religious beliefs differ from ours. It reminded me that many of the words we consider Christian came from secular aspects of Greek and Roman society. And it made me sad to see how great, irreplaceable works of art and architecture were destroyed by Christians because the works were created for worshiping Greek or Roman gods and goddesses.
January 1997 – Today’s generation gaps
For centuries children and teenagers have been seeing things differently from older people, but the difference seems more noticeable now, probably because people are living longer now. In Generations, William Strauss and Neil Howe describe today’s generational differences and point out how a recurring pattern of personalities and moods results from powerful historical events. In Three Generations, Gary McIntosh writes about how differently three of today’s generational groups see the church and how important it is for churches to pay attention to these differences in designing worship and other activities.
February 1997 – Generation X—Christian or unknown?
The generation born between the early 1960s and early 1980s is not being reached effectively by churches. This Connections reports some reasons for this and suggests some books that can help.
March 1997 – The worship wars
In Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, Marva Dawn expresses her fear that churches have abandoned too much of the traditional Christian ritual and music and thus lost some features essential to real worship. In Praying the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann describes the Psalms as serious speech addressed to a real God, about things genuinely important, and he recommends restoring their inclusion in worship.
April 1997 – We want members, but why?
If we older members want younger people in the church only to help preserve the features we like, we’re seeking younger members for the wrong reason and are likely to keep them away rather than attract them. To reach the people we’re not currently reaching, we’ll have to look at the church with outsiders’ eyes. We also need to think about the church’s true purpose rather than just what will keep current members comfortable.
May 1997 – Two different systems
Many UMC clergy, especially clergywomen, find that the UMC system for appointing clergy is really two systems, one for favored clergy and another for all others. In addition, many UMs find that UMC Annual Conference sessions (regional decision-making meetings) are like two meetings, too—one devoted to issues that only concern clergy, and the other dealing with what concerns the whole church. Also, lay members often find that the fit between pastors and congregations doesn’t seem to get near as much attention as pastors and their families’ personal wishes.
June 1997 – Two different reactions
Most readers who responded to last month’s Connections have said, in effect, “I’m so glad someone is finally saying openly these things that we constantly observe.” But a few responders have strongly disagreed, saying that I mislead people and harm the church by expressing my opinions and observations. The UMC bishop of my area said this and asked me to meet with him and his Cabinet to discuss what I was doing; I report on that meeting here.
July 1997 – Making what’s important interesting
The editor of a news magazine says this is what he’s trying to do. Shouldn’t it also be what the church tries to do? Improving the quality of preaching is an important way to accomplish it, and lay members could help pastors improve if the pastors would let them. The communications that churches send to outsiders are also important, so their spoken and unspoken messages need to be carefully considered.
August 1997 – Evaluating effectiveness
Looking for God’s list of what constitutes effectiveness in pastors may result in using measurements different from those we usually use. Some church members say they want their pastors to be spiritual, but this often seems to mean merely being superficially sweet, which may not be a result that comes from the Holy Spirit.
September 1997 – Following the party line
Should pastors and church members always conform to their church’s official policies and doctrines? Clergy, especially, can suffer serious financial harm for refusing to conform, but sometimes following God’s will requires it. In God-Talk in America, Phyllis Tickle observes that the yearning for experiential religion within an affirming community often causes people to rebel against religious systems. She finds many people feeling that the church has inserted institutional impediments between believers and Christ.
October 1997 – Challenges for the church
In Five Challenges, Loren Mead discusses five tasks that we must give top priority if we want our churches to survive. But he feels very lonely in this concern. He doesn’t see many church people working on these tasks he sees as essential. He sees most church people and institutions planning for tomorrow as if it is going to be a repeat of yesterday. He believes God always raises up the people with the necessary new ideas and energy, but he wonders whether we will recognize and support them in time now, when they speak about the current need for change.
November 1997 – A golden opportunity for the church
In Rediscovering the Sacred, Phyllis Tickle express her belief that a series of wrenching events in the past thirty years has caused many U.S. people to give new attention to the sacred. Many other well-informed observers agree. If they’re right, it’s a golden opportunity for the church. I wonder if the church—today’s body of Christ, we say— is going to die and be reborn into a different form, just as Jesus’s earthly body had to die and be reborn in a new form.
December 1997 – Conflict in the church
Characteristics of our different personality types influence our ways of reacting to conflict and change in the church. Because so many church members find conflict unbearably painful, we too often stifle views and information we need to hear. This only makes the conflict worse and drives away members who could help make needed changes.
January 1998 – Uncontrollable voices
In Rediscovering the Sacred, Phyllis Tickle reports that more and more people are now making the journey without guidance from church doctrines or clergy. Many clergy and some lay church members find dissenting voices scary. Some find political assertiveness in the church—efforts to influence the institutional church system—a bigger threat than members who pursue do-it-yourself spirituality. “Command and control” may no longer be as prevalent as it once was in business, but it still seems to prevail in the church.
February 1998 – Religious tourists or real Christians?
A bishop referred to me and other church members who aren’t in top-level church positions as “religious tourists.” That has some very negative implications! Doesn’t God call all of us to make the spiritual journey together? How can any of us legitimately say that someone else isn’t entitled to make the trip or even to help choose the route?
March 1998 – Spiritual discernment in the church
In Discerning God’s Will Together, Danny Morris and Charles Olsen describe a process of discernment that could transform the church. Discernment processes have a long history in Christian tradition and have many benefits, but using such a process involves risk, takes time, and can threaten members’ turf.
April 1998 – Discernment—connecting faith claims with church life
In Scripture and Discernment, Luke Timothy Johnson says that if we want our actions to match our words, we will begin using a discernment process for our church decision-making. He admits that it’s messy compared to other methods, but he thinks the benefits are worth the messiness. What we lose by it is the illusion of having control.
May 1998– A challenge—summarizing Christianity
Probably no two Christians would agree on exactly how to say what the essentials of Christianity are, but giving it a try is worth the effort.
June 1998 – Help for today’s churches, from John Wesley
Although John Wesley lived in a very different setting from ours, some of his methods would still be useful in today’s church.
July 1998– Conference—Christian conversation
When John Wesley referred to “conference,” he meant Christian conversation surrounded by prayer. Conference was a serious Christian encounter aimed at finding God’s will and increasing participants’ spiritual maturity. That’s not always what today’s UMC Conferences—official decision-making bodies—are like.
August 1998 – Accentuating the positive
Trying to protect members’ feelings and comfort and to keep everything under control, church groups often try to keep the church’s shortcomings from being revealed. But that method can cause problems, and it’s unbiblical. Optimism can be valuable, but so can facing the negatives. In Becoming a Thinking Christian, John Cobb laments that some church leaders seem to want the church to die in superficial harmony rather than live in vigorous debate.
September 1998 – Dialogue, discussion, debate, discernment—dos or don’ts?
In The Fifth Discipline, organizational specialist Peter Senge points out that dialogue originally meant a free flow of meaning through a group. Dialogue is different from debate. In Claiming All Things for God, George McClain contrasts two ways in which churches can approach decision-making. One is to ask “What shall we do?” A better way is to ask “What is God’s yearning for us?” He also recommends taking time for silence during decision-making meetings.
October 1998 -By our love or by our clothing?
A UMC clergyman’s article about why he wears the “clerical collar” made me wonder what such practices say about our beliefs. What do they say about the difference between the clergy and the laity? What are Christians saying when they wear jewelry that features a cross? In Virtual Faith, Tom Beaudoin finds that some younger people use it to mock certain Christian practices. Talking about these practices in church could be helpful.
November 1998 – Birthdays—times for growing
The approach of a dreaded birthday makes me not only lament evidence of physical decline but also rethink what God may want from me in my remaining years. In The Crone, Barbara Walker gives the heartening reminder that in earlier societies, older women were seen as founts of wisdom, law, healing skills, and moral leadership. In Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris reminds us that being perfect in the biblical sense means becoming fully ourselves as God wants.
December 1998 – Searching for unity
Christians believe that God wants the church to be a peaceable community, as an example of what God wants for the world. But living peaceably in the church is often hard. Becoming aware of what threatens unity and what promotes it is important.
January 1999 – Thinking about worship
Looking at the parts of typical worship services and the purposes they’re meant to serve can reveal room for improvement. Different people react differently to different worship styles. In Two Ways of Praying, Paul Bradshaw describes “cathedral prayer,” whose main focus is outward and involves a congregation, and “monastic prayer,” which is inward and individual.
February 1999 – The church’s most important activity
Worship is uniquely important for the church because God is its subject, no other institution does it, and it is often the main entry point for newcomers. Many churchgoers assume that the kind of worship they’re familiar with is what has always been done, but much of it is actually of recent origin. In Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, Marva Dawn points out that what the Bible presents as central in worship, sacrifice and giving, has mostly been lost now.
March 1999 – What’s missing from our worship?
In Worship Come to Its Senses, Don Saliers laments that awe, delight, hope, and truth are missing from many churches’ worship services. In Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris says we too often focus totally on ourselves and arrogantly issue imperatives to God, therefore miss the mystery of worship and the experience of God’s presence.
April 1999 – Kicking harmful church habits
In Kicking Habits, Thomas Bandy accuses the church of being addicted to many self-destructive habits, and he gives pointers for moving toward needed changes. But the changes, he warns, will have to come from perceptive people on the fringes of the present system or even outside it, not from the church hierarchy or the church members who are comfortable with present conditions.
May 1999 – A dangerous policy
Refusing to let church members have lists of their representatives to decision-making bodies is apparently widespread, I found. It harms the church by keeping important information hidden. In Questions for the Twenty-First Century Church, Garlinda Burton comments on the UMC’s reluctance to provide forthright information about controversial issues.
June 1999 – Sending horses against tanks
Mainline churches are using yesterday’s communication in today’s world, observes seminary professor Tom Boomershine. He compares the UMC’s current methods to those of the 1930s Polish army, which sent soldiers on horses to confront invading German tanks. Boomershine sees the UMC’s current failure to use new communications media as an unfortunate contrast to the early Methodist Church’s pioneering methods. In Questions for the Twenty-First Century Church, Garlinda Burton laments the UMC’s failure to communicate through today’s public media, a failure which helps make the UMC increasingly invisible and irrelevant to society.
July 1999 – Picturing Jesus
Most of the pictures of Jesus that are in our heads and on church walls are very different from what Jesus must have actually looked like. This difference contributes to our forgetting that Jesus cares about the people who aren’t like us. In Icons of American Protestantism, David Morgan and other scholars give eye-opening and disturbing information about the origin of the Sallman “Head of Christ” that is on so many walls and in so many churchgoers’ minds.
August 1999 – Jesus talk and Jesus pictures
In Growing Spiritual Redwoods, Bill Easum and Tom Bandy say that personal talk about Jesus is essential for communicating the gospel to today’s non-churchgoers, especially younger ones. In Visual Piety, David Morgan explains why pictures of Jesus are valuable for many Christians. Others, however, are turned off by such talk and pictures.
September 1999 – All spirituality isn’t the same
When we express the gospel in ways that seem essential to some Christians, we drive others off. In Personality Type in Congregations, Lynne Baab describes personality differences that contribute a lot to our different reactions. In Discover Your Spiritual Type, Corinne Ware presents a similar way of describing how people’s reactions to worship and other religious activities differ.
October 1999 – Two systems in tension—tradition and globalization
In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman describe the new system that he sees shaping world affairs. He believes institutions and individuals that keep acting as if the new system doesn’t exist have little hope of continuing to play significant roles in the world. Yet when police and soldiers invaded a Leipzig church in 1989, worshipers’ candles and prayers motivated the soldiers to leave, according to the Leipzig church’s pastor.
November 1999 – A personal story
Hearing a friend’s favorite scriptures read at her funeral made me think what my favorites are. I illustrate the story of my personal journey with them here.
December 1999 – The most important holiday for Christians
In Growing Up Religious, Robert Wuthnow presents his belief that spirituality is more deeply rooted in personal histories and in families and congregations than in anything else. Our Christmas memories play a big part.
Jan 2000 – Y2K–a time for seeing clearly
2000 has been publicized and feared as the beginning of a new millennium. What will it bring? Founders of The Christian Century magazine chose its name because they expected Christianity to become the world’s majority religion in the 20th century, but that didn’t happen. A current author says the 21st will be the century of religion. In this Connections I suggest what I think needs to be born in the church as the new millennium begins, and what needs to die.
Feb 2000 – Thinking about prisons and prisoners
Recent newspaper reports about an 11-year-old murderer and an imprisoned terrorist who now seems to be strictly a nonviolent doer of good works, plus continuing discussions about the death penalty, raise questions about what our prisons need to accomplish, and whether they are accomplishing it.
Mar 2000 – The insider-outsider gap
The blank looks and questions I got from longtime United Methodists when I said I was going to an out-of-town meeting of a UMC general-church agency reminded me that I’ve become a church insider and that many church members know little of what’s happening in their church beyond their own local congregation. In this Connections I suggest ways in which insiders could help to close the gap between local churchgoers and the wider church.
Apr 2000 – Hearing all the voices
With a quadrennial meeting of the top UMC governing body approaching, questions about how to achieve needed diversity in church decision-making bodies while also ensuring competence and dealing fairly with cultural differences become increasingly urgent.
May 2000 – Letting our lives speak
In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer tells how he gradually saw the need to listen to his heart instead of trying to imitate anyone or conform to a list of values that weren’t his. In In Search of Stones, Scott Peck writes about feeling driven as well as called. How do we recognize a calling, and how should we respond?
June 2000 – Choosing bishops–whom shall we send?
The approach of quadrennial elections of UMC bishops raises questions about what qualifications top church leaders need, and about how to get the needed people into the top positions. We too often get virtually meaningless church jargon and platitudes when we need information about job requirements and qualifications.
July 2000 – Sharing spiritual family trees
Members of my Sunday School class shared their personal stories using genograms, the diagrams that are sometimes used by counselors to show how certain characteristics appear in several generations of a family. The experience brought us closer to each other, helped us see some reasons for our having the religious beliefs, habits, and attitudes that we now have, and helped us understand why we’re not all alike.
Aug 2000 – Seeing how faith grows
Recognizing our spiritual ancestry can help us grow as individuals and can also help our churches. Sharing our stories in a group is most helpful, but even looking at our spiritual journey alone can be eye-opening and helpful.
Sept 2000 – Money talk–taboo for churches but not for God
Jesus apparently said a lot about how to use money, but it’s a taboo subject in most churches. We may hear pleas for money during annual church fund-raising efforts, but we very rarely hear anything about how Christians should spend their money otherwise.
Oct 2000 – What to do with money–an easy question or a hard one?
The question of what to do with money, especially if we are fortunate enough to have more money than we need for necessities, is hard to answer, even though it probably seems easy to those who aren’t confronted with it. Richard J. Foster gives some advice to Christians in The Challenge of the Disciplined Life, but our church leaders and groups rarely risk giving such advice.
Nov 2000 – Journeys, physical and spiritual
Many characteristics of physical travel apply also to the spiritual journey.
Dec 2000 – What would Jesus do?
We don’t know everything that Jesus did and said, and we have no way of knowing what he would do about situations in our world that didn’t exist in his. But trying to think what he would do in the situations we face can be helpful, especially at Christmastime when everything around us seems to focus on the cute baby Jesus rather than on the radical actions and teaching of the grown-up Jesus. Those are what we most need to wonder about.
Jan 2001 – Pilgrims, tourists, and wise travelers in search of God
In The Art of Pilgrimage, Phil Cousineau uses pilgrimage as a metaphor for any journey aimed at finding something that matters deeply to the traveler. He sees pilgrimages as journeys of risk and renewal. He reminds us that in both spiritual and physical journeys, going beyond what’s familiar and predictable can be valuable. In the Christian year, “epiphany,” which means an appearance of a god, refers to a season that commemorates the Wise Men’s visit to Jesus, but it’s an unfamiliar word to many churchgoers.
Feb 2001 – Fundamentalism in the church
Many Christians who are up-to-date and well-informed about other areas of life seem to wear blinders when they look at the Bible and Christian faith and history. I’m afraid they’re a greater danger to the church and the world than the so-called heresies they claim to be defending against. In Fundamentalisms Observed, Martin Marty and Scott Appleby give useful information about this subject, which they believe is urgent for citizens to know about.
In today’s church and today’s commercial world, the word “family” is too often a code word used to mean the only kind of family that social conservatives approve of. Businesses use it as an effort to make people buy whatever they’re selling. In the church, it’s likely to make outsiders feel further out, which isn’t what we need to be doing.
Mar 2001 – Ideas for reading
This issue describes several books I recommend for individual reading or use in church study groups.
Apr 2001 – Finding hope in change
In Discontinuity and Hope, Lyle Schaller describes changes that have made pastors’ jobs harder and some older members’ church participation less comfortable for them. He sees many of the changes as hopeful signs, however.
May 2001 – Which worldview do you choose?
In The Powers that Be, Walter Wink describes the five main worldviews that in Western history have provided a picture of the nature of things. He finds that most of us have chunks of each of them in our psyches and that we may be the first generation that can make a conscious choice between them.
June 2001 – Why Connections?
Because Connections has been getting many new readers recently, I describe again here some of my spiritual journey and my reasons for writing Connections, and answer some of the questions readers often ask me.
July 2001 – Joining what God chooses to bless
In Waking to God’s Dream, Dick Wills urges us to try to identify what God is choosing to bless, and to join it, instead of trying to persuade God to bless what we happen to want done. He describes the characteristics that he usually sees in God-given visions, and gives suggestions for how to make small groups effective in the church.
Aug 2001 – Thinking about sermons
In Unfinished Business, William C. Coleman discusses sermons in a way that I was surprised to find interesting and thought-provoking even though I never have occasion to compose sermons.
Sept 2001 – Sermons–views from a pro
Homiletics professor John Holbert tells some of what he has observed and learned from many years of preaching in many congregations and teaching seminary students how to preach.
Oct 2001 – Disaster raises questions
The 9-11-01 terrorist attacks on the U.S. raise urgent questions for U.S. Christians, about patriotism, about whether God chooses who will live and who will die, and about how to treat our enemies and other people who aren’t like us.
Nov 2001 – What kind of school prayer?
The 9-11-01 attacks and a newspaper article about the Texas governor’s participation in a school prayer raise urgent questions about public prayer in our nation, whose population keeps becoming more religiously diverse.
Dec 2001 – Christians relating to other religions
Even more than before 9-11-01, questions about religious displays in public places at Christmas need our attention and our best thinking. In Relating to People of Other Religions, Thomas Thangaraj gives helpful information about non-Christian religions, describes Christians’ most common attitudes toward them, and gives suggestions for Christians about how to relate to their adherents. In The World’s Religions, Huston Smith suggests three questions Christians need to ask when looking at other religions.
Jan 2002 – Pluralism—sinful or faithful?
“We cannot live in a world in which our economics and markets are global, our business relationships take us to every continent, and the Internet connects us with colleagues half a world away, and yet live on Friday, or Saturday, or Sunday with ideas of God that are essentially provincial, imagining that somehow the one we call God has been primarily concerned with us and our tribe,” says Diana Eck in A New Religious America. In a New York Times column, Thomas Friedman joins Rabbi David Hartman in advocating a pluralism that believes one’s faith can be nurtured without claiming exclusive truth. And in Saint Benedict on the Freeway, Corinne Ware reminds us that not only Christians seek a sense of being accompanied by God and want to move beyond self-centeredness.
Feb 2002 – The missing misfits
On Christmas Sunday, a day when even rare attenders go to church, I wasn’t there. I wanted to avoid what I knew I’d find there, including outdated language, songs without substance, all-masculine words, and avoidance of today’s most important issues. I was thinking of a recent conversation with a new kindred-spirit friend who I’m sure also wasn’t at church. Despite feeling called to practice the radical love and justice that Jesus taught and lived, this man and I and others like us feel like misfits with regard to the church. It urgently needs to stop driving God-inspired misfits away, but that would mean making major changes.
In Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs, James C. Howell observes that we are trained to be suspicious of misfits because they threaten the status quo, yet the greatest leaders in Christian history, including Jesus, have been misfits.
Mar 2002 – War–a hot-button topic for Christians
In War: A Primer for Christians, Joseph Allen points out that what the Bible says about war leads to sharply conflicting interpretations. He discusses three main ways in which conscientious Christians respond to war.
Apr 2002 – Christian misfits–lifelines for each other
The 2-02 issue brought more responses than any previous issue, and nearly all were appreciative and many were unusually impassioned, revealing that there are many people “out there” who feel like misfits in the ways I described. For Christian misfits, connecting with other misfits is vital. When we can’t fit into the institutional church, we can be the church for each other. We can be each other’s lifesavers and also stimulate God-given insights in each other. But this requires speaking up so that other misfits will know we exist.
May 2002 – The most divisive issue for Christians
In Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg says that conflict about the Bible is the single most divisive issue among Christians in North America today. The conflict is between a literal-factual way of reading the Bible and a historical-metaphorical way. Borg finds that for many people the old way, like an old set of lenses, no longer works. He reminds us that the old way is actually not very old but comes only from the past few centuries.
June 2002 – Misfits again
More misfits keep turning up in response to recent Connections issues. Here I suggest some ways in which pastors could help the misfits feel less like misfits.
July 2002 – Patriotism and Christianity
Rehearsing for a church-choir presentation based on the words of Thomas Jefferson reminds me that Jefferson, like many others of our “founding fathers,” was a deist, not a Christian, and that their aim was not to create a nation designed only for Christians. Examining and questioning some of the beliefs we usually take for granted, about our nation, is important for Christians. And it’s more patriotic than giving unquestioning support to all our nation’s actions and all American assumptions and customs.
Aug 2002 – Food for the journey–favorite books
“We read under the eye of God until the heart is touched and leaps to flame,” said 6th-century Benedictine Abbot Marmion. Here I list books and scriptures that have especially influenced my spiritual journey.
Sept 2002 – Communion, change, and community
Communion, Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper has been a central feature—some say the central feature—of Christian worship throughout Christian history, but churches differ widely in the methods they use for it and the importance they give it. I especially love the account of the Last Supper from The Unauthorized Bible, by Gary Holthaus, partly quoted here.
Oct 2002 – Ten years of Connections
This issue finishes ten years of Connections. During these years my basic concerns about the church haven’t changed, but with regard to some of them, my awareness has expanded and my feelings have intensified.
In Zion’s Herald magazine (now The Progressive Christian), We Hyun Chang observes that the task of the church is not to discern what the majority of members want but to discern what God wants from us, and editor Stephen Swecker urges church members to speak about what they observe.
Nov 2002 – Standing by a river, dying of thirst
In Finding Our Voices, Patricia O’Connell Killen quotes a woman who was longing for God but not being fed by her Christian heritage as she experienced it in her church. She was feeling both hunger and disillusionment. Killen urges us to speak up when our best judgment tells us our tradition is being misused or misinterpreted, and to trust our perceptions when we see injustice, even if others don’t share those perceptions. She reminds us also that questioning the church, noticing where change is needed, and working to promote needed change are faithful acts, not faithless ones, and that if we’re growing, our view of our tradition will change.
In Sisters Today, Mary Farrell Bednarowski reminds readers that many women experience both alienation and transformation with regard to their tradition. This brings creative energy.
Dec 2002 – Wondering about peace
War preparations fill the news in the season in which we most often hear scriptures about peace. It’s hard to be sure what position Christians should take. Continuing to reconsider what the Bible says is important.
A 1967 speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. emphasizes the need to move from decision to action, to shift some of our national values, and to speak up.
Jan 2003 – Who’s entitled to throw stones?
Throughout the Bible and church history, we see God calling noticeably imperfect people (what other kind are there?) to leadership roles. Yet church members often feel entitled to police fellow members’ personal behavior.
Feb 2003 – A great separation
In Falling in Love with Mystery, Richard Elliott observes that in our culture there’s a great separation between religion and reality. (You can get this complete book free at http://fallinginlovewithmystery.com.) George Ricker writes about that apparent disconnection in What You Don’t Have to Believe to Be a Christian. And in a blurb on the cover of Ricker’s book, Leroy Howe refers to “the morass of over-belief that threatens the church’s vitality everywhere.” I see Christians responding in three ways to the concern that these three United Methodist clergymen express in these books: automatic rejection, surprise and temporary uneasiness, and liberation.
Mar 2003 – Connecting religion with reality
Richard Elliott advocates abandoning outdated religious imagery. George Ricker observes that raising questions about our beliefs leads to a more mature faith, and he laments the fact that clergy have been silent rather than helping church members to look openly at their questions. In Hope Against Darkness, Richard Rohr describes the sense in which he sees Christianity as the only way to be saved.
Apr 2003 – Affirming and dissenting
In Affirmations of a Dissenter, UMC bishop Joseph Sprague writes about false understandings of Christianity that turn it into something very different from what Jesus demonstrated and taught. He dissents from common but misleading ways of interpreting the Bible, while strongly affirming the Christian faith and what he sees as the Bible’s true message. Unlike bishops, other pastors may risk their income and platform if they express dissent.
May 2003 – Should culture and the arts matter to Christians?
Irreplaceable art works and milestones of history often end up as “collateral damage” in war. Places being destroyed in Iraq include some familiar from the Bible and other early writings.
June 2003 – Anger in the church
In The Angry Christian and Coping with Your Anger, Andrew Lester gives pointers useful to church members who are angry about what they experience and observe in the church. Church people often feel so uncomfortable when they encounter anger or even disagreement, that they fail to take needed steps to make the anger productive.
I felt enlivened and inspired by the worship services I attended at a retreat—a welcome contrast to the anger and deadness I usually feel in worship services. Silence and the absence of rote recitations and outdated words helped.
July 2003 – Responding to anger in the church
In his books about anger, Andrew Lester reminds readers that anger can be a moral response to evil, thus is a powerful tool for combating injustice and promoting change. Wesley says anger is not a sin but a duty. This Connections includes Lester’s suggestions for dealing productively with anger.
Aug 2003 – The journey toward mature faith
This Connections describes several books whose descriptions of the spiritual journey I’ve found interesting and helpful: Wrestling with God, Grace, Wide Skies, Hope Against Darkness, and In Defense of Doubt. For these books’ authors, as for me, the journey includes not only exhilaration but also pain and frustration.
Despite being too corporation-oriented for my taste, The Ascent of a Leader, by Bill Thrall and others, makes pertinent recommendations about being vulnerable and letting others know your life is open to them.
Sept 2003 – Walking a path to God
I describe my experiences with labyrinths here. In Walking a Sacred Path, Lauren Artress presents the history of labyrinth-walking as a spiritual discipline.
Oct 2003 – Looking at what connects us
Worship services in different UMC congregations differ so widely that it’s hard to tell what ties the denomination together. Even to casual passers-by, church buildings can give messages about congregations’ priorities and beliefs.
Nov 2003 – The unheard minority
Churches usually at least give lip-service to the importance of not discriminating against certain kinds of minorities, but many don’t even give lip-service to including the minority whose views differ from the majority—who don’t totally share the majority’s interpretation of the Bible, of what being a Christian means, or of what to do about social-justice issues.
Dec 2003 – Why I am a Christian
Reading Why I Am a Catholic, by Garry Wills, made me think about why I am a Methodist. That led me to thinking about the larger question of why I am a Christian, and then the still-larger question of what makes someone a Christian. As a result, in this Connections I give an account of some of my journey and beliefs.
Jan 2004 – Why I am a United Methodist
I’m a Methodist mainly because I grew up in one Methodist family and then married into another one, but in addition to habit, several characteristics of the United Methodist Church keep me inclined to stay in it. It’s surprising when some responses to an issue of Connections say that they’re so glad someone is saying what I’m saying, yet other responses to the same issue say that what I’ve written shows that I’m not a Christian!
Feb 2004 – Prophetic voices in the wilderness
In The Unauthorized Bible, poet Gary Holthaus presents his beautifully expressed and appropriately disturbing vision of what the Bible might be like if it were written today. Jargon-and-platitude-filled statements by UMC bishop candidates make me wish for more challenging, self-critical voices and fewer soothing, cheerleading voices in church leadership.
Mar 2004 – Dropping out, staying in
Deciding whether to drop out of the institutional church or stay in it can be hard when it seems to be more of a hindrance than a help for acting out one’s Christian commitment. In The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg says that churchgoing is Christians’ most important way of paying attention to God. But he feels that to serve this purpose, a congregation must stretch us as well as nourish us.
Apr 2004 – Covenants with God and each other
Hearing UMC clergy say that the covenant UMC members have with each other obliges us to stay in the UMC makes me wonder, “What covenant?” I’m not aware of having entered any. Some Christians see baptism as a covenant that God initiates, but I’ve never found that convincing. I wonder how the covenants described in the Bible relate to this.
May 2004 – Surviving through thick and thin
Using a metaphor from Celtic Christianity, in The Heart of Christianity Marcus Borg says the Christian life is about the Spirit of God opening our hearts in thin places—places where the nonmaterial layer of reality that is God intersects with the visible world of ordinary experience. Borg sees being a thin place as one of the main purposes of worship, though thin places can be anywhere. What should we do about worship practices that are thick places for us instead?
Borg sees being “born again” as dying to an old way of being and being born in a new way centered in the sacred—a process spoken of by all the world’s major religions. He distinguishes between the earlier vision of Christianity that emphasizes believing now for the sake of salvation later, and the emerging way that sees much of the Bible’s content as metaphorical. He acknowledges that the Holy Spirit can work through both of these ways.
June 2004 – Pebbles and steamrollers
Too often in the church, people with minority views feel like pebbles that have been crushed by the steamroller that is the majority. In a Harper’s article, Edward Hoagland reminds readers how important dissenting voices are for all institutions, even though early dissent is often fatal for the dissenters, as it was for Jesus.
July 2004 – Mainline or margins?
In Reclaiming the Church, John Cobb observes that we too often avoid the theological thinking that we need to be doing, because it can lead to controversy. As a result, our influence has become marginal. If the church is like a human body, is its brain missing? How can we encourage more thinking in local congregations rather than leaving it to universities to do for us?
In Methodist and Radical, Joerg Rieger, John Vincent, and other Methodist writers from around the world emphasize the need for the church to be at work on the margins of society.
Aug 2004 – Joining God on the margins
In Methodist and Radical, theologian Joerg Rieger points out that part of the power of the early Methodist movement came from its posing challenges that could come only from the margins, not from the center where most mainline U.S. church members now see themselves. Rieger calls observations like this “barbs in the heart” that we need to feel but that tend to make us angry. Would our churches’ influence be less marginal if they became more active on the margins of society?
Sept 2004 – Personal stories in the church
Telling our stories to each other brings us closer together. It may help us see how we need to take new, daring steps. Thus we need to provide ways for pastors and lay members to share their stories in the church.
Oct 2004 – Thinking about prayer
Different people pray in different ways. Some of the prayers that are part of worship services are more like sermons than prayers, or they portray God in unbelievable ways.
Nov 2004 – Seeing the Bible with open eyes
Like the Bible’s creation stories, many parts of the Bible reflect the culture from which they arose, rather than historical events. In the church we need to hear how the Bible originated and developed into its present form.
Dec 2004 – Which moral values?
Christians are very selective about which scriptures they use as the basis for their moral values. Some of the moral values most strongly emphasized by today’s Christians apparently weren’t mentioned by Jesus. Some even contradict what Jesus taught.
Jan 2005 – Reaching today’s people
In Evangelical and Methodist, Riley B. Case advocates using early Methodism as a model for renewal. emphasizing reaching common people and changing hearts. But part of early Methodism’s success came from its willingness to abandon or revise church practices that had become ineffective because of changes in society. We need that willingness today, instead of conforming strictly to the narrow interpretation of doctrine that Case wants.
Part of the difference in Christians’ opinions about what the church needs come from personality differences, especially those the Myers-Briggs system calls differences between “thinking types” and “feeling types.”
Feb 2005 – The search for the Real
In The Way Things Are, Huston Smith, a lifelong Methodist and leading authority on the world’s religions, calls religion “the search for the Real, and the effort to approximate one’s life to it.” He sees Christians trusting science too little and too much—sometimes ignoring its findings and sometimes thinking it has the truth about everything. He sees differences in temperament leading people to different ways of describing the Absolute. Exoterics see formlessness as a lack, thus see formless things as nothing, while esoterics see formlessness as more real and more enticing than the world of forms. Smith finds Hinduism’s way of distinguishing four paths to the divine helpful, and he sees the four paths relating to personality or temperament types much like those that Carl Jung described.
Mar 2005 – Loving and serving—pastors’ first responsibility?
Some pastors see loving and serving as their first responsibility, but talent and skill are also essential, and church members differ in what they expect from pastors. In Confronting the Controversies, pastor Adam Hamilton echoes many other pastors by saying that a pastor needs to be in a congregation for several years before addressing controversial subjects in it. But if Jesus had followed that policy, he would have never mentioned anything controversial or said anything that might make his hearers uncomfortable.
Apr 2005 – What is effectiveness?
Both pastors and lay members are responsible for the church’s effectiveness. How we define effectiveness depends largely on what we think the church’s purpose is. And a church’s view of its purpose is revealed by the methods and the organizational structure it uses, as well as by what its leaders say in words.
May 2005 – Wisdom—a life-transforming tradition
In The Wisdom Way of Knowing, Cynthia Bourgeault describes a tradition that has been part of all the world’s major religions but that many Christians have never heard of. Using its spiritual practices such as lectio divina doesn’t require being a scholar, a monk, or a mystic. The wisdom tradition emphasizes x-ray-like vision that comes through the mind, body, and heart and requires all three to be engaged and awake. Surrender opens the way for wisdom.
June 2005 – Vitality in turmoil
In an Alban Institute report, James Wind and Gil Rendle say American religion is in the midst of a sea change and a time of crisis whose depths it hasn’t faced. Within the turmoil, crisis, and systemic dysfunction that currently exist, ferment, growth, and new vitality are emerging. Congregations can’t rise above their leadership, the Alban Institute finds, and lay members’ role is essential for helping their churches have first-class clergy leadership.
July 2005 – God and politics
In the Bible we find many God-inspired leaders speaking openly and forcefully about issues many members don’t want to hear about in today’s churches. These biblical leaders speak not only to their fellow citizens but also to rulers. In God’s Politics, Jim Wallis urges Christians to be more consistent and more vocal in applying Christian principles to politics, in adherence to the church’s God-given prophetic calling.
A Memorial Day service I attended included no prayer for our enemies or the civilian victims of war, and no mention of Christians’ obligation to try to eliminate war.
Some Temple-area Connections readers and I are doing the new DVD-based study course “Living the Questions.” which is described at http://livingthequestions.com .
Aug 2005 – A disturbing disconnection
Because so much of what I hear when I attend worship services seems disconnected from reality or contradictory to what I believe Christianity is about, I’ve decreased my attendance at Sunday worship, and I mostly enjoy not attending—a big change for me. Much of the disconnection results from the words of hymns, anthems, and other songs, which give what I consider a misleading picture of human beings and of God. I know many other Christians who feel similarly, yet I don’t see churches very concerned about their absence.
In The Edge of Adventure, Keith Miller and Bruce Larson urge giving as much of yourself as you can, to as much of God as you can grasp. I believe worship services need to help participants do that.
Sept 2005 – Connecting with worship
A steady stream of responses to the August Connections let me know I’m far from alone in my reactions to worship services. The readers I hear from feel deadened by the worship they attend. They want real community. They want opportunities to interact with other people who are thinking and asking questions. They’re sad, angry, and frustrated.
Oct 2005 – Personalities influence worship
Personality differences strongly influence how we picture God, how we recognize God’s presence, and how we respond to God, therefore what kind of worship services we feel the need for. The Myers-Briggs system of classifying personality types can help us see why people’s reactions to worship services differ.
Nov 2005 – Worship at different stages of faith
Another reason for our differing reactions to worship and other aspects of churches’ programs is that we are at different stages of the faith journey. James W. Fowler’s description of faith stages can help us understand.
Dec 2005 – Seeking community and truth
Responses to the Aug 2005 Connections keep coming. They’ve been more numerous than I’ve received from any other issue, and the previous biggest response was to three issues about feeling like a church misfit—2-02, 4-02, and 6-02. These responses let me know that even if those of us with similar concerns are in the minority, we are numerous—too numerous for our churches to be justified in ignoring. The messages I’m getting from these concerned Christians emphasize remarkably similar themes, which I list in this Connections, and raise vitally important questions for all of us and for the church. It leads to wondering how to define “progressive Christianity.” In The End of Faith, scientist Sam Harris says that many religious beliefs are endangering our world.
Jan 2006 – A welcome book about prayer
In Times Like These: How We Pray, by Malcolm Boyd and Jon Bruno, contains well-known and less-known authors’ personal accounts of a wide variety of prayer methods—a welcome contrast to many books about prayer.
Feb 2006 – Churches hiding the truth
In The Dishonest Church, UCC pastor Jack Good laments churches’ failure to report the best available information about the Bible, Jesus, and church traditions, or to encourage members to examine their religious beliefs in light of today’s best thinking from other fields. Good observes that some people are more chaos-tolerant than others. He sees the Bible as the family album or scrapbook of our community.
When churches try to keep members comfortable by not saying anything that might upset them, the churches are being enablers, like the people who help addicts to continue the harmful habits that they need to discontinue.
Mar 2006 – The shock of the truth
Facing the truth about the Bible and Christian history can be jolting, just as discovering the truth about Santa Claus or about sex was for some of us as children, so many churchgoers try to avoid it. But it’s necessary for growing up. In The Sins of Scripture, John Shelby Spong reminds us that treating the Bible as the literal word of God has done great harm. In The Hidden Face of God, Gerald Schroeder describes God as a universal wisdom that pervades the universe, in contrast to the person-like being that Christians more often assume.
Apr 2006 – Giving money to God
Use of money tends to be a taboo subject in church, even though Jesus apparently spoke extensively about it, and knowing how to give money to God isn’t easy. Tithing is mentioned often in the Bible, but it may be less important than promoting justice and loving others.
May 2006 – What kind of God?
The Bible and our traditions portray God in a wide variety of ways.
The 50th anniversary of the UMC’s giving women full clergy rights is a reminder of how slow the church has been (and still is) to make needed changes.
June 2006 – Empowered by God to resist
A Dykes Foundation seminar, “Mysticism, Empowerment, and Resistance,” featuring Borg, Crossan, and Chittister, emphasized the need to talk about political issues in church and to have worship that motivates and empowers resistance to whatever opposes God’s peace and justice. Much of today’s Christian religious language was the political language of Jesus’s world. Mysticism is a dynamic, purposeful enlightenment. Just as Jesus resisted the Roman Empire, today’s Christians need to resist systems in which a tiny elite dominates the world and keeps the rest of the population from having having enough resources.
July 2006 – Becoming the healers we need
In Conflict and Communion, Thomas W. Porter, Jr. says today’s great issue is how to break out of cycles of retribution and violence. William J. Everett describes a roundtable worship service that focuses on healing conflict and promoting justice. Real healing requires acknowledging conflict and promoting accountability.
Aug 2006 – Church conflict–how can we help?
Serious church conflict is common, and many churches are reluctant to work at resolving it. Several sources of competent help exist, including the UMC’s JUSTPEACE, the Alban Institute, and a Mennonite program. This issue of Connections suggests useful steps for church leaders and other members. When church conflict is wisely addressed, great forward steps can result.
Sept 2006 – Making disciples
How do we make disciples? What makes someone a Christian? In a UMNexus article, UM laywoman Ann Ewing says being Christian is not the “weasely niceness” that churchgoers often assume it to be, and merely going to church is not the same as being a Christian.
Oct 2006 – Leaving without leaving
In Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor explains why she stopped being a pastor of local congregations. She kept seeing members feeling pressured to believe official doctrine that didn’t match their experience of God or the world. She reminds us that people have always understood the Christ in a variety of ways. She finds that God’s map is vast, with a center and an edge, and that while faith stories are preserved in the center, the edge is where the best ones have happened. She prizes holy ignorance more than religious certainty.
A pastor wrote that in church conflicts he would deal only with actively involved members. But the church especially needs to hear from those who stay away because they care so much.
Nov 2006 – Purpose driven? Undriven?
An article in the Austin [TX] American-Statesman reported the decline of Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion with similarities to Christianity. The causes of its current decline in the U.S. seem very similar to mainline U.S. churches’ failure to evangelize actively. In contrast, a Wall Street Journal described the aggressive evangelistic tactics taught by Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life. Training sponsored by Warren urges pastors to actively pressure members to leave if they oppose changes the pastor wants to make.
Dec 2006 – Worship that revives
In a Weavings article, Maggie Ross tells about how in the midst of a landscape beyond words, a priest broke the spell by performing the formal Eucharist rite. She finds that sacred signs efface themselves and point participants’ attention beyond themselves. Experiences during a trip to Sicily and at an Academy for Spiritual Formation retreat led me to consider what motivates or helps people to worship and what hinders them.
Jan 2007 – Wrappings, old and new
Church traditions are like the gift wrappings I save and re-use. They may be beautiful and bring back good memories, but eventually they become unusable. And God will never fit into any of our wrappings.
What’s the difference between seeing a pastor as “my pastor” and as “the pastor of my church”?
Feb 2007 – Signposts of renewal
In Christianity for the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass observes that the religious right seems to have hijacked American Christianity, causing its literalist interpretations to be mistakenly seen as the only vital and valid form of the Christian faith and making Christians with a different understanding feel isolated. In her survey of 50 thriving mainline congregations, she found that 10 practices especially helped them to thrive. Among these are hospitality and discernment.
However, many mainstream congregations become merely religious places for social acceptability and business connections, paying little attention to people’s spiritual lives.
Mar 2007 – More signposts of renewal
Three more practices cited by Diana Butler Bass as being important in thriving congregations are reflection, testimony, and diversity.
Apr 2007 – Pictures of God
We seem to choose many of our pictures of God because we find them comfortable. Most of our pictures portray God as a person. Some don’t seem believable.
May 2007 – Vital signs
In Vital Signs, Dan Dick reports the fruitfulness of reading and discussing serious books about theology and the Bible, and of disclosing information openly and fully. He describes 4 types of congregations—vital, dystrophic, retrogressive, and decaying—and the characteristics that seem to determine which type a congregation is. He distinguishes between members who exert toxic influence in a congregation and those who express holy discontent, which can be a motivator for needed change.
June 2007 – What makes someone a Christian?
Is it belief? Baptism? Behavior? Or simply claiming to be Christian?
Sister Joan Chittister says,“There may come a time when you have to leave the church to save your soul.” In her view, if you leave it’s important not to leave quietly, and if you stay, not to stay quietly. If you don’t make your reasons known, your leaving or staying isn’t likely to help to change what needs changing.
July 2007 – A time that changed the world
In The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong describes the Axial Age, in which the great world traditions that continue to nourish humanity came into being. She believes that we have now diluted our religions’ most valuable insights and replaced them with a religiosity that too often harms rather than helps—the kind of religiosity that the Axial Age reformers wanted to get rid of.
Aug 2007 – Empire, then and now
We tend not to notice how Jesus boldly resisted the Roman Empire and contrasted it to the Kingdom of God. We may not notice how empire shows up in today’s world. Thus we overlook how we need to oppose empire’s current manifestations. A telling example of how oblivious many Christians are is that my own congregation named the largest givers to a financial campaign “centurions,” unwittingly labeling these givers opponents of Jesus Christ. Helpful discussions of empire are in God and Empire, by John Dominic Crossan, and Christ and Empire, by Joerg Rieger.
Sept 2007 – Empire—still present today
In crucially important ways the 21st-century U.S. is like 1st-century Rome, say four scholars (Griffin, Cobb, Falk, Keller) in The American Empire and the Commonwealth of God. John Dominic Crossan describes four types of power that combined to form the social power (power over groups of people) that Rome had: military, political, economic, and ideological. All of these scholars see the cosmic American empire using all of these types today to be much more powerful than the Roman Empire.
Oct 2007 – Empire and the realm of God
John Cobb sees the early church taking seriously the anti-imperial elements of Jesus’s message, but he sees that when the empire allied itself with the church, the church changed more than the empire, and that change is still in effect. In The Misunderstood Jew, Amy-Jill Levine says we’re mistaken if we think we don’t need to know much about scriptures’ historical and cultural setting. Without that knowledge, we miss the challenge in many of Jesus’s parables. Cobb laments churches’ resulting failure to resist empire.
Nov 2007 – A vision that became reality—”Living the Questions”
Two United Methodist pastors turned their vision into reality by creating the study course “Living the Questions” and later courses in a similar format. Jeff Proctor-Murphy and David Felten found that thoughtful lay people welcomed discovering what scholars had learned, but that too often clergy failed to pass this information along, even though they had found it liberating and faith-strengthening themselves. Proctor-Murphy tells how his congregation was an incubator for this innovative ministry, as every congregation needs to be for its members’ and pastors’ innovative efforts.
Dec 2007 – What should seminaries do?
Besides indoctrinating clergy with the church’s official beliefs, what most lay churchgoers seem to think seminaries’ main function should be is teaching the how-to skills necessary for being an effective pastor of a church—preaching, first, and then administrative skills. But seminary leaders often emphasize seeking new insight. Their thinking and research may be their prayer.
Jan 2008 – Hearing the spiritually homeless
In his 2006 walk across America, UCC pastor Eric Elnes found thousands of people who identified themselves as Christians but felt so alienated from the faith community that they no longer actively participated. In Asphalt Jesus, he discusses what it means to be a progressive Christian in an age of fundamentalism. “Many Christians who yearn for a more inclusive, compassionate, and intellectually honest form of faith feel so alone,” he finds. However, he sees that collapse is waking the church up to its need for change.
Feb 2008 – Nets that can’t hold water—images for God
In Like Catching Water in a Net, theologian Val Webb observes that many people have no useful divine images, because so many traditional images require them to leave their minds behind in another era. Many people have left their religious tradition because they found its portrayals of the divine unbelievable and it offered no new ways to talk about the sacred.
Mar 2008 – Jesus’s politics and ours
In The Politics of Jesus, Obery Hendricks Jr. tells about his discovery of the true revolutionary nature of Jesus’s teachings and how they have been corrupted. He came to realize that the gentle, serene, non-threatening Jesus of Sunday School, whose only concern was getting believers into heaven, isn’t the Jesus the Bible describes.
Columnist Leonard Pitts urges social conservatives to be on time for a change, instead of waiting until current social-justice arguments have been settled, as they have done in the past.
Apr 2008 – Using the strategies Jesus used
In The Politics of Jesus, Obery Hendricks Jr. calls Jesus the ultimate activist and describes his strategies that we need to copy. Reading Hendricks’s book made me rethink the meanings of mercy, justice, and piety.
Appalling news: FUMC-Conroe TX has ousted its pastor for refusing to condemn his gay son.
May 2008 – Thinking about war
War is a taboo subject in many churches, but we need to discuss its pros and cons openly. In War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges says war is a dangerous addictive drug. It fulfills our wish to be noble but suspends the self-critical thought we urgently need.
June 2008 – Welcoming worship for today
Worship services I attended at Elk Grove UMC in California were inspiring, thought-provoking, challenging, and heart-warming, all at the same time, especially because of the words their songs included.
July 2008 – Community organizing—What is it? Why do it?
Following a pattern begun by Dorothy Day and expanded by Saul Alinsky, Martin Luther King Jr. and others, it’s a way to mobilize suffering people to work together for changes that will reduce their suffering. Candidate Obama’s background made us newly aware of it.
Aug 2008 – Rethinking Connections
Feeling increasingly discouraged about the church and disconnected from it, I’m wondering about taking a break from writing Connections, finding a new format for it, or enlisting occasional guest authors.
Sept 2008 – Connections readers speak
They’re lonely, they wish for open discussion of their questions and of diverse views, they want to make a difference in the world by following Jesus, and they want to hear scholars’ findings, but they too rarely find such opportunities in their churches.
Oct 2008 – A family of Christian dynamos
D. L. Dykes, Jr.; the Dykes Foundation; David and Debo Dykes; www.FaithandReason.org
Nov 2008 – Noticing and acting
Guest author Don Manning-Miller writes about working to change the racially segregated way of life he was used to, after he noticed that it was incompatible with the gospel. He finds that the church tends to be too timid and mistakenly tries to make people religious instead of faithful.
Dec 2008 – The Bible’s Christmas stories–the gospel in miniature
In The First Christmas, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan discuss the birth stories found in Matthew and Luke.
Jan 2009 – Reading the Bible selectively
It’s impossible to avoid but important to recognize. We tend to avoid especially the parts that make us uncomfortable.
Feb 2009 – Warned against life-saving books
Some Christians have had pastors tell them not to read the books that turned out to be among their most valuable. So if a pastor tells you not to read a certain book, it’s likely to be one that’s actually important for you to read!
Mar 2009 – Afraid of what we’ll see?
Like Galileo’s contemporaries who refused to look through his telescope, fearful members of First United Methodist Church in Georgetown TX persuaded church leaders to renege on hosting a presentation by scholars from the Jesus Seminar.
Joan Chittister warns against remaining comatose in the face of untruths that are presented as truths. The church too often commits “spiritual euthanasia” instead of trying to revive spiritually comatose people.
Apr 2009 – Jesus’s way of life is what matters most
Our creeds and traditions emphasize mainly his birth and death, but what he did during his life is what counts, Stephen J. Patterson reminds readers in Beyond the Passion.
May 2009 – Curiosity that led to growth
Guest author Julie Fuschak, a central Texas lay United Methodist, tells her personal story.
June 2009 – A courageous book
Reading it almost made me want to stop writing Connections and say “Read this instead!”—With or Without God, by Canadian UCC pastor Gretta Vosper. (To buy a copy, go to www.chapters.indigo.ca/books if you can’t find it elsewhere.)
July 2009 – A fork in a long road
In Saving Jesus from the Church, Robin Meyers urges us to re-examine the point at which the church changed from the experiential road to the creedal road, and then to move forward on the less-traveled of those roads.
Aug 2009 – More intriguing books
Most of this issue is about Travel as a Political Act, by Rick Steves. His book is a spiritual autobiography and a plea to Americans to look at the world with open eyes, hearts, and minds and to speak bravely about the new insight they get.
I briefly describe The Great Emergence, by Phyllis Tickle, and The Limits of Power, by Andrew Bacevich.
Sept 2009 – PCCS—action close to home
Several other progressives and I are starting an informal network called the Progressive Christian Center of the South, to help disseminate information, promote justice, and help southern progressives find and support each other. An upcoming educational effort of PCCS will be the presentation of seminars featuring scholars John Dominic Crossan and Joerg Rieger, on Oct 23-24-25 in Richardson and Temple, Texas.
Oct 2009 – Has your time to blossom come?
“The time came when the risk it took to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom,” Anaïs Nin wrote. This strikes me as an apt description of how many Christians come to expand their understanding of God and Christian faith. But many others unfortunately never risk blossoming.
Nov 2009 – I believe…
As I start my 18th year of writing Connections, I try to state my current beliefs about God, Jesus, and the church, hoping to clarify my beliefs in my own mind and to help readers reconsider their beliefs and think whether some might need revision.
Dec 2009 – Peace, comfort, and truth
A reader of the Nov issue asks if the beliefs I expressed in it bring peace, by which she seems to mean personal comfort. For her, they apparently do not bring that. However, the vast majority of responders say that such beliefs do bring them comfort—the comfort that comes from feeling they are free to tell the truth and from knowing that others understand truth similarly. Many people who come to church only at Christmas might appreciate finding this kind of comfort when they come this month. Different people get comfort in different ways.
Jan 2010 – Thinking about war and peace
In his book Faith-Based War, T. Walter Herbert asks Americans to look honestly at whether our Christian political leaders’ interpretation of the Christian message has brought peace to our nation and the world. He finds that many leaders have practiced an imperialist militarism that comes from a dangerous perversion of Christian teaching.
Feb 2010 – Finding kindred spirits
Many Connections readers wish for opportunities to discuss what following Jesus requires with regard to today’s most pressing issues. They want to work with others to combat the injustices they see. They want to learn what the best scholars have discovered about the Bible and Christian history and beliefs. Yet in their home communities and churches, these readers haven’t been able to find such connections. This issue suggests possible ways to find some.
Also, I report a shocking instance of city government raising funds to support Christian fundamentalist groups in my city’s elementary schools, and I urge readers to combat such activities actively and publicly.
Mar 2010 – Reflections
I reflect on comments I heard from 3 friends, about the worship services at their churches, which led me to reflect also on thoughts expressed by Karen Armstrong in The Case for God.
Apr 2010 – A theologian’s story
The spiritual journey of theologian Joerg Rieger.
May 2010 – Belief and faith
Having faith doesn’t mean making ourselves believe what we find unbelievable.
June 2010 – Progressive Christians’ dilemma
Should we work on combating the injustice that exists within the church, or admit that changing the church is so unlikely that we might as well focus on combating the justice that exists outside the church instead? Members who have been rejected by the church because they don’t agree with the majority recognize the need for working for change in the church, not just in the world outside it.
July 2010 – Trying to describe Christianity
Instead of different versions of Christianity, there seem to be merely different opinions about what its essentials are. This Connections includes an article by Canadian UCC pastor Gretta Vosper, describing how she sees “progressive Christianity.”
Fred Plumer, president of The Center for Progressive Christianity, observes that many church leaders don’t want their churches labeled “progressive” because they don’t want to make waves or they feel their hands are tied by denominational structures.
Aug 2010 – A plea for prophetic voices
In his compelling book All My Bones Shake, Robert Jensen tells about growing up in the church, dropping out and spending many years “studiously ignoring theological debates,” then trying to deepen his politics through theology and becoming active in a congregation, and being tried for heresy by his denomination. He feels that our present situation cries out for prophets and that each of us needs to take responsibility for speaking in the prophetic voice.
Sept 2010 – Opinions that need examining
A recent statement by Anne Rice and recent newspaper columns by Leonard Pitts, Adam Hamilton, and Richard Land present views about Christianity that show the need to distinguish between real Christianity and other beliefs and behavior that are actually a distortion of it despite claiming to be biblical or Christian.
In his book Mature Christianity, UMC pastor William Holmes says that in some ways, what we say about God today needs to be a radical departure from earlier ways of speaking about God. Otherwise, we risk seeming merely laughable to come-of-age people in today’s world.
Oct 2010 – Vessels that don’t hold treasure
An article by Parker Palmer advocates discarding church doctrines and customs (the “earthen vessels” of 2 Corinthians 4:7) that have become too cramped to hold our treasure or that defile it rather than honor it, keeping us from having a live encounter with it. In a short book that’s free from the internet, Lloyd Geering describes the origin, character, and dangers of fundamentalism, which Barbara sees as preserving vessels that need discarding.
Nov 2010 – An unbridgeable gulf?
The gulf between the beliefs of fundamentalist and conservative Christians and the beliefs of liberal or progressive Christians sometimes seems unbridgeable. This is especially apparent when we see claims that Jesus is the only route to God or that Christians will go to heaven when they die but no one else will. Some progressives feel that disseminating information about Jesus, the Bible, and Christian history would help to bridge the gap by showing conservatives the need to reconsider their beliefs, but others see that effort as futile.
Read about the Nov 2010 gathering of Connections readers and friends in Temple TX, and about Barbara’s just-published book, Misfits: The Church’s Hidden Strength.
Jan 2011 – Time to stop getting it wrong
“Churches that ‘get it wrong’ may lose an entire generation of young adults,” warns UMC megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton in his latest book. He observes that Christians’ unchristian actions, promotion of anti-intellectual and anti-science views, hostility to other religions, blaming God for human suffering, and treating homosexuality as sin are turn-offs for many young adults and also for others who have opted out of the church.
Feb 2011 – The insight that age can bring
Some older Connections readers tell how the broader perspective that has come with age and experience has led them to rethink, revise, and even abandon some beliefs that they earlier took for granted or at least felt they couldn’t openly question. Older Christians like these could be among Christianity’s most effective spokespersons now, because they’re directly addressing the claims that are needlessly keeping today’s younger people from finding Christianity credible. Also, some retired pastors could help the church see the need for change if they spoke up now.
March 2011 – How can we protest effectively?
Protests are currently in the U.S. and world news, and 36 retired UMC bishops have issued a statement disagreeing with the official UMC position on homosexuality. But the president of the UMC Council of Bishops says bishops are obligated to support the official position as long as it stays in effect. What should church members do when they believe official policies such as this contradict the teaching of Jesus? How can we protest such policies more effectively?
April 2011 – Connections readers speak
Responses from Connections readers and others who read a Mar 26 article about Barbara in the Austin American-Statesman reflect the same themes that have been most prominent in Barbara’s mail from Connections readers over the years. These include wanting justice issues to be addressed openly in the church, wanting a variety of views and beliefs to be heard, wanting intellectually substantial content, and wanting to focus on what Jesus emphasized.
May 2011 – Is your church Christian?
In his book If the Church Were Christian, Quaker pastor Philip Gulley suggests ten characteristics that he thinks the church would exhibit if it adhered to the values that had top priority for Jesus.
June 2011 – Living in the wilderness
Church consultant Gil Rendle sees today’s church in a wilderness much as the Israelites described in the Bible were. We got here, he says, by making our identifying stories safe and weak. To attract newcomers now, we must focus more on purpose instead of so much on relationships, and we must listen to creative deviants. Barbara feels we must also change what we’re saying about Jesus, God, and the Bible, especially in worship services.
July 2011 – Looking at fundamentalism
Texas Governor Perry’s sponsorship of a prayer meeting based on Christian fundamentalist beliefs led Barbara to investigate the origin and significance of fundamentalism.
Aug 2011 – A story that churchgoers need to examine
An unusual but intriguing book by Cynthia Bourgeault points out how the “master story” that is in most Christians’ blood contains misleading features and overlooks crucial points such as the unique role played in Jesus’s life by Mary Magdalene.
Sept 2011 – A hard job that requires a choice
It’s finding the right balance between purity and compassion, which are presented in Matthew 9 as mercy and sacrifice. In his intriguing book Unclean, Christian psychology professor Richard Beck explains how the psychological experience of disgust influences our way of seeing these two qualities, and how overemphasis on purity often keeps Christians from obeying the teaching of Jesus.
Oct 2011 – Communicating with church decision-makers
Delegates to church decision-making bodies need to hear the views of church members, including those they disagree with and those whose views are in the minority.
Nov 2011 – Does love move us into need?
In his book Unclean, Christian psychology professor Richard Beck says that true love—the love that Jesus taught—does not mean just giving from our excess or our leftovers. “True love,” Beck finds, “moves me into need, which is admittedly a very scary prospect.” If he’s right, what does this mean for Christians, with regard to current economic and political issues such as taxes, health care, and immigration?
Dec 2011 – Charity is not enough
Requests for charitable contributions are numerous at this season, and many Christians contribute money and time to worthwhile charities. But following Jesus and heeding the words of the Hebrew prophets seems likely to require more of us—advocacy and maybe public protest and other ways of showing what some Christians call “solidarity” with people who are suffering.
Jan 2012 – Thought-provoking new books
Barbara briefly reviews recent books by Philip Gulley, John Shelby Spong, Jeffrey Sachs, and Val Webb.
Feb 2012 – Opportunities for explorers
This issue describes 3 excellent new opportunities for exploring the Christian faith: Darkwood Brew, presented on the web by Omaha UCC pastor Eric Elnes; The Challenge of Jesus, a new DVD-based series from the Dykes Foundation, featuring John Dominic Crossan; and recently revised DVD-based studies from Living the Questions.
Mar 2012 – The subversive way
In The Underground Church, UCC pastor Robin Meyers reminds us that the earliest church was fiercely anti-Empire, and that the Empire recognized Jesus as a dangerous subversive.
Apr 2012 – A movement or an institution?
In his book Back to Zero, church consultant Gil Rendle urges mainline church members to help their churches become more like movements rather than more like the institutions they now are.
May 2012 – An amazing congregation
First United Methodist Church in Omaha has a long history of being on the cutting edge. Led by 4 outstanding women and other progressive leaders, in many ways it is a model for how a congregation needs to function.
June 2012 – Members need to know
Members of mainline churches need to stay informed about what their denominations are doing, yet many United Methodist congregations apparently haven’t let their members know about last month’s session of General Conference, the worldwide UMC’s top governing body.
July 2012 – What can Christians do?
In his book Why the Christian Right is Wrong, Robin Meyers bemoans the theology that puts more emphasis on believing things about Jesus than on doing what he did.
Aug 2012 – Assorted topics
“I’m not a guy!” Barbara observes, “and I don’t think God is.” Yet women and girls often get called guys now, and God still gets called “he,” unwittingly engraving into us the mistaken view that being male is more valuable than being female. Churches need to discuss openly what God is like.
Sept 2012 – Beacons in their communities
In his 7-26 e-newsletter, retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong describes four UCC congregations that are like beacons of light in their communities. He feels that the UCC may be the denomination that will inspire, bring about, and participate in the reformation needed to break the Christian faith out of its dying patterns. But all congregations need to be this kind of beacons.
Oct 2012 – Similar concerns from all over
Many of the 200 participants from 16 states, at the gathering of progressive Christians hosted by Barbara at the end of Sept, express similar concerns about what they wish for and don’t find in congregations in their local areas. They emphasize wanting support, wanting to hear current information, wanting help in combating injustice, and wanting help for connecting with conservatives.
Nov 2012 – Granddaddy or Jesus?
When a church member berated Clarence Jordan for advocating racial integration, and cited her granddaddy as the authority for her opposition to it, Jordan warned her that she would have to choose between her granddaddy and Jesus. That choice is even more urgent for today’s Christians.
In this issue of Connections, Barbara reports on the Connections Live! 2012 gathering.
Dec 2012 – A new Christianity emerges
In her book Emergence Christianity, Phyllis Tickle reports on new forms of Christianity that have been emerging since the late 1800s, as part of an upheaval like the others that have happened in the Western world about every 500 years. She describes the characteristics of these new forms and urges Christians to become aware of them in order to discern how to serve the kingdom of God today. She wants us to become active architects of what is happening, not passive observers.
Jan 2013 – Is there a line? If so, where is it?
Is there anything that a person must believe in order to qualify as a Christian? Or does behavior or at least intention, rather than belief, determine who is a Christian? And can anyone other than God say who qualifies? In Where My Soul Lives: Being a Christian Outside the Lines, Ruth H. Judy reports on interviews with Christians who feel they have been unjustly declared “outside the lines” by the institutional church or by traditionalist Christians.
Barbara tells how a UMC in Elk Grove, California has taken a brave step to oppose a line that has been drawn by the UMC but seems to contradict the Gospel.
Feb 2013 – Harmful school Bible courses
A report just issued by the Texas Freedom Network, reflecting research done by SMU professor Mark Chancey, shows that many Bible courses taught in Texas public schools are biased and inaccurate, apparently violating the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and a 2007 Texas law. A new documentary film, The Revisionaries, shown on PBS-TV and available for use or purchase, shows the religious right’s efforts by to promote such courses and the Texas Freedom Network’s efforts to stop them.
Mar 2013 – Examining religious freedom
Religious freedom is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, but many activities presented by public schools and governments violate that provision. Quotes from several articles and websites, plus information about a disturbing book, express dismay and urge Christians to help prevent such violations.
Apr 2013 – What makes church church?
At a recent seminary board meeting, Barbara participated in a discussion that asked this question and other related questions, all of which seem important for today’s churchgoers to consider.
May 2013 – Concerns from young and old
In his book You Lost Me, Barna researcher David Kinnaman reports that many young adults feel that the church has lost them by offering only dogmatic, unconvincing answers to their serious questions and not being willing to engage in real dialogue. Barbara finds that many older churchgoers have left or become only minimal, reluctant participants for a similar reason. In Kissing Fish, Roger Wolsey bemoans the fact that the versions of Christianity that are turning many people off are not even authentic Christianity; he offers progressive Christianity instead.
June 2013 – Compassion and justice
Barbara expresses her great admiration for Bob Guinee of San Antonio, who lives and runs a ministry for children in a crime-ridden and poverty-ridden neighborhood. But she explains why she isn’t willing to express opposition to “Mikey” Weinstein, a Jew who is trying to eliminate Christian evangelical proselytizing from the U.S. military, as Bob has asked her to do.
July 2013 – Public prayer and religious freedom
A brave legislator recently offered a non-sectarian invocation to a session of the Texas Legislature, incurring the criticism of conservative Christian colleagues. Cheerleaders at Kountze, Texas, were given permission to display Bible verses on banners at public-school football games. Why do we allow public, oral prayers in non-religious settings? Why should non-religious institutions present Christian scriptures and other Christian religious displays?
Aug 2013 – Beyond conflict to content
Being Christian requires more than just being “nice.” In a UM Insight article, Kevin Watson points out that what Wesley called “Christian conferencing” addresses only a process for talking about our disagreements. It doesn’t deal with their content. And Barbara wonders why so many United Methodists still advocate continued use of Wesley’s words and methods.
Sept 2013 – What’s important–numbers or purpose?
Emphasis on metrics has increased, in the church as in other fields. Church consultant Gil Rendle points out the need to focus on the church’s goals, not just its numbers.
Use of patriarchal language harms women, yet we keep doing it in the church. The “bride of Christ” image is part of this harmful pattern that needs to be stopped.
Oct 2013 – Secrets that need to be known
Many Christians use up-to-date information and analytical thinking in their professions but not in their religion. Giving up outdated beliefs, questioning the church’s traditions, and bringing its long-held secrets into the open seems essential for the church’s survival.
Nov 2013 – Still in the wilderness?
After 21 years of writing Connections, Barbara is aware of many more people “out there” with similar beliefs and views, but her local congregation of more than 50 years, First United Methodist of Temple TX, feels more like a wilderness than ever. She describes her rejection by it.
Dec 2013 – Connections readers speak
“Your story breaks my heart,” many readers say in response to the December issue. Many have shrunk into silence or passivity as the result of similar treatment. “How can one grow if never challenged?” they ask.
Jan 2014 – Two church disagreements in the news
Conflict about whether UMC clergy should be allowed to perform same-sex marriage and whether homosexuality is a sin, and whether “online Communion” should be allowed, are in the news. UMC rules are inconsistent and hard to change, and the process is chaotic.
Feb 2014 – Are church rules God’s rules?
Not necessarily. Responses to the January Connections lead to more thoughts and questions about Communion.
Mar 2014 – Ash Wednesday reflections
Sara Miles’s books City of God and Take This Bread relate thought-provoking views about food, Communion, and being Christian.
Apr 2014 – A resurrected congregation
First United Methodist Church of Bartlett, Texas is an inspiring example of how a tiny congregation in a tiny town can be powerful, thanks especially to its lay leadership.
May 2014 – Fighting injustice by making it public
“When you have no power, go public … The public is where the real power is.” So says Senator Elizabeth Warren in A Fighting Chance.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is like a secret legislature that exerts harmful power by keeping the public in the dark.
July 2014 – Nations hiding in plain sight
Our true founders didn’t have an “original intent” that we can refer back to in challenging times such as this…
Aug 2014 – America’s long-standing religious differences
In his book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Penguin, 2011), historian and journalist Colin Woodard explains that our continent was originally colonized by 11 different “nations” — cultural groups whose influence is still apparent today.
Oct 2014 – Religion’s role in schools—informing or evangelizing?
Given our Constitution’s requirement that church and state remain separate, religion should appear in public schools only in a balanced historical context that informs students about the world’s religions. But too often, Christian evangelism is allowed instead. That’s the crux of a fierce debate now raging in Texas. The problem may be greater here than in most other states, but it also exists to some degree in many other places.
Nov 2014 – Coping with old age
Much as I hate to realize it, I’ve gotten old. So have a lot of the people closest to me. I’ll be 81 next month, my husband turned 85 a few months ago, and many of our friends are now in their 80s or 90s. In many ways, I have been much more fortunate than most people my age and older. People often tell me I don’t look 80, and I am always glad to hear that. My hair has very little gray, evidently because of the genes I got from my parents, and I’m still in generally good health.
[note: Connections was not published between Dec, 2014 and Oct, 2016.]
Nov 2016 – Reconnecting
After a two-year break I’m resuming publication of Connections. I’ve greatly missed writing it, and I’ve especially missed the responses from readers. Many tell me they’ve missed getting Connections, too. At a Faith and Reason seminar I recently attended, a Connections reader I ran into said, “It was my lifeline!” Many others have made similar comments and urged me to restart.
Dec 2016 – Dislocation
We’ re in the midst of such a time right now, observes Thomas Friedman, New York Times foreign affairs columnist, in his newest book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2016). Friedman wrote this book before the recent U.S. presidential election, so he wasn’t specifically referring to it, but many of us feel even more dislocated now as a result of the election.
In his newest book, Craig C. Hill, the new dean of Perkins School of Theology at SMU, dares to address two subjects that are often unmentionable in the church. Sex? No. Money? Not that, either. Instead, they’re stafus and ambition.
With a new U.S. president who didn’t win the popular vote and who acts in ways that many Christians see as immoral, we’re in the midst of more turmoil and conflict than many of us have ever known. And the church is full of conflict, too.
With refugees and sanctuaries in the daily news, an intriguing book reports interviews with “church refugees.”
Can pastors be lay people’s friends?
How do we experience God? A UMC bishop bemoans church members’ failure to tell about their God experiences, and Barbara tells about hers.
Barbara reconsiders her 57 years in her local congregation, her 25 years of Connections, and what she wants to be remembered for.
An article in The Atlantic and a book by a labor activist suggest ways of addressing divisive social issues.
To survive in the long run, the church must make a radical change in its main focus: from life after death and literal interpretation of ancient doctrines’ claims, to promoting justice and compassion for more people during earthly life, as Jesus taught and demonstrated. Can anything hasten this change? Can money help?
Barbara reviews 4 recent books that call for a change in church focus.