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let it shine

let it shine

This week the United Church of Christ gathers in Hartford, Connecticut to convene its 26th General Synod and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the church founded by the merger of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the General Conference of Congregational Christian Churches on June 25, 1957.

UCC 50th anniversary logo

As we celebrate our heritage and rededicate ourselves to fulfilling God’s mission, I pray we can rekindle something of the passion for unity that motivated the birth of this new church experiment: The United Church of Christ acknowledges as its sole Head, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior. It acknowledges as kindred in Christ all who share in this confession.

These words from the Preamble to the Constitution of the United Church of Christ represent the UCC at its best. The lines of authority are simple and clear: there is only one source of authority on the church — Jesus Christ! And the lines of connection are simple and clear: any — ANY — who share our dedication to following Jesus are already our brothers and our sisters, no more questions necessary!

Too often, I believe, our church falls prey to the same sort of prejudices and shortsightedness that plague much of Christ’s church. We recognize as kindred in Christ … all who think pretty much like we do! It seems sometimes we expend more energy bashing “right-wing Christians,” “evangelical Christians,” “other-side-of-the-aisle Christians” than bearing a common witness of grace and peace into a hurting world.

I am not suggesting the church forego healthy theological criticism and a faithful prophetic witness. I am not suggesting an uncritical acceptance of “church” in whatever forms it presents itself. But I am saying that the original genius of the United Church of Christ was its recognition that something is broken in the Church and that what is broken is Christ’s own vision of a church that is One.

The integrity of our witness will be demonstrated not only by what we say to the world, but by what we can show to the world, what we can show of our ability to get along even with each other! Does Christ make us one … or not? Do we require further conditions for fellowship and friendship than our common faith in Christ? Is Christ capable of breaking down the walls that divide us … or not?

with boldness and humility

with boldness and humility

Two week before the opening of the United Church of Christ General Synod in Atlanta, I expressed my hopes for the coming deliberations:

May the Holy Spirit lead our church as we struggle with difficult issues, as we seek to know the mind of Christ. May we act with all boldness, and love each other with all humility …

It seems that my wish has come true. Reports from General Synod describe an especially solemn and respectful and careful deliberation on the issue of same-gender marriage, from committee work through the floor debate and the final delegate vote. The UCC Newsroom gave this report of the proceedings:

Delegates wrestled with the resolution for about an hour before casting a decisive vote in favor of the resolution that was refined and recommended late Sunday by a 54-member Synod committee. The document was altered by only one amendment, which delegates readily accepted, that expressed a spirit of concern for those who must deal with the resolution’s impact in the months ahead.

When debate was closed — with only a whimper of opposition — a hush fell over the great hall of Atlanta’s Georgia World Conference Center. The Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson, executive minister of Justice and Witness Ministries, then asked moderator Eric C. Smith, who led the proceedings, for a moment of collective prayer. Delegates prayed silently.

Moments later, when voting began, a horde of raised hands — holding green voting cards — told the world that the resolution had passed overwhelmingly. Afterwards, instead of loud applause, there was a dignified moment of stillness broken only by the voice of the Rev. John H. Thomas who offered a prayer.

“Lord Jesus…We give thanks for your presence, especially here this morning,” the UCC’s general minister and president prayed in a soft, pastoral voice. “We have felt your warm embrace, stilling us as we tremble with joy, with hope, with fear, with disappointment…Let us use our hands not to clap, but to wipe away every tear…”

I am glad for the dignity and spiritual sensitivity of the process … even when I would have voted against the resolution itself. This issue has such power to divide, and that, I think, is what is most dangerous for the church as we struggle to be faithful. I can live with a church that has disagreements, even serious diagreements, among its members, as long as we are together genuinely seeking the mind of Christ and acknowledging our oneness with brothers and sisters who are doing the same.

Unfortunately, the grace and dignity of the Synod process has not been followed by the many of the folks offering their post-vote commentaries. Two examples from the UCC Blog:

One response: God is still speaking, but the General Synod of the UCC by passing the Resolution in Support of Equal Marriage Rights for All, has arrogantly supposed to speak for God. Marriage between one man and one woman is a reality established by God in creation and reflected in the church itself. This resolution does not validate same sex relationships but only invalidates and de-legitimizes the UCC as a religious body. This decision will force many congregations to disassociate and will cause the further decline of this historic denomination …

Another response: To those who want to continue hating, misinterpreting Scripture and selling our Lord short, see ya! Those of us who have taken on the mission of love, intelligence, acceptance and fair-mindness our Church will be stronger and our faith will be stronger!! We don’t need judgmental hate-mongers and homophobes in our midst. Go join those who can’t and don’t think for themselves. There are plenty of “leaders” like Dobson will will take your money and teach you how to hate even more.

There it is — “us” and “them” … the “good guys” and the unchristian heathens. Now matter where you come down on the issue, stooping to such name-calling is the real travesty. God forgive us. And God help us to continue to struggle together … with boldness and humility.

jesus is lord

jesus is lord

From the United Church of Christ newsroom:

Jesus sole head of church, Thomas affirms
Written by Will Matthews
Tuesday, 28 June 2005

Refuting claims to the contrary, the Rev. John H. Thomas, general minister and President of the UCC, unequivocally re-affirmed Monday that “Jesus Christ is the sole head of the church, Son of God and Savior.”

In a letter submitted to the Bergen County Record, Thomas responded to a story that appeared in the New Jersey newspaper June 15 that centers on a proposed General Synod resolution.

The proposed resolution, slated to be debated by close to 1,000 General Synod delegates who will gather in Atlanta this week, asks the UCC to affirm the Lordship of Jesus.

The story quotes the pastor of a New Jersey UCC church that is one of a handful of sponsors of the proposed resolution as saying that denominational leaders are “fuzzy” about their belief in God.

But Thomas in his letter said such a statement couldn’t be farther from the truth and that the UCC in fact is firmly grounded in its belief in both God and Jesus as “our crucified and risen Lord.”

“Our faith is not in a book or tradition, but a Sovereign who is risen, is present with us and thus a Word that ‘still speaks,’” Thomas wrote.

The resolution, sponsored by eight geographically-diverse congregations, asserts that the greatest issue currently facing the denomination is whether to acknowledge the Lordship and divinity of Jesus.

But Thomas in his letter said the question is a moot point.

“When the delegates to the 25th General Synod of the United Church of Christ gather for opening worship in Atlanta on July 1, they will join in an affirmation of baptism that begins with the public confession of the triune God, including belief in ‘Jesus Christ, the only one begotten of God before all worlds.’”

The full text of Thomas’ letter, as well as the link to the June 15 Bergen County Record story follows:

Letter to the Editor:

It will take more than a resolution to the General Synod and an article in a local newspaper to create an identity crisis for the United Church of Christ. The fact is, the only reason we can use a comma along side our more traditional emblem of the cross, crown, and orb, is because of our confession that “Jesus Christ is the sole head of the church, Son of God and Savior.” Our faith is not in a book or a tradition, but a Sovereign who is risen, is present to us, and thus a Word that “still speaks.”

Ask anyone baptized using the liturgical rite of the United Church of Christ Book of Worship: “Do you profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?” Ask worshipers in our local churches who Sunday after Sunday read from the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith, printed in our hymnal, “In Jesus Christ the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, God has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to God’s self.” Ask our ecumenical partners, including Lutherans, Presbyterians, Disciples, and members of the Reformed Church in America who as recently as1997 recognized the UCC as a “church where the gospel is rightly preached.” Ask Christians around the world who share fellowship with the United Church of Christ in the World Council of Churches on the basis of our common confession of “the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior according to the scriptures.” Ask our pastors who affirm at their ordination that they “hear the word of God in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments,” and who “accept the word of God as the rule of Christian faith and practice.”

When the delegates to the 25th General Synod of the United Church of Christ gather for opening worship in Atlanta on July 1, they will join in an affirmation of baptism that begins with the public confession of the triune God, including belief in “Jesus Christ, the only one begotten of God before all worlds.” In the remembrance of these baptismal vows, the delegates will begin five days of listening for the living Word from the living Christ, a Stillspeaking God whose voice is never bound by the periods of time, culture, or convention.

The Rev. John H. Thomas
General Minister and President
United Church of Christ

finding a way through a no-win situation

finding a way through a no-win situation

In just a few weeks, members of the United Church of Christ will gather in Altanta, Georgia, for General Synod, the biennial national gathering of the church. The UCC has never shied away from controversy, choosing to speak boldly and to act boldly whenever it has discerned a call of the Holy Spirit. It is most certainly a strength of the church that it is ready to witness faithfully, to follow where Christ leads, even when that witness may provoke dismay and alarm. But this summer, the UCC will take up an issue that is as explosive and divisive as any it has considered in its almost fifty year history. That issue is gay marriage.

General Synod will consider three separate resolutions on gay marriage. One resolution sponsored by the Southern California/Nevada Conference calls on the UCC to affirm equal marriage rights for same gender couples. (Text of the resolution). The second, sponsored by the Central Atlantic Conference, calls for prayer and study on the issue. (Text of the resolution). The third resolution, sponsored by eight individual UCC churches, asks the UCC to provide faithful witness by supporting the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. (Text of the resolution).

It is a no-win situation. If the church votes down the gay marriage resolution or chooses to ask for more prayer and study, it will be seen by its more progressive members as reversing its course, failing in courage, or, at best, dragging its feet. Many will view the UCC as losing the distinctive”edginess” that is its hallmark.

On the other hand, if the equal marriage rights resolution is passed, many in the church will see this as a betrayal of the scriptural witness and an abandonment of the Christian virtues of chastity and fidelity. Many will view the UCC as losing its way, as losing Jesus’ way.

So what do I think? My concern is with the integrity of the witness of our church, our core witness to the unity Christ intends for his Church. It is this very zeal for witnessing to Christian unity that brought our church into being in the first place! So my concern, first of all, is not so much with result, but with process. Paying attention to process is the only way through this no-win situation.

I have long found helpful the analysis of conflict provided by David Augsburger in his book, “Caring Enough to Confront.” He observes that in any conflict situation two things are at stake: (1) the issue being contended, and (2) the relationship between the contenders.

His book provides a catalog of conflict styles. In brief, some folks value issue over relationship. Defending the truth, “my” version of the truth, becomes paramount. Fighting for what is right, for what is fair, for what is just, takes precedence. If the relationship between “me” and my “opponent” of the moment is damaged or even destroyed, so be it; the issue is what matters.

Other folks value relationship over issue. They will be ready to stop fighting, to compromise, to give in, whenever they perceive a relationship is in jeopardy. They would rather swallow their pride and their need to be right to protect a relationship that matters to them.

Augsburger contends that the different styles each have their time and place, but that the healthiest approach overall to conflict is to learn to value both issue and relationship. This is not compromise which means going 50-50. It means complete honesty and complete humility … 100-100! It means caring enough about the issue to make sure “you” hear “me” out, and caring enough about relationship to make sure “I” hear “you” out.

It is this “marriage” of truth and love, “speaking the truth in love” as the apostle Paul puts it, that I believe is sorely lacking in this debate. Proponents of gay marriage accuse those who would reserve marriage for the union between one man and one woman of being homophobic and reactionary and intolerant and unchristian. And defenders of traditional marriage accuse gay marriage advocates of being faithless and unbiblical and amoral and unchristian!

Both sides do need enough courage to voice their convictions fully, but they also need enough humility to acknowledge and respect the integrity of the convictions of their counterparts. We need to understand that the impulse that drives followers of Jesus to advocate equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians is not libertarianism, but a desire to fulfill the gospel of Jesus Christ, to enact Jesus’ radical acceptance and affirmation of those deemed “outsiders” by the rest of society.

And we need to understand that the passion that motivates others to reserve marriage to the committed relationship of one man and one woman is not fear of change, distrust of what is foreign and strange to them, but a sincere desire to fulfill the gospel of Jesus Christ, to follow Jesus in paths of wholeness and faithfulness!

Granted, motives on either side of this issue are not always pure and undivided … But we will have already lost no matter the outcome of these debates if we do not recognize that we are alike passionate about the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is our common allegiance to Jesus, our genuine commitment to listening together to Jesus, that can keep us together and make us a real church, a vital church, even when we do not yet agree on the “mind of Christ” with regard to this or any other particular issue. Do not demonize a brother or sister in Christ! That well may be the sin against the Holy Spirit!

May the Holy Spirit lead our church as we struggle with difficult issues, as we seek to know the mind of Christ. May we act with all boldness, and love each other with all humility.