I grew up in the United Church of Christ (UCC), and was confirmed as a UCC youth in the First Congregational Church of Natick, MA. One might find it surprising then that in my younger years, I didn’t know what the UCC was. I just knew that my home church was a “Congregational” Church. I guess I didn’t pay close enough attention in confirmation class.
It wasn’t until seminary that I became familiar with the history, theology, and polity of the UCC. And I was proud! I was proud of the social justice witness, manifesting as courage speaking truth to power, and as lived out expressions of Matthew 25. I was proud of its efforts to live into unity amidst the diversity of the body of Christ, and I was proud of our “covenantal”, rather than top-down, relationships. All these have been beautifully visible at Synod, from passing a resolution to become an “Immigrant Welcoming Church”, to having respectful dialogue about resolutions for which there is disagreement, such as a Resolution calling on the UCC to “Advocate for the Rights of Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation,” or a Resolution “Establishing Procedures for Cultural Diversity Training for Authorized Ministers.”
During my formational years of seminary, I learned much about the UCC that I did not know. At that time of discerning a potential call to ministry in the United Church of Christ, an essential question was: “Why the UCC?” Why not some other denomination?
In the UCC, I resonated with the prophetic witness, the progressive theological stance that “God is Still Speaking”, and the extravagant welcome of ALL people, regardless of who you are or where you come from. As Glennon Doyle echoed Saturday in her keynote during Synod plenary, “You (the UCC) are the only church that will take me.”
So, there is much in the UCC to be proud of. Still, for any Member in Discernment who asks the question, “Why the UCC?” (or “Why any denomination?”), the answer soon becomes apparent that no denominational body is perfect.
Saturday in a Synod workshop I attended on entrepreneurial ministry and church planting, Bishop Yvette Flunder was asked why the church she pastors (City of Refuge in California) decided to join the UCC some 20 years ago.
“Do you want the truth?” Bishop Flunder asked.
“Yes!” came the resounding echo from the workshop hall.
“We did some church shopping. And the UCC won.”
“Why?” inquired one person.
Bishop Flunder went on to share how she appreciated the autonomy the UCC gave her. The UCC would not micro-manage her new church start that served vulnerable, marginalized populations in the San Francisco area. Equally important was that in the UCC, Yvette didn’t have to pretend to be somebody else. She didn’t have to lie about her identity, or compromise who she was. She could be the same-gender loving, African-American woman that she is, all the while knowing that this wider UCC church body loved and blessed her for exactly who God created her to be. What a blessing!
While appreciating the UCC’s gifts, Bishop Flunder knew that the UCC was not perfect. In the midst of a predominantly white denomination that still has much to confront in terms of racism, white privilege, and other isms, Bishop Flunder said of the UCC leadership, “Sometimes you have to push. But in the end, the UCC will do the right thing. In some other denominations, you can push all you want, but you’re not going to get anywhere.”
My own discernment process in seminary familiarized me with the UCC’S gifts, and with its growing edges. While the UCC has many gifts, Synod has been a reminder of the UCC’s need to grow in the contemplative side of the spiritual walk. It is noticeable how little structured time we have at Synod for collective stillness and contemplation to listen together to God’s still, small voice.
I didn’t learn about contemplative or spiritual practices from my UCC church growing up. Instead, I learned contemplative practices from a Buddhist monk. Only after exposure to mindfulness and meditation practices within the Buddhist tradition did I begin to realize the diverse contemplative resources in my own Christian tradition.
Part of the call I feel in ministry is to bring balance in the contemplative and active sides of spirituality and the church. In all of my ministries – in retreats I lead for youth and adults in the Mass. Conference UCC, in the new Agape UCC church start I pastor in Waltham, MA and in my college chaplaincy work at Brandeis, what I consistently hear is that we are DOING way too much and BEING far too little. Our professional and personal lives have so much DOING in them that we rarely have time to BE – whether with God, with family and friends, with nature, or even with ourselves.
For me, contemplative and spiritual practices aren’t about navel gazing. These practices capture what it looks like to be faithful to the great commandment to love God with all my mind, heart, soul, and strength. The more I nurture my love and devotion to the Source of all life, the more I am empowered, inspired, and equipped to go out and do the work of loving all other expressions of Source – my diverse neighbors, creation, children and even myself. This contemplative side of the spiritual path prepares and emboldens me for the work of making God’s love and justice real in the world. It is what makes the church distinct from any number of social justice non-profits working to make the world a better place.
In the UCC, we do all our work following in the footsteps of Jesus. Jesus not only healed others, served the outcast and marginalized, and turned over the tables of the money-changers, but also frequently went off to a quiet place to pray.
While we have made strides, it is this contemplative side that is one growing edge of General Synod and my beloved UCC. This seems a bit paradoxical when the theme of Synod 2017 comes from Psalm 46. “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God” says the Psalmist in verse 4. Later, in verse 10 the Psalmist expresses one of my favorite passages from scripture:
“Be still, and know that I am God.”
In the end, the contemplative and active sides are not separate, but two sides of the same coin, each feeding the other. In our over-programmed, over-stretched, over-committed world, many people aren’t coming to church. Scores of opportunities beg for our attention on Sundays. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that far too often a visitor’s first experience of church is being given a checklist of possible to-DOs. While these to-dos are beautiful expressions of our faith (and often necessary), what would change if our UCC churches and communities were just as serious about nurturing our contemplative side as our active one? What if our church of Marthas were to seriously recognize and integrate the wisdom of its Marys? In my experience, loving God and loving neighbor both support one another as mutually enriching practices, leading us ever more fully into the heart of the divine.
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