christianity

New Orleans, Day 3

Bethany Church, Baton Rouge

The Bethany Crosses stand by Interstate 10 and can be seen from quite a distance.

The Bethany Crosses stand by Interstate 10 and can be seen from quite a distance.

It was a lovely drive to Baton Rouge from New Orleans today. Along the way I stopped to visit a plantation and a couple of historic churches. But my final destination for the day was Bethany Church, which was recommended by a good friend who is familiar with the area. I looked up the church online beforehand, and I knew I had to make the trek just for this. I also knew to look for three massive crosses standing near the highway, visible from a good distance. The Bethany crosses are an icon of the area, and they are truly a sight to behold.

The church is located within an industrial complex, which seems strange until you realize how much land the church has and how many thousands congregate throughout an average weekend. I parked the car, walked toward the entrance and was immediately greeted by two very friendly staff members. One of them, Katie, walked me into the foyer and pointed out several areas of interest…the VIP table (more on that in a bit), the coffee station, the entrance to the auditorium. I was struck by the modern and bright interiors, which contrasted with the drab, warehouse look of the outside. And then we walked right by what appeared to be an ATM mounted on the wall. A churchgoer had just swiped her credit card and was in the middle of a transaction. I asked Katie what that was, and I could tell she had answered that question many times before. “A lot of people find it much more convenient to give their tithe electronically, they use their card and their tithe is withdrawn automatically,” she said. I was truly surprised, I had never seen -or known of- such a thing. “We also have the old school method,” she added, pointing to a wall pocket filled with tithing envelopes.

Worshippers make their way into the auditorium.

Worshippers make their way into the auditorium.

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably bristling at the thought of an Automated Tithing Machine. My first thought was, “Well, that is the limit! I have seen it all! This is crazy!” And then, almost immediately, I remembered how many times I’ve been upset at an independent merchant for not having a Square card reader so that I could pay with my credit card. I remembered every time I’ve wanted to give a donation or offering at a place of worship only to realize I don’t have any cash. And that’s when it hit me; this is a church for today, why would they not have an electronic option? And, why should I be surprised that they do? This is the year 2014 after all, when cash is a dirty necessary evil we have to remember to carry around for those ever-decreasing prehistoric pecuniary transactions.

My “worship experience,” as the church refers to its services, was a deep contrast with all of the historic churches and cathedrals I’ve visited lately. You won’t find sacred art in this church. You won’t see an organ or a choir loft. In fact, there isn’t even a pulpit. Instead of pews, there are comfy chairs. Instead of stained-glass windows, there are two giant projection screens flanking the stage. In place of an altar, there are bright, colorful lights and laser visualizations. As you walk in, you can’t help but notice the TV cameras hoisted upon large cranes. An outsider like myself can be easily distracted, even put off, by all of the cutting edge-technology and the exacting level of audio-visual production. But as the service begins and as I look around, the congregants don’t even seem to notice it. They are absorbed in worship, focused on what they have come here to do. To me, this resembles a sound stage for American Idol much more than it does a church. Only the music is better. A lot better.

Old world and new world tithing! Automated Tithing Machine on the right.

Old world and new world tithing! Automated Tithing Machine on the right.

For about thirty minutes the worship band leads the congregation in song. The band is comprised of highly skilled and talented musicians. There are two electric guitarists; one of them controls the sequenced tracks. Then there is a drummer, a pianist, a bassist and the band leader sings and plays acoustic guitar. Five supporting vocalists complete the ensemble. The music is modern and anthemic, it reminds me a lot of the upbeat drone of bands like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Coldplay and classic U2. I’m particularly moved by a beautifully arranged interpretation of The Lord’s Prayer, which is modern yet tasteful.

I say “modern yet tasteful” because although I love technology, rock music, and flawless audio-visual production, these are not the things I look for in worship. My preference is the for the high church liturgy of the Episcopal church. Give me vestments, give me bells and whistles, give me choirs in robes, give me Bach, give me gothic architecture and incense, and I’m in heaven. Those are the things I associate with the sacred. But as I’m coming to find, one man’s experience of the divine is another man’s stodgy, outdated, organized religion.

Pop worship and light show.

Pop worship and light show.

Pastor Jonathan Stockstill takes the stage as the band winds down. He leads the church in prayer and proceeds to share the results of a challenge he gave the church a couple of weeks ago. A videoclip rolls on the screens and we see church members delivering checks to financially stricken families, we see a couple of people receiving the gift of a car. I learn that in an effort to emulate the early church of Acts, Bethany Church has raised money and resources to meet the needs of their community. In just one week, the church (which counts approximately 6000 members across a number of campuses) has managed to raise nearly $80,000 to help those in need. Families on the verge of foreclosure and eviction have been provided with enough funds to avoid losing their homes. Electricity has been restored for households that have lost power due to their inability to pay the bills. And of the six cars that were donated, two have already been given to people in need of transportation. This is amazing stuff, and nothing about it seems inauthentic. Pastor Stockstill talks about “unlocking the hand of generosity,” and he asserts that “this is how the early church did it.”

Pastor Jonathan Stockstill

Pastor Jonathan Stockstill

The second half of the service consists of Pastor Stockstill’s sermon. He is a gifted and charismatic preacher. He speaks about the power of prayer, emphasizing the need for Christians to pray both in private and corporately. He confesses that even for him, prayer is still a struggle. It is a discipline and a requirement for all Christians, “not just the hyper spiritual ones,” he says. He preaches from the book of Acts and on a couple of occasions he asks us, if we have our Bibles, to turn to a certain chapter and verse. Only this is isn’t really necessary as scripture passages appear on the large TV monitor by his side, from which he reads them aloud. A life without prayer is aimless and empty, as he says; it is merely religion. “Religion is doing a God-thing without God,” he proclaims, adding that we want to have a relationship, not a religion.

The service ends with a call to prayer and a call to accept Jesus Christ, for those who haven’t already done so. A few hands are raised and Pastor Stockstill says a special prayer for them. He asks for those who have made a decision to accept Jesus to please head for the VIP table in the foyer so that church volunteers may meet with them, answer any questions and give them a gift. And then the band takes the stage once again and church is dismissed with a refrain of an earlier song. I did not raise my hand during prayer, but I head for the VIP table all the same because that’s where Katie has invited me to meet after service for a chat.

The VIP table and the coffee station are the place to be after the service.

The VIP table and the coffee station are the place to be after the service.

People are gathered around the coffee station; there are cookies, too. Parents are retrieving their children from child care and kids’ activities. When I see Katie again I tell her how much I enjoyed the service. She asks me to fill out a visitors card and gives me a VIP folder with information about the church. Enclosed is a CD with a welcome message from Pastor Stockstill as well as three tracks by the worship band. I also get a reusable cup and straw emblazoned with the church’s logo. It’s all really quite nice. I remark about the prevalence of technology throughout the church and how user-friendly my worship experience has been. She tells me they make every effort to have visitors and members feel as welcome as possible. She tells me about the history of the church, which has just celebrated its 51st anniversary. It’s been about 14 years since they moved into the current space and a lot has changed since then.

The church was founded by Roy Stockstill and later taken over by his son, Larry Stockstill. Three years ago, Larry’s son, Jonathan assumed the pastorship and things really started changing. Katie tells me Bethany was already a vibrant church, with great worship music and preaching, but it looked nothing like what it does today. With Pastor Jonathan in place, the church started moving quickly into a more technology-driven experience. In came the screens, the concert lighting, the electronic tithing station and the smartphone app. The church moved firmly into the online age. But the improvements did not stop with technology. In fact, technology simply enabled the congregation to be more actively engaged in the life of the church. Katie joined a wave of volunteers three years ago and today she is on staff as Volunteer Coordinator. Programs were developed, small groups instituted, ministry opportunities created, and with all of this the church has experienced significant growth. Today, the church holds three weekend services on this campus as well as various other services throught their other campuses. They have also begun a Spanish service which is already averaging one hundred in attendance. This church is alive and engaged. It is a spiritually-rich and community-driven body that reflects in its membership a diversity across generations, race, and socio-economic levels.

Services are recorded and broadcasted on the web and on TV.

Services are recorded and broadcasted on the web and on TV.

I’ve already taken quite a bit of Katie’s time by this point and she has work to do, so I say my thank-yous and I go sit on a comfy couch in the lobby. As I reach for my phone, I wonder if they have a wireless internet connection. Of course they do. This makes me smile. I may be an old soul when it comes to church, but I’ve changed my mind about modern Christianity. I no longer see all of these technological advances as trappings or gimmicks. Why should Christianity today conform to my Luddite preferences? I was brought up in the Nazarene church, a conservative evangelical tradition. And as I logged on to Bethany’s guest wifi I remembered the time I learned how so many of the hymns in the Nazarene hymnal were original drinking songs (or so I was told). I thought about how many times the church has reinvented itself through the ages, changing with the times. I think about all the technological, architectural and engineering advances made in the construction of cathedrals of old. And it makes perfect sense that today’s church should be at the forefront, that it should make use of modern technology and music in worship. It seems such a simple yet significant realization, the church remains relevant in great part because it adapts to our modern proclivities.

As I leave, a t-shirt worn by a volunteer catches my eye. It reads, “Church doesn’t start until the service is over.” It takes me back to what I heard earlier, about how this church raised so much money and so many resources for the neediest in their community. And, it also makes me realize a very important truth. The church is not the flying buttresses, the jumbotrons, the pipe organ, the electric guitars. The church is not the alms boxes, the automated tithing machines, the prayer books, the smartphone apps. The church is the people.

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San Francisco, Day 3

San Francisco Interfaith Council, Bahá’í Center, Golden City Church, Herchurch

The Interfaith Chapel at the Presidio in San Francisco

The Interfaith Chapel at the Presidio in San Francisco

My day began with a lovely drive through the Presidio, a park and former military base located in the northen part of San Francisco. I was looking for the San Francisco Interfaith Council, where I would be meeting with Executive Director, Michael Pappas. What I didn’t know was that the SFIC is housed inside the historic Presidio Chapel. The chapel was built in 1931 by the U.S. Army and although it was originally used as a Protestant chapel it later became a space of interfaith worship. Today, the SFIC has its offices in the lower level of the chapel.

Michael Pappas, a former Greek Orthodox priest, has been the executive director of the council for seven years. The council’s list of accomplishments, initiatives and projects undertaken since Pappas assumed leadership is many pages long. He is a very busy man and I’m most grateful he made time to visit with me.

Michael Pappas, Executive Director of the San Francisco Interfaith Council

Michael Pappas, Executive Director of the San Francisco Interfaith Council

“People define themselves through crisis,” Pappas explained, “The council was formed as the result of two crises; homelessness and the Loma Prieta earthquake.” As with other interfaith organizations, the SFIC is concerned primarily with building relationships and being of service to the community. He tells me about the important role faith communities play in times of great need. He mentions, for instance, that when Katrina struck New Orleans, the faith communities jumped into action even before FEMA arrived, and after FEMA left it was again the faith communities who remained to serve.

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the SFIC served as a primary convener for the city. Some 15,000 lay people and faith leaders from all major religious traditions gathered to observe this most significant commemoration. Pappas recounts how the invocation was offered by a Muslim woman, a very significant moment and no small feat. And he adds that these kinds of events are possible as the result of the relationships the council has been cultivating for over a couple of decades now.

Inside the Interfaith Chapel

Inside the Interfaith Chapel

Pappas is deeply commited to this work. He tells me that for him it is not just a job. When he was in pastoral ministry, he was very active in ecumenical work, and soon enough that work evolved into interfaith dialogue. He talks about a real conviction to bring about what seems to be an impossibility. I ask him what that means and he talks about the importance of putting a human face to the faiths, needs, and suffering of those in the community so that others may better relate. When we talk about what makes San Francisco uniquely amenable to interfaith work, he tells me, “we live in a vulnerable place, this is the last place you can go before you hit the water.” But San Francisco is also, as he puts it, “a place of dreams and goals, a place where people feel that the can be.”

Did you know there are no clergy in the Bahá’í Faith? I certainly didn’t but I learned that and so much more during a wonderful visit at the Bahá’í Center of San Francisco. My time at the center was facilitated by Michael Yen, Administrative Assistant to the Spiritual Assembly and a most gracious host. He gave me a primer on the faith. I learned about the Bab, who was the founder of Bábism and forerunner of Bahá’u’lláh. I learned about Bahá’u’lláh, who was the prophetic fulfillment of Bábism and the founder of the Bahá’í Faith. And I learned about `Abdu’l-Bahá, son and successor of Bahá’u’lláh. But most importantly I learned about Yen’s experience in the faith, how he came to find it and what it means to him. He told me about the individual search for truth that is central to the faith, and he emphasized that this is a social and civil faith. I ask him about this truth he was speaking of and with a big smile, he said, “Whatever you think it is, it isn’t.”

The Bahá'í Center

The Bahá’í Center

During my time with him I learned that Bahá’í Faith unites all religions and holds them all to be equally true. As the pamphlet explains, there is one Light (God) and many Lamps (religions). The accompanying illustration presents a succession of prophets, Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Bahá’u’lláh; all emanating from the same source. “I am all of those religions in order to call myself a Bahá’í,” says Yen. But I learn that Bahá’í is not simply an amalgamation of all the faiths that came before it. It’s not a religious potpourri as one might mistakenly think. Bahá’u’lláh received revelation from God and he was a very prolific writer. Yen explains with much excitement that Bahá’ís can access the words of Bahá’u’lláh directly as he himself wrote them. During a pilgrimage to the Bahá’í World Center in Haifa, Yen was able to see for himself the manuscripts. He describes the beautiful calligraphy and the sense of awe that overwhelmed him. There are many volumes of scripture written by Bahá’u’lláh, some are prayers, others are directions for worship and life, others are revelation.

Michael Yen, Administrative Assistant to the Spiritual Assembly, stands next to a portrait of `Abdu'l-Bahá (son and successor of Bahá'u'lláh.

Michael Yen, Administrative Assistant to the Spiritual Assembly, stands next to a portrait of `Abdu’l-Bahá (son and successor of Bahá’u’lláh.

Our conversation continued as we walked through the many rooms of this beautiful center, a gift of a wealthy patron and Bahá’í. Yen showed me a meditation room, a couple of class rooms, a fellowship hall and a large auditorium. The auditorium is only used a couple of times a year for special holidays. Bahá’í gatherings are held every 19 days for prayer, reading, discussion and music. When he talks about the martyrdom of the Bab and the imprisonment of Bahá’u’lláh, he can’t help but become emotional. He holds back tears and apologizes. It is a very compelling and moving story of suffering and devotion. I ask what it means for him to be a Bahá’í. He tells me it is a personal faith more than a religion. He tells me, “The material world gives you plenty of evidence to support atheism,” and he shares that his wife (with whom he is very happily married) herself is an atheist. But his faith helps him draw closer to God, and he tells me it is “something in my life that answers my questions.”

Sometime around 3:00 pm I arrived at The Mill, a remarkable specimen of the new wave of coffeeshops (mason jars, pour overs, hipster aesthetic, you know). I was there to meet Josh Sisco, who is the pastor at Golden City Church. I had just enough time while I waited to make up my mind: I was most definitely getting a slice of toast with homemade Nutella to go with my single origin coffee. Oh yeah.

Josh arrived, ordered an iced coffee and by the time we sat down I already knew he was not your typical pastor. He is young, 26 to be exact, and he has the looks and charisma of a super hip rock star. He began to tell me his story about growing up in a suburban California and deeply involved in the Calvary Church movement. Young as he may be, Josh has seen his share of conflict and disillusionment, but he never lost hope or faith. He shares a quote someone shared with him, “Experience is the best teacher, but it doesn’t have to be your experience.” What this means for him is that throughout his life and preparation for ministry, he has been able to learn from the experiences of others as well as his own. And he has learned a lot.

Josh Sisco, Pastor of Golden City Church

Josh Sisco, Pastor of Golden City Church

“Calvary is a good model for the suburbs,” he tells me. But he believes that in order to meet the needs of urban citizens, the church has to find new models. When his parents came to Christ and made Calvary Chapel their home church, they also decided to move to the suburbs as a safe and wholesome place to raise a family. But that was then, and today, Josh disagrees with the notion that one should avoid the perceived wickedness of the cities. “My parents escaped the city and I ran to the city,” he says. His calling is clearly one for the city. He’s concerned about the fact that his generation and future generations will have no legacy. “Everybody is a transplant,” he says and then he jokingly challenges me to find a true San Franciscan.

Josh himself is not a San Franciscan. He and his wife came to the city to assume the leadership of Calvary Chapel’s San Francisco church plant. And, while he remains loyal and committed to Calvary, one of the first things he did was change the name of the church. He tells me he didn’t want to send a message that this church was a sort of franchise (Calvary Chapel is a network of churches based out of Costa Mesa, California). Golden City Church is decidedly a San Francisco church. As such, Josh dreams of a city in which people stay and create legacies. It is a difficult thing to imagine when San Francisco is overrun by the tech industry and the transiency of its employees. But Josh remains hopeful.

“Community” has become a bit of a buzzword when it comes to the new wave of Christianity. But it is important to understand why community is central to this new approach to theology and ministry. Josh describes it in generational terms, “The Boomers were high on commitment and low on community. Millenials are low on commitment and high on community.” I ask what he means by that and he explains that the suburban church model of the previous generation worked well with people who were willing to support the church financially even if they were not as involved. Today’s generation, by contrast, is more interested in belonging to a network of people in whom they can find a support system, not just on Sunday mornings in church, but throughout the week, at work, in the neighborhood and at the coffee shop. I find this very interesting, it harkens back to the notion of the early church.

“I don’t want to be a cool church, I don’t want to be famous. I’ve seen what that does,” Josh tells me. He is well aware of the hipster image and the assumptions people make based on it. With his bushy mustache, flappy hair and mason jar in hand, he fits the bill. “Just look at hipsters,” he exclaims, “most hipsters are Christian.” As I look around this hipster haven of a coffee shop, I realized I’ve never felt so square in my life. We can have fun at the expense of that hipster aesthetic, but the truth is that behind that image lies a driving desire for authenticity. This new wave of Christians are weary of labels, they’re not impressed by jumbotrons and Starbucks in the pews. They are hungry for real connections with those in their communities and their faith is very much centered around that yearning.

“We probably have sixty people on a good Sunday, if the wind is blowing just right,” Josh tells me. But that is perfectly fine for that. Josh represents a Christian demographic that feels lost in the megachurch. They’re much more interested in quality than quantity. It doesn’t matter that there are only six or eight people at his Thursday night group; what matters is that the difficult discussions and questions they have in this group will directly impact the sermon he delivers on Sunday morning. And when he delivers that sermon, his congregation won’t have to wonder whether it speaks to them; they know it does. They were there to help shape it.

As he talks of what the church must be about today, Josh reflects on the fact that the previous generation was so moralistic. The church has been too concerned with telling people what’s right and what’s wrong. His church ideal, however, is one that practices loving the world, not judging it. Yes, everybody is nice and tolerant, but, he says, “Christians can’t be tolerant,” he says. There’s a pregnant pause, he knows he’s startled me, he says, “This is going to sound really conservative at first, but then I’m going to flip it on you.” He goes on to explain that the church and Christians should be about serving others, not merely tolerating them, and he asks, “How can I be tolerant of those I’m here to serve?”

These are great questions, and millenials love asking questions. It is in this that I (a Gen X/Millenial inbetweener) identify with millenials the most, this insatiable curiosity. Christians like Josh and the many community churches that are popping up all over major cities and urban centers are much more comfortable with paradox than those who preceded them. “Good and bad is relative,” says Josh, and furthermore, “moralism is an idol.” Whereas the previous Church model spoke in terms of either/or, Josh says “both, or neither, or something else entirely.” He does not disdain the church he grew up in, the church that prepared him for ministry. He is firmly rooted in the faith of his upbringing, it’s just that he has seen a need for a new church model and he’s been called to fill it. And, it seems that the establishment is catching on. In a hopeful tone, he tells me, “The church has stopped answering questions that nobody was asking.”

Herchurch

Herchurch

Questions keep conversations going; they are an engine of progress and change. And in San Francisco there is another faith of Christianity that has asked a very difficult yet simple question: what about the feminine aspect of the divine? Earth-based religions have venerated the feminine divine for millenia, but as far as Abrahamic religions are concerned, God has been understood and spoken of almost exclusively in masculine terms. Herchurch (a Lutheran church also known by its original name, Ebenezer) has taken on as its mission “to embody and voice the prophetic wisdom and word of the Divine Feminine, to uplift the values of compassion, creativity and care for the earth and one another.” I happened upon Herchurch as I was driving to Redwood Tuesday night. The purple church is hard to miss and on its side hangs a large banner announcing Goddess Rosary, Wednesdays at 7:00. I figured this was something I had to experience for myself, I haven’t heard of any Goddess Rosaries taking place in Kansas City!

Goddess Rosary

Goddess Rosary

I arrived a few minutes early and was immediately greeted by a couple of parishioners. A few minutes later, Pastor Stacy Boorn welcomed me to the church and invited me to have some organic, gluten-free, tomato soup. We talked for a minute about my project and she invited me to look around the church and take as many pictures as I wanted. It’s good to feel welcome, comfortable and accepted when you’re about to experience an unfamiliar tradition. As I made my way through the nave, I noticed icons and statuettes depicting manifestations of the Divine Feminine from all manner of traditions and cultures. There was an altar for the Virgen de Guadalupe, there was an icon of Christ Sophia, images of Mary Magdalene, there were prehistoric images of fertility goddesses, drums, candles, incense, bells and water. The church was dimly lit and as night fell, I found myself completely at peace in this quiet and sacred space.

The rosary prayer begins promptly at 7:15. During and at other times participants are welcome to use the prayer stations throughout the nave. The spoken prayers are as follows:

On the large beads:

Our Mother who is within us,
we celebrate your many names.
Your wisdom come
Your will be done,
unfolding from the depths within us.
Each day you give us all that we need.
You remind us of our limits and we let go.
You support us in our power
and we act with courage.
For you are the dwelling place within us,
the empowerment around us,
and the celebration among us.
Now and for ever. Blessed Be.

On the medium beads:

Hail Goddess, full of grace,
Blessed are You
and blessed are all the fruits of your womb.
For you are the Mother of us all.
Hear/Heal us now
and in all our dreams/needs.
O blessed be, O blessed be. Amen/Ah-She

On the three small beads:

Mother, Maiden, Crone
(The Our Mother is attributed to Miriam Therese Winter, the Hail Goddess is adapted from Carol Christ)

Prayer stations inside the nave.

Prayer stations inside the nave

After the first round of the rosary, there was a period of quiet contemplation. Participants visited the different stations to light candles, ring bells and offer incense. Then the rosary was spoken once again. When the service was over, promptly at eight, we gathered in the foyer to eat soup, drink tea and chat. It was a lovely time and I felt warmly welcomed. If I were a local, I would certainly visit again, and again.

Pastor Stacy Boorn

Pastor Stacy Boorn

Women in Abrahamic Traditions

“Please explain to me, because I don’t understand,” asked a woman in the audience, “Why it is that people can convert to Islam or in the case of the school girls, be forced to convert to Islam, but the reverse is not true? For example, the woman in recent weeks that was put to death because she converted to Christianity.”

This question was directed to Mahnaz Shabbir, who was a guest panelist at the Dinner of Abrahamic Traditions held last week at the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. This event is part of a series organized by the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest and that night’s topic was “Significant Women Role Models in Abrahamic Traditions.” Shabbir was the third and final speaker, representing an Islamic perspective. Rabbi Linda Steigman and Chancellor Jude Huntz had preceded her, speaking respectively from the perspectives of Judaism and Christianity.

As one who loves religions and who also identifies as a fervent feminist, there are many difficult questions I have to ask of myself. Why is it that the same holy scriptures that at once inspire in me a sense of wonder and give me a glimpse into the divine oftentimes also have the ability to frighten and repel me? How is it that the same scriptures that reveal the meaning of compassion, faith and justice, also display some of the worst instances of hatred, violence and inequality? These, I imagine, are difficult questions for anyone who has struggled with the faith. I still remember the first time I read with great dismay in the first letter to the Corinthians an admonition for women to remain silent in church, “for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.” (1 Corinthians 14:34, KJV) Even today, while I openly declare my undying love for the Bible and the New Testament, I have to admit this is a passage I wish we could just delete. And there are others like this, in the Hebrew Testament and in the Quran. Too many to list, really.

“There’s good and there’s bad in every place, but we shouldn’t always just emphasize the bad,” answered Shabbir. And there lies the rub, I think. Religion is most alive when we struggle with it, and it goes stagnant when we accept it as a given, when we take it for granted. Struggling with one’s faith means for me that we ask questions, and it means that when can’t find answers, we find new ways to ask questions. Shabbir faced the question head on, “There are people who use our faith in ways they shouldn’t. There is no forcing of someone to be a Muslim, that is not the teaching of Islam.” She elaborated on this and continued to explain the root of these reprehensible acts and misrepresentations of the religion, “You have to remember there are areas of the world where not everyone is as educated and that sometimes people become religious leaders without any education at all.”

This is true across all faiths, in my opinion. I’ve certainly experienced this in my own evangelical upbringing. In no uncertain terms, Shabbir condemned the incident in question and others like it, “It was wrong, and in America many Muslim organizations did everything we could to try to stop that incident, but unfortunately it wasn’t successful.” It is at this point that she emphasizes that there is good and there is bad, and she drives this point, “There’s a whole lot of good going on.”

Linda Steigman, Rabbi and Chaplain, teacher and interfaith counselor.

Linda Steigman, Rabbi and Chaplain, teacher and interfaith counselor.

In true “people of the book” fashion, all three presenters at the event recounted stories of remarkable women in the scriptures. We heard the stories of women such as Sara, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, the foremothers of Abrahamic religions. Stories about women who believed God’s promises, women who acted virtuously and courageously, women whose example inspires many even today. Women who, as Rabbi Steigman put it, “made a real difference by taking brave, gutsy actions.” She told the stories of Esther, Ruth and Naomi. But she also told the lesser-known story of Yael, a brave woman who delivered Israel from the troops of King Jabin when, as Rabbi Steigman put it, “took a tent-pick and put it through the head of Sisera after she wooed him with warm milk, and we don’t know what else was in the warm milk!” (I don’t remember hearing that story in Sunday School!)

This is all great. We need to hear the stories of these historically significant women, but I really want to know about the place women hold in Judaism today. In spite of the fact that women were held in high esteem in post-biblical times, the fact is that they were expected to run the home and even a business in order that their husbands could study. That rubbed me the wrong way. Did it mean that women were held in high regard as long as they fit a prescribed domestic gender role?

It turns out I’m wrong, and happily so. Yes, women were not commanded to attend to time-bound commitments or go to Synagogue. However, Rabbi Steigman declares, “There’s a difference between being not-commanded and being forbidden, and this is the road that women today have taken in becoming much more active in the Jewish clergy.” She tells us the story of Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi to be ordained. Her ordination took place in Germany eighty years ago, which seems late in the grand scheme of things, but is certainly longer ago than I expected. Rabbi Jonas was killed in the Holocaust in 1940. The next woman rabbi was ordained in 1973 in the reformed movement of the United States, “And now, about half of the each class of ordinees are women. Eventually, the rabbinate will be half women and half men, maybe more women, we don’t know,” said Rabbi Steigman. I had no idea the numbers of women in the rabbinate were this high. There is a lot of good going on, indeed.

Jude Huntz, Chancellor at the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph

Jude Huntz, Chancellor at the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph

“Abraham is often called our father in the faith, and in the Christian tradition we often refer to Mary as our mother in the faith,” said Chancellor Huntz. He drew parallels between the promises God gave to Abraham and to Mary, about the child they would each have, about how they each responded to God’s promise and about how they each faced the prospect of the sacrifice of their sons. The difference being, of course, that Abraham’s son was spared and Mary’s wasn’t. And then he compared Mary to another father from the New Testament, Zechariah. “If we look at Mary in the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew we see a remarkable woman,” Huntz said, adding that the Gospel of Luke highlights the role of women as role models and leaders of the faith. Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, did not believe the promise of the Lord and his incredulity was punished with the inability to speak for three days. Mary, on the other hand, believed and accepted the promise, in spite of the repercussions she would face as a young woman pregnant out of wedlock. In his reading of the Gospel, Huntz sees women and men in contrast, he quips that “The women are always getting it and the men are not.” This to him, serves to remind us of the stories of all the remarkable women in the the Old Testament Rabbi Steigman has just shared with us. I want him to talk about 1 Corinthians 14:34, but then I remember there is a lot of good going on, and I shouldn’t just emphasize the bad. There is, after all, a lot of good.

Mahnaz Shabbir, President of Shabbir Advisors, is an active advocate for interfaith dialogue and has written a number of articles for a variety of publications.

Mahnaz Shabbir, President of Shabbir Advisors, is an active advocate for interfaith dialogue and has written a number of articles for a variety of publications.

“There are five pillars of Islam. It isn’t five pillars for men and five pillars for women. It isn’t that men do one thing and women do another. We all do the same things,” said Shabbir. I could sense this is a question she has had to answer countless times. It reminds me of the only question people think to ask of vegans, “But, how do you get your protein?” She proceeds gracefully, but sternly as she quotes from the Quran, “O mankind! We have created you from a single pair of male and female…the most honorable of you, in the sight of Allah is the one who is most righteous of you.” (49:13) This is an aya she often refers to as she makes a point about gender equality in Islam. “Here, in the words of God through the angel Gabriel, we view that God has made us equal, men and women. The only thing that makes us any different is how pious we are,” she says. Okay, that’s great, I’ve read the Quran and I know that there is even an entire chapter dedicated to Mary (Maryam), the mother of Jesus. But what about the way women are treated throughout the Islamic world? That’s a question I’ve been getting a lot these days and I need help. Shabbir tells us “That has nothing to do with religion, it has to do with culture. It’s important that we understand what the religion is before we go into the distinctions of culture.” And it’s true, she talks about women in Islamic countries who are not allowed to drive and reminds us that, “The Quran doesn’t say anything about automobiles!” This is helping me out. I can relate this to the different schools of Buddhism I’ve studied. Tibetan Buddhism, for instance, looks so different from Zen Buddhism in great part because it has assimilated into its practices so much from Tibetan culture and folklore.

The Prophet’s equal treatment of women is documented in great detail in the Haddiths. There is an instance where he is asked to whom one should pay respect after paying respect to God and the Prophet answers, “To your mother.” Twice more he is asked and twice more he gives the same answer. Only the fourth time does the Prophet say, “To your father.” Shabbir jokes that perhaps this means women are more important than men, but she quickly adds, “no, we’re equal.” There are other accounts, like the fact that the Prophet stood up every time his daughter Fatima walked into a room as a sign of respect toward her and other women. Shabbir tells us about other significant women in Islamic tradition, and then she moves on to talk about remarkable Muslim women today. Dr. Shirin Ebadi, for instance, is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Iran. She is well-known for her personal accomplishments, but mostly for her leadership in human rights activism. She’s a Muslim. Ingrid Mattson is a professor of Islamic Studies, an interfaith activist and a former president of the Islamic Society of North America. She’s a Muslim convert. Benazir Bhutto was the prime minister of Pakistan, Khaleda Zia was the prime minister of Bangladesh, Megawati Sukarnoputri was the prime minister of Indonesia; all three, Muslim women. “We haven’t had a woman president in the United States yet, but we’ve had Muslim women prime ministers in other countries,” remarks Shabbir. This is true, and for me it’s painfully true. She makes a few more points about the equality of women in Islam and she closes by saying, “In America I can practice my religion exactly the way the Prophet wanted us to practice.”

Whenever we can have an open and honest dialogue between people of different faiths, whenever we can ask difficult questions and have the courage to struggle with incomprehensible truths; there is no doubt in my mind that there’s good and there’s bad in every place, but we shouldn’t always just emphasize the bad. And, what’s more, there’s a lot of good going on.

New York, Day 6

The Riverside Church in New York, The Rev. Al Sharpton preaching

The view from the balcony at Riverside Church.

The view from the balcony at Riverside Church.

“The Riverside Church is an interdenominational, interracial, international congregation which strives to be open, affirming and welcoming.” If there’s anything this church wants you to remember about them, it’s that. The message, or a variation of it, appears in worship folders, pamphlets, bulletins, on website, and the staff and volunteers will say it, too. Our tour guide, after the service, told us this is something of which they’re proud. It is evident that the church lives by this ideal, you can see it and you can feel it as you look around.

I’ve been fortunate to visit a great number of sacred spaces throughout Manhattan this week, and they’re all beautiful and awe-inspiring in their own right. But it’s been clear that it’s the people who gather there and form those communities that give these spaces life and meaning. Riverside Church is such a place. Yes, the building is as amazing as you can imagine a Rockefeller funded church to be. But it’s the church’s people and vision, from it’s very beginning until today, that makes it matter. A list of notable speakers at Riverside includes Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to name only a few. And today I had the privilege of hearing the Rev. Al Sharpton deliver a powerful message, entitled, “God is Here,” which was also the theme for the whole service.

After a few initial words, Rev. Sharpton addressed the incident a just a few days ago of Eric Garner’s death, resulting from an argument with the police and ending in his death as a result of a police chokehold. This is a devastating incident that has New Yorkers reeling over racial tensions and excessive use force by the police. When Rev. Sharpton received the news, he said, “My mind went back twenty years ago, where I went to the same Staten Island, same precinct, young man named Ernest Sayon had been killed by police men in an altercation very similar. The march that weekend was led by myself and others, the march yesterday, led by myself and others. Twenty years ago, the mayor’s name was Giuliani, the commisioner’s name was Bratton. Twenty years later, the mayor’s name is DiBlasio, the commisioner’s name is Bratton. There’s a lot different twenty years later, yet, we will see if a lot remains the same. One thing that is different is that there’s a video this time.”

A historic pulpit.

A historic pulpit.

Rev. Sharpton went on to talk about the thing that bothers him most in the face of this tragedy, the fact that the nation does not seem to react with a sense of humanity. “Have we gotten so cold and withdrawn?” he says, and he continues, “And does the faith community this morning, churches all over the city of New York gathered, do we deal with this moment with impeccable laryngitis, not even addressing what children in the streets see?” “God is here?” he wondered. And then he added, “Well, maybe the reason people doubt it is those of us who claim to represent God show up missing in action.”

Rev. Sharpton’s faith demands action. It is a faith that is evidenced by advocacy in favor of the opressed, by fighting for justice. President Obama, speaking about Sharpton, is quoted as saying he is “the voice of the voiceless and a champion for the downtrodden.” Sharpton’s faith and social justice work are deeply intertwined. When he talks about gun violence in cities like Chicago, he says, “God is here? Well, where are the representatives of God?” He continues, “We’re comparing notes, like were in some Olympic competition of murder, seeing which city has the worst gun violence. Yet, the people of faith have not challenged gun manufacturers, have not challenged the congress that will not even pass background checks. Can you imagine members of congress that want photo ID to vote but no background checks to buy a gun?”

It was honor to meet Rev. Sharpton and shake his hand.

It was honor to meet Rev. Sharpton and shake his hand.

I find this approach to faith very compelling. Rev. Sharpton talks about a faith that demands involvement in our communities, a faith that is shown by how we fight for equality and justice. This is a faith that doesn’t shy away from getting involved in the political system, where change can actually be made. The way we know God is here, he contends, is by how God works through us to effect change. He remembers a time when, whatever happened in the world, there were people of faith leading the way and setting a moral tone. He laments the fact that while on one side of the Manhattan the economy is booming, on the other side people are starving. “Same island!” he remarks. “Yet we take our Bibles on Sunday morning and we get our favorite hymns ready. And we sing to a God beyond the sky. But I’ve come to tell you, God is not up here, he’s down here.” And if God is down here, he continues, “He knows what we did and what we didn’t do.”

“God is here. But, are you here with God?” asked Sharpton. “And if you are how is that demonstrated in your life? What have you done to enhance social fairness, social justice and equality. God gave you life so you could bless other lives.”
YOU CAN WATCH THE WHOLE SERVICE AT RIVERSIDE CHURCH’S WEBSITE!

If you don’t have a lot of time, start at 00:39 for an excellent introduction by The Rev. James A. Forbes, or skip to 00:54 to where Rev. Sharpton’s message begins.

New York, Day 3

Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, Interfaith Center of New York, Islamic Cultural Center of New York, Ramadan Iftar Interfaith Dinner

 

"Like walking through a grove of sequoias."

“Like walking through a grove of sequoias.”

When I think of Gothic cathedrals, I tend to think of those imposing, majestic feats of architecture dating back from the 12th to the 16th century. As I arrived at The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, I was immediately captivated by its magnitude and splendor. To my (very) untrained eye, it seemed like a structure that had stood in its place for a few centuries, if not as long as the city itself. But as the tour began, I quickly learned -much to my surprise- that not only is it a fairly recent building, but it is also still under construction. In his guide of Manhattan’s worship, “From Abyssinian to Zion,” David W. Dunlap says, “Wandering among the giant columns of one of the world’s largest cathedrals is an experience akin to an awe-struck journey through a grove of sequoias. But after 112 years -and counting- it is far from finished.” (My edition is 10 years old, so it’s actually 122 years and counting.) I don’t have the knowledge or the vocabulary to describe the sense of vastness I experienced walking through this Cathedral. For a little over an hour, as I admired the stained glass, the seven chapels, the craftsmanship and the sheer size of this place; I didn’t need to believe in something greater than myself, I could see it with my own eyes and walk it with my own feet. The very physical experience of feeling so small in a sacred space instills in me a sense of awe and wonderment. And I imagine that is part of the idea behind these massive structures, to remind us that God is greater than we can ever comprehend. The tour guide referred to it as “an unfinished cathedral” a number of times, and I found that an interesting point. Is anything ever finished?

Light upon light at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York.

Light upon light at the Islamic Cultural Center of New York.

On a much smaller scale, but equally captivating, the Islamic Cultural Center of New York is a sight to behold. This is a decidedly modern house of prayer, and it is one that I found particularly compelling. I arrived fifteen or twenty minutes before Thuhur, midday prayer. People were already beginning to congregate in the lower part of the building where a smaller prayer hall is located. I asked if I could visit the main space in the upper level and a staff member kindly escorted me to it and let me in. As he opened the door, I was suddenly bathed in sunlight and struck by the openness of this place. I had seen photographs of this hall and I had read Dunlap’s description, but nothing could have prepared me for what I was seeing with my own eyes. The mihrab (the niche tht points toward Mecca) is framed by inscriptions from the Quran, which I later learned include “Light upon Light; God guides to his light whom he will.” Here was another sacred space building on the theme of vastness and openness, only this one in contrast with the Cathedral I visited earlier was filled with natural light. In his description, Dunlap talks about the simplicity of this design as a necessity for avoiding national attributes due to its dependence on support from many Islamic countries. But he also notes that, “Simplicity also encourages meditation.” I would’ve loved to stay longer, but my host reminded me it was time to go to prayer.

The office for the Interfaith Center of New York is located within the 19-story Interchurch Center building. It was a busy time when I arrived, but Dr. Sarah Sayeed was very gracious to sit down and chat with me for a little while. Dr. Sayeed, Director of Community Partnerships, is one of six staff members at the Center. It is a small but very mighty group with year-round programs and initiatives. One of their primary focuses is religious diversity training for teachers, social workers and other professionals. Dr. Sayeed tells me they strive to teach “Religion as it is lived, not as it is found in a textbook.” The other main focus of the Center is to create opportunities for religious leaders to come together, as she says, “Not to talk theology, but to address problems.” The Center is concerned with finding ways for religious groups to work together toward solving problems. I want to understand why the Center avoids theological discussions and she explains that every faith has within its ranks interpretive strands that don’t wish to participate in interfaith work. This is something I’ve been wondering about, what it’s like to be committed to interfaith work and to one’s own faith. I’m stumbling trying to put my question into words, and she helps me out, “We do interfaith, not interproselytizing.”

Elly Mason-Murray and Dr. Sarah Sayeed, Interfaith Center of New York.

Elly Mason-Murray and Dr. Sarah Sayeed, Interfaith Center of New York.

My impression is that people who are passionate about interfaith dialogue and work, are also deeply committed to their own faith. How then, I wonder, is a devout practitioner able to entertain theological views that are potentially diametrically opposed to her own? We are talking about dialogue, not mere tolerance, and to me that involves being able to hold opposing views in one’s mind. “Because of their own commitment to faith,” she tells me, “people understand that worship has meaning.” That is, because devoted people understand the value and meaning of their own faith, they are able to relate to the the value and meaning of the faith of others. Not only that, they are capable of appreciating the other’s faith. I ask Dr. Sayeed what she thinks is one of the most common misperceptions about interfaith work. “People think interfaith is about syncretizing or washing over differences,” she tells me. I’ve experienced this in diversity initiatives in the past, the notion that we should focus on our similarities and ignore our differences. And I’ve seen the concept of inclusion, to varying degrees of success, address this “washing over” in diversity work. Interfaith work acknowledges and upholds the values and ideas that are unique to each faith, but interfaith advocates see that there is real progress to be made in working together from a commonly shared foundation. “All faiths share a commitment to social justice,” says Dr. Sayeed. In my brief time learning about other faiths, I have found this to be true.

Oud and frame drum ensemble with interspersed readings of Rumi's poetry.

Oud and frame drum ensemble with interspersed readings of Rumi’s poetry.

My day ended with the Ramadan Iftar Dinner jointly organized by the Interfaith Center of New York, Peace Islands Institute and Union Theological Seminary. Hosted by the Seminary in a beautiful room, the evening was a time of learning, celebration and joyous fellowship. Iftar is a communal breaking of the fast for Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan. This event, however, was an interfaith Iftar dinner and so Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists, to mention a few, were in attendance. I’ve already lost track of how many “firsts” I’ve experience along this journey, but I can tell you I sat at a dinner table last night next to a Rabbi and an Imam. Overhearing them talking and sharing an occasional joke, was very significant to me for some reason I can’t explain. Dr. Sayeed offered opening remarks. Mary Boys, Dean Professor of Practical Theology at UTS, delivered a few words as well. She talked about the study of interreligious engagement and she also remarked that, “religious people eat well together.” Imam Ibrahim Sayar, of Peace Islands Institute shared some remarks as well. He would later come back to deliver a call to prayer. There was lovely music performed by an oud and frame drum ensemble, which was followed by a video presentation titled, “Journey of Fasting.” Professor Jerusha Lamptey, from UTS, was the keynote speaker. She talked about what it means to fast and about how Ramadan is “A time out to realign our priorities, to find equilibrium and balance in life.” The time for Maghrib, when the fast is broken with dates and water, arrived as Professor Lamptey concluded her presentation. Muslim, as well as non-Muslim, brothers and sisters began taking small bites of dates from a common bowl at each table.

A few people still lingering after Iftar dinner.

A few people still lingering after Iftar dinner.

Following Imam Sayar’s call to prayer, the food line was opened. Non-Muslims proceeded toward the food while Muslims left to a designated space for prayer to return a few minutes later. The rest of the evening was filled with conversation, laughter, smiles and of course, food! As I looked around the room I couldn’t help but feel incredibly fortunate for this precious human existence, how lucky to be in this room and share a meal with these brothers and sisters. As the evening came to a close, I was also filled with gratitude and emotion. More than ever before, I felt a great sense of belonging, I felt at home within this great, global family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PLACES: Church of the Resurrection Downtown

 

Church of the Resurrection Downtown

Church of the Resurrection Downtown

The last time I was in this building it was for a California Guitar Trio concert, a few years back. That was when this place was called Crosstown Station and although it has since become the home of the Church of the Resurrection Downtown, it maintains a lot of its concert hall atmosphere. As I made my way into the building, I recognized the repurposed drum light fixtures from before. The lights were dim, there was background music playing and people were mingling and shuffling in. I went up to the front, where I was to meet my friend Julie, who had so kindly invited me after I posted about how much I enjoyed reading Pastor Adam Hamilton’s latest book. This church, it turns out, is the downtown campus of the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, which is lead by Pastor Hamilton.

“Service begins in 11:32,” read the notice at the top of the screen as I walked down the aisle. I’ve been to a lot of churches in my time, but never one where there was a countdown to service. It was kind of exciting, I must admit. There were announcements projected on rotation, mission trips, social events, church programs and a reminder to mute phones. My friend arrived a few minutes later, somewhere around “Service begins in 5:27.” We sat down and within a couple of minutes a group of musicians started taking their place on stage. As soon as the countdown reached 0:00, the band kicked off the service.

Look at this awesome drum light fixture. The church left a lot of the decor and features from the previous tenant.

Look at this awesome drum light fixture. The church left a lot of the decor and features from the previous tenant.

This is a church with a decidedly urban bent. The music, the lighting, the ambiance and the screen’s background images of Kansas City skylines all emphasize the Downtownness of this church. The music was good, and even though I was unfamiliar with the songs, it was easy to sing along with the words projected on the screen. Soon enough the music came to a stop and Pastor Scott Chrostek took the stage to welcome churchgoers and give a few announcements. As he spoke, the screen behind him projected his name and his Twitter handle, @scottchrostek. I’d never seen this before, but of course my most recent experience of Church has been the technology-free liturgy of High Church Episcopalian mass. This integration of online and offline Church community was not as off-putting as I may have imagined; it actually seemed quite seamless.

There was more music, songs with very relatable and affirming words, “I’ve been set free from the chains and rules I have made…” And then came the time for the sermon, which on this particular Sunday was delivered by Pastor Todd Maberry (@toddmaberry, as per the projection behind him). As he addressed the congregation, Pastor Maberry remarked on how it never ceases to amaze him that people come back to church, week after week. I looked around and I couldn’t find an empty chair in the room. “Why do people go to church?” He asked. “Could it be because we are looking for answers?” He pondered. We’re trying to answer questions about God – who is God, what is the purpose of my life? And so, he concluded, “Church is a place where we engage questions.”

"Service begins in..."

“Service begins in…”

The sermon was based on the Bible story found in Genesis 12:1-3, where God speaks to Abram and commands him to leave his country and his people for the land he will be shown. The sermon included the story in which Abram had his wife Sarai pass as his sister, so he could be spared death and find favor with Pharaoh. I remembered this story, having just read the Bible a week before, and I wondered how the preacher would handle the fact that Sarai then became part of Pharaoh’s harem. It was a difficult passage and Pastor Maberry made no bones about it, “There are lots of crazy stories in the Bible…sometimes these stories appear to mimic the Jerry Springer Show!” There was laughter and then he went on to talk about how following after God means leaving behind the familiar and how it is that we tend to treat the worst those whom we should love the most. I was moved by the sermon and I appreciated the pastor’s honest take on a difficult passage of Scripture.

I really got the sense that this Church embraced all who walked through their doors. Communion at Resurrection Downtown is available to all. And while all were invited to partake (they even have gluten-free wafers for those who need them), there was no obligation to do so. I always appreciate being invited to a place of worship; it’s a good feeling to know you know someone there. And yet, I’m fairly certain I would’ve been quite comfortable to just walk in uninvited. Everyone I saw seemed to be happy to be there and happy to welcome newcomers. As high-energy music brought the service to a close, I was reminded of the previous life of this building and I thought to myself that if the Crosstown Station had to go, Resurrection Downtown actually seems like a pretty good way to resurrect that space.

The Band

The Band

Check it out for yourself!

Resurrection Downtown‘s weekly worship services are Saturdays at 5:10 pm and Sundays at 9:00 am, 10:45 am and 5:00 pm at 1522 McGee. Services are family friendly and dress is casual. All are welcome.

Just asking questions

The other day I was riding the bus back home and I saw this striking, charismatic man wearing a baseball hat with a message so big it almost didn’t fit on the hat. “I’m not religious, I just love the Lord.” He was smiling a lot and talking to people on the bus, the kind of person anyone would want to be friends with. I decided to do something terribly out of character for little old introvert me. I followed him off the bus, tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he could tell me about his hat. He seemed genuinely happy to be asked about his hat, as you can see for yourself. I love how this project gives me license to ask the questions I’ve always been too embarrassed or too afraid to ask.

PEOPLE: He Moves In Mysterious Ways

“Someone who has the time and the space to think about the mystery,” is how Rev. Lance Schmitz responds when I ask him to define his role as a pastor. I’m captivated by this idea of “the mystery,” because the experience of God that I’m seeking to grasp differs from one person to the next, and it’s beginning to feel like a mystery we’re all trying to solve. Lance tells me his role is about helping others figure out how God interacts in the world and in their lives. He tells me he sees himself as one who is ahead of the way, leading others, but not because he thinks he is any better, “it’s just that I’ve got the time and the space afforded to me to be a person that shares hope, that shares the Good News.” I’m beginning to think he is a few clues ahead of me.

I think I know what he means when he talks about “the Good News,” after all we were religion majors and ministry interns together nearly fifteen years ago. But the way he explains the Good News today is a bit different than how I would’ve explained it as a junior in college. “Yes, in the Christian sense of Good News, but also in the sense of good news like, it’s gonna work out somehow,” he says, “and I’m fairly certain that it will work out.” For Lance, living out the Good News means being deeply engaged with his community, “helping see where hope is breaking in around us, so that others can also be engaged and involved.” The mystery and the lofty thinking, they are deeply intertwined with a very earthy humanity in his brand of ministry. Being present, being ready and available, and officiating over milestone moments such as births, weddings and funerals, seem to him as significant as contemplating “the ineffable mystery of God.”

I’m hanging on to every word Lance speaks; this is most certainly Good News! But the ministry is not all hope and happiness. “Being a minister is a very lonely profession. This is the side that people don’t talk about,” he tells me. I’m more than a bit shocked as I hear him explain that clergy have some of the highest rates of depression, substance abuse and even suicide. When I think of a pastor, I see someone constantly surrounded by people, how on earth could a pastor ever feel lonely? “You’re surrounded by people, but you have few friends,” he says. This is why, he tells me, it’s very important for a minister to seek friendships outside of their own congregations, because the risk of creating the appearance of allegiances or favoritism within the church is too great and too costly.

When asked what he is grateful for, Lance looked at his son who was sitting in his lap and said, "This."

When asked what he is grateful for, Lance looked at his son who was sitting in his lap and said, “This.”

Lance left his circle of friends, or as he says, his “community of reference,” back in Oklahoma City, where he used to live and pastor. Late last year he, his wife and their son moved to Kansas City where Lance is pastor at Rosedale Congregational Church, UCC. This is his first time working outside of the Nazarene Church, the denomination in which he first found his faith and the denomination in which he prepared and served until now. He explains the way the United Church of Christ (UCC) operates and how it allows for a diverse range of beliefs and approaches to ministry. I ask him what is the common ground or unifying thread in a Church that allows for so much plurality. “It’s not just one thing…a lot of it is tradition, the way of organizing life through liturgy, but also this idea that Jesus is Lord. What that means for people can vary, but there’s this idea that Jesus is whom we organize our life around.”

Lately I’ve noticed a lot of people saying things like, “I’m spiritual, not religious,” and, “I don’t have a religion, I have a relationship.” As I hear Lance talk about his faith and his views, I wonder what he makes of all this. “I consider myself a very religious person. I need religion, I need structures and routines to help me be the person I think God is calling me to be.” This is not exactly the answer I was expecting, so he explains, “Religion is what binds me to other people, it is a system and a structure that helps me transmit my values through time.” As one who loves religion(s), this is music to my ears. I understand why so many people speak of religion disdainfully, but I still believe there is something of awe and wonderment in religion that we can at least appreciate, and it worries me to see religion so easily dismissed. “Christianity is a religion – there are agreed-upon systems of belief. And I understand the sentiment behind ‘I have a relationship, not a religion,’ it just doesn’t speak to me. I’m profoundly religious. Religion is a word that means ‘to bind together,’ and that’s what I need – a system and a structure to help me bind myself to God and to others.”

As I’ve been talking to people of faith in the past few weeks, one of my favorite things to ask is how they experience God. Because Lance has talked about “the mystery,” I’m surprised yet again by his answer. He talks about social work, about church members sacking groceries for inner city families. I tell Lance that his examples of “God experiences” sound very human and very natural. “Sacking groceries is as supernatural to me as some sort of feeling that happens during a church service. I feel those moments just as much in a wonderful service as I do in the humdrum, day-to-day. God can be experienced anywhere if we just have the patience to slow down.”

An hour later I feel like maybe I’ve unlocked a few more clues, I’m getting closer to figuring out this mystery. But every question seems to give birth to three more questions, and Lance is perfectly comfortable with questions; he actually seems to thrive in them. “I don’t know what it is, and I’m okay with that. God is not some scientific formula to be figured out. God is to me something bigger. I have no problem with questions, doubt is not the enemy of faith.” “Whoa! Can you tell me more about that,” I ask. He replies, “you can’t have any answers unless you have questions, and part of the fun is trying to figure it out. I mean, Neil deGrasse Tyson has made me love God more because he has good questions. And I realize that faith is not science. Science is true whether I believe it or not, faith is not the same way. Faith is bigger than that.” And so, the mystery remains.