My friend Evelyn Eddy posted a reminder on Facebook the other day that about three tears to the day before I was born, something great happened. My denomination came into being and made the world a better and safer place. By my standards, we are the best denomination out there. The reasons are not immediately evident, but they are vital to my understanding of what God calls us to be.
When I do chaplaincy with the mentally ill at Hartford Hospital, I begin with this:
“Hi, my name is John. I’m an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and I’m a member at South Church in New Britain, and I come to here to bring worship and the word and prayer and communion and all that sort of stuff… That’s who I am. You are?…” I say this because I am proud of all of that. I’m proud to be ordained. I’m proud to be a member at South Church, and I am proud to bring worship and the word and prayer and communion to people that other people would not acknowledge or scorn or simply throw away. I would be proud to be a part of any denomination that did that last part because that’s what Jesus would do. To be fair, many of my colleagues in all sorts of denominations would do that because it’s what Jesus would do. So, while that’s great, it’s not unique. But, when recently ordained Salem, Oregon minister Emily Goodnow does the wedding of two homeless gay people who fell asleep on the church steps, I know that tradition continues and I am proud. When supposedly “retired” minister Peter Wells goes to workshop after workshop teaching people how to make lasting change in the world while understanding how difficult the world is, I am proud. When Gordon and Cy Sherman and a gazillion people they raised in the faith are out caring for people and nature and causes you never heard of, I am proud.
Still, I have too may minister friends to say with any certainty that the UCC has the best minsters out there. God raises up great people in all sorts of denominations. I will say that being who and what we are attracts the best ministers to us, though. If you read this blog on any regular basis, you know the people I am talking about — Todd Farnsworth, Emily, Peter, Rick Fowler, the Shermans and the Deering crew. You also know that Baptists like Charlie Crook and independent pastors like Benny Claytor and Methodists like Newt Perrins are out there. God does what God does whenever and wherever God feels like it.
What makes our denomination so special? Barbara Brown Zickmund, one of ours, published a book years ago called “Hidden Histories in the UCC” in which she laid out the reason — people you never heard of fighting for women’s rights and civil rights and freedom from all sorts of slavery if I remember correctly. But what she also tells is the history of our polity (the way we do things) — and it is there that we find the hidden, subtle, not always understood thing that makes us great.
It is not that we don’t have problems. We do. We have abusive pastors, just like other denominations. We have mean and twisted congregations, just like other denominations — or non-denominations — do. It’s not that we have the greatest liturgy because every church has great liturgy and my favorite kind of Quakers have no liturgy at all. It’s not that we have the greatest music — our hymnal is as controversial as the next one and missing some incredible hymns bound to other denominations. It’s not that we’re right all the time about every issue. We’re not. We can’t be. We’re still human.
So here’s the deal, at least from my perspective: Our history and our polity yield a psychological health that makes it the best place to be you and me in the presence of God. Our denomination is not really just one denomination. In 1957, four denominations merged to form the UCC. On one side of the faith, there were the Congregationalist and the Christians who had become the Congregational Christian Church and on the other side there was the Evangelical Church and the Reformed Churches in America who joined to be the Evangelical and Reformed Churches. The Congregationalists (who I grew up thinking we were) are the Pilgrims and the Puritans from Europe and they believe that everyone should get a vote about what goes on inside the church. They believe in freedom and simplicity. The “Christian” church is the remnants of African-American churches started by and within slave communities. They also believe in freedom, of course, and had simplicity pretty much forced on them. I love the idea of having “Black Church” worship, with it’s deep, intense spirituality, in my blood.
The E & R side is really about limits — the limits imposed on us by sin — and the way we redeem ourselves from it. It’s also about doing good things in the world because they want to be good people in the world. It comes from a gritty, realistic view of what humans can be — in Germany during World War II, for instance. Not really into piety and moralizing myself, I thought I would hate these people but two of my favorite people — Daehler Hayes, former Conference Minister in Rhode Island and Doris Luckey, a parishioner in Rochester, NY — come out of this tradition. There are a series of hospitals and a health care system for seniors that comes out of this tradition. Further, as someone who works with addicts can attest, coping with the reality of sin and how to redeem and forgive ourselves is so very important.
Even people I didn’t think I should like inform and strengthen my faith because they force me to look at things I wouldn’t normally look at. Besides, I still don’t get how Daehler — one of the most unique people I have ever met — can come from such a structured background, but he does.
We are all on a continuum of faith and needs — some need more structure, some need less, some really need the Bible and some really need politics, some like prayer and emotions and some like to stay in their heads. If you can’t find a place where you fit in the UCC, you’re definitely not looking hard enough. That thing we say, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”, is incredibly true and basic for us. We take in “strays” from other churches all the time because we can.
Taking you through “life’s journey” requires people who see faith as a life-time journey. There is a small movement here in Connecticut around life-cycle Christian Education and some of it’s leaders highlight the diversity of views here. Caroll Cyr, more conservative; Jane Rowe — traditional but not necessarily conservative; and Char Corbett — grounded but not necessarily traditional or conservative, all are involved and they get along well, informing each others’ work while committed to helping you figure out what you believe. They are them and they respect you for being you because that’s what we do and that’s how we think we should be.
My favorite psychological theorist, Virginia Satir, used to say, “The problem is not the problem. Coping is the problem”. We as humans can’t predict what the future holds. But we can figure out how to live with it and deal with it. We cannot control the existence of problems in the world. The challenges of today — Climate Change, Gay rights, immigration reform, prison reform, the existence of new “designer” drugs — weren’t even real things to our ancestors, but we deal with these issues all the time today.
How do we do it? We know that no one person or no one ideology or no one anything has all the answers. No one is right all the time, and the changes keep on coming. Our answer, in the United Church of Christ, is to widen the size of our possible answers enough that you can find yours. In one circumstance, Jane may have the right answer or process, in other Caroll or Char might. In another, Daehler or Doris might. In yet another, I might or you might. And even when an answer comes nationally (at our Synod, every 2 years), we acknowledge that it might not fit for the local congregation, so it’s not binding until they agree to it.
This dynamic isn’t who we are, because we change all the time, but it comes from who we are — it’s a bi-product of our being together. That’s what makes it “hidden” and hard to put your finger on, just like it’s hard to put your finger on The Spirit.
But, while I have a chance to make things more visible, I have wanted to write a piece on “be careful of the quiet ones”, people you never heard of doing incredibly good things in the world for a while. Here’s a shout-out to some of the UCC people I know that you should know, too.
Bob Kyte, somewhere in New Hampshire, a good counselor and friend that the Spirit just quietly flows through.
Julie LaBarr, and her family, the Sloths, genuinely nice people who care deeply and wrestle with issues all the time, while remaining Christian through it all.
Lynn Carmen Bodden, now living in Upstate New York and working in Connecticut, one of the best interim ministers in the entire country — loving and caring warmly while taking people through the deepest changes.
John Hudson, The Sherborn Pastor, in Sherborn Massachusetts, intelligent and caring, making a difference with his writing and his biking during the summer.
Leigh McCaffrey in Florida, the hardest working woman in the biz. The Blackest White Woman I know. Met God in a bar, and still believes those people have something to say.
The list goes on. As Mark Strickland of Lynnfield, Massachusetts used to sing, “You can meet them all at tea or at lanes or sea. The saints of God are folks like you and me. And I mean to be one, too”.