Where is God in…Denominations?

I saw something on social media the other day, originally said by Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, which said something to the effect of: why do we find it so easy to follow an angry and vengeful God, but when we start to preach Christ’s message of love, forgiveness, and acceptance, we become angry and vengeful?

I’ve been reminded of that a lot over the last week or so, as I watched the carnage (for lack of a better term) that was the Methodist Church’s General Convention.

I was reminded of those words as I watched and listened to people who profess a message of love, acceptance, and inclusion, show that they have no idea how to actually be accepting, inclusive, and loving. And so instead cling fast to an outdated model of Christianity that used exclusion, anger, and fear to bring people into church instead of into a relationship with God.

Each denomination takes a slightly different approach to Christianity, in looks, approach, and beliefs.

A denomination, for those not familiar with religion, is a different sect of a religion. Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, UCC, MCC – these are a few of the many different Christian denominations (Unitarians are a type of religious organization, but aren’t strictly speaking Christian, so I left them off the list).

Most of the differences stem from the different power structures within the Church. But at the end of the day, in theory, we all like Jesus. We just talk about him differently, our services are a little different, and the clergy people have very different paths to ordination.

And here’s the thing that we tend to miss in becoming attached to a particular denomination: no denomination, really, no religion, has the one right path to God. There isn’t one right path to God. There’s just what works best for you.

No denomination has God figured out.

No denomination has an exclusive rights deal worked out with God. And if someone tried to tell you they have it all figured out – that they have God figured out – they are wrong.

There isn’t one way to God.

We get lost in believing that there is sometimes. We get tied up in details. We become convinced that our way is the only way. But it’s not.

This week, the Methodist Church has struggled with how, or if, to embrace a more loving and accepting approach to being Christ in this world – an approach that would allow for same-sex marriage and LGBTQ identifying people to be ordained.

The Episcopal Church is having a version of this fight too with our Anglican (Anglican being Latin for English, so here I’m referring to all of the denominations that fall under the umbrella of the Church of England, including the Episcopal Church) brothers and sisters from around the world, some of whom do not even ordain women.

The various Baptist denominations are at various stages of this same struggle and are also strongly debating in some branches if they wish to ordain women.

The Catholics have a bunch of things they’re working out, but don’t allow their clergy to marry, only let men be clergy, and seem to have a different scandal every month.

None of our denominations are perfect. None of us are right. ALL of us are scared.

We all have declining numbers. We all have to start wondering about how to keep our doors open. We all have to ask if there is something in our message that is no longer relevant to the world around us.

This week, the Methodist acted out of that fear – they choose to cling to an outdated model that worked well in the past in the hopes it will work again.

Spoiler alert: it won’t.

Clinging to structures or institutions instead of Jesus is going to fail. Every time.

Getting trapped in the idea that our denomination is better than another is an institutional trap. We’re not better.

Because the American Episcopal Church started the fight the Methodists are fighting two decades ago doesn’t make us better.

The second we start thinking we’re better than someone else, that’s the second we have gotten off the path that Christ has laid before us.

We hang rainbow flags outside and pretend like that’s enough to be welcoming and inclusive. But once people come in, we expect people to just assimilate to how we have always done things.

We all need to figure out how to preach the message of Christ – a message of love, acceptance, mercy, kindness – and more important, how to preach that message with our actions, instead of merely our words.

To simply answer my question, where is God in denominations?: God is with the people, not the institutions, moving us ever forward, ever closer to a world where we actually love and respect one another.

God isn’t limited to our buildings.

Where is God in…Abortion?

We try to lean into difficult conversations at BraveSpace, to learn how to lovingly discuss things we disagree on. In a room of people with differing perspectives, we attempted to do just that on the topic of abortion.

There isn’t a political topic on which Americans are more divided than abortion, and our room reflected that. To me, there isn’t another divisive topic where I believe it is so easy to see how someone of a different opinion could reach their conclusion.

I think in many situations its easy to assign God to something as a way of supporting your belief. It’s much easier to pick a religious belief that matches your political ideology than it is to align your political ideology with what your faith dictates.

Abortion is one of those issues that is both political and religious. Being pro-life or pro-choice is more likely to dictate who a person votes for than any other political issue.

So how can I name where God is in all that?

When we started our BraveSpace meeting on this I admitted that it was a struggle for me to pinpoint one place where God is, because in this issue, I think God is all over the place.

God is both pro-choice and pro-life. God is pro-human, pro-earth, pro-love.

God is with the doctors and nurses; God is with the patients and the aborted babies; God is with protesters outside the building, and with those who escort patients inside.

Life and death mean different things to God than they do to us. Life and death is all we know, but God isn’t limited to the same binaries that we are.

I think that God wants all humans to be loved and cared for. God wants all of our basic needs to be met, regardless of where we live, the color of our skin, the amount of money we do or don’t have, the amount of education we have, or the religion we profess (if any).

God made us to be autonomous beings, charged us with caring for the earth and all of God’s creatures, which includes ourselves and other humans.

We humans tend to do a poor job of caring for one another. Income inequality, education inequality, resource inequality, access to basic health care and birth control, are all examples of places where we need to do better to help care for one another.

So where is God in abortion? God is all over the place! Right now, I think God is calling us to listen to one another. Genuinely listen to one another. Truly try to understand those who disagree with us on this topic. God wants us to better love ourselves and one another. This goes beyond political affiliation and to the core what it means to be human.

God is calling to us all to be kind and understand one another. To care for each other if we are pro-life or pro-choice; if we are a protester or have had an abortion; if we are adamantly and always pro-choice, or think that all abortion should be outlawed.

When I was younger

I’m white, I did something when I was younger I now know was wrong. I’m ashamed. What do I do now?

Rev. Cara Rockhill

I’ve read enough Brene’ Brown to know that shame is an incredibly powerful emotion. As Brene’ says, shame traps us, forcing us to stay where we are.

I’ve been thinking a lot about shame in the last few days, since news of the Ralph Northam med school yearbook picture broke.

And specifically as a Christian and an Episcopal priest, I’ve been thinking about what faith calls us to do in these moments. And here is what I have come up with.

Our faith calls us to be accountable for our past, and to be more than the things that we have done. In some moments, and this is one of them, our faith requires us to be honest and vulnerable about the choices we have made and the actions we have (or have not) taken.

If I were Governor Northam, or on his team, I would have stood up and said: the world was different in 1984; I was different in 1984. I did something for a joke that in this modern world, and with who I am in this world, I now know to have been wrong, racist, and horribly offensive. I am sorry and ashamed for what I did. Here is who I am today. Here is what I did to become who I am today. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, and that I lied about it, I am deeply ashamed of who I was back then.

I’m using Gov. Northam as an example, but I think a lot of us have things like this in our past. And I know that we as a church, both all of Christendom and specifically as the Episcopal Church, have things in our past that we are deeply ashamed of.

Maybe Gov. Northam isn’t going to do this, but we as a church are. But much of what we are focusing on is just trying to figure out how to move forward from the past.

But it is an absolute folly to skip the admission of being wrong, and to further skip the genuine apology that allows you to show you have changed and are different.

In many ways, I think we as a society have forgotten how to genuine apologize for having hurt someone. And so instead of having to be vulnerable enough to say we were wrong, or apologize for hurting someone’s feelings, we just avoid having difficult conversations.

In Church we talk about God’s love, but skip over the fact that God called us all to be in community with one another, not even if we disagree, but BECAUSE we disagree. God calls us to be vulnerable in relationship, and to be willing to stand up for what is right, even if we know others will disagree.

For example, I’m pro-choice, but I understand the position of being pro-life, and appreciate that those who are ardently pro-life are willing to stand up and say so. I disagree with many of the tactics and think they could show God’s love for all involved much better, but there’s no denying that pro-life protestors will show up even though they know there will be dissent.

It is time for us as a Church, as the Episcopal Church, to stand up and admit what we have done; to go through the history of our role in slavery and racism. Because we have one. We have a huge role. I have been researching this over the last few years, and in the coming months will be sharing with the world my understanding of how we are responsible.

I’m doing this because it is what God calls me to do. I am deeply ashamed, but if we as denomination are to lead towards reconciliation, we must first be willing to stand up and atone for what we have done. We must atone for our role in the sin of slavery and the sin of racism. Atonement is not merely saying I’m sorry and moving on. True, deep, repentance, a true return to God, requires owning what we have done.

But first, I’m going to start with myself.

I’m from a small town in Maryland. So small, that generally, I share the county I’m from (Calvert) instead of the town. Now, when we think of Maryland, many people think of a very liberal state, and parts of it are. But not my part.

There were still a lot of tobacco farms when I was growing up, and a huge amount of racial division. It’s a very conservative area. Where “Southern Pride” is as ingrained in us as the acceptability of the name of the Washington Football Team.

I was not immune to this. I grew up thinking the Confederate Flag was cool, and not thinking twice about it, because that’s just it was like where I grew up. I was taught state’s rights as being part of the basis for the Civil War (to be fair, slavery was also taught as part of the basis).

I was never overtly or intentionally racist, but I was absolutely blinded by my own privilege and the way that race plays a role in everyday life.

And then I grew up. I learned a little about the civil war, and the civil rights movement, and then I made an effort to learn. I educated myself on the truth of the myths I had been taught. I started talking to others about what I learned. I started to say that the civil war was fought over the state’s rights to an economic system predicated on owning humans.

I became ashamed of my former embracing of the confederate flag and of my blindness to the reality of racial inequality in this world.

I was awoken, my eyes were opened, and I have never let them shut again.

I understand the role of privilege and accessibility in racism and how I have both benefited and played a part.

I am different from the teenager and young woman I was. Today I engage in difficult conversations and am doing my best to teach others to do so. I use my privilege to help those with less or without.

I make an effort to understand all sides of an issue. I use my faith to guide my beliefs instead of my beliefs to guide my faith. I stand up for what I believe in. Even if I know it will offend others. Even if I know there will be real life repercussions for my actions, and believe me, there have been repercussions.

I call others to do the same. To know what they believe, to know why they believe, but to be certain it is what they believe, and not what some person, some culture, some society, some church, has told them to believe.

I am sorry for some of the things I did. Truly. I am sorry enough that I made a genuine effort to change.

It’s time for us as individuals, as Christians, and as Episcopalians to do the same.

Let us be more than our history, by first knowing what our history is. And then finding ways to show we have changed, and engage in the difficult work of being different.