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Testimony and tests

We are a community of faith drawn together in our common search for spiritual life. We are a community of testimony rather than tests, covenant rather than creeds. Acknowledging our commitment to the teaching and practice of Jesus of Nazareth, we believe in the freedom of each individual to pursue his or her own spiritual journey.

From the 2018 Bylaws First Congregational Church UCC, Salem, OR Article III. Faith.

This past week the ACLU of Oregon held a lobby day here at our church building in support of the passage of OR House Bill 2002. This bill seeks to ensure reproductive freedom as well as gender affirming care for Oregonians. There were a number of people at the rally that were scheduled to testify on behalf of the bill. Two of the ACLU staff asked us to print their testimony since their printer was not working. Never having witnessed a lobby day in Oregon and knowing that hosting lobby days for civil rights groups is a part of the church's history, I was honored to join the folks gathered in Huntington Hall for a few minutes and offer my words of encouragement and support as they prepared to march to the State House.

I wished I could have joined them. I wanted to don my collar and grab a stole and head over to the capital and bear witness that this clergy woman supports reproductive choice and gender affirming care. I wanted to testify that God loves all, cares for all and wants everyone to be whole. I wanted people to know that supporting reproductive choice and gender affirming care is about supporting wholeness for all of God's creation. Sadly, I had meetings and deadlines and had to be satisfied with a few words of encouragement and gratitude that we were hosting this gathering.

This brought the conversation with the Governance Team into focus as we wrestled with what it means to be a community of "testimony and not tests, covenant rather than creeds." There was some conversation about the efficacy of the words in this phrase. Do people hear the word "testimony" and understand what that means in a religious context? What exactly are religious "tests"? I think we understand what "covenant" means but how about "creed"? If we are people who "testify" to our faith, aren't we just like those Evangelicals we are less than comfortable with? If you can be a part of this congregation and believe anything, how does that make us Christian?

Suffice it to say that these are all really important wonderings. In my lifetime, I have seen many brilliant and passionate Progressive Christians silence themselves for fear of being like the loud Evangelicals they so dislike. I have seen Progressive congregations be equally dogmatic about their liberalism and shun anyone who isn't up to speed on their gender inclusive language for God. I have seen church members nearly come to blows over communion being available to unbaptized children or not. And when the word "Always" or "Never" come into a conversation, I know I am hearing that congregation's creed.

The truth of the matter is we all have some sort of creed that we adhere to, some sort of test that we ask of ourselves and those who join us. These are the things that we also call boundaries. We self-define as this and not that as an expression of the abundance of God's creation. If this were not true, we would be one homogenous mass of people following Jesus in whatever happened to be the dominant flavor of the day.

I like to put it this way: God is like Ben and Gerry's Ice Cream. God is so good that God makes all of these different flavors and keeps making them all of the time! Not everyone likes every flavor. I am a Cherry Garcia girl. Chunky Monkey, not so much. Not all flavors go together. Americone Dream may not be so good with Sugar Plum. And yet, there is something for everyone to love!

The challenge with religion is that we all want our flavor to be the only flavor. Some groups more than others. The challenge of being a church that claims testimony of tests is that we need to keep doing our own inventory to see where we are asserting a boundary and whether that boundary serves the covenants we make to God, to one another, and to the world. Do we testify to our Open and Affirming beliefs by excluding those who are not inclusive? Do we have tests around our commitments to recycling, plastic use, and waste reduction? If someone's spiritual journey takes them away from worship even though they stay engaged in other ways, are they no longer in covenant with us? You get the point.

In late spring we will be doing another chunk of governance related work where we will be looking at what it means to be a member of First Congregational Church UCC here in Salem, OR. It is exciting that during my short 16 months here we have welcomed 20 new members into the life and ministry of our church! And each new member has come bringing the flavor of ice cream that is uniquely their own. In welcoming new people and honoring our statement, "we believe in the freedom of each individual to pursue his or her own spiritual journey," we are doing the hard work of testifying to this God we serve who loves each one just as they are.

And by testifying to the Love and Inclusion of this God, we can then offer Love to all, even those who like ice cream that we simply cannot stand. So here is to the God of Ben and Gerry's, the God of all!

Pastor Robin

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