Last weekend we had such a wonderful time Sharing our space with our sibling congregations in the Central Pacific Conference of the United Church of Christ. This was my first CPC Annual Gathering, and I was so honored to be the pastor of this congregation and to celebrate the amazing hospitality that we shared.
Our sharing was about more than just making room for our sibling churches to gather. Our hospitality was also about widening our welcome, living more fully into our covenant as UCC congregations, and growing in our faith as a wildly diverse group of Christians who are all trying to live into the founding theology of the UCC - to be a united and uniting Body of Christ.
The vision of a body united –in purpose, in mission, in vision – is one that inspired the birth of our denomination. All of our spiritual impulses reverberate in an effort to call us into a more perfect union. Throughout our shared history as a people of faith and as a part of the Body of Christ, we have challenged ourselves to widen the circle of inclusion. Widening the circle has always come with growth pains as we shed old skins and welcome those whom we had previously thought unwelcome. And, with each new articulation of a more fully expressed Body of Christ we have realized new joy. Through it all we remain focused on the call to be one and committed to meeting the challenges inherent in that call. From a letter to the churches by former UCC General Minister John C. Dorhauer, Jan 28, 2019
One of the speakers at the All-Conference Worship on Sunday challenged many of us (and our sensibilities) about what worship, affirmation, celebration, and love mean in the context of the UCC today. This is exactly the question before us as we begin our year-long exploration of what it means for THIS congregation to be Wider Still in the welcome of our siblings in Christ.
For many who were there, they had never heard of the things disclosed by this young speaker. For some, they were aware but thought the level of disclosure inappropriate for a worship setting. And for others still, it was challenging and liberating. For many there was a sense of being violated, a confusion about how the story of Lazarus being "unbound" related to someone who shared that they engage in elicit and illegal activities. For some, the question, "Who do we welcome, really?" was most poignant. As the speaker asked us, can we welcome someone, truly see someone, their wholeness, and their humanity - their belovedness in God's sight - if they engage in behaviors that are outside of what we believe to be "Christian."
I know that I have wrestled with all of this in the days since Sunday and I find myself in a complicated place in my own response. First, let me say that I am not surprised by what was shared. I know that for some young people the ideas around cultural norms seem quaint and "binding". For some these norms get lumped into Colonialism and Whiteness. We are in a period of social change where deconstructing Colonialism and Whiteness is being asked of us. We are being asked to decenter these norms so the experiences of non-White Colonized people can be heard. This is the Black Lives Matter movement. It is the work of becoming anti-racist.
And yet, what I felt was being asked of me by our speaker was not about accepting their Trans and Nonbinary self. I don't think I was being asked to decenter the Cis-Gender Heteronormativity that are still the norm in society and in the church. What I heard was a challenge to "unbind", to truly see this young person, and every choice they make, no matter how shocking or offensive that might be, and to welcome them into the church. I felt I was being asked if I could welcome this shocking and offensive young person whose choices I disagree with and see them and their belovedness.
I will confess that I have wrestled with this as your pastor, as a person who takes scripture seriously, and as someone who desires to unbind my siblings into the wholeness that I have experienced in my relationship with Jesus and in the church. For me, the words of Paul to the church in Galatia are something I take seriously. "There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (3:28)" It reignites for me the question, what does it mean to be made one in Christ? And whose norms are we to be made one around?
This is truly the challenge for the United Church of Christ, as it has been from the beginning. The forming of the UCC from two very different branches of Protestantism (Congregational/Christian and Evangelical/Reformed) has always been a challenge to our theology and practice. Add the issues of inclusion and these challenges simply deepen. Did you know that while the UCC seeks to be a universally Open and Affirming (ONA) Denomination, in 2023 there are only about 1600 churches of the 5000+ UCC congregations that have come out as ONA? The ONA work and journey of our congregation over the past almost 30 years has not even begun by the majority of the churches of the UCC.
This means that the work of being Wider Still, and the aspiration to be a Body United and Uniting, requires care and competence when bringing the edges of our fellowship into the same space. (This is a gap in our planning for All-Conference Worship that needs to be addressed.) It requires a clarity around our theology of welcome and affirmation as well as an agreement about how we practice our theology as a Body, diverse and yet one. It requires a willingness to engage in vulnerable conversations, enter brave spaces, listen without defensiveness, hold fear, and anger, and confusion, as well as a capacity to see and be seen, a capacity to unbind each other into the fullness of who we are as beloveds in Christ.
As I come to the end of my week, I find myself both exhausted by what we have all been through, and grateful that we can be real and grow together toward a theology and practice of welcome and affirmation that is Wider Still. As John Dorhauer said, "Widening the circle has always come with growth pains as we shed old skins and welcome those whom we had previously thought unwelcome."
May the words of this hymn be our guide in the year ahead.
Draw the Circle Wide,
Draw it Wider Still,
Let this be our song,
No one stands alone,
Standing side by side,
Draw the Circle Wide.
In gratitude and love,