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Friday, July 29, 2005

What Are You Looking For?

My friend Beth asks the question about what one looks for when considering attending a new church. As I am somewhat of an anomoly - being a PK - I have had some experience looking for a new church home and I am now there again as I seek out my place beyond the UMC.

In no particular order of importance, I think some of the more important things have to do with community, music, preaching, theology, age of the congregation, focus of the congregation, and spiritual fullness. I'll take these in the order listed.

Community: I am always looking for a place where I feel as though I can be myself without fear of being labeled. I want to be in a faith community that is open and caring, compassionate and accepting of me, and others, no matter how different our points of view happen to be. Growing up as someone who wasn't very popular and often picked on, a place where I don't have to live with so many walls up around me to protect myself is a place I want to be.

Music: There are way too many choirs and organists out there that sing and play with almost no joy. I was certainly spoiled by the music at my college chapel but I don't think it's too much to ask to have an organist play hymns at the correct speed or a choir to sound like they really care. But it extends to the congregation too. Whether it's singing a hymn or saying a responsive reading or prayer I get weary of the supposed need to read in exact unison at the same cadence as everyone else or to just sing because we have to sing. Most of the time I get the feeling that people will sing or say whatever words are printed whether they believe them or not. I've always wanted to try putting some weird words together in a hymn that didn't even make any sense just to see what would happen.

Preaching: I want to be inspired. To me, preaching should be challenging but not antagonizing. It should point me in new directions and have me look with newer eyes on something I may have seen countless times. It should be able to keep attention. I've sat through sermons over the years where the preacher strives to use words that are too big for the vocabularies of the congregants. I don't know about you, but I'd rather watch "The Wiggles" than listen to someone who loves to be above everyone else and hear him/herself speak.

Theology: Now, I'm theologically liberal and I appreciate listening to sermons that speak to where I'm coming from. It's not that I'm opposed to listening to the views of those on the other side of the sanctuary, I just feel that sometimes I find myself spending so much time seeing the things that I disagree with that I get distracted from the deeper - and more important - messages. Worshiping and participating in a church that shares my theological approach, I think, would go a long way towards my spiritual development.

Age: There are so many churches that are made up of mostly older members. During this past annual conference, someone was talking about the need for older adult ministries when someone said, under their breath, "Why do we need to focus on older adult ministries? We already have 440 older adult ministry centers in this conference!" I think that age plays such a large role in the politics, the ministries, and the spirit of a church. There are not many churches out there that can speak effectively to where I am as a single man in his mid-twenties. I once was the coordinator for a young adult ministry group but quickly found how hard it was to be spiritually nourished by a group that I was in charge of. I was put in charge because I saw the need for such a group. When I mentioned it, it wasn't to volunteer, it was simply saying that I need to be fed.

Congregational Focus: This covers a lot of things. I think congregations are often so comfortable in their own makeup as a congregation that they aren't really open to new people, new ideas, or to just doing things with a sense of purpose. Money gets in the way of ministry. Homogeneity gets in the way of openness and diversity. Temporal gets in the way of spiritual. And the list can go on. The kind of church that I would be interested in would be open, forward-looking, inovative, and truly living out who they are.

Spirituality: Like I said before, I need to be fed. It's so draining to be a part of a religious community when you feel like you have to be someone else, when you feel like you're the only one who sings with any meaning or listens with any thoughtfullness whatsoever. I end up feeling emptier rather than spiritually filled. It's not something I know exactly how to remedy. I think it's just something I'll know when I feel it.

I've heard it said that you only get as much as you put in or that the church isn't supposed to be about receiving it's about giving. My response to that is that it goes both ways. We go to church to receive love and direction and meaning. We also go to serve others. I've put a lot of myself into the church over the course of my life; often more than I received. The church seemed all to eager to take what I had to offer without much thought for what it could offer me. I know that sounds a bit selfish, but shouldn't the church offer some of those feelings of meaning, love, and spiritual fullness? That's why I'm going to look for it myself.

Monday, July 25, 2005

It Is Finished...

Well, it's done. Yesterday around 11:30am EST I stepped across a threshold that I will never cross the same way again. Following worship I sat in the narthex chatting with some of the youth and other members of the congregation about the typical things one does when engaging in the small talk of post-service socialization. We talked of the weather and illnesses going around. I listened as one of the youth was bemoaning her relationship with her mother while another simply sat and tried, unsuccessfully, to annoy me. It was, for the most part, an average Sunday morning. Save for one thing: it was my last as a United Methodist.

There was no announcement. I'm not sure anyone really knew aside from Beth and one of the youth who had asked me about it a couple of weeks ago. Most people won't even realize that I'm gone for a couple of weeks, at least. Because work and other involvements take me away from church every so often, it won't be unusual for the other members of the congregation when they don't see me. Beth and I were trying to figure out how long it would take before anyone asked where I was. My guess is that it won't be until probably the second week of August.

I had mixed feelings yesterday. As right as I feel my decision was I certainly am not heartless or totally unfeeling with my leaving. It was sad. And there are people and elements that I will miss greatly. There is a sense of loss for me because I have been so tied in to the identity of being a UM for so long that, on some level, I'm giving up a part of who I am. I don't mean that I'm no longer being true to myself or that I'm leaving behind some sense of my identity, it's just that a large part of my development through the years has taken place with some association or another with the UMC. I acknowledge those connections, celebrate what they've given me, regard them highly in memory, but I now move on.

One of the things Beth preached on yesterday was the parables of the pearl and the treasure. I believe she was quoting another source when she said something along the lines of: if you've sold all that you have in order to buy the pearl (or the plot of land where the treasure is) and "if you can turn back, if you can walk away from the field, if you can walk away from the pearl, then what you've found isn't the Kingdom." Over the course of my discernment I came to realize that what I've been presented with, and have been told is the pearl, has actually been something I found that I can walk away from. The sermon spoke of not being able to help yourself when you find the pearl. It is just so wonderful in all respects that you just have to have it. When it comes to the UMC I see that I have given all that I am to serving for so long (I've sold all my possessions, if you will) in order to have the pearl, and yet I don't find it to be as beautiful or as priceless as I once thought. I know that's not exactly what she meant in her sermon, but that's what it said to me. I want to feel like I can't help myself but to give all that I am to something because I know that it is real, that it is truth.

I've already gotten some feedback from other UMs that I've run into over the past week who have somehow heard of my decision to leave. Many have been supportive, some have been proud of my courage to follow my heart, and some have been sure to stress that "the door is always open, so they say" in case I ever change my mind. I find it interesting that people who know me and know that I am a thoughtful person who doesn't make major decisions lightly - let alone simple decisions, if you've ever been shopping with me you know how unlikely it is for me to be impulsive - almost seem to feel that I am mistaken, that I haven't really thought this whole thing through. At least, that's the impression I get. 'There must be something more going on,' almost as though I've somehow let someone else influence me into making such a large personal change. While faith is tied in with community in many ways, it is also a very personal thing. So personal, in fact, that while I can be informed by others, my faith is still MY faith and no one can tell me what to believe.

What does next Sunday bring? To be honest, I don't know. On the one hand I'm excited to start looking for my next spiritual home. On the other, I kind of just want to take the day off and rest.

Friday, July 22, 2005

I Know...I Know...

It's been a while since I've written, I know. It's been a busy, and emotional couple of weeks. Along with everything from my last posting and the intense feeling that comes with it, I am in the process of moving. For just over a week I've been packing, loading, unloading, and unpacking everything I own. I've moved a lot over the course of my life and I feel as though I've gotten pretty used to it and, this time, I was actually looking forward to it. My new place is huge compared to where I used to live and I'll soon be able to get a dog. The negative parts of moving came in the form of a severe thunderstorm, intense heat and humidity, no power, a bout of possible strep throat and two ear infections, and the unsettling feeling of not really having a place to call home. You see, when you move in stages as I am you begin to lose the sense of comfort at the old place and you're not quite comfortable yet in the new. I'm getting closer to being settled but I think it won't be for another few weeks as I work to have everything in its proper place.

I went to a youth rally last weekend with the CCYM that I help advise. I wasn't really looking forward to it, to be honest. Usually when these retreats/rallys come up I'm excited to see everyone, but this time was different. It just seemed like so many things were converging right then: my announcement of withdrawl, moving, the heat and humidity that just takes all the energy out of me. I just didn't want to be there. And, unfortunatly, I think some of the members of my family group - Bible study/discussion group - noticed my lack of motivation and leadership this time around too. And I feel really bad about that.

Sunday marks my last day as a UM. It's going to be hard to walk away from something that I have been so involved in for so long, but I still feel that it's best for me. My pastor keeps telling me that I have a bad attitude and I'm crazy. Part of that is true, I suppose, though she thinks I'm crazy for way more reasons than just this. My attitude has been bad in the sense that I've just been in a state of apathy for the past few months. I've already begun to disassociate myself with all things UM and I've begun to lose any attachment to the outcomes of whatever groups or projects that I would've been very interested in only a short time ago - outside of those that are work-related. It's a lot easier to let go of anxiety that way.

I'm not trying to make those around me anxious or to make them feel as though they have to rush to save me from myself. I'm just moving on. It's not out of protest or to make statements or to grind any axes that I may have. I'm just taking the next step on my journey. How others react is not my fault and I can't worry about it. That's not a bad attitude, I just know that I can't live my life making decisions based on how everyone else will react - even though for many things one needs to take others into account - after all, I'm the one who has to live with myself.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

So It Is Written... So Let It Be Done...

Well, I did it. This morning I wrote a letter, the result of which officially withdraws my membership from the United Methodist Church. Setting the words in place on the page added a certain reality to the situation. It was hard to do; and I felt it deep inside when I did it. But, in the end, I feel that it was the right thing for me to do.

When I showed the letter to my dad - a retired UM elder - we shared tears and a long hug like we've never shared before. As painful, even heartbreaking, as this is the tears I cried were quite cleansing and there was a certain amount of release from the struggles I've endured when I sealed the envelope and let it go.

Over the past months, my dad and I have had long discussions about religion, the church (yes, they are two different things), and beliefs themselves. He has been with me throughout these difficult times and his counsel has meant so much. I have sought neither his acceptence nor his approval for this decision but I have found comfort in his, and my mom's, loving support of my need to follow my heart.

It's amazing how our relationship has transformed over the past few years into the kind of relationship I think should exist between parents and adult children. While he is still my dad, and always will be, we've become more like friends and colleagues (we work together) than father and son. There's a mutual admiration and respect that many relationships are too immature to have when you're younger and/or don't take the time to get to know the real person on the other side of the paring. And for that I am so thankful.

Once again, I am unsure of where my path will take me from here, but I am strengthened by those around me as I go. To quote from my letter: "My sense of who God is and what that means for me has evolved into something that seems to lead me further and further outside of the United Methodist Church, while ever leading me closer to God... The road ahead is uncertain, but I step on in faith knowing that God is with me, guiding my way, and leading me into a fuller understanding of who God is and who I am to be."

Friday, July 08, 2005

Shhhh... It's a Secret

It's hard sometimes, being lonely. Solitude is one thing. Lonliness is a totally different animal all together. Often I will seek out reasons to be with people just so I don't feel like so much of a loser. I have to watch out for that some, though, because it's easy to ruin special times with things like activity or having other people around.

I realized that about a month ago in the midst of an extremely busy period of time at work. All of the good shows on tv had had their finales and were replaced by the crap the networks think will be summer hits. So I did something I rarely ever do; I turned off the tv and enjoyed the quiet. What a concept! I also spent some time doing other things that I had forgotten to take time out for. Simple things. "Me" things. I won't even mention what they were here for no other reason than the fact that keeping it to myself helps make it that little bit more special.

This past weekend as we drove back from Live 8, my car mates and I played one of those discussion games where you ask questions like, "What fictional character do you identify with the most and why?" One of the questions, I don't remember who posed it, was, "What is your favorite word and why?" Without having to think about it too much I said that mine was the word moment. There's just so much possibility in that word, so much potential for meaning for those that are able to be a part of it. It speaks of not just a period of time when something happened but deeper than that it describes an event or segment of life that is particularly significant - personally or otherwise. It's unique. Special.

One of the things I need to keep reminding myself of is the fact that moments can take place when I'm all alone if I let them. I don't have to be with others, necessarily, to have a real moment. A saying I like that I think I came up with (though I could be wrong) is: "Life can be filled with minutes or it can be filled with moments. Choose." Too often I find that I'm living based on my schedule - with work, the tv lineup, just trying to get from weekend to weekend - and I don't leave myself open enough to really experience the moments that could be. It's a shame, really. And I hope I can let myself get over that hurdle.

I was struggling with this whole concept recently and was tempted to invite some people to spend some time with me. I wasn't convinced that I should because it is easy to let time get in the way. Whether it's remembering how short a span of time we'll have or how long the drive home is or how late it will be when finished the special time with friends can sometimes get lost in the details of the life that's going on around us. It's more difficult to just be.

I took my vacation back in March, over St. Patrick's Day, to travel to London and Northern Ireland (you can read about it on my website). I tried to get some friends to come along because I've had so much fun traveling with friends on SAS. I wasn't able to find anyone who was able to afford it and/or take the time off to go with me. So, I decided to go by myself. It would be my own personal adventure. And, ya know what? I don't think I would have enjoyed it in the same way or on so many levels if I had gone with someone else. Sure, It would've been amazing but I was able to be a little bit more free and flexible than I would've been if someone else were with me.

Another factor goes back to a conversation I had about a year or so ago. When talking with someone about being ready to perhaps buy a house within the next 3-5 years she was shocked that I could be in a place where I'm ready for that. Especially since I haven't met anyone yet. My response to that - along with why I'm willing to travel or go to the movies or anything else alone - is that I have to live my life. I can't put everything I want to do, and in some ways feel like I need to do, on hold until I have that special someone in my life. Yes, I would love more than anything else to meet her and share all those things that I currently do alone. But the truth is, I am alone. And I need to be able to do things that make me happy, even if sometimes that means going solo. And I have found, with my vacation and with the simple act of going to the movies, that being alone can be fulfilling too.

So, as I enter the weekend I look towards the coming days with a discerning eye that I might find those moments that are possible. Even if they are just for me.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Old Friends and New Beginnings

Since I left BU two years ago I've been chatting on and off with my friend Meredith - one of my all-time favorite people from college. Coming into the position of assistant dean in the middle of a community crisis during my sophomore year, Meredith became one of the few people I felt really close to during the second half of college - particularly during the semesters towards the end when I no longer felt really close to anybody.

Meredith struggled for quite some time through the UCC ordination process while at BU. And when I heard that she was finally going to be ordained I was quick to mark my calendar for a trip out to Rockport, Mass. to be there for it. She's always been a source of support and kind words as I've made my way along my path and I always look back on our chats as great memories.

During our conversations over the past few months I found out that she will soon be the new chaplain at Ithaca College and will be moving to the area in the next few weeks. I'm really excited we'll be so close.

As time tends to do, I've lost touch with many from my past. I occassionally will exchange emails with my friend Ryan from high school or postcards with Samantha from Semester at Sea, but I seem to have lost the bonds I once had with others I used to be so close to. I don't think it's anyone's fault really, life has its priorities and with time and distance it's easy to let old friends slip away. It sucks, but it happens. I'm just glad for the friends I still have in my life, no matter how remote we are from each other, and that soon I'll have another one close by (well, within a couple of hours' drive).

In about a week or so I will be moving, myself. I'm only moving about 20mins away from my current place but it's still a chance for somewhat of a fresh start. It feels like a lot of things are changing for me at this point in my life - moving, beginning to play a larger role at work, taking steps in a new direction religiously - and it will be interesting to see how it all works out in the coming months. I can already feel some of the effects of it. On a few levels I feel more like myself than I have in a long time. Since coming to some of my recent decisions I have felt inspired to write, something I haven't felt in a year or more. And it's things like that that reaffirm that I'm doing the right thing.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Who Do You Say That I Am?

I just finished taking the survey that I had mentioned in a previous post and thought I'd share my results with you. I've taken it a number of times and I get similar results each time, though "Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants" is usually a bit lower on the list (somewhere between 9 and 12).

1. Liberal Quakers (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (97%)
3. Neo-Pagan (94%)
4. Mahayana Buddhism (89%)
5. New Age (86%)
6. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (85%)
7. Reform Judaism (83%)
8. Theravada Buddhism (79%)
9. Sikhism (78%)
10. Jainism (74%)
11. Bahá'í Faith (68%)
12. Taoism (68%)
13. Hinduism (63%)
14. Secular Humanism (61%)
15. New Thought (59%)
16. Scientology (57%)
17. Orthodox Quaker (56%)
18. Orthodox Judaism (47%)
19. Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (44%)
20. Islam (43%)
21. Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (34%)
22. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) (32%)
23. Nontheist (32%)
24. Seventh Day Adventist (30%)
25. Eastern Orthodox (23%)
26. Roman Catholic (23%)
27. Jehovah's Witness (21%)

Live 8

Last weekend, some friends and I drove down to Philadelphia to be a part of the Live 8 concerts - billed as the biggest music event in history because of it's global scope and the size of the tv, radio, and online audience - which aimed to raise awareness, and a certain amount of political pressure, for the upcoming G8 summit in Scotland. It was hot, it was crowded, and it was worth it. Even though we didn't have the best spot to view the concerts - if there was a good spot other than close to the stage or jumbotrons - we were able to listen to some great music and stand with thousands upon thousands all over the world for this momentous event. It's hard to tell what kind of impact Live 8 or the ONE Campaign will have on the summit this week or what effect the summit will have on global poverty. Only time will tell. But it is a rare thing for there to be so much excitement, momentum, and opportunity surrounding a single issue. I'm sure that many who showed up in Philly or London or any of the other global concerts came for the free music and nothing else. I'm not sure how many left with a sense of being a part of something so important, so meaningful. I know I did.

When a situation arises and we - as Americans, as the wealthy of the world, as human beings - hold within our hands a solution that will effectively bring about a positive and lasting change for the countless people who struggle around the world, we also hold the responsibility to make that difference. It's not about politics, it's about people. And we can change lives. I hope we make the right choice and do what is right.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Let's Jump Right In, Shall We?

Well, since I'm starting this thing I might as well talk about stuff that has to do with who I am. And right now that's an interesting topic.

I'm in a bit of transition at the moment, which will be having an effect on how I decribe myself. Not only am I moving in a couple of weeks - which will change where I'll say I'm from - and taking on a slightly different role at work - which changes things about how I describe what I do - but on a more personal level I am making a somewhat fundamental change in identity on the religious front. (Now, those of you who have read my online journal may have read about this recently but I guess I'll use this forum to describe it in a little more detail.)

For my entire life I have been a part of the United Methodist Church and have served at nearly every level from pew-warmer to being a two-time delegate to the General Conference (the denomination's top legislative body). The church was where I found community, where I found belonging. Almost all of my friends in college were a part of the campus ministry group I was in and even now one of my, if not the, closest friend is a UM clergywoman. There's just been something about being a part of a faith community that provides for that need for closeness, friendship, and support that I have yet to find anywhere else. I have had so many opportunities that have sprung from my involvement in the UMC as well: I got half off my tuition at college for being a PK; I've been able to meet and work with some amazing people; and I was even accepted as one of their own at a Methodist church in Malaysia when I was there for a few days in October 2002. Being a United Methodist Christian has offered, please excuse the overtly "Methodist" term, a connection with a number of people and organizations that I would never have known.

With all that said, however, I have felt a need for change. First of all, being a part of various local churches over the years, and working with many more, I have been witness to the often toxic environment that exists within communities that pride themselves on being supportive and accepting and healing. As a member of a parsonage family and also as a leader within the church, I found myself all the more susceptable to such unhealthy and sometimes harmful conditions. With that said, however, as much as I'll be relieved to be further away from that, I hold no ill-will nor any grudges about my time in the UMC in general or any local church in particular. Also, I have seen first-hand how closed off the "open hearts, open minds, open doors" church actually is as a whole. Instead of being open to the movement of God and looking beyond personal fears, prejudices, and needs to be right and in control, I've experienced just how mean and hurtful the denomination as an institution has been to so many. While the past two General Conferences have done some great things, more positives than negatives if I am being honest, some of the negative things, I believe, are more telling. And while I can forgive the UMC and the individuals who make it up for the actions of the church, though hard, I no longer desire to be a part of it.

Second of all, and at the heart of it, is my personal beliefs in God. All of my complaints about the UMC are more like excuses when compared to my struggles of belief. For the past 6-12 years or so I have struggled with my identity as a Christian. When I was confirmed I honestly think that I only went through the process because my friends did and it was the thing to do at that age. I never really felt it. Around that same time, I often felt so uncomfortable that I would excuse myself to go to the restroom when it came time for the sermon - though I always enjoyed it, and would stay, when it was my dad preaching. It just never felt right to me. It came close in some areas but for the most part the message of Christianity didn't speak to who/what I felt God to be and how the Divine was/is present in the world. It would take too long to explain it right now but suffice it to say that I see God as being bigger than the box that Christianity has created. It's been so long since I've been truly moved during a worship service (no offense, Beth), so long since I've felt that sense of community, so long since I've been able to feel like I really belong in the pew or that the particular religious affiliation truly described me. For too long I've been more or less pretending to be someone I'm not. And I can't do that anymore. So, I am going to start looking elsewhere.

I'm not sure what that means yet. My religious studies throughout college and my travels around the world have really shown me where God is and how valid and meaninful every religion's expression of the sacred is. While there are concervative and liberal theologies - and I consider myself to be the latter - I feel it is important to look at religion through pluralist eyes rather than exclusivist or even inclusivist ones. While many religions seem to be inclusivist and thus more moderate in their views on the validity of other faiths, it doesn't go far enough for me. I believe there is something to be learned from all faith traditions and that no single religion has a monopoly on the "truth." Thinking this way makes me feel as though I should be a UU - after all, I did a survey once that said I was more compatible with that than mainline/liberal Protestant Christianity - but I can't say yet for sure. Time will tell where I will find myself and where I will feel like I fit.

I know that's a lot for one post, and it's some pretty heavy stuff for an opener of this blog but I have to be true to myself and honest about who I am. Otherwise, what's the point?

Forgive Me...I'm New

This is my first posting with my own blog. I have my own website already where I've kept an online journal for a couple of years now but over the past year or so I've been spending some time reading the blogs of some of my friends and thought I'd give it a go and see what happens.

I don't really have a theme to go with yet and I have no idea if I'll even have anything interesting to say. I guess that most of what I'll talk about is simply what I'm going through in my life, what my thoughts are on things, and what I see going on in the world around me. I'm no real expert on anything but I feel as though I have a certain perspective on things that may or may not be valid to anyone else. I don't particularly care if anyone has anything to say about what I write. I just hope no one is mean about it.

We'll see how it goes and how I evolve.