This morning Sara Shisler Goff reflections on the social media flurry surrounding Standing Rock and how "checking-in" can actually make a difference here.
When the Slate Project started we didn’t know what to call ourselves. A friend suggested “the Slate Project” from the idea of “a clean slate.” When someone uses the phrase “clean slate” they are usually referring to a relationship and they are saying that something in that relationship needs to change; something needs to be “cleaned off the slate.” But the relationship, the fundamental underlying relationship is of such importance, that even though there is something that drastically needs to change, the relationship is still very much worth saving.
The relationship between God and humanity and the relationships between humans that are grounded in the knowledge and love of God are the relationships that ground the project of being the church-- a project that is very much worth saving, at least I think so. Those of us who are a part of the Slate Project have decided we are going to stick with the “project” of being church, because we believe in it; because we have experienced Jesus.
So no matter how far we walk through the valley of the shadow of the death of the institution as we know it, we will not say, “the hell with this,” and throw up our hands and walk way, because it is never a lost cause. God has given us the perpetual clean slate. God always gives us another chance. As Michael Curry, presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, always says, "God always meets us where we are, but God never intends to leave us there."
The question, “What if we had a clean slate?” is not a hypothetical one. It is an exercise in claiming our theological inheritance. We have been given a clean slate. Asking this question allows us to get out of our own way-- it gives us the psychological and emotional space and the freedom to imagine what could be. It takes out of the equation all the stuff that says what can’t be and it says just focus on what could be.
What if you had a clean slate? What would that mean for you? What if you had a clean slate for your ministry? What if the community where you serve had a clean slate for being the incarnation of the Body of Christ that God is calling it to be?
Asking these questions and dwelling in the possibilities it creates is a way to exercise our theological imaginations and open ourselves up to receiving a vision of all that could be.
We must also ask ourselves, "What is it that needs to be cleaned off our slate?" Or to think about it another way, "What is it that is keeping is us from 'walking the talk'?" The church is really good at “talking the talk.” Sometimes we even “walk the walk.” But we have work to do “walking the talk.” We preach a good message. Living that good message is a life-long journey. What is getting in our way?
Obviously, the “clean slate” is a metaphor. The only One who can give us a clean slate and "wipe" our slate clean is God. That is what redemption is, that is what forgiveness is, that is what grace is. We are given a clean slate. We are a clean slate. That happens in God’s time-- taking place now and forever in the Eternal Now.
In our time, we would be fools to think that we could just wipe the slate clean.
This is just the beginning of our work. This is just the beginning of a process of discernment that we spiral through again and again throughout our lives.
The greatest gift we can give ourselves is the willingness to be changed and the courage to let it all go, whatever it is, that is keeping us from becoming who God is calling us to be. Whatever is keeping us from the fullness and the wholeness of relationships with God, ourselves, each other and all of creation—let it go! That is what this whole church thing is all about.
I believe somewhere inside of ourselves, we know what we need to do. We know who we are. We know how to be the church. We just forget. Or we choose not to do it, because moment by moment is extraordinarily hard. The call to follow Jesus is a radical and risky one, and I don’t know about you, but I am not all that inclined to be radical or take risks.
At some point, everybody fails. Peter failed, Paul failed, Judas really failed. The problem isn’t so much that the church is full of sinners, that is kind of how it is supposed to be. The problem is the church is full people who can’t even see or admit our sin. I could be wrong, but I think this is the real reason people are leaving the church. It is not because they don’t long for God or community. It is not because they don’t want to do good and change the world and make a difference and follow love. It is because they can see through us. They can see that we are broken; our relationships are broken. And if we can see it, we are not admitting it.
It is my opinion it is not our worship styles, or our music choices, or even whether we have a good website or good Facebook presence that determines whether our church will succeed in the twenty-first century. Trust me, all of those things matter but they are secondary to whether we are a community where people feel loved, where they experience God’s love through us, and where everyone is honestly and openly struggling to follow Jesus together.
At the end of the day, it is all about relationships. The greatest commandment wasn’t fill buildings full of people. The greatest commandment wasn’t make Episcopalians or Lutherans or Methodists or Catholics. The greatest commandment is Love God, and Love your neighbor as yourself. Follow the way Jesus did it and bring other people along with you. That is what it means to be the church. The rest is details.
Adapted from a presentation given by the Rev. Sara Shisler Goff to the clergy of the Diocese of Maryland October 10, 2016 at their annual clergy conference.
Not that far into my ordained life I began to feel a very intense longing for an experience of ministry that was different from the one that I was having.
When I began to flesh out this feeling a bit more, I realized what I wanted was for the church where I ministered and served to be more like the church I needed and I wanted to be a part of.
In other words, I wanted my church to be a place where my relationships with others were rooted and grounded in love.
And I’m not saying that this was never the case, but it was too often not the case.
I wanted to feel known and seen.
I wanted to be understood and affirmed for who I was.
I wanted honesty and transparency.
I wanted open and honest communication.
I wanted support and authenticity.
I wanted genuine, shared leadership.
I wanted to be able to be courageous and vulnerable without the fear of retribution or the fear of being knocked down.
I wanted all those things that we all want in our church in and our workplace.
But it was more than just wanting them, I wanted to know why they were not there. It really upset me when they were not there.
The more that I think about this idea of the “future of the church,” and the “reimagining of the church,” the more I am convinced and convicted that when we stay focused on structures and methods and models for doing church and strategic plans and all the different ways that we are trying to "do" church better, and make church more “successful,” we are missing the deeper disturbance of the Spirit.
Those structures and methods and models and strategic plans, they matter and there is work to do be done on that level.
But there is a deeper undoing that needs to happen. I am experiencing this undoing in myself and I am hearing about it and seeing it in others with whom I am in relationship with.
Collectively we are so worried about our church dying and our declining attendance and the unsustainability of the project of being church the way that we have set it up (and think it has to be) that we are not even aware that this death we are going through could possibly a good thing.
If all these people were not leaving our churches we wouldn’t be aware that there was a problem.
Although, in my experience, we often misdiagnosing the problem.
I don’t think we need to reimagine our structures, or reimagined how to do church, at least not primarily.
I think we need to reimagine and reclaim our identity as a death and resurrection people.
In the death of "institutional" way of being church that we are experiencing, we are being invited to become who we truly are--
a people who are never finished changing,
a people who are always being made new,
a people whose identity is always found in losing their lives so God might save them,
a people who are completely and utterly oriented toward Love.
We are still infants when it comes to truly knowing what it means to love-- the love the way God loves.
The work that the church is being called to do in this moment is completely and totally relational.
Which I see as very good news.
Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend who shared that a Christian leader once asked him to imagine offering someone a pan of fresh-out-of-the-oven brownies. These brownies were perfectly fudgy, warm, and delicious, except for one thing: there’s a little bit of poop in them. Yes, you read that right—there is poop in them. You really can’t taste it, but it’s definitely there. That leader went on to tell my friend and others that not offering yourself, wholly and sexually pure, to your spouse on your wedding day was akin to offering him or her that pan of poop brownies. The message was clear: sex with a virgin was the best thing to give your future spouse. Anything else was poop brownies.
Many of us who were surrounded by “purity culture” while we were growing into the faith heard a variation of that story through I Kissed Dating Good-bye or purity pledge type of teachings. The conversation was about purity, but the focus was primarily on the sexual purity of cisgender women. Even though purity is supposed to be for everybody, the conversation was often geared toward women. Women bought into it the most, which is evident in the fact that we were the primary purity ring wearers and the ones who attended purity balls with our fathers.
Last week during the Slate Project's weekly Twitter discussion, #SlateSpeak, many of us shared the shame and pain purity culture has caused us and the ways many of us felt marginalized within it, either because we are people of color, or we belong to the LGBTQ community. Although it is never explicitly stated, purity teachings benefit those who are primarily white, petite, heterosexual women or white, traditionally masculine, extroverted, heterosexual men. Those of us who didn’t hit the genetic jackpot by meeting those standards are encouraged to pray and wait or ask God to heal our “deviancy”. In that culture many of us felt that “whiteness” was a part of purity—it’s not coincidental that purity and the color white often go together.
Our discussion participants noted that absent from purity culture was any discussion of consent and sexual abuse or assault. One SlateSpeaker observed that purity culture left “…sexual abuse victims to feel like they will never be pure in the sight of God. Damaged goods.” Similarly, those who did engage in sex outside of marriage were now “tainted,” which another person noted was “…very sad in a religion that supposedly promotes forgiveness/rebirth.” We were left feeling, “a lot of heartache, depression and confusion. A lot of self-hate,” not to mention “…shame and sexual dysfunction.” In essence, purity culture denied us the opportunity to be healthy sexual beings before marriage and prevented us from the truth that God loves and accepts us as we are. We missed a chance “…to accept all parts of ourselves, [to] be integrated, whole.”
For me, the best part of the discussion was talking about ways that we are healing and/or have healed from purity culture. Some have embraced grace and reclaimed the beauty of human sexuality by refusing to link worth and virginity together. Another SlateSpeaker said, “We see our bodies as…bridges to divine connection. Incarnation is about bodies.” And that holiness and wholeness is more than just bodies. We talked the fact that “we as voices in sacred spaces need to make room for honest conversations about sex.” Another person said that healing for her came in knowing, loving, and caring for her body. Knowing what brings her body pleasure and joy. We need to be “homes and hospitals to each other,” and if that is not enough, we need to seek out therapy to heal from these wounds. My own wounds from these harmful teachings left me with lingering feelings of shame and inadequacy, but they have begun to heal through the formation of a healthy Christian sexual ethic and through the affirmation I’ve received in supportive communities like #SlateSpeak.
Each week this beautiful online community reminds me of how deeply we need one another to find healing and wholeness. #SlateSpeak is always profound and vulnerable. Every Thursday evening at 9 PM EST we have church on-line in real time on Twitter. You can follow this progressive Christian tweet chat at #SlateSpeak; we have a new topic and moderator each week. Join us for this edgy and real church.