Thursday, July 7, 2011

UCC folks "imagine what's possible"

There was sand everywhere at the national gathering of the United Church of Christ this past week.

There was a small sandy beach at the foot of the stage that was the platform for worship. There was sand in the bright red cabanas at the far ends of the assembly hall. There was the expanse of a sandy desert projected on the screen across the back of the stage. And, of course, there was sand on the real beaches of the Gulf shore along the coastline near Tampa.

This gathering is called a General Synod - the 28th such gathering since the UCC was formed in 1957. It is the decision-making body for our denomination, but it is also a place to connect with the many and varied segments of the UCC, to delve into vital social issues and to get new energy in those times when we feel we are just wandering on the hot sand.

"Imagine What's Possible" was the theme of this gathering. As the event moved toward it's conclusion, the images of sand gave way to images of water - an ocean on the screen as well as fresh branches dipped in water that was sprinkled over the crowd at the closing worship as we sang about "crashing waters at creation" and "living water, never ending" that can "drench our dryness, make us whole."

This was a place where younger clergy could stage an unannounced "flash mob" communion service in the lobby of the convention center.

This was a place where Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts could challenge the crowd to live in such a way that when the news media find them, “they find you living in authentic faith, a faith in service to humankind. Make sure they find you up to your knees in the muck of the nation’s troubles, working and praying for changes that other people deem impossible.”

This was a place where delegates could live out those words when the left the hall to join tomato farm workers in a protest outside a nearby Publix grocery store seeking a one-cent increase in what they pay for a pound of tomatoes so that the workers could receive their first increase in wages in 30 years.

This was a place where one of our new leaders, J. Bennett Guess who was elected to head Local Church Ministries, said that the measure of our success is neither membership nor money given, but rather mission. “McDonald’s doesn’t tell you how many stories they have,” Guess said, “they don’t tell you how many employees they have. They say what matters in a service industry: billions and billions served. The church needs to learn to do the same.”

One way the UCC is going to do that is with a major initiative this fall called Mission 1 – using the first 11 days of November to focus on feeding the hungry and confronting food-related injustice. We’ll be exploring that more at Memorial UCC in the months ahead.

During the Synod, we adopted a number of resolutions highlighting some of the difficult issues in our world.

The battle for rare minerals in Congo that are used in our cell phones and computers has brought horrible oppression on the people of that nation. The UCC said it would advocate on behalf of the people of Congo.

The threats to gay and lesbian people in many nations put their lives at risk and the UCC promised to fight against that.

The suspicion of Muslims in this country festers and the UCC promised to work against such hostility.

There were resolutions on mindful eating, adoptions for gay and lesbian couples, the nuclear test ban treaty, political prisoners in Puerto Rico.

We also took a step toward smoother relationships among Christian denominations by adopting a common statement on baptism shared by Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church. This should remove an obstacle that sometimes gets in the way when people change denominations.

And within the UCC, we streamlined our governing structure so there is a smaller but still widely representative governing board and fewer barriers between the various agencies that work within the UCC.

The leaders of the UCC sketched out the three "core values" they see within our denomination - continuing testament, extravagant welcome for all, and changing lives.

We had powerful worship services throughout the week, but it was the ending of the final worship service that really offered an image of hope for our future. As Rev. Geoffrey Black, the general minister and president of the UCC, took the stage, he invited the teens and young adults to join him on and around the stage. They came by the hundreds. Then the teens offered a blessing to Black and the four other top leaders of the UCC (three of them newly elected) and the officers, in turn, offered a blessing to the young people.

Then music and dancing broke out, the young people took the branches and sprinkled the crowd with water as a reminder of baptism and finally, standing alone once again on the stage, Geoffrey Black sent us all out to do God’s work in our world, to carry the light to all the earth.

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