On Being People of the (Red) Cup

“It’s called the ‘Christian Churches – Disciples of Christ.’ Chalice_High-2You might have seen our churches before; our denomination’s logo is a red chalice with St. Andrew’s Cross”

The other person stares at me blankly. I sigh.

“Ok, really, it looks like a red wine glass with a big white X on it…”

They say, “OOOOHH, yes! Now I know what you’re talking about. I’ve seen that before!!”

I find myself repeating this conversation often. Since my husband is an Army chaplain, I meet Christians of many stripes who frequently ask about our denomination; they’ve heard of Baptist and Methodist and Lutheran, but oftentimes aren’t as familiar with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I love taking the opportunity to share about this denomination and about my church.

And that’s why THIS red cup matters.

The red cup means that the Table is our focus. This red chalice – representative of what was used by Christ during the Last Supper – shows that we are people of the Table. We have differing interperetations of the Bible, and have differing ways of living out our faith, but the Table unifies us. By partaking of this meal together, we remember the life and teachings of Christ; we are woven together, continuing the story of God’s people on earth. Disciples churches celebrate Communion every time we gather in worship. I used to think that the frequency would make it meaningless; on the contrary, it has become the most meaningful part of my week. As we partake, we are fed and filled and sent forth into the world. And because of that… 

The red cup means that ALL are welcome to the Table. We welcome all to the Table as God has welcomed us. There is no ten-page doctrinal statement to sign, no list of rules by which we must abide. We require no proof or documentation to partake. We do not tell anyone they aren’t good enough – or anything enough – to celebrate the Lord’s Table. Our value of inclusion does not end at the Table; as a woman, in the Disciples I am able to use all my gifts from God for God’s people and the church. Here, I am welcome. We take this from our doorsteps into the ends of the earth because…

The red cup means that we are a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As an Army wife, I am ever aware of the fragmentation of our world, of the conflicts that cause blood to be shed, families to be torn apart, and people everywhere to draw lines in the sand about who is in and who is out and why. People are hurt by the church; people suffer with loneliness and suffer because of oppression. Disconnection leads to all sorts of tragedies. We are continually fragmented from the earth and the interconnectedness of all life. And yet, as people of God, we are called to bring wholeness. We are called to live into God’s realm in the earth today, not only waiting for some future hope, but making that hope a reality now. I cannot think of any greater identity statement for a denomination. Which is why…

The red cup means that I am home. Brand recognition matters. Driving through a new community, a sign that says “Christian Church” could mean almost anything. But when I see that little red chalice with St. Andrew’s Cross? I know I’m home. As I’ve written before, my husband and I have only been Disciples for about six years now, and making this shift was an intentional and prayerful decision. We’ve been to Disciples churches all over the country, and each is remarkably different. And yet, in each, we are welcome; in each, we worship God together; in each, we celebrate communion every Sunday; in each, we are home.

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We are diverse, we are faithful, we are God’s people but not God’s only people. We are the Disciples of Christ: People of the (Red) Cup.

CC (DOC): A new(ish) Disciple’s understanding of a “new” normal

Jonathan and I just returned from our first ever General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It is a gathering of clergy and laypeople from throughout the denomination for five days of learning, reflection, reunion, worship, and – of course – business. There were fewer people at this Assembly than ever before, and that was not lost on anyone.

One of the unintentionally remarkable things I heard at the Assembly was Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, our General Minister and President, say about the lower attendance, “This is our new normal.”

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But for me, it isn’t.

For me, this is just… “normal.”

Jonathan and I were both raised in other (much more conservative) denominations. For us, being members of the DOC was a decision we came to intentionally and with much thought, conversation, and prayer. We had gotten to a point at which we knew we could not faithfully stay in our previous traditions and found a home in the DOC that we had never felt anywhere else. We first began attending Disciples churches in 2008, became a member of a church in 2009, and Jon’s ordination was recognized by (transferred to) the DOC in 2010. I am a licensed minister in Kentucky while I complete my MDiv through Lexington Theological Seminary and work part-time at a local church.

I understand the grief and loss that long-time Disciples must be feeling, because I have felt it about other organizations and such in my own life. But for me, if I hadn’t been told – repeatedly – that we’re in decline, I wouldn’t have believed it. I would have guessed that there were only 3000 people at the last assembly and we’re growing! I would have felt the energy in the room and sensed a moving of the Spirit that is indicative of a group ready to soar.

I had to read a book for an introductory seminary class about the “shifting” culture that impacts the church. The book presented these areas: lack of trust in authority, lack of trust in institutional church, etc. – as shifts that are currently taking place. But for people my age, they are history. I have never known a civil religion. I have never known a world in which church attendance was culturally expected. I have never known a time when “spiritual but not religious” was not accepted as valid.

I feel the same about the Disciples. As a new-ish Disciple, this IS normal. It’s not a NEW normal. This is what I signed up for. When Jonathan and I made that intentional, deliberate decision to join the DOC, we knew it was in decline as were all mainline denominations. We knew there had been disagreeing factions – and we knew that’s okay. Sure, there’s a lot we have learned, discovered – and critiqued – about the denomination in the last few years, but for us, the Disciples of today are all we have ever known.

So allow me, a newish Disciple, tell you what I saw at General Assembly:

I experienced a group of people who care about and love the church. They are not committed to traditionalism but genuinely want to help people encounter the Divine.

I experienced a group of people who are open to new ideas and ways of doing ministry.

I experienced a group of people who do not draw hard boundary lines around who’s in and who’s out. This makes discussions messier than in other denominations, but its inclusivity is its strength.

And because of that, I experienced a group who is better poised than any group of Christians I know to meet the challenges of this and future generations.

I experienced a group of people who is able to laugh (#CampbellCon, anyone?), is heartbroken at injustice, and whose lives have been transformed by their experiences with and understanding of God.

I experienced a group who cares so much about this denomination that nearly four thousand people came from far and wide to be together. FOUR THOUSAND. That is not a small number.

I experienced a group diverse in race, gender, ethnicity, orientation, and age. Let me focus on that last one a bit: age. When I looked around that room at all the under-40 clergy in attendance, I do not see a denomination that is going away! While it might look differently in the coming decades than it does now, I’m already making plans for General Assembly 2051.

I get grieving. I get naming the loss in order to move on. It is a sign of a healthy group when loss and grief can be named and integrated, and I’m glad to be in a denomination that allows that emotional language.

But for me? I’ve found my tribe, and I’m committed. I’m committed to joining the conversations, I’m committed to serving the people in the church so that those people can go be the church in the world. I left General Assembly feeling hopeful, inspired, empowered, and encouraged. I left confident that joining the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.