All of Our Voices (Posts from Contributors)

By Peter Slonek

Bob, is there anything in your past sermons that would make it necessary for me to denounce you? Better tell me now. Although I am not planning on running for POTUS any time soon, one never knows when the enemy will strike. Voluptuous sounds pretty anti-Christ and I am not so sure Yogi Berra belongs on the big screen in a Baptist church …

Hope and Change have been big words in my life so I am not surprised at all that I am preferring the real candidate for POTUS whose message represents the full meaning of these words. I am deeply troubled by the current controversy over Barack Obama and his (ex)Pastor Jeremiah Wright. First, why is it a controversy and not just a debate? How linked are a pastor and his flock? Just because you might say something outrageous one day that I do not agree with, I am not going to storm out of Lake Street Church forever. Even if I had political ambitions for a higher office.

Luckily, I watched Bill Moyer’s interview with the now outcast pastor when it was aired first. I came away with renewed admiration for Bill Moyers’ courage and with great respect for the Pastor who sounded like a highly intelligent, well read and well educated, passionate patriot. On the news the following night I watched a very subdued Senator Obama, behaving like a politician, denouncing his former pastor. Denounce is a word I learned while growing up in Austria under the Nazi regime: people denounced their friends and neighbors for doing something that was illegal under the regime. Not exactly a good deed, depending on where you stand. Here, of course, it meant the formal termination of the relationship between the Senator and the Pastor.

I would go to bat for you, Bob! Even if that would endanger my campaign. I would be very honest and passionate in defending your beliefs and mine. “God damn America” was not a good thing to say. Even if it was used to contrast it with the mantra of “God Bless America” (no matter what America does) – too many people will hear that the wrong way. Let me digress here for a minute: When I immigrated to the United States from Austria – a Catholic country almost a thousand years older than the USA – I wondered why America claimed the exclusive blessings of God on itself. I had never heard the Austrians or any other country do so, except that the belt buckles of Hitler’s army said “Gott mit uns” – God is with us. Was s/he? What makes the US better or more deserving than any other country?

Some time ago I read a very insightful essay about a region in north-western Europe ravaged during World War I and then again during World War II. And probably many more times before those two nightmares. The author of the essay had visited several small towns and villages. What puzzled him the most were the monuments to their fallen warriors, the fathers and sons who had lived in those places and were killed in these wars. Depending on what period of history you choose these places had belonged to either France, Germany, Belgium, or Holland, on different sides in the conflict. However, all the monuments proclaimed very clearly in one language or another that God had been on their side. Have we elected God to be our cheerleader in whatever killing spree we engage in? Whose side was s/he really on?

Before I decided to make my home here in the US I worked for the US Information Agency, the propaganda arm of the State Department, under the auspices of the American Embassy in Vienna. There I experienced a secular version of the American claim to superiority amongst the diplomats: the US had won World War II, therefore the US was the Best, Americans knew Everything better, Americans did Everything better. The fact that these diplomats knew very little European or Austrian history and did not speak any German did not hinder them to act as infallible in all decisions as to how they should go about to impress on the average Austrian citizen that America knows best. Invariably, unless the local employees could convince these crusaders of a better, less superior sounding approach, these efforts failed. This superiority complex attitude bothered me then and it bothers me now.

There are belief systems fostered by propaganda and then there are the facts. Rev. Wright had his facts right, maybe not exactly right or maybe just not expressed in words that could not be twisted, doubted and falsely interpreted. Everybody who ever read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” would know what the Reverend was talking about. After World War II we demanded of the Germans to face their past and we later we demanded of the Russians to face their past and we demand it of anybody else who we deem to have done wrong. It is time that a majority of the US population face the past and face the facts. There is no need to enumerate them here again. But only thinking of them I would plead for God to Forgive America and save the Blessings for the good we have done throughout our history.

Would it not have been a wiser and much more healing solution to debate the statements Reverend Wright made on a level playing field – if such a thing even exists- rather than denouncing him outright? And there is no reason we could not have taken him to task only for the really offending words he had slipped into his sermons. Tacking this whole controversy onto the back of a parishioner – even if this parishioner is in a very precarious spotlight at the moment – makes no sense to me at all.

Which brings me back to the question of what kind of relationship do I as a parishioner have with you, my pastor? I joined Lake Street Church for spiritual guidance, for a place to contemplate and worship, and out of my need for a community of like-minded individuals. I was not looking for a group of people fitting my template without any variations but a congregation where I could freely state and live my beliefs without the fear of being denounced. And in the same way I would not denounce my pastor for having said something I really do not believe in or agree with. But I certainly would voice my opinion, to my fellow parishioners and to you, Bob, probably over lunch or dinner. Not being a POTUS contender makes all this a lot easier, of course. If I were a POTUS contender – I would like to appear at the next rally, step behind the next rostrum, or confront the next gaggle of microphones shoved in my face and speak loudly and clearly about which statements I disagreed with and which ones I stand behind.

“When you said ‘God damn America’ my heart cringed and I blushed in shame – because above all, I do not believe in a damning God and, second, if I did, I do not believe in collective punishment. And as far as punishment goes, I do believe in Karma, if you know what I mean.”

Maybe even the Reverend Wright might have chimed in and explained nicely why he said what he said rather than going before the Press Club and showing an attitude “Got ya where it hurts most, didn’t I, you white sissies?” – (Attention: readers: I am paraphrasing here!) Which then did not present a pretty picture.

So debate it is – or should be, open listening, openly stating one’s beliefs. Accepting that there is more than one side to the truth – whatever the truth may be. And for all of us to learn our history and the history of as many other countries and cultures as we can – and most importantly, history told from as many angles as we can find because the real story is only showing up in the multifaceted view.

Not everybody has a chance to live through radical political changes or through radical cultural changes with the privilege of experiencing the shifting perspectives as they are shaped. But if we can listen to as many real persons as we can find who have their fingers on the pulse of what is happening here and in the rest of the world and compare notes with others who have listened – and maybe heard something quite different – we can become more rational and more compassionate – very helpful attributes for doing our bit in creating a better world.

On April 1st, I started to post to the blog, changed my mind, thought I would just “back out” but ended up posting anyway. At first, I felt “foolish”, like I had to explain myself – no, I didn’t want to post at that time but there was a glitch! I wondered if it would be possible to ask the blog “powers that be” to remove my post. Instead, I decided to “let it go” – something I have been doing frequently lately. Now, several weeks have passed, I have experienced a milestone in my life, and decided to pick up the thread…..

About a year and a half ago, I became acutely and consciously aware that there is nothing more important to me than fostering my connection with God. I know now I have been walking this path all this lifetime as well as several others. But until I woke up to this knowing, my life seemed much more difficult. The good things (as well as the God things) that happened in my life took longer to manifest and came to me through struggle and existing in a fear consciousness. Waking up allowed me to realize that the duality of this lifetime for me was fear/love. I had a choice. I could experience my life coming from a place of fear or I could experience my life coming from the place of Love. I opted for Love. God’s ever present Love.

What a difference that decision has made! Experiencing the Divine means that my life flows with Grace and ease. Conceptual ideas are now living things that feel encoded in my DNA. I understand now how the “word” can be made “flesh”, despite the fact that it seems words cannot even begin to adequately describe the experience. I truly feel blessed.

Allowing myself to Experience the Divine has led to a new phase in my life. On April 12th I was ordained a non-denominational minister through an independent, non-denominational, omnifaith church. It feels like a huge milestone to me and I am waiting for my next steps along this path to be revealed to me. As I was preparing for the ordination I awoke to the importance that Lake Street Church and Bob Thompson have played in preparing me toward saying “yes” to this calling. My years at Lake Street Church served as a safe place for me to maintain my Jewish identity while still being accepted and welcomed as an active member – thus allowing me to raise my consciousness about Jesus the Christ, broaden my spiritual horizons, and build the foundation from which I now experience my life with God.

And now, I want to reintroduce myself to those of you who know me and have witnessed my journey by signing this post using my new title for the very first time as….

Rev. Teri Sandler

This is the title of a meditation retreat I attended very recently. Those of you that know me or have read any of my comments and posts may be aware that my path has taken me on quite a circuitous route – and I imagine that most of us can say the same. From being raised not particularly religious but attending an Orthodox “schul”, I traversed my early adulthood with no religious affiliation. Having three children brought my family to a Conservative synagogue and after my divorce and the final bat mitzvah, I found myself again unaffiliated.

After a few years, I wandered into Lake Street Church, met Bob Thompson, listened to his sermons and decided to hang around for six years. I then left for Colorado Springs and went churchless again (imagine that!) until almost two years ago when I found not only a small independent church that felt like home, but decided to study to be ordained a non-denominational minister.

What I have discovered along the course of my studying is that for me, there is absolutely nothing more important than my connection with God.

A funny thing happened to me while traveling my spiritual path. As Robert “Voluptuous“ Thompson pointed out in one of his recent blogs, God has a sense of humor and sometimes plays jokes on us. Here I am, a nice (at least I hope I am nice) full blooded, born and raised Jewish-American woman of Eastern European descent, living in Colorado Springs, Colorado – the heart of conservative, fundamental Christianity. I came here a liberal, leaning to the left sort of a person (and still am, by the way). I have six years active membership at Lake Street Church under my belt and am now a member-at-a-distance. So what am I doing here in Colorado Springs – home of Focus on the Family, New Life Church, The Navigators and various other conservative, fundamental organizations? I’ll tell you what I am doing – I am about to be ordained a non-denominational, omnifaith minister.

Now, you might think that that was the punch line, but it is really just the lead-in to the joke. Being ordained required purchasing a robe and a pulpit stole. Shopping for the robe and stole led me to the last store on earth I ever thought I would find myself – Family Christian Store. Those of you back home in the Chicago area might not think this is much of a big deal. After all, it makes sense that to get the paraphernalia necessary to become an ordained minister, one might naturally have to enter a Christian store. Jews normally are ordained as rabbis, and maybe somewhere there is a Family Jewish Store to obtain rabbi paraphernalia. Well, maybe not but I used to know at least one Jewish bookstores on Devon Avenue and there is Hamakor Judaica in Skokie which, advertises itself to be “your source for everything Jewish”. Maybe rabbis about to be ordained shop there.

Now the “brand” of Christianity that exudes from Family Christian Store from the moment one walks into it is of the fundamental persuasion. Almost as soon as I walked in the door, I could feel the energy of conservative Christianity. I doubt that heretics are welcome or understood there. One of the things I immediately noticed were books written by James Dobson (leader of Focus on the Family) prominently displayed and, while they don’t advertise it, this store definitely appears to be “your source for everything really and fundamentally Christian”. I did find a very small display of Judaica but am not quite certain any Jew but a Messianic Jew (and now me) might make it into Family Christian Store.

I discovered this store because it is listed as a dealer for the robe and pulpit stole manufacturer. A very nice gentleman named Jim took care of me and had to order the pieces I needed. This took quite a while so I got to spend a significant amount of time taking in the energy. It also meant I had to go back a second time to pick up my merchandise once it came in. Because Jim gave me one of their catalogs, I had a coupon for $10 off and was allowed to use it. The nice young man who checked me out apparently wanted to keep me as a customer in good standing, which leads to the punch line of this joke – I am now am the proud possessor of a Family Perks Membership Card (Membership Number 64244AZ). Every time I make a purchase, I can ask my Family Christian Store Associate to punch my card. When I have 10 punches, I can get a 25% off Shopping Spree Certificate. I am limited to two punches per day, though.

And for those of you who think I will never, ever enter Family Christian Store again, you are so wrong. I realized that with 2 cats in the house, I want to get a robe bag to store my robe. So, Jim is ordering one for me and he will call me when it is in so I can come pick it up. I hope I remember my Family Perks Membership Card….

My youngest daughter, Carrie, now almost 27 years of age, told me this recently. She works as a kindergarten teacher in a day care center at a Presbyterian church in Deerfield. Her frame of reference was receiving a ginger bread Nativity kit as a white elephant gift at her “work” Christmas party. My oldest daughter, Lori (age 33) sent me an “instant message” this Christmas morning which proclaimed: “you don’t know how depressing it is to be Jewish on Christmas morning”. My middle daughter, Jamie (age 30) has not checked in yet. I suspect she will not complain about being Jewish on Christmas since her husband’s family is Catholic and Jamie is determined to raise their year old daughter Jewish. Jamie has plenty of opportunity to celebrate Christmas with her in-laws and their large families and it is up to her to figure out how to navigate their holiday celebrations.

I personally spent many years feeling a mixture of relief and separation around not celebrating Christmas. As a child, I naturally felt “left out” and “different” because I did not celebrate Christmas. I wanted a Christmas tree like my friends had, and if not a Christmas tree, at least a Hanukkah bush to decorate. The first time I asked, I was told there is no such thing as a Hanukkah bush. A stocking filled with toys, etc was completely out of the question. As an adult, my feelings of relief revolved around not experiencing the stress that accompanies having to engage in all the hustle and bustle that seems to define Christmas. Along with that relief, however, I was aware of a strong sense of separation and envy.

My sense of separation and feelings of envy were not indicative of wanting to be a Christian nor of a strong desire to celebrate Christmas. After all, I celebrated Hanukkah with my family by lighting candles and exchanging gifts. Our celebrations did not come close to the extravagance of Christmas, but we did celebrate. At some point, I realized that my feelings were actually an expression of grief – a grief that I did not have something that I truly believed in – something magical and wonderful that I thought was embodied by Christianity and the Jesus that my Christian friends worshiped. I did not (nor do I now) feel engaged in Judaism as a religion. To me, Judaism is and for a long time has been my ethnic identity and, although, I was not drawn to the practice of a specific religion, I thought this meant something was missing in my life.

Quite a few years have elapsed since I deeply envied Christians their devotion to Jesus and the birth of the Messiah I am unable to accept. I spent six years attending Lake Street Church – not trying to be Christian but as a Jew who felt a very strong call to join the spiritual community that exists within the walls of that particular church. I came to know the difference between religion and spirituality. I was introduced to Jesus the mystic, rabbi, and teacher. I learned to accept the Christ that Jesus was and how he embodied the divine light that resides in each of us – a light that transcends any and all religion. I learned that I am a devout person and that the object of my devotion is my connection with God. I now focus my spiritual energy toward more deeply knowing that connection and experiencing unification with all that is – the great I AM.

A few days ago I realized that Christmas was almost upon me and I personally was not feeling any sense of disconnection to the world that celebrates Christmas. This is probably the first year since being introduced to Christmas that I have not been feeling at some level that I am missing out on something wonderful because I am Jewish and don’t celebrate Christmas. Even having my adult children complain about how tough it is to be Jewish now has not been enough to cause me to agree, commiserate, or tap into the old grief I used to feel. Their complaints did prompt me to reassess the meaning of Christmas. I found that it is no longer tough for me to be a Jew at Christmas because for me Christmas is a celebration of a very well known Jewish heretic and the message he carried about the reality of God. Namaste.

Beyond Belief is a book group at Bob’s church. We are reading, oddly enough, A Voluptuous God and are lucky enough to have the author sitting in. Nothing like a direct line to the source.

The ideas that reside in the book are ideas that we in the book group are all familiar with, they are the ideas that brought us to Lake Street Church in the beginning. It is amazing nonetheless to sit and talk with other people who think the same outrageous, heretical thoughts that I do; the thoughts reflected in A Voluptuous God.

I must recount my favorite story from the book. An Eskimo hunter asked the local missionary priest, “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?”

“No,” said the priest, “not if you did not know.”

“So why did you tell me” asked the Eskimo.

I was raised in a religious tradition where forgiveness is commodified and the paths to hell are more numerous than the grains of sand on the beach. I am now in a setting where I no longer worry about missionary priests telling me what to think. How voluptuous can you get?

Voluptuous, what a great, loaded word.

I agree that it was a good discussion of religion and politics at the Goodman Theatre Monday evening (10-15-07)–already good, as some said, just because it happened.

Early on Bob said something that I think would have changed much of what followed if everyone had believed it truly was assumed by all participants in a religon-and-politics discussion: “No one has all the truth, and everyone has part of it.”

At first that seems like an easy universal assumption, but on second thought it seems to many that “religious people” actually do believe they have all the truth, about what’s important, at least. Many assume that religion by definition is a realm of dogma–absolute truths that must be believed. Monday’s discussion, including the audience participation, showed no widespread understanding or agreement that religion can be other than dogmatic.

“Separation of church and state” would be modern democratic politics’ protection of itself against dogmatism in traditional religion. You could think of the checks and balances of modern democracy as a whole as an institutionalization of “No one has all the truth and everyone has part of it.”

The enemy of politics, however, is not religion, but dogmatism. Dogmatism can infect all fields, including science, politics, and religion.

It seems to me there are people everywhere, a lot of them at LSC, who are non-dogmatically religious: they try to orient their lives by the deepest understanding of reality that they have attained or received. I think it would help the discussion to make it clear that some of us mean “religion” in such a non-dogmatic sense, susceptible to error and improvement.

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