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Free From A Different Jail

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“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you…..odd.”  Flannery O’Connor

God works in mysterious ways.  I’m free, but it’s freedom from a different sort of prison.  It’s been a place where I’ve been held captive to a system that has gone off the rails.  And, no, it’s not the church I’m referring to; in fact the church has been instrumental in me getting to a point where I can draw a line and say, “no more.”  The last year and a half was supposed to be spent helping manage and shore up a unique business in this mountain village of Northern California.  Instead too much time has been spent dealing with the worst form of demonic possession you find today, addiction.  I had hoped that my family member who owned the business had managed to shake off the demon before we came out here, but the possession is as strong as ever, and the demon has enlisted the support of friends and family to “help” in ways that will allow the possession to continue.  We call people who drink too much alcohol, “alcoholics.”  In my experience, however, encountering an alcoholic isn’t much different than dealing with someone who is demonically possessed.  Yes, the person trapped in alcoholism is a wonderful person, and is talented, smart, thoughtful and caring.  But the demon is not.  The demon wants to possess and control, to manipulate and to denigrate those around him.  The demon is clever and cruel, always stubborn and often arrogant.  The demon seeks to enlist those around the alcoholic to “help” out of compassion and out of love.  These powerful forces are twisted and bent to suit the ongoing possession, and sadly the people who offer such “help” sometimes get bent and twisted themselves.

When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You spirit that keep this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!’ 26After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.  When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’  Mark 9:25-29

I’ve run into nothing but difficulty since we got here about a year and a half ago, and most of the difficulty has come from the one possessed.   He has rarely been cooperative in the few projects I’ve managed to come up with, and has resisted all attempts at healthy change.  In the midst of this frustration, the church has helped me keep my own head screwed on straight.  I’ve been encouraged and valued by a wonderful community of faith, and it has helped me continue the slog at the family business, where I’ve been increasingly denigrated and minimized, mostly because I’ve seen the possession, have spoken truth about it, and have soldiered on because there just didn’t seem to be much alternative.

The church has reminded me that long before I ever answered the call to come help with the family business, God called me to be a pastor, and equipped me to serve and lead ; I’m called to be with people who walk by faith and whose strength comes from the living grace they receive and then offer in Jesus Christ.

For weeks now,  the alcoholic has been pouring down more and more of the stuff, shot after shot, beer after beer.  I’ve seen this lead to a crash-and-burn with him and each time it’s been more extreme and is now exceeding the flame-outs I’ve seen with the other alcoholics I’ve known.  This one was especially horrible.  We’re talking being run over by one’s own truck.  We’re talking about a DT seizure.  We’re talking about a steadfast stubborness that refuses to acknowledge much is wrong.  The demon is a crafty one.  It knows it can control the people around him as much as it controls him.  The rescue team was called up, yet again, to rescue the poor man.  Once again, lots and lots of $$$$ are being poured into his situation.  Once again, those closest to him endure the nastiest experiences and have their nerves pushed to the breaking point.  Once again, responsible behavior and accountability are set aside. and the alcoholic is coddled, almost as he was when he was a darling little boy.  Rehab is off the table.  He refuses to go to AA, and his chief co-dependent enabler is not likely to force such an action.  He’s been taken out of the environment here, with the hope that this will help.  A lifelong member of AA has told me that the location changes rarely work by themselves.  The possession will continue, whatever geographic change is made.  The demon is crafty enough to know that now is the time to lay low for a while and give everyone the impression that the guy is on the path to being “fixed.”  But the downward spiral will continue.  I’ve told people that I hoped he would have a “pigpen moment,” which refers to the point in the Prodigal Son story when the son “comes to himself” while slopping the hogs.  Whether he does or not remains to be seen.  The good news in all this is that I have had my own “pigpen moment” and have come to myself and realized it’s time to get out of this situation and back into what God called me to do some years ago: pastoral ministry.  I don’t know what that looks like yet, or where that will lead, but the journey has begun.  I’ve officially severed my ties with the business.  Perhaps there is a nearby church that will want to talk with me soon, but I’m thinking the path will lead me in a different direction.    We’ll see.

“So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!'”

Luke 15:15-17

Not Saying My Gig Has Been Anything Like Jeremiah’s, But….

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“Now look, I have just released you today from the fetters on your hands. If you wish to come with me to Babylon, come, and I will take good care of you; but if you do not wish to come with me to Babylon, you need not come. See, the whole land is before you; go wherever you think it good and right to go.”   Jeremiah 40:4

I’m beginning to wonder if some version of Nebuchadnezzar’s captain of the guard has been offering me a deal similar to Jeremiah’s.

Perhaps it is so, and I’m like those people you hear about who spend years in captivity, are suddenly set free, but hesitate to walk outside the prison because they’ve been conditioned not to see any other possibilities or are frightened by the sudden expanse of freedom.



We’ll see.


No Date for the Prom, May Go Stag

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Last week I got an email from an East Coast synod staff person that made me smile as I read it.  “You  have been identified through our ELCA database as a possible candidate for  **** Church…”   It has been just about three years exactly since this same staff person first contacted me with an opportunity to serve a congregation and put my name in their call process.  The candidate profile I’d developed at the time had a link to this blog.  A few weeks later, she emailed to tell me the call committee decided to pass on me, in large part because they read my blog and decided I was too liberal for them.  She wrote that she too read the blog and also had some serious reservations about my fitness for ministry based on a couple of guest posts made by Wylie4Stroke.  It was Wylie’s description of hanging out with me at a bar in Denver that caused her the most problems.  But the liberal bent of the blog also caused concern.

I blew the piety test AND the political test.

What she failed to consider, however, was the way in which I was being quite honest and open about those occasions when I’d swap the clerical garb for jeans and a Hawaiian shirt to go have a few beers with some regular, blue-collar working folks—and how I’d willingly share my vocation and my Christian faith with those folks if the subject ever came up.

That’s how Wylie came to be a blog contributor.  He is a character who would NEVER set foot in a church, but is someone who is smart and curious in his own rough and homespun way.  I grew up with guys like Wylie, went through high school with them, worked on cars with them, and yes—shudder—even tapped a keg with them.  Guys like Wylie didn’t so much lose the faith of their childhood as much as they got bored with or stopped believing in the church as a viable group worth joining.

The larger church needs to learn that it’s OK to step outside the insular, pietistic bubble from time to time, and that it’s also OK to be honest about having a few beers in a bar.  In fact, it’s being dishonest about these things that can get a clergy person in trouble.   I strongly suspect you can find a very tragic Exhibit A right here.   People like Wylie are suspicious of piety, and in my experience so much of it has become the equivalent of the shields deployed by Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise.   It’s something to get you through the minefields and meteor storms of life.  So what happens to a group of pious church folks–dare I say clergy– who go away on a church-sponsored spiritual retreat or conference, where they can count on being safe in a closed group outside the fishbowl?  The cigars, beer and booze come out, as does this sort of cute, rebellious attitude.  Someone gets a deck of cards, and the next thing you know, you’ve got a group of folks acting like they’re at that bar in Denver, drinking, smoking and playing poker until the wee hours of the morning.  Not all of them, mind you, but a surprising number.

Me, I always try to make the most of the spiritual opportunities presented by a spiritual retreat, especially if that retreat is at a monastery.  There’s ample time and opportunity to practice a key spiritual discipline—perhaps the most vital one—by entering meaningful, restorative SILENCE.  I was tempted to say “simply entering,”  but as I’ve discovered, there’s nothing simple about being silent, inside and out.   Try it for just 5 ninutes.  Shut off all the noise around you.  Then, shut off all the noise within you.  No inside chatter.  No music in your head.  Turn it all off.  It’s not so simple, is it?

Anyway, back to the situation of the email that  began this whole post.  I read it over, thought for a moment, then sent the East Coast staff person a reply stating that my wife and I are on the opposite coast now and don’t see ourselves making such a dramatic relocation.

Over the past year I’ve interviewed with several churches and have taken trips to Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Texas to meet with search committees. But each time they have chosen to go another way with someone else, and as I contemplate these events, I have to say that they probably made the right choices.   It’s not that I’m not qualified or not good at the pastoral vocation.  In fact, I hold the opposite to be true, that after some 10+ years of church ministry, I’m seasoned in a way that opens the door to what I think would be the best years of my ministry. And in the first 10+ years, I was pretty good.

But there has to be a good fit between congregation and pastor, otherwise there is simply too much time and effort expended in one trying to change the other and too much emotion spent resenting the relationship.   Life is far too short for such things.  I went into each situation with a desire to receive a call at each place.  At each place I found myself excited at the prospect of being pastor at such a church.  But in retrospect, I was also coming from what I perceived to be a desperate place, a place I was eager to escape, and I saw these places as great potential escape routes.  They were—and are—good, strong congregations on the whole, and I also found I was hungry to have a chance to lead one of them.  While each proved to be a disappointment, I look back and see that in fact there was some wisdom in their decisions to look elsewhere.  At each place there were red flags I chose not to see, some big and some small, which foretold some difficulties in the relationship had they called me.

In thinking back to the Wisconsin visit, I remember my host being as hospitable as possible, and doing everything she could do to make my visit comfortable.  Yet on our way to the church for the official interview with the call committee I saw a Scott Walker yard sign in the car’s back seat.  In the interview she became a suspicious and relentless interrogator, wanting me to explain my involvement in The Colorado Confession.   That was an out-of-the-blue line of questioning, since that document was developed back in ’05 and ’06, and I just attended a couple of information meetings and then signed on to it.  I’d forgotten much of the language of the document, but I wouldn’t back away from its significance or my approval of it.  I think that was the main sticking point for them, though one of the members of the call committee later thanked me for sharing my thoughts on the relationship of the church to our polarized culture.

In Oklahoma, a telling moment came in an end-of-evening conversation with the call committee chair.  He told me he liked what I’d done in arranging a special Muslim-Christian dialogue at my previous church and then told me a story that sounded all too familiar.  One of the church matriarchs was talking politics with him before the ’08 election and warned that if Obama was elected it wouldn’t be long before women would be forced to wear veils and that he would try to place the whole country under Sharia law.  While I was touring the area I got to see all the tornado-sensing equipment arrayed for advanced warning, and also saw a few buildings, trees and fences knocked down by a twister that had touched down a week before I got there.  Despite the exciting opportunities to combine parish ministry with campus ministry, in hindsight, it wouldn’t have been a good fit due to the ultra-conservative climate of the culture and the ultra-dangerous climate of the area.

The Texas church offered the most initial excitement.  It wasn’t too far from Austin, a place I still think of as home.  I’d have been an associate with a guy I had gotten to know and respect while I was in seminary.  They had an active, multi-generational membership and had added a huge gym and rec center on to one end of the church, while maintaining the historic church cemetery at the other end.  Quite literally it had become a cradle-to-grave church and they seemed to be doing a good job of opening their facilities to the surrounding community.  While I was there visiting with the youth director, a community league basketball game was in progress in the gym behind us.  But that conversation stuck with me.  The youth director talked about the difficulty in getting financial support for some creative youth-0riented projects and then noted that it didn’t take any time at all to raise about 65K to add sidewalks and landscaping for the cemetery.   Not a good sign.  Nevertheless, I was stoked to have an opportunity to come in and do ministry in a place where there was such a broad cross-section of young and old, and where they had expanded their worship services to include a contemporary, albeit praise band, worship.  We enjoyed that service, held in the gym, and then went upstairs to experience the traditional liturgy with full choir.  A couple of things stuck out, though I didn’t pay much mind to them at the time.  The first was the rinky-dink and difficult-to-manage elevator they had installed for disabled people.  It was set up more like a miniature freight elevator and one had to make sure everything was buttoned up just right before the elevator would work.  Then you had to turn a key, press a button and hopefully head up or down.  I say hopefully, because getting everything closed and ready was a chore in itself.  A disabled person would have a very tough time using the elevator by themselves, and it was barely big enough to hold a couple of people if there was a wheelchair involved.  I noticed that the traditional service had its fair share of people using wheelchairs and walkers.  On the one hand, I thought this was a good thing, since my wife often needs a wheelchair to get around.  On the other hand, if this is all they could come up with to make the church accessible to disabled folks, it showed that they didn’t care all that much about them.

The handicapped parking in the parking lot was also minimal and not clearly defined.  Someone told me that members needing close-in parking just knew to take one of the parking spots marked “Reserved.”  But what about visitors?  And as big as the place was, I figure that not everyone there actually knows about the ability to take a “Reserved” space.

I think I’m sharing the most about this church because this one is the one that excited me the most and gave me the most hope that I’d get called to a place that could make the best use of my skill sets.  But it goes even further than that.  These “call processes” as we Lutherans term them, are much like dating processes.  It’s more than resumes and interviews; it’s meeting people, seeing how you like one another, envisioning how it might be if you became the pastor at a church where you’d visit people, be with them in many of the joys and sorrows that mark our lives, and guide them as best you could into the future.  In a way, I found myself falling in love with this place.  It was conservative, but also had that very forward-looking, can-do attitude that reflects all the best you can find in my home state.  I could see some challenges, but I could also see myself being happy there for the next ten to twelve years and doing some of my best work in the process.   I thought we hit it off well, and all my instincts told me that they liked me as well.

So I was really surprised to get back home, to Northern California, check my e-mail and find they’d already decided to pass.  The language was official and offered some encouragement about it not relating to the quality of my pastoral skills, they just wanted a different style of leadership.  But I was severely bummed out.     Again it’s a lot like the dating process.  In a weird sort of way it’s like trying to find a date to the prom, finding someone you really, really like, and having that someone shoot you down because they want to find someone they like better.

At this point, I’m not sure I can endure being part of another call process.  It may not matter, since one can stay on the active clergy roster for three years before being automatically removed if there isn’t a call to a church or other recognized church organization.  Here in the small mountain village of Northern California, this doesn’t seem likely to happen.   But you never know.  There may yet be a church out there somewhere that might have a place for liberal pastor who prefers a Hawaiian shirt to wearing some hollow sense of piety on his sleeve.

Tumbleweed Likely to Tumble Down Different Road Soon

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Happy 2012 y’all!  How was your Christmas?  Your Hanukkah?   Your Festivus?  Your New Year’s?

To my colleagues and church friends, how are those annual congregational meetings going?

It’s been quite the break between posts and there’s a part of me that feels badly about not posting the last couple of months.

Yet the hiatus is also a necessary outcome of all the doin’s and not-doin’s that have caused a fair amount of upheaval and general consternation.

Specifically, I’m getting the message that there’s not likely going to be any further opportunities to serve as pastor in the denomination I’ve served for the past ten years.  Maybe it’s just the geography I’m in, maybe it’s the current state affairs with both congregations and synod offices, maybe it’s just a long dry spell that is lasting much longer than I could anticipate.

But the reality of the situation is that for almost two years now, there hasn’t been a congregation that has been interested in extending a call my way.  The other reality is that for reasons that go as yet unexplained, the few interim assignments I’ve been offered have been increasingly  marginal in hours and compensation.   Meanwhile, I’ve needed to be working and my mailbox keeps bringing me news that I have bills to pay.   Without friends and family, this past Christmas would have been a bit too Dickensian.

I’ve loved doing the valuable work of ministry among people for ten years, and I’ve been blessed to do it in three different states.    A pastor wears a lot of hats:  worship leader, chaplain, teacher, student, administrator,  fellow-seeker, friend, and of course, ambassador for the renewing grace and acceptance of Christ.   I’ve been honored and blessed to wear those hats in my ministry.  It’s been a blast when I’ve found that one of my classes or sermons has sparked something in a person, and it’s been amazing when a few people in the church have sparked something in me as well.  I’ve been most privileged to have people invite me into the most intimate and crucial points of their lives so that I might walk a bit of their roads with them to share in the pain and pleasure of those moments.  I’m really glad that my career in ministry began with the chance to officiate 3 weddings in two months.   It’s interesting that my last pastorate ended with a bunch a funerals that culminated in the final funeral for a closing congregation.

These are tough, tough times for the church, especially those expressions of church that were built in the 20th century–the mid-twentieth century, to be more specific.  Congregations across the country are shriveling and dying at an ever increasing rate.  And the ones that aren’t can begin to see some ominous storm clouds on their horizon.  I was out on the front end of that curve; normally I wouldn’t mind being considered as being out on the cutting edge, but when that edge does its cutting this close to home, well………………………

I’m aware that it may not be such a bad thing that nobody wants to punch my ticket and let me climb on board a ship that is taking on water faster than it can be bailed.  It’s just that I spent about 5 years of my life preparing for that boat ride, and spent another ten out sailing.   But massive quakes are hitting the church now, and unless one can find a place with a group that is equipped to roll with those tremors, it’s maybe better to be outside the building while it threatens to collapse on those who continue in their denial with all the stubborness of someone who refuses to accept their own mortality.

What is happening is nothing short of a New Reformation in the 21st century.  Christianity is being renewed and reformed in ways that must just scare the daylights out of those folks who’d planned to just stay the course until they could retire and cash in on their pensions.    And unfortunately, much of the church’s financial woes can be traced to those folks who are in that very process of moving up this suddenly burdensome salary ladder; they may be offering great experience and talented ministry, but they are also part of the reason the church is being hollowed out from the inside.  They can come up with some pretty dynamic program ideas and offer the church some great charismatic leadership, but these things won’t forestall the changes already shifting the ground beneath their feet.   Only a committment to the essentials of life you find revealed in the gospels can be of some help.  There is much to argue about when it comes to those essentials, but for me they’ve  meant an openness to God’s Spirit and a real, honest dedication to the exploration of scripture that is combined with an ongoing pattern of prayer; and these things are fed by worship that connects us to these things and to one another.

Ah, I digress.  The point of this post was to say that it appears one door is being shut.  But in the roiling process of figuring out What’s Next, another door appears to be opening, one I’d never have considered.    If I walk through that door I’ll be finding new homes for all my books, clothes and other pastor-related things I’ll no longer use.   I figure that if God still wants to use my talents in some church-related way, it’ll be in a totally different place than where  I’ve been.  In fact, I’m wondering if this is in fact my calling and my version of Reformation.

The bottom line is that I’ve mostly enjoyed being the one to proclaim God’s grace to folks for the past ten years.  Now maybe it’s time to start living in that grace, and letting it take me through the next door and on to the next chapter.

I’ll be saying more about this, but I can’t say when I’ll be saying it.  So there.  ‘Nuff said.

Barna: Youth Leaving Church After High School is a RECENT Trend

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So says the Barna Group, in its report, “Five Myths About Young Adult Church Dropouts.”     What some have decided is a normative part of transitioning to adulthood is actually a myth, the Barna Group says.  Instead, they trace this trend of youth leaving church to become prodigals, exiles or nomads back to the Boomer Generation:

Evidence exists that during the first half of the 1900s, young adults were not less churched than were older adults. In fact, Boomers appear to be the first American generation that dropped out of church participation in significant numbers when they became young adults. So, in one sense, the Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) were part of the evolution of the church dropout phenomenon during the rise of youth culture of the 1960s….Today’s young adults who drop out of faith are continuing something the Boomers began as a generation of spiritual free agents. Yet, today’s dropout phenomenon is a more intractable, complex problem.

Why the Boomers?  I’ve had a few thoughts on this. 

Another issue Barna addresses is the explosion in communications technology and its widespread availability.   As was the case in the Reformation, people have discovered that they’re able to bypass established channels of communication with new, internet based, wireless technology.  On the big-ticket issues and news of the day people can now  engage in two-way communication rather than remain the recipients of one-way communication.  Also resembling the Reformation is the widespread awareness that institutions have become so corrupted that they no longer behave in ways that reflect the best interests of the citizenry, whether it be a branch of government, a financial institution, an established media channel for news, or an institutional incarnation of church.   Combine these two trends and you quickly realize that the Church can’t continue to stake out the same old ground.  The Church can’t continue to operate under the assumption that people will come to the building and want to join the group there, trusting that this is the best way of finding some higher spiritual truth.   Nor can the Church assume that youth are destined to leave after high school, or that they won’t find any meaningful spiritual growth after they do.

Blessings Received in this Interim Transition Time

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I’m nearing the conclusion of an interim ministry at a Denver church that began only a couple of months ago.   It’s a short one, as interim ministries go, but it’s been one that has blessed me in some unexpected ways.    This is a medium sized congregation worshiping around 200-250 on Sunday, counting both services.  The first service is more of a traditional service, though upbeat in the music and liturgy selected.  The second service is what I describe as contemporary liturgical, with a band and vocalists leading the singing.   There is a healthy mix of young and old coming to worship together every Sunday and there is also a healthy representation of people who have varying social outlooks, from liberal to conservative.  This is unique in my experience, where churches have tended to gravitate toward a like-minded, conservative mindset.

The most striking feature of congregational life here is the obvious commitment to young people and the actions that the church takes to bring that commitment to life.    How does that show itself, you ask?  To me the most powerful display comes during Holy Communion, where children come forward with adults to the altar, where the outstretched hands of  the 82-year-old wait alongside the outstretched hands of the 2-year-old.    It’s one thing to talk about the importance of sacramental identity in the lives of the baptized, it’s another thing to see that identity lived out like this, Sunday after Sunday.   Speaking of baptism, the tradition here is to invite children to gather along with the baptismal group around the font, and so they come to sit on the floor and watch as a new brother or sister is welcomed into the family of God in Christ.

There is also a children’s sermon at each service, and there are times when Sunday School craft tables are moved into the main hallway so that the kids are visibly in the mix of church activity.  They need to do this sometimes to get some needed extra space, and they’re not necessarily thinking about the significance of kids making Noah’s ark decorations adjacent to adults in fellowship conversations.   But it is significant and speaks to an unconscious competence in making sure that children know they are a valued part of the church community–and that the adult community knows this as well.

At yesterday morning’s early Sunday service, a bell choir provided special music, and I remember it as having one or two young people ringing bells with the group.  The difference in worship styles between early and second service is truly life-giving.   I come out of the first service feeling full, because I’ve participated in rich worship rooted solidly in our Lutheran tradition.  I come out of the second service with a good spirit-buzz; the band plays the “Now the Feast and Celebration” with a strong back beat and some solid guitar licks.

It’s been a surprising time of blessing for me to serve as pastor there while their pastor is on sabbatical leave.  When I say blessing, I think I also mean healing.  I’d not considered the ways in which I’d been knocked around and down in my earlier experiences.

I’ve had what can best be described as positive mirror images to some unhealthy, negative experiences that came my way practically from the moment I came out of the seminary chute and into my first call.   They’ve affirmed that the church can be a healthy, vibrant place and also that I can be a healthy, vibrant pastor.

My preaching is getting better; and I’m enjoying it again, from the preparation phase all the way to the delivery on Sunday.   Bible studies are as fun as they’ve ever been, and the folks who come are well-read, curious and insightful in their own right.  Our studies have become collaborative journeys involving the whole group, by far my favorite way to do it.

Back to preaching.  I think I’m growing in the ability to proclaim grace in the framework of law and gospel, and do it in ways that respect and honor the diversity of folks gathered for worship.     I’m also becoming more spontaneous and this has helped me shape the message in different ways so that the early risers hear something a little different from the second service folks.

At the moment, I don’t know what’s next for me after this interim ends at the end of the month.   It’s easy to allow that uncertainty to grab hold of me in negative and fearful ways.  So I focus on the blessings at hand and the blessings in hand.  And in faith, I go forward into whatever God might offer me next.

Would Your Church Offer This Welcome?

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Evidently, a few progressive churches wouldn’t, given the rejection this video received from Sojourners online.