'Evangelical courage'
Written by J. Bennett Guess
June- July 2005


"I don't think we're called to make outrageous statements for the sake of publicity. But we have to keep in mind that when we avoid taking difficult stances someone is bearing the cost of that deferral." Randy Varcho photos.
 
Thomas: Taking difficult stances is a Christian discipline, gospel value

Back in 2001, it was the Rev. John H. Thomas who started using the phrase "extravagant welcome" to describe the kind of hospitable church that many believe God is calling the UCC to be. Evidently it stuck.

A simple "google" - or web search - of the words "extravagant welcome" returns UCC-related web pages in nine out of the first ten references. It appears often in news stories and pastors' sermons describing the denomination's national identity campaign. One even could argue it is teetering on the verge of cliché.

But just when people are getting comfortable wearing "extravagant welcome" on their faith-sharing sleeve, Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, is rolling out a second talking point: "evangelical courage."

For those who've heard Thomas speak lately, it's clear he's urging the church to see itself - and position itself - as something more than just hospitable.

"The Stillspeaking Initiative is not just about welcoming people to a friendly community," Thomas says, "but to a courageous discipleship, to a particular set of commitments."

"It's not an 'extravagant welcome' to an anything-goes religion, to a comfortable form of Christianity," he explains, "but to a costly form of discipleship."

Boundary-stretching hospitality, to be sure, is a form of gospel-centered courage. But, Thomas reminds us, it's not the only thing faith demands of us.

That's why, in the most-recent annual report distributed in May, Thomas' introductory letter outlined a vision for claiming both identifies - "extravagant welcome" and "evangelical courage" - as hallmarks of the UCC's past and future. "Look for signs of both," he urged.

Speaking to United Church News, Thomas says, "Frankly, I've been wanting to find ways to use the word 'evangelical,' to reclaim it for people, as a way to talk about our justice commitments . as our being grasped by the gospel."

'Going against the grain'

What Thomas calls "evangelical courage," others have identified using different names. Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel (1907-1972) called it "spiritual audacity," Thomas says, while the UCC's own Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) once described it as "a touch of daring."

"It's the going against the grain of the cultural trajectory of the present moment," Thomas teaches, and no matter its name, it's something important and distinctive that he sees being lived out across the UCC.

"I think of a congregation that held regular public peace vigils during the run up to the Iraq war at a time when that kind of public stance was quite unpopular. I think of congregations that have been clearly welcoming of transgender people. I think of congregations that are willing to be out in the public arena about public funding of education.

"I think of congregations that are raising questions and challenging the position of the Boy Scouts [denying membership to gay scouts or leaders]. I think of congregations that have carried on a long-term persistent witness against the death penalty. I think of congregations that have been involved in the sanctuary movement [on behalf of Central American refugees]."

As the lead spokesperson for the UCC's national setting, Thomas has demonstrated his own "touch of daring." Earlier this year, Thomas publicly took on James Dobson's Focus on the Family, a conservative media empire that's grown so large that it's been given its own zip code.

"We're no longer going to let Dobson go unchallenged when he tries to define what Christianity means for the rest of us," Thomas told United Church News in January, the same month he extended the UCC's "unequivocal welcome" to SpongeBob SquarePants, the popular cartoon character that Dobson had earlier criticized for appearing in a tolerance video.

In April, Thomas was the only mainline Protestant leader to offer less-than-stellar reflections on the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the Roman Catholic papacy.

"[Ratzinger's] interpretations of the ecumenical vision of Vatican II have been narrow and constrained," Thomas said publicly, "and he has persisted in describing the ecclesial status of non-Catholic churches in ways that have been insensitive and demeaning."

Also in April, Thomas publicly criticized U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's assertion in The New York Times that supporting the filibuster of judicial nominees is the same as opposing people of faith.

"With all that threatens to divide Christians today, we don't need United States senators driving a wedge between us for self-serving political gain," Thomas said at the time.

'Big things of life'

Like most people, it's difficult for religious leaders to go against the grain of respectability, Thomas says.

"I'm like everyone else. I like to be liked," he acknowledges. Raised in a "privileged, uppermiddle-class suburb" in southeast Connecticut, Thomas says, "It's a cultural condition that you grow up with."

It was during the 1960s, however, during the height of the civil rights movement, that Thomas - through the nurture and support of the Pilgrim Fellowship youth group at First Congregational UCC in Stamford, Conn. - began to understand that faith requires "being involved in the big things of life."

Thomas still remembers hearing a life-shaping sermon given by his church's senior minister on "the dignity of protest," preached during contentious public disagreement over the war in Vietnam. Thomas defines it as one of the early "transformative" experiences of his youth.

Now, after 30 years in ordained ministry, including 17 as a parish pastor, Thomas has known numerous occasions where it became necessary "to say hard things, not for the sake of being harsh, but for the sake of creating a healthier public debate."

"I don't think we're called to make outrageous statements for the sake of publicity," he says. "But we have to keep in mind that when we avoid taking difficult stances someone is bearing the cost of that deferral."

Quoting one of this theological heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), Thomas says, "The question is not how we can extricate ourselves heroically from the affair, but how is the coming generation to live."

'Fully present, not distracted'

As Thomas faces election at General Synod in July to a third and final four-year term in office, he increasingly is seeing the need to make it clear that, as people are invited into the UCC, that "we're inviting them into something significant."

And like the pastors who shaped his youth, "I've grown more ready to be sharp in the way I say things, because I think that helps others to come to a decision-making place for themselves."

Thomas believes people need courageous leadership from the church, even if, unfortunately, it sometimes can be misconstrued.

"There's clearly a responsiveness to that kind of leadership and many yearn for it," he says. "And you can see that it makes a difference."

The Rev. Timothy C. Downs, Thomas' close friend for more than 25 years, says Thomas has always been willing to address challenging issues.

"He has always done so with a sense of strong biblical foundation and clarity of conviction, without being polemical or judgmental," says Downs, Southeast Conference Minister. "His prophetic witness is always coupled with an ecumenical passion. To be ecumenical and prophetic means that one is always in a dynamic dialogue with those of differing views, and John has done that without compromising his own convictions."

Thomas' pastor, the Rev. Laurinda Hafner of Cleveland's Pilgrim Congregational UCC, says she is inspired by watching how Thomas approaches controversial subjects with "grace, skill and theological and biblical brilliance."

"Every difficult and strong stand John takes seems to be almost as prayer to him," she says. In the midst of "loud other voices," Hafner says, "what sets John apart from those on both sides of the theological spectrum is his lack of arrogance. His profoundly quiet demeanor speaks volumes."

Maybe Hafner's observation is best demonstrated by the fact that Thomas, despite his hectic schedule, refuses to be enslaved by a cell phone - a convenience he uses only sparingly and something he never carries into meetings.

"When I'm with people," Thomas says, "I want them to feel as if I'm fully present, not distracted."

Perhaps that's what evangelical courage is all about.

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