Rev. Vernon "Bo" McGuffee
Joyfully Becoming in the Divine Milieu
I didn't Grow Up in the church
In fact, I did not join the Presbyterian Church (USA) until I was 28-years old. I remember, it was back in 1998. I felt a strong draw to enter Westminster Presbyterian Church in Rockford, Illinois.
Up until that point, my general experience with churches had been rather negative.
As a result, I had no desire to be a part of an institutionalized religion. In fact, it was aversive to me as I considered myself to be spiritual, but not religious.
So, you can imagine how surprising the shift was for me.
My experience in that particular congregation changed my outlook. I discovered that the church did not have to be what I previously conceived it to be. It did not have to be oppressive, judgmental, vindictive, shaming, or belittling. I also found that a church community could actually be a healthy and vital place in which to explore one’s own personal spirituality.
Yes, shocking, but true.
Indeed, it was so true that I found myself called into the ministry, and I was ordained as a “Minister of Word and Sacrament” (aka, “Teaching Elder”) in 2005 for the Presbyterian Church (USA). I am currently a Minister Member of Blackhawk Presbytery in the northern part of Illinois.
“The contemplative stance is the Third Way. We stand in the middle, neither taking the world on from the power position nor denying it for fear of the pain it will bring. We hold the realization, seeing the dark side of reality and the pain of the world, but we hold it until it transforms us, knowing that we are complicit in the evil and also complicit in the holiness. Once we can stand in that third spacious way, neither fighting nor fleeing, we are in the place of grace out of which newness comes.”
~ Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs, 171.
Growing into My True Self through the Years
Believe it or not, I went into the church with a more culturally-conservative theological perspective. And it was on the inside of the church that I encountered radical insights that would change my understanding of Christianity as a religion and spirituality as a way of life. Rapidly, I came to understand that there was much more to faith than I had previously thought. To make a long story short, I have run the theological gamut from “conservative” to “liberal”. Now, theologically I identify as a “radical” or “revisionist”.
My life is lived in the “betwixt-and-between”. Betwixt and between light and dark. Betwixt and between secular and sacred. Betwixt and between the individual and the community. Betwixt and between spirituality and religion.
I consider myself an “armchair mystic”. That is to say that I value a contemplative approach to spirituality that emphasizes attention, deep listening, and becoming. This approach has helped me to listen for the heartbeat of God in the midst of the mundane.
I don’t know why, but I am enthralled by all things Celtic. (Could it be something in the McGuffee blood?) For watever reason, the (romanticized?) Celtic approach to Christianity calls to me. As a result, my model for spiritual leadership is best summed up in the word “anamchara“, or “soul friend”. It’s not about power over, but power with. It’s about walking alongside others and helping them to explore their questions, rather than offering answers.
All in all, my spiritual life has been quite a journey. I know the struggles that come with the dark night of the soul, and I know the joys that come with emerging from the darkness with new insight and illumination. I have been all over the board theologically. I have lived both inside and outside the church. This wide experience fuels the uniquness of my voice, which I hope to use to bring hope to those who live on the fringe of the church, or even the edge of faith.
“The sheer physicality of the Celtic tradition is indeed one of its greatest strengths for me. Because the Celtic understanding of the incarnation is Deeply physical, fleshly, this then allows me to accept more fully the idea of my own humanity as also so totally physical.”
~ Esther de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer, 24.
Perhaps my spiritual director from years ago best summed up my task in this world: “The call to bring into being that which is not yet.” In the past, that call has led to a strong interest in new church development and congregational redevelopment. While those still interest me, my focus is shifting.
I feel drawn to work with a specific audience, one with which I identify most. One term used for them has been the “church alumni”.
You might be part of the church alumni if…
You are in the church, but struggle to stay because you can no longer related to church culture.
You are outside of the church, self-identify as a Christian, and believe the church is too theologically conservative for you to fit in.
You are losing your faith and Christian identity because you no longer belileve what the dominant voice of Christianity teaches.
Indeed, vast numbers of people have become disillusioned with the Christian church. I know this from experience because I have talked with many of them.
If this is you, then you are in the right place. If you are looking for a progressive Christian alternative that challenges the conventional,theological understanding, then I’m speaking to you.
Imagine what would happen if we could get all the church alumni, both inside and outside the church, to be honest about all their questions all at once. What would that be like for the church?
I think it would change everything.
I would love to see this kind of change. I believe this kind of change is exactly what the church needs.
And no longer would you be regarded as the church alumni, but rather as what you would truly become . . .
. . . the future of the church.
“The reformation needed today must, in my opinion, be so total that it will by comparison make the Reformation of the sixteenth century look like a child’s tea party.”
~ John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, 8.
Primary Spiritual Values
No list of values can be comprehensive. Humans are too complex for that. But we can identify key ones that have the most influence over who we are and who we are becoming. As an exercise in self-reflection, I recommend you consider what your primary spiritual values are and how they help orient your life. To start you off, here are mine:
Divine Love is not just any love, but an other-centered, justice-oriented, and self-giving love.
Justice is never about retribution, but the re-establishment of appropriate boundaries that respect the freedom of the other.
Openness allows me to suspend my judgment and attentively listen for how God may be speaking to e through the life of another.
Creativity is the power that brings into being that which is not yet and makes all things new.
Reason protects against selfish desires by measuring my understanding against the best-available knowledge.
Incarnation is the integration of personal truth and action that manifests in fuller participation in the Divine Depth.
“In this chaotic world, we need leaders. But we don’t need bosses. We need leaders to help us develop the clear identity that lights the dark moments of confusion. We need leaders to support us as we learn how to live by our values.”
~ Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science, 131.
How I've Changed over the Years
Ultimately, the fruit of spirituality is transformation. That means I’m not quite in the same place I was when I first started the Evolving Christian Faith Network site back in 2005. (Yes, it’s hard for me to believe that this project is almost 15 years old.) While the quest remains the same, the journey itself has changed me.
I think that it is the perspective of time that has had the most influence on my growth. I’ve come to realize that change does not have to happen “now”. In fact, while a particular change may be good, it may not be a good time for that change. Changes that happen too rapidly are often short-lived. Changes that allow participants to catch up are more long-lasting.
So, the greatest lesson I’ve learned is that of patience. And with a lessened sense of urgency, I have become more graceful toward others who uphold agendas I oppose. Now that I’m in my 50s, it’s easier for me to interact with them and say to myself, “They’re just not there yet, and that’s okay.” And by saying “that’s okay” I am making room for God to work transformatively in their lives without me interfering. Justice may move me to act, but I am now more able to trust the call of Justice to work beyond me.
This does not mean that I no longer take strong stands. Quite the contrary, I do. But my posture is less aggressive than it used to be. I’m sure people will still be offended by what I have to say, and maybe even feel threatened. This is not surprising. After all, when you are criticizing one’s theology, you are criticizing the way they make sense of the big picture, which is related to the way they understand the very meaning of their lives and their identities.
Which brings me to my next significant change. Now, I’m less interested in challenging how more conservative and traditional Christians understand their lives theologically, and I’m more interested in presenting an alternative option for those who want it.
Yes, I will address other theologies as I think they are needed, but it’s more out of an attempt to make sense of the new understanding than it is to undermine the old.
In other words, I’m simply no longer really interested in arguing.
Speaking, however? Yes, I’m very interested in speaking. And if you are looking for a progressive Christian alternative, I hope you find what I have to say spiritually inspiring.
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
~ Hebrews 11.1 (KJV)
Statement of Faith
Whenever someone goes through the process of entering the ministry in the PC(USA), they have to write a “Statement of Faith”, which is presented to the presbytery for review. When you’re a candidate, it’s quite scary. You never know how tough they are going to be on you while you stand there for any and all questions.
It has been more than a decade since I wrote mine. Unfortunately, I don’t even have a copy of it anymore. But that just means I have the opportunity to write a new one. It’s a great exercise that I recommend to anyone, not just ministry candidates, as it gives you the opportunity think deeply, reflect on, and find language for where you are in your spiritual journey.
Here’s mine . . .
I believe in a God who is Love. It is this God who calls all things into being, sustains them, and draws them into their future. This God has invited humanity into a partnership (aka, “covenant”) to share in the joy of caring for all creation. However, an insecure humanity continually chooses self-aggrandizement over humility, self-indulgence over responsibility, and self-preservation over self-negation. As a result, it has tragically abandoned the divine destiny that comes with Divine Light in favor of the fate that darkness brings.
But the story does not end there.
I believe that in the person of Jesus Christ we see the incarnation of this God who is Love. Throughout his ministry, he proclaimed the opportunity to be released of our insecurities and the fate that they bring (aka, the “dominion of sin”) and confidently realign our lives with the Divine will (aka, the “Kingdom of God”). He taught us that we do not need to succumb to our fated self-destruction and ensuing death, but can rather reclaim our Divine Destiny and be transformed to become who we were truly meant to be.
But alas, humanity could not bear the pain of such hope, for its contrast revealed it’s depravity. And, it could not trust the promise of rebirth and renewal. So it cast all its fears, doubts, and hatred upon Jesus and crucified him to be rid of him once and for all.
And on the cross, we see the Christ of God, Divine Vessel of Grace, perfectly identify with the fullness of humanity as he speaks forth definitive, divine judgment: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” And so it is that the Christ of God revealed the fullness of God to the world, assuring it that the God who is Love is not found in just any kind of love, but an other-centered, justice-oriented, and self-giving love.
Still, the story does not end there.
United in the Holy Spirit of Christ, through time and space, the church continues to proclaim the sovereignty of Divine Love; the hope of reconciliation; and the promise of new, abundant life. Through the sacrament of baptism, it calls all nations to unite in the life and work of the Spirit. And through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, it “re-members” the body of Christ, so that its members might be sent into the world as living conduits of grace for a darkened world.
Let all those who hear the call to become Christian continue to proclaim: “The light has come into the world, and the darkness has not overcome it.”