Tuesday, April 7, 2020

World's Wisdom | Tuesday of Holy Week 2020

Rembrandt van Rijn, Saint Paul, oil on canvas, c. 1657
The reading for this Tuesday of Holy Week contains within it some of the seed of what afflicts the United States culturally.

"The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. It is written in scripture: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent. Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength."1 Corinthians 1:18-31 CEB

There is so much wrong here. The blatant anti-semitism that's typical of the New Testament is screaming in our faces, for one thing. Sure, the Greeks were criticized too, and the author was probably Paul the Apostle, a Jewish man. The sum total of the anti-semitism in the New Testament, or any of its parts standing alone, were enough to bring suffering on the Jewish people through the centuries at the hands of Christians. 

But wait, there's more.

If you know any Fox News viewers and/or Breitbart readers, you may have noticed they often have a deep suspicion of experts. Particularly experts who disagree with the ideology they have adopted. This is found in conservative Christian churches where parents try to avoid their children going to a 'secular' university not just because of the presence of alcohol and the relaxed attitude around sexuality, but perhaps especially because they don't want precious Jimmy or Jane getting a head full of crazy ideas from some godless professor.

Such people end up weirdly echoing another part of the New Testament: "...after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables." 2 Timothy 4:3b-4 KJV

"Oh no, Mr Professor, don't show Jimmy the evidence that the universe came into existence billions of years ago, and that life on earth evolved. Please, Ms. Professor, don't get Jane thinking that she'll truly be the equal of the man she someday marries...what do you mean 'or woman'?!"

What Paul was apparently trying to get at in this part of his letter to the Christians in Corinth was that the power of the Good News about Jesus is demonstrated in its declaration, not in signs or with convincing arguments (sorry Pentecostals and apologists). That's not what evangelical believers take from it. This becomes part of their worldview, along with the narrative construct of collective guilt, defeat, bondage, and return from exile that's baked into the Hebrew Scriptures. That has these folks commenting about JESUS IN ALL CAPS ON FACEBOOK and believing that the United States is somehow ancient Israel in a covenant with Yahweh. It has them voting for the corrupt, the deluded, and the foolish because they believe their lies and distrust people who actually know things. 

We need more science and insights from the humanities, not less. 

Monday, April 6, 2020

Progressive Aspirations | Monday of Holy Week 2020

Getting to where we should be and making social progress is a slow, treacherous path made up of wrong turns, potholes, and dead ends. Just look at Unitarian Universalist history.

Early in its existence, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) had a disagreement over calling for its congregations to welcome people regardless of race or class. If you know a little about UUs, that might surprise you. If you know a bit more about UUs, you'll roll your eyes and say 'of course they did.'

The UUA formed in 1961 from the union of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. While reading Conrad Wright's 'Walking Together: Polity and Participation in Unitarian Universalist Churches,' I came across this from the 1963 General Assembly:
"Recall, for example, the bitter debate in Chicago at the meetings of the General Assembly, in May of 1963, over the question of whether the Unitarian Universalist Association may require its member churches to maintain 'a policy of admitting persons to membership without discrimination on account of race, color, or national origin.' No one was heard to disagree with the proposition that every trace of racial segregation must be eliminated from our churches; but this particular proposal was sharply criticized as an assertion of the power of the association to set doctrinal standards for its member churches, and to disciple ir expel them for ideological irregularity. In reply, the supporters of the proposal declared that it would be intolerable to let congregational autonomy to be erected into shield for an indefensible and immoral social practice. Some observers felt that there as conflict between to valid principles: congregational polity and social justice. Others insisted that it needed only a clarification of the principles of congregation polity to show that there was actually no conflict of values after all." (pp 64-65) 
Reading this, I understand the logic of those who would have the congregations free from outside impositions on their membership standards. Logic is not always the best approach for human endeavor, however, and particularly not in the field of spirituality. I hold firmly to the value of the scientific method as it is currently understood, and think it should be applied in analyzing data and making sense of the world. In human relationships, and within the context of religion, reason is at times going to fall short of the best of our humanity. If our polity is perpetuating injustice, then it is our polity that will have to change. I wish I could say this matter has been dealt with, but it hasn't. There are serious questions about hiring practices and the treatment of clergy and staff of color. Still, we grapple with these issues. There are many deniers, but many as well are those who will not give up shining the light on these injustices.
"I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason. I will grasp your hand and guard you, and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon." — Isaiah 42:6-7 CEB
These words from Isaiah this Monday of Holy Week tell a story of a covenant people given a vocation to bring liberative justice to the world. Though not all Unitarian Universalists are theists, we do have a covenant that we affirm together as a people, expressed in our 7 Principles:
1st Principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person; 
2nd Principle: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations; 
3rd Principle: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; 
4th Principle: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning; 
5th Principle: The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; 
6th Principle: The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; 
7th Principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Further, the nations of the world officially agreed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which includes this statement:
"Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction." — Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Preamble, paragraph 8
Has Christianity failed? Yes and no. The 'yeses' are too many to be counted.The crusades, the Inquisition, the long and ingrained traditions of patriarchy and paternalism, the enabling of colonialism and the destruction of non-Christian cultures through proselytizing.

Some have tried to skip over the bad history and 'get it right' by attempting to be what they think the church was meant to be. In the 1800s many such groups arose in the United States, including the Latter-day Saints (aka 'Mormons') the Stone-Campbell Movement (Christian Churches/Churches of Christ/Disciples of Christ), and Primitive Baptists. Among traditions like these exists a naive confidence that somehow it's possible to be a Christian but not be associated with the terrible parts of Christian history. It's as if to say that while former generations of Christians got it wrong, this generation or this movement of Christians will get it right. Usually this boils down to having the correct beliefs and practices. I've not seen social justice being a key feature of most such groups, although it exists to some degree as a component of some.

Many have walked away from church, having experienced the harm it can actually do. Some refer to themselves as 'exvangelicals,' and they are the ones who suffered through evangelicalism's purity culture. Too many have suffered physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse in such contexts.

On the other hand, Christianity has been a beacon of hope for millions. A community of shared values and uplifting ideals. A means of artistic expression. An opportunity for a second chance, a new outlook on life, and a source of life-transforming principles and experiences. There have been plenty of Christians who were on the right side of history. Think of Sojourner Truth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Martin Luther King Jr.

Christians have a calling, one where they often fall short. And yet it persists, and they keep trying.

The Unitarian Universalists (which includes Christians in its midst) have their ideals as expressed in their Principles and Living Tradition. They also often fall short, at times even disagreeing over whether people of color and lgbtq folx should be treated with respect (see The Igneous Quill Essays).

The nations have the UDHR, a beautiful document that expresses our collective hope for a better future. And yet, atrocities continue around the world, in the denial of worker's rights, in the enslavement of human beings, on the blood-soaked battlefields, and in violation of treaties with indigenous peoples. The United Nations even has Saudi Arabia, one of the worst offenders, on the United Nations Human Rights Council. And yet, activists and concerned citizens persist in pushing, pulling, and calling for progress. The UDHR hasn't failed, not have all the people and nations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is:
"a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms."
In scriptures and covenants and declarations we find our aspirations. The better version of ourselves that we know we should be. And it is from those that we teach and educated, working to form a better future for those yet to come who we will never know. In our darker hours we can still see light, and we can still hold out hope. 

Sunday, April 5, 2020

An Affirmation | Palm Sunday 2020


Among my early memories of growing up Catholic there is one of being handed a palm frond. From a climate I'd not yet experienced, this long, strange leaf was given to each person entering the church. At one point my mother told me to wave it around, and so I did, seeing other people holding theirs up. It was only years later that I began to see the palm fronds being shaped into crosses for people to hold. When I was old enough to understand the story of Jesus' final days, Palm Sunday became a mystery for me on another level.
"Now a large crowd spread their clothes on the road. Others cut palm branches off the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds in front of him and behind him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" Matthew 21:8-9* 
Why were we celebrating the fickleness of humanity? This is the question that lingered with me for years.

The arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem has been seen by Christians through the centuries as the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9:
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion.
Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem.
Look, your king will come to you.
He is righteous and victorious.
He is humble and riding on an ass,
on a colt, the offspring of a donkey."
It also appears to echo an event described in 1 Maccabees 13:51:
"On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the year 171, the Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs. A great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel."
In context, it comes in the days before the last supper, the betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Simon Peter's denial of Jesus. It precedes the torture and execution of Jesus. The man who was heralded as the savior of Israel a few days before was rejected and subjected to an agonizing death. One day the people were celebrating Jesus, and not long after they were calling for his crucifixion, as Matthew 27:21-24 has it:
"The governor said, 'Which of the two do you want me to release to you?'
'Barabbas,' they replied.
Pilate said, 'Then what should I do with Jesus who is called Christ?'
They all said, 'Crucify him!”
But he said, 'Why? What wrong has he done?'
They shouted even louder, 'Crucify him!'
Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere and that a riot was starting. So he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. 'I’m innocent of this man’s blood,' he said. 'It’s your problem.'"
They went from crying 'hosanna' to howling for his blood. And this is something we celebrate on Palm Sunday? I suppose that Christians are actually celebrating what they see as prophecy fulfilled, rather than the ultimate failure of humanity to do the right thing...particularly when there's a crowd involved.

Crowds seem to have a mind of their own. A mob can easily mete out injustice at a dizzying page, and a riot can wipe out a neighborhood. The thing is, a lot of people involved probably don't really know why they're there. Some do, but I suspect many who get swept up in these things either have heard a distortion of the truth ('this man wants to destroy our sacred temple'), or really don't know any reason at all. Sometimes the sheer energy of a large group can stir the emotions and provide all the reason people feel they need. After all, so many people can't be wrong, right?

Everyone loves a parade. Well, I suppose there are some curmudgeons who don't, but by and large as long as a parade isn't stopping traffic for you, it's kind of fun to see it pass by. Except for the clowns. They're simply horrifying. I submit that the event described in the Gospels and referred to as the 'Triumphal Entry' is simply a sort of parade. Making the enormous assumption that the occasion is historical, there were certainly those who knew why they were there ('Jesus is fulfilling Scripture'), others half-understood ('This man will set us free from the Romans'), and others just loved hooting and hollering.

Parades, with the exception of the sort that Hitler put on, are generally harmless fun. Sometimes candy even gets tossed out to the watching children. People cheer for cool floats and for organizations they've never heard of, and a good time is had by all. The parade is itself the point.
"To celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole." ― Josef Pieper
It's nice to have a birthday party for a loved one, or a parade for Homecoming. Sometimes no reason at all is required. Whether there's a defined purpose or none at all, any celebration at no one's expense is an affirmation of life itself.

Bible citations in this post are from the Common English Bible, Copyright 2012

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Bad Things | Fifth Sunday in Lent 2020

"Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." 
Martha & Mary in the Gospel of John 11:21 & 32 NRSV

In the Gospel reading for this Fifth Sunday in Lent the Johannine writer presents us with death. In an event foreshadowing the death and resurrection of Jesus, a friend of his named Lazarus dies. The sisters of the dead man, Mary and Martha, reproach Jesus with the same words, calling attention to the fact that he didn't come soon enough to work a wonder and save their brother from dying.

In Pentecostal circles it's quite common for maladies like migraines and depression to be 'healed' in their services, while no visible healing that can be medically documented takes place. I always thought it strange that Oral Roberts wore glasses, though if challenged I suppose he could have said it was a thorn God was leaving in the flesh, alluding to a passage in 2nd Corinthians. On an early trip to Brazil I spent time in the city of Belem, where I heard of a local Pentecostal preacher known for, among other things, lengthening legs. Apparently there were people with one leg shorter than the other, and he evened them up through the power of God.

It's easy to believe in miracles that are unseen. Aside from physical healing, in Christianity there is also spiritual healing, particularly in the 'miracle' of salvation. The believer is promised the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives along with forgiveness and inward restoration. For most sects of the religion, the big prize associated with the gift of eternal life is going to heaven when they die. While everyone else burns in hell (though a minority thinks that hell will burn up the unbelievers sooner or later), the 'saved' will live on forever in the presene of God. The thing about such a belief is that it can't be proven either way.

Apologists can make the best case possible for the religion, but never definitely prove that these unseen characteristics of the afterlife are real. Nor has the skeptic satisfactorily demonstrated that it's all a complete hoax, however much evidence there may be for that being the truth. At the heart, this is a matter of faith, something that ultimately doesn't require verifiable data. 

In truth, as much as we would like for bad things to be reversible, most of them aren't. When my father died I felt that the world would never be the same without him in it. I was right. And so I think from time to time of those who are dying around the world, and those being left behind. Those closest know most painfully what is being lost, and yet it is a loss for all of us. Even the death of the wretched, people who have willfully abused others, leaves a mark. For some there's relief, while someone also likely grieves. Either way, for all of us the world changes, though we rarely and scarcely notice.

Mary and Martha are depicted as being spared the full force of this heartbreak, as their brother was raised from the dead. Their world had gone from having been violently turned upside down, to all made right again. This, however, is not the universal human experience.

For us it is weeping, and eventually acceptance, though the tears can still return in quiet moments. This is the natural order of things from time immemorial, and so it shall be so long as life endures. The words of Joe Lamb to the alien in the 2011 movie 'Super 8' ring the most true to us. The alien had been detained, tested, and tormented by human scientists. Joe had lost his mother only 4 months before in a work-related accident. His simple words better reflect our experience and our hope than anything in the text today: "I know bad things happen. Bad things happen. But you can still live. You can still live."

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Unabated Vocation

When I left the full-time ministry in 2005, following a mission career cut short by financial reality, a horrendously bad experience serving a deeply dysfunctional congregation, and the sudden and unexpected death of my father, I thought I was done for good. I intended to — at most — help out at a church as a member, laying low and finding my way into some different career. I tried to get out, but I kept getting drawn back in. 

The little Portuguese-language church my family joined in Newark, NJ needed leaders, and I took a turn on the monthly rotation preaching. I also led occasional Bible studies, helped baptize a family, and sometimes taught the youth. That church burned me as well, pushing me to lead, and then falling back when a couple of church members were unhappy they weren't getting their way, and took it out on me. 

Through all this I held onto my faith, even as I sorted through my understanding of what that meant. Eventually I had to face the fact that most of it made no sense, not correlating to reality. 

And still, that sense of call persisted. 

It began most clearly when I was a young Catholic teenager, hearing a missionary priest speak on Vocations Sunday. Through my teens I struggled with depression, not realizing that's what I was up against, and explored Catholic teachings alongside those of Protestants and of various world religions and alternative forms of spirituality. I became evangelical under my own initiative, finding a sense of purpose and belonging. The call seemed stronger than ever before.  

It has followed me through my life, from country churches to the mission field and through the dissolution of my former worldview and the construction of a new one. From Catholic to Presbyterian to Stone-Campbell Movement and now Unitarian Universalist, it is here with me. It isn't so much a calling from on high, though for most of my life I saw it as such. Instead, it's more of an imperative of my own nature, personality, and identity. 

After years of seeking to sort out how to proceed, I've decided that concrete steps need to be taken to move discernment forward. And so, I'm pleased to say that I've been accepted to Abilene Christine University's Graduate School of Theology for Spring 2021. I'll study over the course of 4 years for a Master of Divinity, through a combination of online learning and week-long intensives on campus. Additionally, I've been accepted to Starr King School for the Ministry to study for a Certificate in Unitarian Universalist Studies, something that should fulfill one of the other requirements for fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister. 

This may seem like a strange combination, but I believe it will work for me. After reviewing numerous seminary programs, I found that what ACU GST offers is the most in line with the expectations I've formed for MDiv study. Further, SKSM is a UU seminary with a solid offering in UU-specific coursework around history, polity, and theology. With these two, along with the other required steps for fellowship, I believe that I'll either be confirmed in my calling to ordained ministry and be better prepared than ever, or else will learn that my calling is best fulfilled in some other way. 

In the meantime, I'm thankful for the opportunity that my home congregation, Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit, NJ, offers for people to serve as lay leaders. This together with their support in my time of active discernment will surely make all the difference.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Patriarchal Prerogative | Annunciation of The Lord

If you follow the standard Christian narrative about Jesus of Nazareth, you're reading about a life that began with violence. 

The 'Immaculate Conception' is often misunderstood, even among Roman Catholics. People assume that it refers to the conception of Jesus, when in fact it is about the conception of Mary. In Catholic doctrine, as in much of Western Christianity, the doctrine of original sin looms large. We're said to be born with this stain on our souls, meaning that we're damned from the start. Baptists and others softened this a little, with their talk of an ill-defined 'age of accountability.' Really they're only delaying the inevitable. In any case, for Catholic theologians of old, something had to be done about Mary. How could she, as someone born with the mark of original sin, be the Christ Bearer? To resolve it (I'm simplifying a great deal), they came up with the idea that God somehow intervened so that original sin was not transmitted to marry when she was conceived.

So apparently original sin is like an STD. 

In the 'canonical' New Testament, as accepted among Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians, we're told that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born, having been conceived by the work of the Spirit of God, and not by natural means. That was the 'Virgin Birth.' The day that Mary found out that she would be having God's baby (again, simplifying) is referred to as the 'Annunciation.' 

The angel Gabriel, we are told, showed up one fine day to inform Mary of her role in God's plan. She doubted, because of course she was a virgin. He explained that it was a God-thing, giving us one of the most popular lines of the account: "For nothing will be impossible with God."

People love that verse, found in Luke 1:37. It feels encouraging, as if anything that comes our way can be overcome by God, if it is his will. Evidently it also means that where God is concerned, consent doesn't matter.

As a former evangelical minister and missionary, I can attest that in conservative religious circles not much is usually said about consent. Oh, sure, there are exceptions. There are always exceptions. But those exception are not the rule. Instead, young people in evangelical churches and youth groups are admonished to avoid pre-marital sex. The boys are made to feel ashamed about masturbation, understanding it to be a sin against God. An outlet for the demands that millions of year of evolution make on them through the hormones rushing through their bodies is taken away from them, while they're also being told very strictly that sex outside of marriage is a sin.

The girls have it worse. They get the same message, with a lot more shame and responsibility to boot. A girl's virginity is perversely held up among evangelicals as a sacred totem that must be reserved, like a shiny brass ring, for whatever man marries her. It's a gift she holds onto just for him. Further, she is condemned if she dressed 'immodestly,' as this excites the passions of the boys (and men) to an extent that they are often let off easy if they have sex with such a girl, while she is looked on as a disappointment. The language used to teach girls these ideas is telling, with one of the most common comparisons being to chewing gum. No one wants to chew someone else's chewed come, and so likewise no one decent would want a young woman who isn't a virgin.

It's bizarre and sick. The very people teaching these things more often than not had active sex lives before they were married. Perhaps the shame they were made to feel about it through their beliefs is being transferred to the young people, in hopes that they will do better. It's a nearly impossible standard.

In all that, consent rarely comes up. Girls are told to always say 'no' until they're married, and boys...well...they'll be boys. 

My children had it somewhat different. Without really thinking about it I taught each of them about consent. This isn't something that most kids in evangelical circles seem to get. It doesn't help that a core element of the Christian narrative depends on true consent not being an option.

Reading the relevant verses in Luke, you'll see that nowhere was Mary asked if she would like to bear the son of God. She was simply told. In the end, she said, 'let it be with me according to your word.' Evangelicals will want to claim victory at that point, and that's because they don't understand consent.

When Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky became known in the 1990s I was studying for the minister. I listened as 'godly men' around me gloated over the weakness of the president, and clicked their tongues at the loose morals of his intern. I have since heard that one of those men was himself involved in extramarital affairs with multiple women in different parts of the country. None of the men in that program, nor among the faculty, were so without sin that they were worthy to cast the first stone.

What no one, at least that I can recall, ever considered was the power differential involved. Bill Clinton was President of the United States, the 'leader of the free world,' and Miss Lewinsky was a White House intern. As in any case of an affair between boss and worker, the validity of any consent was in question. She may have been a willing participant, but Clinton was terribly in the wrong for even considering such a thing, and not merely because he was already married. He had the power in that situation, and so without ever having to threaten or promise, his influence removed from him the ability to receive informed consent from an intern. They were not equals. 

As dramatic as the divide between US president and White House intern is, so much greater is that between the purported Lord of All Creation and a young peasant girl. Fortunately in the latter case, it never really happened. It's a story created as part of the legend of Jesus, similar to other such myths about gods and mortals in the ancient world. It was adapted to fit the mould of the tradition in which it was placed, explicitly leaving out the vulgarity of sexual union involving the deity. It was a story written, received, and passed along by men

Seeing the Annunciation for what it is, a scriptural and ecclesiastical exaltation of virginity and implicit lesson about the 'duty' of women, it's hopefully not difficult for someone to understand its role in shaping the worldview of those who take it at face value. 

Not too long after this account in Luke we read the 'Magnificat,' wherein Mary celebrates the overthrow of the powerful. If there's something to celebrate here, I'd say it's the endurance of Mary, a character in this story, despite the confining place she was inked into by the gospel writer. The Annunciation, like much of the ancient literature we have available to read, is a tale of patriarchal prerogative.

Monday, March 23, 2020

As the Days of Noah

Construction of Noah's Ark | Guido Reni | circa 1608 CE
It was disconcerting, seeing his name scratched out like that. He had died along with his cousin and a girl from another high school in a terrible crash. They'd cut classes and the girl, who was driving, tried to beat a log truck across a one-lane bridge. She didn't make it, and so none of them 'made it.'

Counselors were sent in by the school district in the event anyone was distraught and needed help with the loss. I only heard of one classmate speaking with a counselor. The rest of us eschewed such weakness, as we saw it. Stories circulated about how terrible their bodies were torn up, becoming more elaborate and exaggerated with each re-telling. Students were excused to go to the funeral of the cousins, which was held for both at the same time. Pretty much the entire high school went, which was perhaps about 200 students,.

Hey, it was a rural school district.

I had the same opportunity as everyone else to work through feelings of grief, and aside from initial shock followed by sadness, I came through it just fine. A jarring moment still came one day, as I looked over the shoulder of the shop teacher at the grade and attendance book. My eye was drawn to the row with a line through it, and to the left the name of one of my dead classmates. A weird thought about him getting credit for the time he was in school that year cross my mind, running headlong into the reality that grades were no longer of significance to him. Whatever he had done with his short life was done, in the past, and over. There was a sharp feeling of futility that lingered with me for days.

"...in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark..."Matthew 24:38

My paternal grandmother once told me that the end of the world happens whenever someone dies, for that person who has died. Even as a child this offended my theological sensibilities, as I knew from Catholic teaching and Baptist Vacation Bible School that the second coming of Jesus would be the end of the world. Still, her words have stayed with me through the years, and I see it now. Crisis interrupts our lives, and death ends it for each of us. This has been especially in mind of late, as the COVID-19 virus has spread from China to Italy and on to the rest of the world.

A few weeks ago we all had other plans. Engaged people were not far from wedding dates, stores had promotions in the works, sporting events were scheduled, high school seniors were looking forward to prom and graduation, and parties were being planned for all manner of reasons. Now we find ourselves staying home and laying low, hoping the novel coronavirus passes over us and goes away. We yearn for news of a treatment and a vaccine, while we watch the news and wonder who we know that we will lose before this is all over. More immediately, many who are out of work are anxiously awaiting word that some help will come from the government to pay rent and buy groceries. 

This is life on pause for most of us, and life at and end for too many. There are steps we can take, like limiting interaction with others outside our homes, practicing social distancing, and washing our hands. These are small actions that collectively can make a big difference. At the very least, we can legitimately feel that we're doing something while we watch the days pass by out our windows. It should also serve as time for us to consider what we have done so far, as individuals and as a society.

Although the grades and attendance notes were of no consequence to my sadly absent classmate, that isn't to say that he, his cousin, and the young lady they were with that fateful day accomplished nothing. Through their lives they interacted with family and friends, creating and leaving memories that matter to those who carry on. Their passing brought about the sifting of wheat from chaff of the deeds of their lives, as it is for each person who goes the way of all the world. 

None of this is to say that grades and other markers of personal success are insignificant. Rather, they're put into context by our mortality. Had my classmates graduated, the education obtained as well as the diploma would have opened doors for them, leading further into the lives they could have had. It's important, I think, not to confuse such stepping stones and mile markers with actual value created. The sort that we make with the people in our lives, whether family, friends, or strangers. Personal character and the deeds that flow from it defines the contours of our lives.

And so, as in the days of Noah, we've gone from working, marrying, attending conventions, and gathering with friends to celebrate occasions to face the unexpected. Unlike that mythical time, we are not captive to the will of a capricious deity, and most of us will make it through this one. Moreover, while we wait for the inevitable treatments and vaccine brought to us through scientific research and modern medicine, we do the little things to make meaning out of all of it. 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Exposed | Fourth Sunday in Lent 2020


"[A]nd don’t participate in the unfruitful actions of darkness. Instead, you should reveal the truth about them. It’s embarrassing to even talk about what certain persons do in secret."Ephesians 5:11-12 Common English Bible 

Conspiratorial conversations annoy me. Last year in the time leading up to General Assembly I was told by someone that they wanted to speak with me in private during the event. When I demurred, suggesting that we'd probably have a chance to chat at some point, he seemed offended. The thing is, I had a notion of what he wanted to talk about, and I wasn't having it. There were two reasons: one is that I was almost certainly not going to like what he had to say, and the other is that I detest those sorts of secretive discussions.

That's not to say that I haven't participated in such self-aggrandizing idiocy in the past. Rather, it's because I have that I know how much arrogance goes into it, along with ginned-up paranoia about 'the others.' There are times that private conversations about matters of great import need to happen. This is particularly true, I would suppose, of people living under communist or fascist regimes who were plotting either their escape, or a coup. Most of the time, however, it's not a matter of life, death, freedom, and oppression. Usually there's someone who feels that they need to be in control, often because they feel that they or some group they feel they represent has lost control of a situation.

When I was still a very conservative Christian Churches/Churches of Christ missionary in Brazil it infuriated me that the other missionaries throughout the country, with the exception of those in the northeastern part of the congregation, were actively promoting a Pentecostal version of the faith. The problem, as I saw it, was that they were keeping it on the down-low so as not to lose support from American churches. As it turns out, some people in the US knew about it but accepted the explanation that Christianity in Brazil 'has to be Pentecostal' to have a chance at all. It was, they said, 'cultural.'

In my frustration I wrote an article about it and attempted to get it published in a conservative magazine of the churches. Although it was reviewed and corrected by an elder missionary in the know, the editor ultimately decided not to publish. It was too inflammatory, I believe he said.

While I didn't see that editor as being part of the problem, I was convinced that there was a larger conspiracy to hijack the movement. Now, I wasn't far off. As it turns out, the leadership of the North American Christian Convention managed in the past few years to do away with the annual gathering, replacing it (using the resources of the NACC) with a new organization geared towards promoting the growth of generic evangelicalism.

None of that mattered, really. The NACC was never mine to control. It wasn't a national voting organization, I don't believe I ever donated to it, and I'd only ever attended once. Had I stayed with that fellowship of churches there would have been an abundance of other ways to connect with like-minded believers, however annoying it might have been to have lost the national gathering. My participation in any sort of 'resistance' would not have likely made any difference, nor would it have mattered in the grand scheme of things.

It's a bit different, as I mentioned above, in the event of genuine oppression, threats to life and liberty, and so forth. Social justice movements require organization, and organization necessitates meetings and conversations. People don't normally just appear spontaneously on the street to march (despite the notable exceptions in history). It wasn't happenstance that Dr. King spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, nor even that Rosa Parks took a seen in the front of the bus one day. Those were the results of planning.

It's easy to be a straight white man pretty much all the time, including during this era of vulgar, bigoted revenge against people of color, the poor, and the lgbtq+ community for the progress they've made in recent years. The incoherent figurehead in the White House is simply carrying out the white man's racist fantasy. That sort of evil requires resistance and exposure, and that's a 'conspiracy' I'll more than gladly take up. At the same time, if someone wants to speak with me about their sad, misguided views on race, sexual orientation, and/or gender, it's going to have to be in a live, public forum. Not a debate, with winners and losers. A conversation seeking the truth and, if possible, reconciliation.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Getting Together | Third Sunday in Lent 2020

Temple of the Great Jaguar | Tikal, Guatemala
Dennis Jarvis (CC BY-SA 2.0)
"Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem."John 4:20 NRSV

"The evidence that lies before us in great abundance points to organized religion as an expression of tribalism. Every religion teaches its adherents that they are a special fellowship and that their creation story, moral precepts, and privilege from divine power are superior to those claimed in other religions. Their charity and other acts of altruism are concentrated on their coreligionists; when extended to outsiders, it is usually to proselytize and thereby strengthen the size of the tribe and its allies."The Social Conquest of Earth, Edward O. Wilson, pp 258-259

A professor at Harding University told a story once that stuck with me. His father had been a preacher, and so every Sunday and Wednesday night they were at church. One Sunday evening as they were headed out to yet another service, my professor, then a child, noticed a family in front of their home washing a boat that they had likely taken out for a spin that day. He asked his father, "what are they doing?" His father's reply? "They're worshiping their god, son. They're worshiping their god."

Religion is indeed something that serves to unify some people, dividing them from others to greater or lesser extents. It can easily engender that sense of smug self-righteousness that comes from believing one knows the right way to worship.

If you attend a Unitarian Universalist congregation at any point, you will likely hear the services referred to as 'worship.' Since UUs don't tend to agree on what to worship, if anything, this can come across strangely. While congregations have a Christian orientation, where such language makes sense, most tend to be gods-neutral or 'theism lite.' I've heard different UU ministers explain it to those assembled as 'worth-ship,' the gathering to consider and celebrate worthy things. I'm not really buying it, but I also don't care very much. Though I'm averse to the ill-considered use of words to have anything other than the commonly understood meaning, it's not a battle I care to wage. And, in any case, there is something special that happens when we get together.

Now, I've been in some dreary services in my day, and am probably guilty for having a hand in organizing some of them. At the same time, I've also left services at times feeling uplifted and encouraged. One service that we have at Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation, where I'm a member, is most definitely not called 'worship.' It's the monthly Contemporary Humanist Service, and it is anything but dreary. We sing along to popular songs that most people know, including Queen, Elton John, and Katy Perry. Just this last week our second song was Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." This most recent service was also one of the more powerful as well, compared even to those I've attended at the annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. It turns out that no reference to gods or the divine is need to feel as though one is standing on holy ground. 

When the ancient Roman republic was in its heavy expansion phase it became a regular event to watch captives being marched through the capital city. They were jeered at by gathered crowds. Some were going to be executed. The majority were doomed to a lifetime of slavery. What was not mocked were the images of foreign gods that were carried in as well. These were celebrated as evidence that the gods of the conquered people did not favor them, and instead were with the Romans. Some even had temples built to them in the city. Slowly, pantheons consolidated, and as it had been with empires then and before, the gods with similar portfolios merged. 

In heaven, as it is on earth, in a manner of speaking.

The consolidation of the gods is a result of the unification of various nations. Monotheism had the best chance of being an excellent solution to the problem, but then people couldn't (or wouldn't) agree on the nature of that god. The Christians argued among themselves for centuries, resulting in the various creeds of the first 400 or so years of the Common Era. The Jews were never on board with the Christian vision, and the Muslims rejected the trinity outright in favor of a unitary godhead. A further, serious bone of contention was how the one god, whoever 'he' was, should be worshiped and served.

Here we are, in year 2020 CE, with people as divided as ever over religion. And yet, I see potential for a better way forward. In developed nations outside the United States, organized religion has been in steep decline for decades. Now, the United States is catching up, with even the evangelical churches losing membership after having grown artificially for years by receiving those who didn't care for the liberalism of the mainline denominations. People are still interested in spiritual practices and feel the need for intentional community, but they are more than happy to seek these outside the framework of churches. Who can blame them?

Organized Humanism — which is really a thing — has fallen short for all but the committed non-theists, while anti-theists do well when they manage not to bite and devour one another. It's possible that Humanist organizations will find their way, with the American Humanist Association and the various other equivalent bodies around the world leading. Still, not everyone is going to be interested in the god-free existence many of us enjoy.

The point of reflection here is not how we can all agree to worship, or not, in the same way. Rather, it's a more personal question of how we can get along with others who do not share our perspectives and traditions. Obviously, this isn't really possible with those who deny the full humanity of others. After all, what relationship does light have with darkness? In those cases, it's perhaps more a matter of how best to insist on the human decency in the face of bigoted fear and hate. 

This past Sunday, in that evening service where gods were not to be found, I felt I encountered something sacred in the songs and words that were shared. I also observed that there was at least one progressive Christian in the assembly, as welcome and affirmed as everyone else. I think I saw a glimpse of what could be.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Giving Up | Second Sunday in Lent 2020


During all of Lent one year, I drank something I referred to as 'blue juice.' It was really just blue Kool-Aid. It was the only thing I could drink and enjoy instead of my beloved sweet iced tea. I'd given up caffeine, and went into Lent knowing full well that I'd have a few days of lethargy and bad headaches while my body became accustomed. The 'suffering' made it seem more significant, in my mind. Another year I gave up popcorn (we customarily had popcorn in the evenings in my home), and then there was the time I gave up Cheers (yes, the TV show). I haven't participated in this Lenten practice for years, and lately I'm thinking about self-denial and sacrifice, but not in the sense of forsaking candy or something for a few weeks. What I have in mind is genuine, meaningful sacrifice in response to a sense of greater purpose.

Consider Odin, who in Neil Gaiman's telling of it in 'Norse Mythology, traveled far to drink from Mimir's well. When he arrived, Odin asked for a drink, but was denied. He tried name dropping relatives, to no effect. What Mimir wanted was Odin's eye, placed in the water. Without questioning further, Odin requested a knife:

"After he had done what was needful, he placed the eye carefully in the pool. It sared up at him through the water. Odin filled the Gjallerhorn with water from Mimir's pool, and he lifted it to his lips. The water was cold. He drained it down. Wisdom flooded into him. He saw farther and more clearly with his one eye than he ever had with two." (Norse Mythology, Neil Gaimain, p46)

Odin went on a quest for wisdom, and he obtained it only through making a terrible sacrifice. From this account, it certainly seems worth it. Fortunately, we're probably not going to have to remove a part of our bodies in order to achieve something we deem valuable. 

"And the LORD said to Abram, 'Go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father's house to the land I will show you. And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.'" (Genesis 12:1 The Five Books of Moses, Robert Alter)

In this translation, a type of intensifier is present that used elsewhere in Genesis, but often missed by other translators. In this case, Abram is told to 'go forth from' his 'land.' Then the focus is narrowed to his 'birthplace.' Finally, it reaches his family home. There's no escaping this call, something drawing him out of everything he's ever known, from the place where he belongs, and into the unknown. The aim is for him to be blessed, obtain fame, and be a blessing. The only way for him to do this is to take action.

For some, giving up their family would actually be welcome. There are homes that do not feel like homes, and people who should accept their family members as they are but instead reject anything that doesn't conform to their image of what they should be. Many yearn for a family that does affirm them, and I part of the work of ministry is forming communities where an alternative family is a reality. It isn't easy work, with us human beings being so...human. 

For Odin, the price of wisdom was an eye. With Abram the sacrifice required to reach for a higher purpose was that of familial comfort and the security of his homeland. Striving to make meaning can require that some sacrifices be made, but it's not a one-size-fits-all situation. There's no magic, universal formula for everyone to give up this or do that to find their way. It varies as widely as there are people and in as many varieties as people have dreams. Uniformly, though, a meaningful course of action requires changes that are genuine and relevant, and never contrived or copied.

In most forms of Christianity there is a call to self-denial, one that extends from the execution of Jesus in the symbol of a cross. Troublingly, we generally see this concept packaged for mass consumption with guilt and shame as the currency. Rooted in such a  notion is that we are all hopelessly lost and broken, helpless without direct divine intervention. Our natural human desires for recognition, sex, and satisfaction with life -- in any measure -- are condemned as pride, lust, and greed. 

We are not broken. There have been traumas in our lives. There are ingrained habits, biological demands, traumas experienced, and hurtful errors in relationships. Yet, we are not broken. We are whole human beings who need a little help, and to give a little help, from time to time. Sometimes the hurdles can seem insurmountable, and those are the moments when the most mercy, support, and encouragement, and possibly admonition are required. This is fundamental to our human calling in community, should we choose to accept it.

What I choose to do with my life is my own, and my own sense of purpose doesn't have to sync with anyone else's. Keeping in mind my covenant responsibilities, the demands of reasons and ethics, and the value of careful deliberation and consultation, my course forward and the price I will pay to get there is on me.  It does no one any good to intentionally cause harm to ourselves as an end in itself, but rather to know the direction and do what is required within the framework described to bring this into reality, or die trying.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

A Gospel of Universalism | First Sunday in Lent 2020

Pmucpastor, (CC BY-SA 3.0)
"Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all." — Romans 5:18 NRSV

Traditions born of historic Western European Christianity have a lot of baggage around the topics of hell and salvation. Original sin is in the mix as well, with most supporting the doctrine, and some sects and denominations denying it. How to overcome original sin and personal sin, receive salvation, and avoid hell in favor of heaven are the basic points of contention. Universalism argues that all are or will be saved. I wonder if these questions (and answers) are not all missing the point.

The Universalist Church of America, a predecessor of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), had as its founding belief the ultimate salvation of all people. This was the gospel it preached. As time progressed and the more mainline Protestant denominations increasingly downplayed hell, this distinctive was lost to the UCA. It became downright awkward when the denomination attempted mission work overseas, and in Japan the missionaries discovered that the people there had little idea of Christianity in general, let alone the worries over hell and salvation. Did they have to teach people the 'wrong' idea first to get them to understand the 'right' idea they had on the subject? Without members of other churches coming to them for solace from the doctrine of predestination and the preaching of hellfire, the potency of their universalist gospel was lost. And so it was that in 1961, as they united with the American Unitarian Association to form the UUA, their denomination was already in steep decline.

When I left the Roman Catholic Church at age 17, I joined a parish of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and was given a small booklet about the denomination. On one of the pages there was a reference to hell, set in the context of the hells we create for ourselves on earth through vice and injustice. If ever hell was mentioned from the pulpit, I certainly don't remember it. Had it been, it likely would have been notable enough to remember. This soft-edged gospel was appealing on one level, but on another level it lacked the call to action that I heard in evangelicalism. 

The Universalism of today, and least in UU circles, has much more to do with pluralism than what might happen to us after death. It's more than that, though. Universalism is now being expressed in the UUA through a concerted effort to face and address white supremacy culture in our fellowship, and then also the rest of society. The claims of 'colorblindenss' of previous generations of religious liberals always missed the mark, as has the idea that somehow a congregation doesn't have to do the work around becoming welcoming and affirming toward lgbtq+ people because 'of course everyone is welcome.'

This renewed effort to embrace a universalist gospel that calls us to change our hearts and pursue a reconciliation that is firmly rooted in justice is not without its detractors. Just last year a regrettable collection of essays was self-published by a UU minister and distributed by his congregation at the annual General Assembly. In them, he accused people of color and the lgbtq community of being too thin-skinned and sensitive, among other abusive comments. It set off an ugly undercurrent for the final two days of GA, with a lot of anger, soul-searching, and sadness. It illustrated how far we have to go, and highlighted the importance of this work.

Universalism as it is being understood at this time within the UUA demands that we who have privilege set it aside to listen, and use it to advocate alongside those who lack it. This Universalism is not a passive, sunny promise of ultimate acceptance by an almighty deity into eternal bliss. Rather, it is a component of a multifaceted progressive gospel that, among other aims and ideals, calls us to seek collective liberation, beginning with individuals and congregations. Much is required of us by this hard-edged good news that one day we can all be free.

Responses to The Gadfly Papers, referred to above, can be found on the following pages:

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Time and Treasure | Ash Wednesday 2020


cc0-icon CC0 Public Domain

"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."Matthew 6:21 NRSV

There have been plenty of dumb decisions I've made. Worse, though, were the wrong attitudes I've had at different points in my life.

When I went to Brazil in early 2001 to be a missionary, I was also going to get married. My wife (now ex) brought to our marriage an adorable girl who's grown into an independent and savvy young lady. It was an instant family. In those early days, and for longer than I care to admit, I often tried to live as though I were still single. I got a computer, for instance, and spent many hours on it in a separate office at home. Though I wasn't engaged in anything untoward, and the efforts I made to prepare Bible studies, sermons, and so forth were relevant to my purpose for being in Brazil, I was also active in discussion lists. In retrospect, that was quite a waste of time.

In my defense, I wasn't a complete slacker. I proactively arranged to have a day every so often where I planned activities and games and my daughter and I stayed home together. I also read to her every night, and then to my son as well when he came along. I took my wife out on dates, and socialized with the in-laws. Over the course of time, my priorities began to change, and the ratio of time on the computer vs. with the family began tilting even more in what I'd consider a better direction.

Smartphones were a godsend, in so many ways. No longer anchored down to a desktop or needing to lug around a laptop to be online, I've actually found myself more focused when I'm with people I care about, because I know I can check what's going on in the wider world or respond to messages at any time. The distraction of wondering is gone. 

Where was my heart? Where is it now? These are good questions, relevant for Ash Wednesday, or any day of the year. 

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Unitarian Universalism: Making Room

First Unitarian Congregational Society, Brooklyn
An article I read a number of years ago counseled patience for Humanists at Unitarian Universalist congregations. The writer said that although you'd occasionally encounter a visitor at coffee hour breathlessly regaling you with the benefits of crystals and astrology, such people don't tend to hang around long. Such snobbery is more than a little off-putting, in my opinion. Another story I read in the 1990s involved a young woman wondering out loud if she could believe in the virgin birth at a UU church, and someone piped up that of course, she could believe in any damn nonsense she wanted. The story then suggests that the young woman's time there was short-lived. It doesn't have to be this way.

There is a certain anxiety felt among the more skeptically-minded within the Unitarian Universalist Association that a more humanistic outlook is being lost. The dread appears to be that the UUA will either become just another liberal mainline denomination, or collapse into an ooey-gooey mess of New Age nonsense. Personally, I see some grounds for concern, but not quite the horror that some seem to be forecasting.

It would be bad for the UUA to become essentially indistinguishable from our cousins in the United Church of Christ. When hell became nearly absent in mainline teaching, the Universalist Church of America lost a key distinctive, contributing to its decline prior to the merger with the American Unitarian Association. If the UUA were to embrace a more Christian outlook, it would not only alienate people of all other faiths, spiritualities, and lifestances within the association, but also eliminate the distinctive identity we have as a place welcoming people from all walks of life and perspectives (that don't deny the full humanity of others).

A decline into a shapeless post-modern spirituality would be noxious to those embracing a more scientific outlook, and again offer little different than what can be found in parts of mainline denominations as well as in organizations geared towards providing those sorts of experiences.

Unitarian Universalism is at its best, in my opinion, when it has a warm humanism as its baseline. As a faith it is agnostic, while it also encourages individuals to pursue what speaks to them and helps them find meaning. That means that atheists and theists will sit next to one another in church, march together for justice, and volunteer side-by-side at the local food pantry. Rev. Marlin Lavanhar in Tulsa has spoken about having an atheist and a Pentecostal in his congregation who work well together on things that matter to them. It's like the lions and lambs frolicking together.

Such is not always the case. In the 1990s I read about a UU congregation that experienced some controversy because a coven had formed within the fellowship and wanted to hold services on the grounds. It had been a joke for so long that "unitarians believe in, at most, one god" that the arrival of pagans threw people for a loop. Another congregation around the same time voted not to give formal recognition to a pagan group in the church, on the grounds that they never endorsed such interest groups. Even as a conservative Christian I found perturbing the hypocrisy of Unitarian Universalists excluding people who otherwise aligned with their values.

At no point has the UUA nor either of its predecessor bodies been a Humanist organization. There was certainly a time when the Unitarians were heavily under the sway of this perspective, but through it all there have remained congregations that identified as Christian or simply took a more middle way. In merging, the Universalists feared being overrun by Humanism, while the Unitarians were anxious to avoid being 'dragged down' into the unscientific mindset they felt was present among many of their counterparts. Although its true that Spiritualism had its heyday in Universalist circles, this was largely in the past by the time of the merger in 1961.

My children are pretty much grown, and while the oldest has never been involved with UUism, the younger has been participating since 8th grade, and is about to graduate high school. Both dabble in earth-centered spirituality and some New Age ideas, and while I see no objective validity to these practices, I wouldn't think of attempting to impose my Humanist perspective on them. Although I insist on a respect for science, and full use of medical science, I don't interfere in their incense burning and crystal collecting ways. I'd hate for either of my children to feel unwelcome among UUs because of these ideas, and I feel the same in general about anyone darkening our doors.

A few weeks ago I spoke with a visitor after services who shared with me the joy she felt that morning in attending, and went on to explain some of her religious perspective. I heard her out, and advised that others in our congregation certainly thought as she did, and that in any case we're more concerned with living well with one another in this life than debating what might come next, or who (if anyone) we'll encounter then. We have a few soreheads among us at Beacon who might be a bit unkind about views that differ from theirs, but in my experience, not many. I've heard someone share a rather outlandish theory about life after death and watched people I knew to be atheists not bat an eye at what she was saying. Why argue?

What I'm getting at hear is simply that while we need to remain anchored in evidence-based understandings of the world as a while, individual UUs are free to hold to concepts that truly require faith, and that they should also be welcome to form groups among us of those who share their beliefs. Christians, Pagans, Buddhists, and so forth should not just have a place at the UU table, but also in our kitchen, making the future of Unitarian Universalism along with the rest of us.

Friday, February 21, 2020

So Long North American Christian Convention


This week I was reminded that it's possible for me to feel shocked and unsurprised at the same time. I've learned that the North American Christian Convention, an annual gathering of people from independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, is no more. After 90 years of what many described as a 'big family reunion,' it's been shut down and replaced with something called The Spire Network. This turn of events, which apparently took place in 2018, seemed both impossible to me and, in hindsight, completely predictable. 

The North American Christian Convention came together in 1927, largely as an alternative to the International Convention of Christian Churches, which was seen by some as being too top-down and doctrinally liberal. For a time it wasn't too uncommon for people to attend both, when able. Over the course of the following few decades the chasm between the two grew larger, until in 1968 the ICCC approved a plan that formalized a 'restructure,' resulting in the denomination we know of as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). There was already something of a distinction between the Disciples churches and the independent Christian churches before that vote, but this was the point of no return. 

As I already mentioned, the NACC was widely considered a family reunion of sorts, an important touchpoint for people from like-minded churches. In the absence of a traditional denominational structure, it's been the Bible colleges, publications, and conventions of these churches that have kept their identity distinct and held them together. As time passed and leadership aged out and changed, the NACC became more and more generically evangelical. People unaffiliated with the movement were regularly featured on the program, and differences between these churches and the general mass of evangelicalism was heavily downplayed. It's as if the leadership was actively trying to dissolve this unique branch of Stone-Campbell Movement. It also became increasingly obvious to me and others that the mega church and then multi-site church models were favored above all else. Resources for preachers and elders from small to mid-sized churches seemed fairly scarce to me. It was all about getting big. 

From a look around the internet I can't tell if a Spire Network Conference happened last year (2019), but one is coming up in Orlando this coming September (2020). Perhaps indicative of how much this is directed towards white, upper-middle-class boomers is the fact that they're also sponsoring a golf tour. I guess that drawing in Millennials, GenXers, and people of color must not be high priorities for this new venture, and that makes sense in terms of financing. It's the white Boomers who have money to spend. Then again, what future can they possibly have if they are out of touch with other generations and racial/ethnic groups?

It may seem odd for a Unitarian Universalist like myself to take an interest in this matter, until you learn that I was formerly associated with the independent Christian Churches, even being ordained by the elders of one such congregation in Arkansas. While this is no longer my horse race, I can still feel what I would have felt in an earlier iteration of myself. And so, I felt oddly upbeat to learn as well that The Christian Standard, the flagship publication of Christian Churches/Churches of Christ is now in the hands of people who have re-oriented it back to the movement and the specific identity of these churches. Before, the publication had become a means of delivering propaganda in favor of the turn towards vanilla evangelicalism. 

To be clear, I would never want nor even be able to return to the independent Christian Churches. Even as a theist the dogma would be far too heavy for me, and the political leanings of most members oppressively conservative. Call it sentimentalism, if you like. There are too many good memories of people and churches that supported me as I studied for the ministry and then went into mission work. Too many Sunday mornings with kind, smiling faces (aside from one rather terrible congregation in the southwest that has, thankfully, closed) singing hymns, having communion, and hearing a sermon. 

Also, seeing what has happened, a big part of me feels vindicated, having predicted this general course of events for many years, however unexpected the specifics feel. 

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Mhurwud: A Basic Fantasy Game World


The world has seen six ages and six cataclysms, from the golden age of Elves and Dwarves, through the ages of the first race of humans and on through to the present, Seventh Age. This is an age for the survivors, the ones from all the races who have endured, and after 500 years of sheltering more or less in place, they are looking around again. Trade routes are being established, knowledge is being rediscovered, and adventurous souls are just beginning to realize that the many thousands of years of civilizations and apocalyptic collapses have resulted in a world riddled with ruins of every kind. Within these 'dungeons' and long-forgotten structures it's possible to find wealth, powerful magic, and some of the most horrific monsters that have ever lived. To the skilled, stouthearted, and lucky go the spoils. 

Last year I put quite a bit of work into building Mhurwud, and I'm just about ready to launch a campaign in it using the Basic Fantasy RPG system. I had thought that it would be trialed with a group formed through Beacon, the Unitarian Universalist congregation I'm a part of, but instead I'll probably be presenting it the first time at a group formed where I work. 

As I said, it's based on the Basic Fantasy, though with some modifications. I've added the sub-classes, quasi-classes, and races that the community has contributed and which were published on the game's website. I've also adapted a couple of pantheons for use, and created a sub-class of cleric of my own: Plague Doctor. 

Depending on how it goes with the work group, I'd like to take it on to Beacon and other groups over time. I'm certain errors will be identified and fixed, rules adapted for better play, and further alterations to the world as seem appropriate. This is, however, not a finished product that I'll be making available to the wider public. Instead, I suggest that if anyone is interested, you should take a look at the game's site, where the core rulebook and a wealth of other information is available for free. If you like what you see, download it and use it for your own worlds and campaigns. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Contemporary Humanist Services at Beacon

For a few months now at Beacon UU Congregation in Summit, NJ we've been having a contemporary Humanist Service. It's always on the first Sunday of the month, at 5pm, and if you're familiar with Sunday Assembly you'll recognize what we're trying to do. The music, readings, and talks are all non-theistic, upholding humanistic values. Rather than sing old hymns and hear a lecture, we're invited to sing along, if we like, to music from this century and the last that actually played on radios. We've enjoyed singing songs from Queen, Bruce Springsteen, Katy Perry, and more. 

Below is a short clip from a gathering two months ago. This was a bit of a departure in that it was a Brazilian beat and not a lot of singing along, but it will give you a notion of the vibe of these services.


All are welcome to attend this service. Members, friends, first-time visitors. The exterior of the building looks like a traditional church, but we're a progressive congregation with a mission 'to be a radically inclusive religious community that feeds the human spirit and heals the world.' And when we say 'religious' we don't necessarily mean 'theistic.' Unitarian Universalism itself is agnostic and focused on living well together in this one life we know we have. Individually, Unitarian Universalists hold to a wide variety of beliefs. 

We welcome all who welcome all.

Please do drop in for this or any of the services. The address is 4 Waldron Avenue, Summit, NJ.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Progressive Churches Can Grow


An article published by The Washington Post caught my attention recently because it discussed a church split. In some macabre way I always enjoy reading those. I hate the heartache that people feel, but I find how and why churches split to be either amusing or simply fascinating. What struck me about this particular article was that, while it focused on the fresh start the anti-lgbtq Falls Church Anglican has in a new building, after fighting for years to keep the historic building that belonged to the Episcopal denomination, the real story seems to be about the astounding growth of the progressive, inclusive parish that they left behind.

Boiling it down, 90% of Falls Church Episcopal’s parish voted in 2006 to disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. For several years the majority occupied the historic church building, while the continuing ECUSA parish was in ‘exile’ meeting elsewhere.

Just 35 people had decided to remain Falls Church Episcopalians when the church split. During the years of the court battle, that number grew to 80, who moved back into the contested building when the ruling came down in their favor.
A tiny group of a mere 35 managed to grow to 80 without their church building and the resources it housed. That’s pretty great. Separately, a minister of the ECUSA parish had this to say later in this timeline:
What I mean by that is when I started here in 2012, there were about 100 members, almost all of whom attended church almost every Sunday. And almost all of them were actively connected to their church — regularly volunteering in a ministry and/or actively engaged in discipleship/growing in the faith/learning to be an apprentice of Jesus.
Okay, so according to that there were roughly 100 parishioners with Falls Church Episcopal, back with their own building, in 2012. In March 2014 on the website of Episcopal Relief & Development, an astonishing number is mentioned.
The congregation has seen tremendous growth since moving back into its buildings after a lengthy lawsuit over ownership, from an average Sunday attendance of ninety to now almost two hundred people. While there are many factors that contributed to this growth, one area that has become particularly vibrant is the youth and children’s ministry.
If all the foregoing is correct, then the congregation nearly doubled in just two years. I’ve never seen growth like this in any church I’ve been around, and we usually attribute such to conservative evangelical churches, while we expect churches with more liberal theology to wither and die.

But wait, there’s more, and it’s buried in the article from The Washington Post.

Today, The Falls Church Episcopal, less than a mile from the new building of its conservative counterpart, has almost 600 members, according to the Rev. John Ohmer, who has been rector since 2012, but recently announced he will leave for another church position.
Holy moly kiddos, this parish went from 35 in 2007 to almost 600 in 2019. In 2012 it had about 100, so it’s gained an average of about 70 new members each year.

I’d really like to know how they’re doing it. There are massive, well-equipped congregations all over the United States with relatively tiny, mostly elderly congregations hanging on inside. I’ve seen a few just in Manhattan. That’s aside from the average-sized buildings with just a handful of hangers-on, such as were many I supply preached for in my college days. Just having a great facility can’t be what’s helping Falls Church Episcopal experience such growth.

Evangelicals tend to think that mainline Protestant churches just want to be popular, and follow every whim of society. Frankly, I can see where they’re coming from with that. At the same time, if that’s the strategy of such churches, it’s failing miserably. Denominations like the United Church of Christ, perhaps the most theologically liberal of the mainline Protestant churches (of which the Unitarian Universalists are not a part and thus not considered in this group)is hemorrhaging members at a shocking rate. ‘Popular’ they are not.

Falls Church Episcopal makes it clear that they are generously progressive, welcoming everyone, and setting no doctrinal requirements or standards with regard to who people are or who they love. And they are growing. Like gangbusters. There’s something to be sussed out there, for sure.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Ziusudra's Ark

“Enlil organized his assembly, he addressed the great gods, ‘The noise of mankind has become too much, I am losing sleep over their racket.’” — The Epic of Ziusudra


The ancient tale of Ziusudra is one of the ancient deluge narratives, one upon which the biblical story of Noah and his ark was likely based. The writers and redactors of what became the Hebrew scriptures adapted it in ways to match their concept of Yahweh, once he had ascended to the role of supreme and only deity in their imaginations. With that sanitization, a certain vividness of emotion was lost, I think. Ziusudra’s story is too long to include here in its entirety, so I’ll begin with a very quick summary, and invite you to read the full text here.

Originally, the gods worked the land. They toiled hard on the Earth, while the greater gods enjoyed a peaceful existence. This lasted for a while, until there was a rebellion. As a solution to the matter, a young god was sacrificed, and through a ritual involving his body, blood, and some clay, humans were made. The humans were then set to work the land. Generations passed, the human population grew, and they became too noisy. The god Enlil called for their destruction through disease. Many died before an intervention saved them. 

Then, Enlil once again called for their death, this time through drought. Again, many people died before they were spared with rainfall and a good harvest. Finally, the gods obligated Enki, who had orchestrated the salvation of humans twice already, to bring a flood upon the earth and wipe out humanity. Enki was made to swear an oath to that effect. However, he whispered through the reed wall of a temple into the ear of Ziusudra, instructing him to make the temple into a boat, and take into it friends, family, and animals. Ziusudra, with the help of others, did so.
All manner of life was placed aboard the boat, Ziusudra selected the best of all species and placed them on the boat. He invited his people to a feast. He put his family and friends on board the vessel. They were eating, they were drinking, but Ziusudra went in and out, pacing the decks of his boat, he could not stay still on his haunches, his heart was breaking, and he was vomiting bile.*
How could his heart not break? The emotion someone would feel in a situation like this, knowing that friends and family were safe, but that so many others were about to die, must have been overwhelming. It was so bad Ziusudra was having dry heaves. As bad as that was, I can only begin to imagine the survivor’s guilt for him, and everyone else on board, once this was all over.
The face of the weather changed. Ishkur bellowed from the clouds. When Ziusudra heard this noise, bitumen was brought to him, and he sealed up the door with it. While he was closing the door, Ishkur kept bellowing from the clouds, the winds were raging even as he went up and cut through the ropes, he released the boat. Anzu was tearing at the sky with his talons, the bolt of Abzu broke open and the Flood came out.
Did people left to the merciless elements pound on the vessel, hoping for mercy? The door was shut and sealed by Ziusudra’s own hand, sealing the fate of his neighbors. Shivering men, women, and children soaked to the bone and then swept away to their deaths.
The Flood went against the people like an army. No one could see anyone else clearly, none of them could be recognized in the catastrophe. The Flood roared like a bull, like a wild ass screaming the winds howled. The darkness was total, there was no sun. The bodies of man and the children of the gods floated on the surface like fat white sheep, their corpses pushed by the Flood into heaps like piles of dead dragonflies in the marsh. The earth was inundated with the power and noise of the Flood.
The baying of terrified animals and the pleas to the gods from anguished people were lost in the howling storm and darkness. In the end, silence. Just the splashing of water amidst thousands and thousands of corpses.

This is imagery that is left out of the Hebrew version, but which was captured in the illustration of a children’s Bible I had when I was little. That’s the image at the top of this post. While Genesis makes no direct mention of this scene, the artist captured it in all its horror. Before I could even read I found this picture and stared at it, fascinated and disturbed. I asked my mother about it, and especially about the animals, and as I recall she said something about God ‘taking care of them.’ It’s been so long that I can’t remember.

Some time back I had the great misfortune of standing in line with an avid Fox News viewer. What began as a plain vanilla chat became a roaring debate about climate change. He thought he was clever by pointing out that the climate has changed many times in the past billion or so years. I responded that this time it’s caused by humans, and will harm humans. Mentioning the islands being lost to their native inhabitants got nowhere with him, but when I mentioned the North Carolina farmers dealing with salt-poisoned fields due to rising sea levels, he quickly changed the subject.

He could relate to the presumably white farmers.

There are many ways that climate change is going to impact our species, and every other species on the planet, and virtually nothing is being done about it. By the time the deniers admit there’s a problem, it will be too late, and they’ll insist that we just have to deal with the situation. The cost in human life is simply too high. Lost farmland, homes destroyed by storms and floods, drought, and other consequences will push more to become refugees, fueling the xenophobia of certain citizens of the various nation states. This, despite the fact that populations are facing certain decline in developed nations, could well continue to drive efforts to build walls and kick otherwise productive members of society out.
Enlil was fetched, and made to stand upon the holy mound. Upon this mound did Enlil swear to the covenant known as Duranki, the Bond of Heaven and Earth, never again to harm the people of the land, and never again to allow the Anunnaki to cohabit with the children of man. And so the years passed, and mankind flourished, and the gods were made happy by the people of the land.
These are ugly times, and it wasn’t any gods that got us here, or that can save us. This one is entirely on us. The future is not closed, however. We still have the opportunity to take action now with protests, environmental advocacy, and political action. We also have the means to come up with technological and engineering solutions for the many to survive this oncoming crisis, rather than settle for a quick fix that will only save the privileged few. This also requires our direct and concerted effort, because otherwise the plutocratic oligarchy will only work for its own preservation, and not for that of the people.

If we don’t want our ‘corpses pushed by the Flood into heaps like piles of dead dragonflies in the marsh,’ we must be Ziusudra and Enki.


The source of this and following quotes is The Atra-Hasis, located at http://www.markfoster.net/rn/texts/the_atra_hasis.pdf