Monday, February 27, 2006

First Wednesdays on March 1st

I hope you'll attend our First Wednesdays program on Wednesday, March 1st.

At 6:30 we will be having a Unitarian Universalist-style Ash Wednesday service. Rev. Thom will offer a reflection. You may choose to participate, or just come to observe.

At 7:00 we will be having our second "Radical Conversations" session. The theme for this month is: "Appropriate or Appropriation." The program will feature a guided reflection on Unitarian Universalism's relationship with world religions.

Here are some questions to think about, related to the source of our faith that says we draw "Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life."

Is there such a thing as "cultural intellectual property" or are the rituals, words, songs, etc. of other faiths and cultures "free use"?

What constitutes ethical use of another tradition? Unethical use? How do we know?

What separates spiritual practice from spiritual tourism?

Suggested reading:

Reckless Sharing or Appropriate Cultural Sharing? by Jacqui James.

(Mis)Appropriation by Rev. Paul Beckel.

Various Reflections

If you have an idea for a future "Radical Conversations", send me a note.

Sermon: "What's a Pastor For?; or, reflections on watching The Exorcist dubbed in Finnish." (Delivered 2/26/2006)

Reading

The reading this morning is the poem “Guardian Angel” from Carl Dennis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Practical Gods.

GUARDIAN ANGEL by Carl Dennis

Not the angel that helps you resist temptation
(Conscience and heart are enough for that,
And besides, when have you been tempted lately?),
But the one with advice about tactics
For possessing your share of the true and beautiful,
The one who tells you the plaid of your jacket
Will prove too loud for the soft-spoken sensitive woman
You’re destined to meet tonight in line at the theater
When everything depends on a first impression.

With the angel’s help you can open a conversation
On a fruitful subject like happiness and explain
People are wrong to seek it directly,
How it comes on the back of other things
Like losing oneself in a casual conversation
That tests our powers of empathy, not cleverness.

A practical angel, ignorant in philosophy
But peerless in group dynamics, who can show you
Why it’s unwise to urge your hesitant friend
To leave her apartment for yours too quickly,
How a sudden fear of confinement may choke off feelings
That otherwise would be sure to bloom.

And if eagerness wins out over prudence, the angel,
Instead of saying, “I told you so,” will help you
Turn from errors that can’t be altered
And sally out in quest of a local problem
Where your many talents can make a difference.

Why not get involved with the block-club committee
Dedicated to stopping the corner drugstore
From tripling in size and knocking down in the process
Houses that keep the scale of the neighborhood human?
Soon you may find yourself toasting the cause
By candlelight with your eager co-chair,
A woman fearless in the face of officialdom.

It’s true if she had an angel to help her
She wouldn’t be wearing the dress she’s wearing,
A duplicate of the one your mother wore
Thirty summers ago at Cape May when your father
Embarked full-time on his career of drinking.
But doesn’t this ignorance, which her angel
Should have dispelled, make her appealing
To someone like you, who’s quick to discern a soul mate?

As you sit across the table you can feel your heart
Swell with so much sympathy that your jacket
Feels tight in the chest, your loud plaid jacket.
“Why not remove it,” the angel you need would ask,
“And drape it out of sight on the back of your chair?”

Sermon

When I was in college, there was a regular movie night in a large auditorium on campus. (This was during a study-abroad program at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK.) I decided to show up at a screening of The Exorcist. As the film was supposed to start, the organizer announced that the film reels had not arrived, and apologized that the screening would have to be cancelled. At that point a student in the audience jumped up and said, “Oh, I’ve got a video of The Exorcist back in my dorm room, and if you’d wait, I can be back in fifteen minutes.” This student happened to be a foreign exchange student from Finland and returned fifteen minutes later with a video cassette of The Exorcist dubbed into Finnish.

Truthfully, I never expected that this story would wind up as a sermon illustration…

This morning, I am interested in reflecting upon, publicly, an aspect of my job and my profession: the office of the pastor. Classically, the position of the minister consists of filling five offices, which can be remembered because they all begin with the letter “P”. The five offices of the minister are:


“Preacher”, the leader of public worship,
“Priest”, the performer of rites, rituals, and ceremonies, what one of my colleagues terms “hatching, matching, and dispatching”,
“Pedagogue” or teacher, an instructor in religious understanding,
“Prophet”, the advocate for justice in the community,
and, “Pastor”, related to the work of caring, guiding, or healing.


Now, of course, filling those five offices is not the sum of the job. In the modern congregation there are also roles like: manager of staff, consultant to leaders and committees, and occasionally administrator of this, solver of that, or opener of doors. This makes ministry one of the last true generalist professions.

However, this is changing. In this age of large-, very-large-, and mega-churches, ministry has entered a period of increased specialization. A few months ago, I sat on a panel with a number of local clergy, including the senior minister of a large Methodist Church. Before the program, we were talking about weddings, and she remarked that she hadn’t performed one in six years. “That’s not something I have the time to do anymore.” Recently, many large churches have taken to subcontracting out their pastoral care functions, which may include leasing office space to chaplain services or having an approved list of therapists, counselors, coaches, and spiritual advisors who pay the church for referrals.

What I wanted to reflect upon, publicly, this morning is that narrow sliver of my profession known as the “office of the pastor.” What’s a pastor for? And more than that, in a Unitarian Universalist church, with its particular culture and theology and diversity and approach to spiritual matters, what’s a Unitarian Universalist pastor for?

And I’ll begin by first saying what a Unitarian Universalist pastor is not for. We’ll begin with the obvious: I don’t perform exorcisms (and certainly not in Finnish.) I’m being a bit facetious here, a bit silly, but it is true, there are certain types of pastoral interventions I am not asked to do. I am not asked to cast out foul demons, slay in the spirit, or perform psychic surgery. I don’t choreograph ghost dances. I don’t fill a shamanic role: no trance, séance, or soul- transnavigation here. I don’t prescribe crystal therapy, or aromatherapy. I don’t hypnotize or psychoanalyze or MMPI.

And you may respond to that by saying “Thank Goodness!” But part of me responds by saying, “Too bad.” It’d make my job a whole lot easier and remove a good bit of the uncertainty. There’s an old Gary Larson “Far-Side” cartoon that I’m fond of. It shows a man standing in a store. The storefront advertises “appliance faith healing”, and the man holds up a vacuum cleaner and invokes, “Come out, unclean spirit!” You wouldn’t bring your vacuum cleaner to an appliance faith healer. To whom, though, do you bring your grief, anxiety, fear, pre-occupation, or sadness?

Leaving the realm of facetiousness, there are other roles that I don’t fill. One of those roles is “therapist.” I’m not a therapist. How many additional years of school would that be, and how much more would I be paying in student loan? There’s another reason I’m not a therapist: when you think of the continuing education, licensing, professional development, and keeping up to date on the latest theories and techniques and so on and so forth that would seem to me to be a pre-requisite for someone ethically to call oneself a therapist, you’d wonder where I’d find the time for filling the other offices. Two pastoral care classes in seminary does not a therapist make.

So, when I go to pay a visit on someone in the hospital, what’s that all about? What is happening in that moment? This is a theological question. Perhaps, my presence is representative – that a call or a visit from me is representative of a community that expresses its concern. I come to you as an ambassador from the congregation, a larger group that is thinking of you and praying for you, but I am merely representative. Or perhaps my presence is diversionary – the visit is inherently social where we might talk about the weather and current events, forty five minutes of company, and to my credit, I’m at least a little more bearable than daytime television. Or, perhaps my presence is just that: presence. Showing up is what really matters, because ninety percent of life is showing up… isn’t that what they say? Just being there and listening is what counts. Or, perhaps, it is something else.

There is another dimension to this issue as well, which is the dimension of authority. In the counseling experience in some religious traditions, it is par for the course for the religious leader to be prescriptive, even autocratic and dictatorial. The person presents their problem, and the pastor answers by prescriptively saying, “The Bible says that thou shalt…”, or “According to our teachings, you are not permitted to…”, or, “The rules say you should…” In Unitarian Universalism we are not an “anything goes” religion, yet, at the same time, it is not as though as I have, or pretend to have, a compendious volume of sanctioned, approved, prescriptive advice bearing the stamp of religious authority. I have no such book on my shelf from which I give you definitive answers.

This gets into the complicated area of denying a person’s agency by making decisions for them, which is something I would just soon not do. I need to allow a person to own their own difficult decisions because it is they, and not I, who will have to live with the consequences of those decisions. Unitarian Universalism stresses empowering individuals to exercise free-will rather than dependency. On the other hand, when it comes to the whole business of advice-giving, my role as pastor is best served when I assist individuals in forming their own faithful responses to difficult situations, and I can do this by being an interpreter of our tradition – “this is how Unitarian Universalism has approached this issue.”

Rev. Laurel Hallman, now the minister of the large UU church in Dallas, Texas writes the following:



“Early in my ministry I began to question why people were coming to see me. The problems and issues they brought into my study were posed in psychological terms. I knew that there were enough therapists in town to cover the needs of my whole congregation. ‘Why are they coming to me?’ I asked myself. Perhaps, I answered myself, it was because I was a minister.

“So, one day, feeling rather bold, I asked a person who was in my office if she had prayed about her situation. Without hesitation, she said, relieved, ‘Yes. I feel like a child again, but I can’t help myself.’

“It gave me some traction, a place from which to minister. ‘Shall we pray about it now?’ I asked. She said yes, and we did. I can’t say it was transformative for her, but I had the keen sense that at some level she expected that was what we would do.

“This hasn’t always worked. I remember once visiting a woman who did not have long to live. She was a confirmed skeptic. I knew that. But I thought, perhaps, in this tender moment, she might want her minister to pray with her. ‘Would you like me to pray?’ I asked. She was so forceful in her ‘No!’ that I actually thought I might have given her a renewed reason to live!”


What Laurel Hallman is talking about here, is not about one right way, one set path. What she is talking about is a pastoral role that is grounded in the spiritual dimensions of whatever the issue is. And I’m probably doing the best in that role when I approach the yearning through spiritual practice and metaphorical language. If you were going to pray about that, what would that be like?

And it that metaphorical language that I want to concentrate on, as we come back to the image of watching The Exorcist dubbed in Finnish. The silly, tongue-in-cheek, thing to say about this story is to comment on what a skilled and worldly Priest Max von Sydow is playing. I mean he not only casts out a demon, but he learns Finnish in order to cast out a Finnish speaking demon. Now that’s skill.

Of course, that’s not really how it works. The film was a translation, created in order to allow someone else to understand and comprehend. There are a variety of pastoral techniques – from performing exorcisms, to shamanic trances, to performing ghost dances – that probably, I’m guessing, would be no more effective for you than if I tried to talk to you in Finnish. There are languages we might try to speak to one another: the language of psychotherapy, the language of sociology and social history, the language of self-help. These are all powerful tongues, but the language I speak is primarily the language of theology and its my challenge to try to translate it effectively, gracefully.

In the poem “Guardian Angel” by Carl Dennis, a poem whose content is not relevant to this sermon, but whose concept is, Dennis imagines an enchanted world, where much more is happening than meets the eye. He paints a world in which heavenly hosts are imperceptibly whispering sage advice, bits of wisdom, for us to possibly attune ourselves to. In his fantasy, the guardian angels are whispering sartorial advice (“don’t wear that plaid jacket”), conversation advice, relationship advice (“I told you so.”) Regardless of whether we heed this advice or not, our lives continue on, sometimes gracefully, and sometimes in fits and starts. Even the advice we do not manage to pick up, to the effect of triggering a painful memory or an negative association, can, with our willingness to understand, indicate an innocence more appealing than calculation.

Dennis’ poem is a poem about mystery. We don’t quite know the ways of those guardian angels. We don’t even know if they exist, but we stand in theater lines, and join block-club committees, and conjure up memories from somewhere, and dub those memories with new words and understanding.

I leave you this morning with some words from Anne Lamott, from her book Plan B. She writes these plaintive words:



“What are you supposed to do, when what is happening can’t be, and the old rules no longer apply? I remember this feeling when my mother was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, when my brothers and I needed so much more information to go on than we had – explanations, plans, a tour guide, and hope that it really wasn’t going to be that bad. But then it was that bad, and then some, and all we could do was talk, and stick together. We managed to laugh at ourselves and at her, and at the utter hopelessness of it all, and we sought wise counsel – medical, financial, spiritual. I prayed, for things I never would imagine I’d pray for, I prayed for her to die in her sleep, I prayed that I’d never have to take the cat out of her arms and put her in a home. A nurse summoned form the Alzheimer’s Association entered into the mess with us. We said, “We don’t know what we’re doing. We don’t know if we should put her in a home, and if so, when. We don’t even know what’s true anymore.” The nurse asked gently, “How could you know?”


What a wise thing to say. The type of thing a guardian angel might whisper. Blessings!

Monday, February 20, 2006

Who Would Jesus Heart?

Observed in the Panera parking lot earlier today: A bumper sticker that reads, "I [Heart] the 1928 Book of Common Prayer".

This is a reference to the current schism occuring within the Episcopalian/Anglican Church over teachings on sexual orientation and other doctrinal issues.

I wonder though, if Jesus had a car, what sticker he'd affix to the bumper. Probably one that reads: "I [Heart] My Neighbor as Myself."

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Sermon: "What is Paradise?" (Delivered February 5, 2006)

[I preached this sermon on "Hawaiian Sunday." Everyone was invited to come wearing Hawaiian shirts; tropical music played in the foyers; luau decorations adorned the sanctuary; and everyone was presented with a lei as they arrived. Keep this in mind as you read the sermon.]

Opening Words

Aloha! To get what this morning is about, you should know that it goes against my personality. After all, I originally come from uptight, Puritanical, New England – with all its Protestant work ethic and idle-hand-are-the-devils-playthings-thinking, with all its starkness, and all its austerity, and all its non-ostentatious-ness. None of you have this problem. Nobody here is self-conscious, or uptight. “Hang Loose” describes us!

And so I want to inspire us this morning, amidst the wind and chill of winter, amidst the brown of grass, the naked limbs of trees, the varying grays of the days… I want to inspire us to adjust our minds to a different latitude, and attitude. I want us to just for a moment close our eyes and feel the sun. To imagine the swaying palm trees, the granular sand, the fish swimming in the coral reef. Children: Imagine you are surfing the biggest wave!

I want for us to allow ourselves to step into this paradise, to create it with our songs, our spirits. To put aside our reservations, our hesitations, to create a little levity, a little warmth.

Hang loose, dude. Chill out, man. Put the lime in the coconut. Let’s do church!

Reading

In lieu of a reading this morning, I might offer the following anti-reading, which I’ve personally titled: “On the limits of ‘google-searching’ for a reading adequate for this morning”:

If you type some combination of “Unitarian”, “tropical”, “paradise”, and “reading”, into Google you get the following:

You get several sermons touting the folly of Utopia, and the certainty of paradise’s demise. Not a promising beginning.

You get numerous mentions of environmental degradation, disappearing Rain Forests, and extinction of tropical species – worth our awareness, but also not exactly what I had in mind this morning.

You get examples of Unitarians doing charity for the victims of hurricanes and tropical storms – worth our awareness, but also not exactly what I had in mind this morning.

You get the web-site of the UU congregation in Paradise Valley… Arizona.

You get actual quotations from John Milton’s Paradise Lost in sermons – who would do such a thing?

You get a horribly, graphic story told by a UU minister about his children learning about the cycle of life by watching tropical fish devour each other at the tropical-fish store.

And I am left to wonder whether this is evidence that this morning is original, or even misguided. It should come as no surprise to any of us that Paradise is difficult to find, difficult to describe. That it is maybe better left unnamed, just enjoyed.

Sermon

There was an idea for this service that has been percolating for almost five years. I’m going to share with you this morning some ideas that are somewhat complex, but that I hope you will find valuable. And I have two stories from my own life that I want to use to frame and introduce these complex ideas:

The first story involves the time five years ago that I went to a worship service at an evangelical mega-church. I was living in Dallas, Texas at the time: "when in, do as" we might say. Right before the sermon the minister announced that we will now have the commercial. (He actually announced it as a liturgical element!) and the lights in the cavernous auditorium faded and on the jumbo video screens played a video of a tropical beach with pure blue water, golden sand, and lush palm trees. And then, walking into the camera shot is the minister, wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt… and he is announcing, “This is paradise. Do you know how to get to paradise? Come back next week when we’ll be beginning on sermon series on getting to paradise.”

After all those years, I still have two thoughts about this commercial. The first is to notice that he must have brought a cameraman with him all the way to Hawaii or wherever to film this thirty second piece – and what an ingenious business expense that is. If I were a little bit smarter, and a whole lot less scrupulous, I could have taken myself to some sort of tropical paradise and called it “research” and sermon preparation. And then I had my second thought, which was that maybe he didn’t go all the way to Hawaii to film this commercial. Maybe he just went to a film studio and stood in front of a blue screen. And am I cynical enough to even entertain the idea of a fabricated, contrived, made-up paradise – and the implications of that level of fakery and disingenuousness. I am left to wonder, did he fake his paradise?

Setting this paradise commercial aside for a second, I want to share another story that will help frame my sermon this morning. A little less than a decade ago, I had made friends with an evangelical missionary. My friendship with the M. involved going to various wonderful Asian restaurants and talking theology while we broke eggrolls together. He would tell me about C. S. Lewis, and I would tell him about Albert Camus. He would tell me about John 3:16 and I would tell him about the Seven Principles. And this went on for many months, and over our eating and talking there developed a communion, a fellowship. But I wanted to test him, so one day I asked him, putting our friendship into context, where he believed in his heart of hearts we would each be heading in the afterlife. And the M. replied, as I expected him to, that he was heading to a six letter place that began with an “H”. And I was heading to a four letter place that began with an “H”. I was prepared for such an answer. I was prepared for it theologically, because I wanted to try out something I had discovered, a bit of theology I called: the emotional-logical argument against Hell. (I was a theologically precocious eighteen year old…)

The “Emotional-Logical Argument Against Hell” goes like this: If you are my friend and you care for me, if there is between us what Christians would call Agape, (a kind of platonic love rooted in fellowship and service), if there is that bond between us, and then if our relationship is permanently torn, rent, by our being divided between different destinations, then what kind of heaven is really possible for you? Could heaven still be pleasurable and pleasant without me?

It seems like it could only under certain conditions. One condition is that heaven could be pleasurable for you if heaven made you ignorant and unaware of those who weren’t there with you. Another condition is that heaven could be so intensely pleasurable that it could distract you and cause you to forget about those who aren’t there with you – that is called hedonism, isn’t it? – a kind of pleasure that is self-centered and causes one to lose their sense of the moral context in which they exist. In this sense, heaven would have the effect of a powerful narcotic. Or, there’s a third option: heaven could be not a place of ignorance and unawareness, and not a place of hedonistic distraction, but it could be a place where part of the fun is knowing that others are excluded from it and denied it. That is called sadism: pleasure in the suffering of others.

The argument goes: if our friendship is real, and if we are divided, your heaven can’t be truly heavenly until we are reconciled, unless your heaven is a place of ignorance or hedonism or sadism. And so logically, there can be no true heaven until there is no Hell.

Or put another way, we would say, wouldn’t we, that what constitutes enlightenment / wisdom / saintliness / awakening is an enlarged capacity to understand the suffering and pain in the world and be a minister to its healing. Ignorance of, avoidance of, rationalizing of, despairing of, ambivalence towards the suffering and pain of the world is a sign of spiritual superficiality. And thus the question: Joining into the presence of the Divine in heaven involves which of the following: enlightenment or superficiality? The M. had no answer for me that could be grounded in morality and I was very proud of my teenage theology! [My minister at the time, Rev. Kimi Riegel, was extremely pastoral and shared with me the “Conscientious Objector Argument against Hell.”]

So, what does this all have to do with paradise? Good question. I have to let you know, in the interest of full disclosure, that I have never been to Hawaii, or any tropical Island for that matter. I don’t think I would mind… a vacation does not sound all that bad, but I’m not sure it would be altogether preach-able.

I do want to talk a little bit about Paradise though from a UU perspective, not literally, not in the sense of actual snorkels and surfboards, surf and sand, cabanas and luaus, little umbrellas inside of frosty non-alcoholic pina-colada beverages. I want to talk about paradise from a theological perspective, as a theological category, and I’m hoping that our vibrant costumes, our silly leis, our tacky decorations, and our wonderful coffee hour refreshments brought by the 30-somethings will put us in the mood to explore the theology of paradise.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition the world begins as an undisturbed paradise – Eden – which is then lost by some combination of (take your pick) disobedience, knowledge, original sin, gender conflict, ambition, curiosity, or bad things happening to good people – depending on your particular reading of that story. Every faith that has come from this tradition involves an ambition towards the (re)creating, achieving, or regaining of some kind of paradise or another. The fancy theological word for this is Eschatology. Some forms of religion, like Left Behind Christianity, stress that paradise will only come about through events like a cataclysmic and violent apocalypse, rapture, warfare, and the final establishment of God’s Dominion on Earth. Other religions stress an other-worldly paradise to be achieved after death. Unitarian Universalists tend to downplay our eschatology, but it might said that ours resembles Martin Luther King’s concept of “Beloved Community” – a paradise manifest by the creation of a world grounded in justice, fairness, equity, inclusiveness, respect, love, peace, and understanding.

King’s “Beloved Community” is based in Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven – that it is all around us, if we would only open our eyes and stop doing the things that keep us from experiencing it.

In simple words, that “Beloved Community” is our paradise, our eschatology: “We’ll build a land where we bind up the broken; we’ll build a land where the captives go free, where the oil of gladness dissolves all mourning, oh we’ll build a promised land that can be.”

But I want to offer a couple of thoughts about paradise that are related to my two stories above.

First, think back to the story about the mega-church minister and the tropical commercial. And more than the oddness of a “commercial” in church, more than the surprise of seeing the minister walking around on a beach in Hawaii, and more than the moral and video-graphical and eschatological questions it raised… more than any of these, I am interested in my reaction to the video. My reaction was a reaction of cynicism, of sophisticated disenchantment, and of observing all the manipulation present in the video.

[The next three paragraphs are deeply indebted to the essays “Up, Simba!” and "The View from Mrs. Thompson's" in David Foster Wallace’s new book, Consider the Lobster, which I recently read in its entirety, even the footnotes!]

We live in an age of marketing – of sales – that’s extremely sophisticated. Advertising has infiltrated every corner: witness – a commercial in church.

Our awareness of this – and the younger generations here have been advertised to and marketed to from the moment they flipped on their Saturday morning cartoons – cannot help but leave most of us cynical, suspicious, and questioning the motivations and the authenticity of every segment of our lives. And this doubt about what is real depends less on what is in anybody else’s heart, as what is in our own.

Let me see if I say this very plainly: in this day and age you can find a reason to be cynical about just about anything and everything. We can doubt the purity and the authenticity and the honesty of anything and everything, but this tells us as much about ourselves as it does about anything else. [Thanks, David Foster Wallace.] And so might paradise, I wonder, be a quality having to do with a trusting, or at least not overly-cynical, attitude. It is telling that the first Google-search result was a sermon about there being no such thing as paradise.

And then there is that second story: Asian eating with the M. and the emotional-logical argument against Hell. I want to suggest to you that all those arguments about how there can be heaven until there is no Hell – they are not arguments about the afterlife, so much as about this life. It is a story about the gymnastics we can go through to try to reconcile a world in which some live in paradise and others are expelled from the garden. Ignorance, hedonistic focus on this pleasure or that, mean satisfaction with having it better – these along with so many other rationalizations and justifications are what allows for us to reconcile ourselves with ideas of paradise and perdition co-existing in either the afterlife or this life.

This is not to say, and please do not get me wrong, that pleasure, enjoyment, fun and recreation are bad things – I am not a joy-kill like that. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that it was the ability of the seers and saints, the prophets and justice-makers to see paradise in the midst of perdition, heaven amidst the hells of our own design that was the most powerful element of their enlightenment. To see this, and then to also realize that paradise cannot truly be paradise until everyone can get in – such a paradise as has not yet been described, or seen… only believed.

Sermon: "Questions, Answers, and More Questions" (Delivered January 22, 2006)

“Question and Answer Sunday” is probably my favorite sermon of the year. How it works is that last Sunday I distributed index cards with the order of service and everyone was invited to sumbit anonymous (or, at times, nonymous) questions, and my sermon this week is an attempt to answer, or at least make reference to, as many of them as possible. I received upwards of fifty index cards, many of them with several separate questions, so if I do not answer your question, don’t feel badly. And if I inadequately answer your question, please… don’t feel badly.

Each year I seem to receive a few questions that are best answered by referring people to existing programs within the church. One person wondered about, quote, “Trying new or different formats to our Sunday services?” This person may wish to make contact with the worship committee. Or, this person may wish to come to our First Wednesdays, which will begin in a little over a week on February 1, where we will have a Vespers service with a different format each month. Another person wondered about how to tactfully invite a friend or family member to SMUUCh. I will have more to say about this question later, but this person may wish to attend the Articulating Your Faith adult religious education class to be held later this Spring.

I have noticed this year that there were fewer questions that are not really questions but rather statements disguised as questions. This year I received fewer questions like, “Why do we sing that hymn, which is one I do not like to sing?” However, this year I did receive several questions that imply a reality that may not, in fact, be so. One person wondered, quote, “There are so many hymns in this wonderful book that don’t reference God – could we sing some?” Actually, dating back to the first Sunday in October we have sung fifty hymns. Of those fifty, seven contained the word God, including one hymn whose reference to God was found in the lyrics “Some people call it evolution; others call it God.”

I always feel compelled to note several cards that, presumably, were not offered seriously. Having moved to Montana, Jim C. was not here to ask his perennial question about how the Redsox will fare next season. However, one person queried, “Where do babies come from?” Someone else wondered, "Why do human beings have eyebrows?" I don’t know the answer to that question, but it probably has something to do with evolution.

And speaking of evolution, one person wondered, given our commitment to “seek knowledge and freedom,” what we at this church can do help the general public differentiate between theology and science? My response here is twofold. First, let us not pretend for a second that this issue isn’t politicized. It’s not about scientific integrity or theological integrity for that matter. It is about political control over public education. So, if this is an issue you are concerned about, I urge you to get involved in the political system, and work for your values. Clearly, our congregation cannot be involved in candidate races. But there are groups that are. Go get involved in them. On another level though, I think our congregation can leverage our particular faith’s approach to science. I actually think that our congregation should offer classes on Evolution to the general public. We should put up a sign saying, “We teach evolution here.” We should recruit some dynamic professors, teachers, biologists and offer this to the public. In fact, this is something we’re planning to do later this Spring.

I want to raise up some of the areas in which there were multiple questions. There were this year, as there have been each year, many cards expressing a longing for greater social justice programming. One card compared the number of social events aimed at our internal community to the number of church activities aimed at the community exterior to our congregation. I want to say that I find that comparison to be a bit of a false dichotomy. I do see these in competition. I have learned that if someone is fired up about planning a picnic I ought not tell them to plan a protest, because if I do, we will have neither picnic nor protest. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way.

However, I will say this. My ministry is aimed at our development as religious people. I call that, in the words of the great UU minister, A. Powell Davies, “growing a soul.” And my ministry is aimed at how it is that we succeed in growing a soul. There is a part of us that can’t develop without engaging in spiritual practice, worship. There is a part of us that can’t develop if we don’t stretch our minds, learn, think. There is a part of us that can’t develop alone, that needs friendship, fun, and fellowship. But I believe there is a part of us that can’t develop if we are not involved in the demanding work of meeting those in need face to face, of courageously working for justice and social change, of taking those kinds of spiritual risks. I think without these, a part of us remains in a state of arrested development, our growth stunted.

So, how do we do this? I’ve often mused about putting bright stickers on our name tags that say WWFJ: Will Work for Justice. Then, you know who you can organize into an action project. But I do want to lift up some of what we are already doing including our work with the Johnson County Interfaith Hospitality Network, our environmental committee, and our current collection on behalf of homeless persons in Wyandotte County.

More questions: another theme that came up in the questions dealt with questions of tolerance. One person asked, “How can we tolerate intolerance and promote change at the same time?” Another person asked, “If you try to change someone’s mind, does that mean you don’t respect their opinion or belief?” Another wrote, “It seems we often have an us versus them attitude. Is it not our purpose to reach out with love and understanding to reach a common ground with the other side and not try to take the intellectual high ground in the arguments, which perpetuates the problem! How do we do this?” And still another person wondered what we might do when someone’s search leads them to conclude something that we find to be horrible, racist, oppressive, or worse?

I think this question confuses the issues of theological beliefs and community standards. Thomas Jefferson famously quipped, “It makes no difference to me whether my neighbor believes in ten Gods or none, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” When we say that all beliefs are welcome here and to be respected, these are the beliefs that we are talking about. Of course, here is not a place where you come to become concretized and calcified in ones beliefs, but to develop those beliefs freely and responsibly.

I have difficulty thinking of racism or anti-Semitism or homophobia or antagonism towards Christians or misogyny as a kind of belief on par with a theological conclusion about the nature of divinity. Those various –isms and bigotries are things we are not supposed to tolerate, but to confront with truth and with love. Hatred disguised as piety is still hatred, and we should no more attempt to promote hatred than we would promote pick-pocketing or leg-breaking. If truth were to lead us in the direction of bigotry and hate, I would sooner live as a liar.

To this I might add the advice that when talking about beliefs, context is all important. A debate in the classroom may be fascinating; however, at the dinner table it may be unsavory. How about asking somebody, “Do you mind if we have the type of conversation where we probe and explore those beliefs. I will try to be respectful of you as a person. Is this OK?” This is better than jumping right in; it allows the other person to prepare, which is only fair. I think some people will only listen if they feel they’ve been allowed to present their own thoughts fully and have been listened to. This is something I’ve learned this lesson the hard way.

Some random questions: “Are Democracy and Capitalism inimical?” I actually know of a UU minister who before entering the ministry was a successful investment banker. He has a saying that goes something like this: “Markets tend to self-regulate in the same way that children playing in a sandbox self-regulate. Which is to say they require adult supervision.” So to answer your question, I think that democracies need to act as responsible parental figures, not practice negligence or abandonment.

Two different cards asked my opinions of (first) a book I’ve never read, “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris, and (second) a movie I’ve never seen, “The God Who Wasn’t There” by Brian Flemming, which Sam Harris contributed to. The former is a book that argues for us to get rid of religion entirely. The latter is a movie which argues that Jesus never actually lived. I don’t think it would be possible to do away with religion entirely – I think that a religious impulse is innate to human beings – and, like Jim Wallis, I would say that the best response to bad religion is not no religion, but better religion. As far as Brian Flemming’s movie goes, I know that what he says is widely disagreed with by mainstream scholars of late antiquity. But, even if what he says is true, I don’t see what the big deal would be. There are historical truths and then there are metaphorical truths. Because mice and cats do not really talk and rabbits and turtles do not really race, it doesn’t mean Aesop’s fables are not true.

One of the things I found most interesting this year in this exercise was the questions that cancel each other inadvertently. For example, one card asked “Why so much focus on dead UUs instead of the heroes of today?” and another card asked, “What was the effect of Unitarianism on some of the founders of our country?” Similarly, one card asked “What’s wrong with Kansas politics?” while another card wondered “Is optimism dead?” Actually, I think there are two things wrong with Kansas politics – at least two things that I can say without threatening our tax free status. One thing is that too few people actually vote. The second thing is that it seems to me that too much time is spent fighting on the things where sincere differences of opinion exist to the detriment of accomplishing those things about which almost everyone agrees. Figure out something that everyone agrees on and do it, and after you’ve done those things, then you can fight like hell on the rest. Is that a sufficiently optimistic answer?

The penultimate set of questions I want to answer have to do with questions about this church and this faith. “Where will Unitarian Universalism be in five years, in ten?” “What are the best two or three trends within our church today? What are two or three concerns?” “In what year of my ministry will we build a sanctuary?” Goodness gracious.

Who knows what we will see five and ten years from now? Will you even have a live human being as a minister, or will I be replaced by a hologram? One of the things that I actually imagine is a nation-wide Unitarian Universalist Youth Service Corps. It will be run like a cross between Latter-Day Saints missionaries and MTV’s "The Real World." Congregations will adopt a household of college-age students who will spend the day doing social-justice organizing in the local community and then in the evening they will live in a “reality TV” environment where the rest of the world will get to see young people changing the world. Another future-of-our-faith thing that I imagine is a greater collaboration in the coming years between the liberal religious groups of America, where Reform Synagogues, Quakers, the UCC, humanist groups, and Buddhist Sanghas join together to accomplish what they can’t accomplish alone.

Two or three best trends in our church: I think our Mission-Vision and strategic planning process, the energy on Sunday mornings, and the amazing, inspiring, and fascinating stories and talents and interests of the members of this congregation are things we should be proud of. If I had to list concerns, I would have to say the way that we are constrained to fit in our current facilities, and our need to enhance mid-week programming in order to “grow-away” from Sunday morning. That is, not to replace or detract from Sunday morning, but to create the same sense on Wednesday night and Monday night, and Tuesday afternoon.

Finally, there was one question that I found striking. One person asked, quote, “Is there an upside or silver lining to being old and infirm? If so, how do we find it?” This question probably deserves a sermon all its own. I will fully admit that my attempt to answer such a question is inadequate. How could it be adequate? A colleague of mine of some thirty years says that answering questions like these is to practice the art and ministry of creative disappointment.

Here’s the silver lining: all you’ve seen, all you’ve done, all you’ve known, all you’ve learned, all you’ve loved in all those years. To be able to treasure those things without fretting over what you’ve not seen or done, learned or loved, and not to do that would have to be unbelievably difficult not to do. Truthfully, whether there is any consolation in knowing that others face the same difficulty is something I’ve often wondered about and debated. Some would say yes. Others would say no. Like Thoreau, I would prefer to say that “if life proves mean, [then we ought] to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, or if it is sublime, then to know it by experience.”

But, to whoever wrote that card, I might say this: Thank You! For your card did me a great service and ministry. It broke an illusion that I always create for myself every year we do this question and answer exercise. The illusion is that I believe that at some point in my life (surely next year) I will have learned through experience the answers to all the questions, and then, finally, I’ll have all the answers to all the questions.

Your card reminded me of something that we all from time to time may need to be reminded of, and that is that we may never have all the answers to all the questions. Some questions we’ll have the answers to, but also always more questions after those answers.