Thursday, March 30, 2006

Signs

If you're driving by on 87th Street in the next couple of days, check out our new signs:


Evolution Press Release

KANSAS CHURCH TO TEACH EVOLUTION

Overland Park, KS, March 13, 2006 — The Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church will offer classes on the science of evolution during the month of April. The classes will be taught by biology professors and science teachers and will be held on Thursday evenings, April 6, 13, and 20 at 7:00 p.m. at 7725 W. 87th Street in Overland Park. Admission is free and open to the community.

Guest teachers and speakers will include: Dr. Dick Wilson, former Biology Department Chair at Rockhurst University, Dr. Leonard Krishtalka, Director of the KU Museum of Natural History, and Jack Krebs, President of Kansas Citizens for Science and a member of the Kansas Science Standards Writing Committee. The classes will conclude with a special guided tour of the KU Museum of Natural History at a later date.

“We are excited to offer these classes on the science of evolution as a ministry to the community,” says Rev. Thom Belote, minister at Shawnee Mission UU. “We hear a lot about evolution in the news, but most of us haven’t taken a biology class in 10, 20, or even 50 years. Whether you are a high school student getting ready for a test or someone who could use a refresher, this class will help you be more informed about evolution.”

The classes will give an overview of the theory of evolution, paying special attention to the evidence on which evolutionary science is based. The classes will also cover possible responses to critics of evolution. Please join us on Thursday evenings in April at 7:00 for this informative series of classes.

For additional information, Contact: Rev. Thom Belote at the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Overland Park. 913-381-3336, minister@smuuchurch.org.

Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church is a religious community of people engaged in worship and the celebration of life, personal and intellectual growth, caring and supportive fellowship, humanitarian service, and social action. We affirm individual freedom of belief, encourage each person's unique religious quest, and include people of diverse views and backgrounds. A Member Congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, we are located on 87th Street between Metcalf and Antioch in Overland Park.

Sermon: "Missions, Visions, and Next Steps: Oh, My!" (Delivered 3-19-2006)

My sermon last week, which I’ve already posted on my blog (in record turn-around time, no less) was all about what Unitarian Universalists – whether they be this congregation, or other congregations in our district, or the larger movement of which we are a part, or yours truly – are doing to serve those in need, change the world, advocate for those who are threatened or oppressed, and promote our values. It was about the types of things we are involved with outside of our walls.

Last week I talked about what we are doing out there. This week I’m going to talk about some of things we are doing in here, inside of our walls.

Needless to say, this is the season in our congregation when we pledge financial support of the church and its mission for the coming fiscal year. So, I want to take a moment and talk pre-emptively about that.

This being my third stewardship drive here at SMUUCh, there are some things that I’ve learned:

+ I’ve learned that people want the see a line item budget so they can scrutinize each proposed expenditure, except for the people who do not want to see such a budget, who find all the numbers overwhelming and unbearable.

+ I’ve learned that people want pie charts, graphs, numbers, trends, etc., with the exception of those people who say, “Whatever you do, don’t give me charts and graphs.”

+ Some people want to see proof that the leaders on the finance team, board, and stewardship committee have “done their work,” while others are just happy to assume that they have.

+ Some people expect an emotional appeal, while others want a humorous appeal, while others want a rational appeal, while others would prefer no appeal at all.

+ Some people want the minister to be front and center, while others would prefer that I have no part of it. And if I say how much I pledge and what percentage of my income that is, some people will have a strongly positive reaction and others a strongly negative reaction.

+ Some people want to know what others give, in broad terms, while others want to know what people give, more specifically. Some people want to compare themselves with others, while some people only compare themselves to themselves.

The experts are equally varied, advising that the pledge should be connected to the budget, and that it shouldn’t, that people should be taught to calculate their share and asked for a straight up tithe, and the appeal should be emotional rather than rational and rational rather than emotional.

So please, if there is something specific that you want to know, talk to a member of the board, or a member of the finance committee, or the Stewardship Committee, or myself and if they can’t give you the answer, they will help you find the information you’re looking for.

But the thing I really wanted to talk about was our mission and vision process.

A couple of months ago, the Strategic Planning Committee held a meeting to finalize the mission and vision statements that would then be passed on to the Board for adoption. The Strategic Planning Committee had people write cards during worship services last Spring, attend focus groups in the Fall, and had leaders, committees, and groups give input about their program areas. The Strategic Planning Committee was then faced with the task of giving shape to all the input they received, and naming what we’re about and what we’re working towards.

I want to tell a story from one of those meetings. It was at one of these committee gatherings that one member came in and exclaimed, “Last night I had a dream… a vision.” Catching a momentary break in the conversation, I added , “Now, remember, Joel 2:28 says, ‘Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.’” The entire committee looked at me as if I was loopy and finally, one member said, “I didn’t know there was a book in the Bible named Joel.”

Fortunately, I elected not to complete the verse from Joel, which goes on to say, “I will show portents in the heavens and on earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord to come.”

Which is to say, in a Biblically apocalyptic way, that visions and dreams are not small potatoes. In fact, in the book of Proverbs, is written, “Without a vision, the people perish.”

To describe what I’m going to try to talk about this morning, I’d like for everyone to imagine riding a bicycle. Now, has anyone ever tried to balance on a bicycle while the bicycle wasn’t moving? What happens when you do that? It’s virtually impossible to balance on a bicycle if it isn’t moving. Why is this? Why is it very easy to balance on a bicycle as long as it is moving? The answer is a fairly basic physics lesson. The scientific terminology for it is “angular momentum.” The force created by the spinning wheels on the bike creates a self-regulating momentum. And now for the kicker, if you care: you do not have any better balance on a moving bicycle than you do if you were to try to sit on one that wasn’t moving. It is just that on moving bicycle, the spin of the wheels exerts a regulating force on you that keeps you in line. That is why bike racers traveling at high speeds can lean far to one side or the other without crashing: angular momentum. When the bike is moving, you actually need less balance. Wider leans to one side or the other are possible without throwing off the whole system.

This is a metaphor for church life. I’m borrowing this concept from Brian McClaren. I really believe that Mission is that force that drives a church, and that when a church is following its mission, there is an angular momentum that exists that allows us to remain balanced and to move forward.

Applying this metaphor, that doesn’t mean spinning our wheels. It does mean that when we’re actually moving, disruptions have less impact and a greater diversity of energy in the system will not cause the organization to topple. When an organization isn’t moving, doesn’t have angular momentum, the smallest variation of weight will send it falling one way or another.

I’m speaking in metaphor, in analogy, but I do want to talk a little bit about our new mission and vision statement. The Mission portion of that statement, approved by the board, reads as follows: “Our mission is to invite everyone into caring community, inspire the search for spiritual growth, and involve all in working for a peaceful, fair, and free world.” Invite. Inspire. Involve. This is what keeps the bike balanced. Invite. Inspire. Involve. This is our gyroscope. Here you are invited: Come into caring community. Here you are inspired: Growth, deepening, transformation, development. Here you are involved: There is a meaningful, fulfilling role for you. Your presence matters.

Inviting, inspiring, involving – it is what is keeping us balanced on the bicycle, so to speak.

If the Mission is what keeps us balanced, the vision part is what we see in front of us, what we’re riding towards, where we’re trying to get to. The road to some of things we envision is not all that arduous. For other things, the path is a good bit difficult. For still others, it stretches us towards the horizon. The Strategic Planning Committee has created, and the Board has formally approved, a series of statements in eight different vision areas: Membership, Worship, Religious Education, Outreach, Social Action, Staff and Leadership, Facilities, and Stewardship. It is an impressive document.

Now, that we have an articulated mission, an aligning force, and an assorted array of vision statements, describing destinations we would hope to attain, what are the next steps? Currently, the Board is concerned with making sure we have a committee, or group, or staff person charged with carrying out and facilitating each part of the various vision statements. This will include new initiatives to fill in the gaps. One change the board is considering is having each board member serve as a liaison to a specific vision area.

Beyond these changes, the Board has also created a Facilities Task Force to explore and recommend what is required of us in order to best fulfill our Facilities Vision, which reads as follows: “SMUUCh has buildings and grounds that support and reflect our mission and values. We do this by: Providing appropriate facilities for worship, fellowship, education, programs, events, and staff; Allowing for growth of the congregation; Providing a welcoming environment for members and visitors; Being accessible to people with varied abilities; Following and promoting responsible environmental principles; and Communicating our identity as a religious community.”

Our proposed budget for next year was created with our mission and vision in mind. From membership, worship, and religious education, to social action and outreach, to leadership development and responsible staffing, to facilities – our budget is tied into the vision that we have set for ourselves, that we have claimed as our own, that we have dreamed together.

One of those vision areas that are already addressing is our Outreach Vision, which says that “SMUUCh is visible and recognized throughout the Kansas City area as a liberal religious community, having a presence in the media through news stories and advertising and hosting events that promote our values and that are designed to attract people to our community.”

In my April newsletter column I make reference to the story of the UU Church in Portland, Oregon and the way they successfully showed their identity to the community. Consider these words from their minister, Rev. Marilyn Sewell, describing the church taking a public stand on a homophobic ballot initiative in the early 1990’s:

“No sooner did I walk into the church office that August when I was greeted by Kathy Oliver of Outside-In, a social service agency for homeless teens that is located in a building on our church property. Kathy said she would like to call a press conference and tie a red ribbon around the entire block, declaring it a hate free zone. What a beautiful and simple concept! I lusted in my heart to claim the idea as my own – although I could not…

“I did not go to the Board for permission. I did not go to the congregation. I mean, what could anyone possibly say in opposition: “I’m for hate.” It is important to know that our stance makes us different from most churches. We were the only one in town who could make such a witness. The Presbyterian minister down the street from us agreed wholeheartedly with my stance, but had he wrapped a ribbon around the Presbyterian block he probably would have been strung up by that ribbon. As it was, he lost two pledges that year, totaling $100,000. As I told my congregation later, I wouldn’t have to worry about losing that kind of money from two pledgers no matter what I do.

“The press conference took place at noon one day early in September. The kids from Outside In had climbed on ladders all that morning wrapping the block with ribbon and putting up signs…

“The media began to arrive, and soon we had three TV stations, two radio stations, and a reporter from the newspaper. Kathy [and I] were to give speeches. A small crowd gathered to cheer us on. By chance, the Women’s alliance was having its first luncheon meeting of the year, and when they heard us outside, they all trooped out and joined in. This group is composed mostly of the elderly, establishment-looking women, the white-glove set, and so you can imagine the legitimacy and power of their presence and their voices at this event.

“I heard a speaker from the Alban Institute say that the single most important factor in church growth is having a strong and very visible identity. I think this element is crucial to our growth. ‘Identity’ it is something I hold up before our congregation to let them know of the importance of our witness, a liberal religious witness no other church can give quite so readily or so well. For churches like ours, identity is especially important. After all, many of the folks who would thrive in a community like ours are the ones who are often the most disdainful of church people as hopelessly fanatical and out of touch. They have this image because, for one thing, it is the fanatics who make the most noise.”

First Unitarian’s membership grew 41% that year. Around town it became known as the church with the ribbon. Around town it became known as “The Hate Free Zone.”

I am very proud to announce the series of evolution classes we will be teaching during the month of April. I’m very proud, even though it has been a member who has done all the hard work of organizing the speakers. Will this be our red-ribbon moment? Who knows. But it is a risk worth taking. How do I know this? I know this because ribbons have never put themselves up. I know this because the world will continue to be exactly what it is, unless we show up.

As we are kept balanced by the gyroscopic force of our mission. As we are drawn forward by the horizons of our vision. As we dream, and plan, and carry out the next steps… we’ll do it in true UU style – with the ability to laugh, and rejoice, and say, “Yes” to life. In a world with so much hardship, sorrow, pain, hatred, oppression, and fear, it is an act of defiance and of courage to laugh, to smile, to show up, to stand up, and to stand with those who share your dreams.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Media Coverage in Topeka

I was quoted in the Topeka Capitol-Journal last week when I testified before the House Federal and State Affairs Committee. You can read coverage of it here. (Registration Required)

In Honor of Women's History Month

In honor of Women's History Month... I give you a link to this sermon which was delivered by Rev. Ken Sawyer (my childhood minister) at the ordination of Rebecca Cohen to the UU ministry. Her ordination in 1999 marked a 50/50 gender balance among UU clergy. (This one's for you, A. F.)

Sermon: "What Davidson Loehr says about Fascism and What it Means to Us" (Delivered 1-29-06)

Opening Words

From time to time, it is important to take the pulse, to examine the health of our nation and the status of its soul. This morning’s service will aim to do just that. This morning we will examine difficult words and strong accusations – spoken in a way keeping in the very best of our religious heritage which has never shied away from thinking ideas because those ideas are dangerous or heretical. And keeping in the very best of our religious tradition, you are not required to believe them because somebody spoke them. You are required though to engage them and consider them, to pass them through the fire of your own thought, to weigh the evidence as it is offered, and to reach your own conclusions without any authority stamping upon your conscience. I call us together into the act of worship in the free church, whose freedom isn’t free, but always demands our vigilance and our exercise.

Sermon

There’s a story to tell about how this sermon came to be. Each Winter, the book group here at SMUUCh challenges me to preach on a book they’ve read in the past year. This year, their selection was “The Plot Against America,” a novel by Philip Roth.

In this novel, Roth invents a sinister alternative version of American history on the eve of World War II. In this version, FDR loses the 1940 Presidential election to Charles Lindbergh, a Hitler admirer and nazi sympathizer. Under Lindbergh, America adopts policies of isolationism, creeping anti-Semitism, hyper-militarism, propaganda, and corporatism. Roth’s haunting novel is told through the eyes of a young Jewish boy from New Jersey, whose family dynamics and tensions mimic national ones. His father resigns his job due to the pressures anti-Semitism; his brother admires Lindbergh to the consternation of the rest of the family; a cousin enlists with the Canadian army and goes to war to defend Great Britain from Hitler’s Germany and returns from action missing a leg; the family and community face those wrenching questions: How bad will it get here? Should we resist actively and put ourselves at risk or would it be safer to stay silent? Should we move to Canada, and if so when? And, how?

Roth is a master of tension, and he slowly builds the pressure to the point of panic and terror, only to release the tension and resolve the impending doom in a way that is thoroughly, and perhaps intentionally, unconvincing.

So, how to preach on this novel? As I read it, it became apparent to me that there could only be one fitting way. That is to ask the most obvious of questions: could such a descent into fascism happen today? Or is it happening today? It is a big question, but an important one. It is the type of question that makes all other questions secondary. I’m sure that there are some here who would much prefer I not ask this question, however, asking such questions is not only the very embodiment of one’s rights and duties within a liberal constitutional democracy; it is also, the very embodiment of our liberal religious tradition which stands for the responsible search for truth, the rights of conscience, and vigilantly preserving the democratic process. That you are free to hear a sermon like this is something to be celebrated. That you are free to weigh the evidence, agree or disagree, is also something to celebrate.

Fortunately, another book would assist me in asking this very question. A few months ago, Rev. Dr. Davidson Loehr, published a book of sermons entitled, “America, Fascism, and God.” Dr. Loehr has a Ph.D. in religion from the University of Chicago and is the only UU to serve as a fellow with the Jesus Seminar. He is the minister of our large Unitarian Church in Austin, Texas. And he has a reputation for never shying away from controversial topics or provocative ideas.

Loehr argues in “America, Fascism, and God” that the convergence of Christian fundamentalism, corporate power, media distortion, and aggressively imperialist US foreign policy form a kind of perfect storm and amount to a kind of fascism. I want to explore this idea with you.

In order to do so, I want to walk you through some of what Loehr has to say. [The starred paragraphs below contain material from Loehr’s collection of sermons.]

* When we hear the word Fascism, we immediately think of Hitler, swastikas, concentration camps, and gas chambers. But as a political theory fascism means something different. The root of fasces means in Latin a bundle of sticks. The idea is that individual sticks have no essential worth, and that one’s entire worth is determined by service to and alignment with a single ruling force. It is worth noting that both pure communism, to one extreme of the political spectrum, and pure fascism, to the other extreme, involve the suppression of individual agency. Fascism involves all political, military, economic, and religious power being transferred to a central authority, and the elimination of whoever would resist. Surely, this sounds far-fetched and un-American, however, it is worth noting that in the 1930’s many Americans looked to Hitler and Mussolini with fondness, wishing that America could be more like Germany or Italy. Some Americans advocated for a marriage of corporate power with government, the suspension of individual rights and workers rights. One consortium of business leaders in 1934 even went so far as to try to persuade a marine general to organize a coup, seize the White House, and install himself as a military dictator beholden to corporations. (Loehr, p. 62, 76-78)

*According to political scientist Lawrence Britt, fascism is identifiable by fourteen characteristics that include, 1) powerful nationalism, 2) the emphasizing of a single enemy as a threat to be eliminated, 3) the supremacy of the military in abolishing that threat, 4) disdain for human rights, 5) obsession with national security, 6) controlled mass media, 7) religion and government intertwined, 8) the rise of corporate power, 9) suppression of labor power, 10) disdain for intellectuals and the arts, 11) obsession with crime and punishment, 12) fraudulent elections, 13) rampant cronyism and corruption, and, 14) insistence on male domination and the control of sexuality. (Loehr, p. 78-81)

Another political scientist, Robert Paxton, gives a different taxonomy of fascism, saying its characteristics are: 1) a sense of overwhelming crisis calling for extreme solutions, 2) the primacy of the group and subordination of the individual, 3) group-identification as a victim, 4) suspension of legal and moral obligations on account of victim-status, 5) dread of decline, 6) emphasis on the purity of community either by conformity or exclusionary violence, 7) the absolute authority of natural leaders who lead by instincts instead of reason, 8) belief in the beauty of violence, and 9) belief in the right of the chosen people to dominate others.

*In his sermon, Loehr goes on to link fascism with religious fundamentalism. In fact, he says that “fundamentalism is nothing more than religious fascism and that fascism is nothing more than political fundamentalism.” What fundamentalism and fascism have in common, according to Loehr, is that they are both rooted in primitive instincts. He cites a wide-reaching, six-volume study called the Fundamentalism Project, which compared fundamentalism in various places in the world at different times, and showed that all fundamentalism had powerful common elements. From this study, Loehr concludes:

“The only way all fundamentalisms can have the same agenda is if the agenda preceded all the religions… These men are acting the role of ‘alpha males’ who define the boundaries of their group's territory and the norms and behaviors that define members of their in-group. These are the behaviors of territorial species in which males are stronger than females. In biological terms, these are the characteristic behaviors of territorial animals. Males set and enforce the rules, females obey the males and raise the children; there is a clear separation between the in-group and the out-group. The in-group is protected; outsiders are expelled or fought.

“Fundamentalism is absolutely natural, ancient, powerful—and inadequate. It's a means of structuring relationships that evolved when we lived in troops of 150 or less. But in the modern world, it's completely incapable of the nuance or flexibility needed to structure humane societies.” (Loehr, p. 39-42)


*To recap Loehr’s argument: fascism and fundamentalism are rooted in powerful and primitive human instincts having to do with power, protection, control, group cohesion, and greed. Fascism involves a sinister marriage of fundamentalist religion, plutocratic business leaders, and military force. Together, these forces conspire to systematically transfer wealth to the wealthy; use media, nationalism, and, when necessary, physical force to keep the population in line; and engage in imperialist efforts too greedy to be defended by noble ideals. (Loehr, p. 1, 82-84)

*It should be noted that fascism does not only hurt those who are identified as scapegoats and enemies. It grievously injures all except for the upper echelons of profiteers and plutocrats. These policies conspire to bankrupt and make vulnerable entire segments of the population. Loehr predicts that economic fascism will result in the theft of social security funds and the increasing destitution of those who depend on social welfare programs, a rising number of uninsured persons, and increased loss of funding for public education. Additionally, Loehr observes that it is disproportionately the poorest of our young men and women who are expected to fight the wars, wars that could never benefit them anyways, and the spoils of which will be seized and enjoyed by those who did not risk their lives in the fighting. (Loehr, p. 85-86)

*Whether or not you agree with Loehr’s label, there are some signs that ought to cause concern. First, our nation has a higher percentage of its citizens incarcerated than any developed nation, and the largest prison population in the world. Two million citizens in our nation are behind bars, about the population of the greater Kansas City area. de Tocqueville said that you can gauge a society’s soul by the status of its prisons. What does the status of our prison-industrial complex say about our society, and how does our prison system perpetuate repression? (Loehr, p. 86)

Second, we need to be aware of changes in the media, and how media works in our world. Contrary to popular opinion, media does not exist to further right wing ideology. And contrary to the opinion of many right-wingers, there is no liberal media either. Almost all media exists as a business whose goal is to make money. It makes money by commanding high advertising rates which are tied to high ratings. Increasingly, a small handful of corporations own most newspapers, radio and television stations. The agenda of these corporations is profit.

We should understand that under President Reagan, the Fairness Doctrine – which mandated that broadcasts devote reasonable attention to coverage of controversial issues of public importance, and opportunities for opposing sides to express their views – was repealed. The Fairness Doctrine was based upon the idea that radio and TV stations were not solely profit-driven businesses, but that they had a responsibility to the public interest. This itself is a liberal idea – that corporations have an obligation to the public good. However, to argue the opposite, is to argue that not only broadcasting, but health care, transportation, the hospitality industry, the food industry, the energy industries, and financial institutions have no obligation to the public good, that their financial interests trump the public interest. [I am indebted to David Foster Wallace’s essay, “The Host” for this analysis.]

*Third, there are financial patterns which ought to concern us. As the gap between rich and poor widens, as money is transferred over to the wealthiest in our country, we will all need to make important financial decisions. My generation is the first in the history of this nation that is expected to do less well than its parents’ generation. Debt is a crippling reality for many in our nation. Financial literacy needs to be improved. We will also need to learn that how we spend money is our greatest political weapon – a dollar is worth a dollar even when a vote is not necessarily worth a vote. Loehr quotes Michael Ruppert, who urges those who have misgivings about the direction of our country to get out of debt, spend their money on the things that give them energy and useful information, and to not spend a single cent on banks, corporations, or media who make you angry. (Loehr, p. 87-88)

So, does it all add up? Do pre-emptive wars and military occupations; do corporations writing laws; do Enron and Abramhoff; do indefinite detentions, Abu Gharib, torture memos, and Guantanamo Bay; do supreme court justices and nominees who favor much more extensive if not unlimited executive power; does the widening of the gap between rich and poor; does domestic spying and wire-taps; does filing for medical records and Google search records; does Pat Robertson’s calls for Christian Dominionism and claims that democracy is a terrible form of government unless it is run by his kind of Christians; does it all add up into fascism? Or, should we call it pre-fascism, or proto-fascism, or fascism-lite, or economic fascism? What does it all add up to?

This question is really a question of definitions. Of Lawrence Britt’s fourteen characteristics of Fascism, almost all are observed in our country, though to different degrees and certainly with mitigating evidence. Of Robert Paxson’s nine characteristics, five are clearly present in our country today. This question is, in the end, a question of semantics. Some would say that Davidson Loehr’s choice of the word fascism is unfortunate, reactionary, sensational, and misleading. Others would say that it is a powerful word needed to draw attention to where attention ought to be. Ultimately, it is only a word. Evil, misguided, destructive and self-destructive, immoral, arrogant, and dangerous trends need to be combated because they are these things, not because they fit some political science taxonomy or other.

At worst, Davidson Loehr’s book and sermons may be accused of crying fire in a crowded theatre. However, if we do in fact believe that we smell smoke, to do so becomes our moral obligation, does it not?

Loehr claims to see smoke when he sees the war with Iraq, which he sees as based on a premeditated plan by neo-conservatives with the Project for a New American Century.

Loehr claims to see smoke when he sees fear-mongering and a public terrified by thoughts of terrorists lurking in every airport and subway station, but hardly anyone bothers to point out that an estimated 18,000 American deaths annually can be directly attributed to lack of health care, or that poverty, pollution, and unemployment cause more death – though far less sensationally.

Loehr sees smoke when he sees Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Loehr sees smoke when he sees our government committing, condoning, and facilitating torture.

(On this last point, I might say that as a college student, I was proud to attend lectures by Darius Rejali, an Iranian intellectual, and professor of political science. Rejali is a world-leading expert on torture. As a political scientist he concludes over and over and over again that beyond the moral objection to torture, it is a practice that actually corrupts information, corrupts other forms of intelligence, corrodes the military, and harms the societies of those who commit torture.)

With all of this smoke visible, what is a person to do?

I want to conclude by returning to Philip Roth’s frightening and tense novel, “The Plot Against America.” One of the things that I found so intriguing about this novel was the insight Roth gave into the stresses and strains faced by the family living under Lindbergh’s fascism. It is an exercise in family systems theory. Roth traces what amounts to a dissolution and disintegration of the nuclear family (parents and two sons) and the larger family system which includes aunts and cousins, neighbors and friends, as well as the local Rabbi.

Some of these stresses and strains have to do with overtly political content, with what opinions can be shared over the dinner table, and such. Other strains had to do with those eternal familial emotions: jealousy, desire for attention, needing to feel accepted, needing to feel supported, pride of bread-winning and caregiving, pleasing and being pleased, acting out.

If there is a lesson that Roth’s novel sends to us as religious liberals, it is this: that our communities are not isolated from the winds of our greater society. In fact, we can tend to mimic the weather to a greater degree than we are often aware of. This is worth paying attention to. This is worth addressing. Pay attention to the signs of the perfect storm in our nation, often perceptible in other forms of turbulence, forms which often are not false indicators.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

First Wednesdays on April 5

I hope you'll consider joining us for our First Wednesdays programming on April 5th.

The evening begins with a Vespers service at 6:30 in Fellowship Hall. SMUUCh member Vickie Trott will be leading the service.

Then, join us for the next installation of the Radical Conversations series at 7:00 in the Barn Chapel. This month's topic is "The Academic Bill of Rights." Here's some background reading that will frame the discussion:

First, here is the article on this subject by the Kansas City Star.

A copy of the language of the Academic Bill of Rights can be found here.

Michael Berube writes about ABOR on his blog. At 5,000 words, this is no quick read.

And, finally, the opening sentences of this article insinuate that it was the Unitarians that started all this trouble.

SMUUCh's Mission and Vision

[The following Mission and Vision statements were adopted formally by the Board of Trustees at their March 2006 meeting.]

Mission and Vision
Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church


Our Mission
· INVITE everyone into a caring community
· INSPIRE the search for spiritual growth
· INVOLVE all in working for a peaceful, fair, and free world

Our Membership Vision
We are a loving, caring, compassionate, and actively growing faith community. Our diverse membership invites all seekers to a positive and supportive environment for spiritual growth and personal enrichment. We do this by

· Welcoming visitors warmly.
· Eliminating barriers to membership.
· Matching member needs and interests with new or existing small and large group activities.
· Challenging members to explore and deepen their spirituality.
· Promoting member involvement by sharing, encouraging, and developing their talents and leadership.
· Reviewing and evaluating programs on a regular basis, and modifying them as needed.

Our Worship Vision
SMUUCh has a rich worship life in which its mission and values are apparent. We do this by

· Gathering for worship services that are engaging, relevant, and inspiring.
· Featuring music and artistic expression that enhance the worship experience.
· Involving people of all ages in the experience of worship.
· Offering opportunities to worship in a variety of styles, group sizes, and locations and at times other than Sunday morning.

Our Religious Education Vision
High quality religious education is an important part of our church ministry to children, youth, and adults. We accomplish this by

· Offering rich program choices for all ages.
· Offering opportunities for exploration of our own and other religions.
· Providing engaging programs for youth as they transition into adulthood.
· Supporting families as primary religious educators.

Our Outreach Vision
SMUUCh is visible and recognized throughout the Kansas City area as a liberal religious community. We do this by

· Having a presence in the media through news stories and advertising.
· Hosting events that promote our values and that are designed to attract people to our community.
· Increasing our visibility in the community through social action.

Our Social Action Vision
We are viewed as a leader and a resource for community service and social justice within the Kansas City metropolitan area. We challenge our congregation to get involved by

· Partnering with other churches.
· Collaborating with community service organizations.
· Participating in social justice causes individually and collectively.

Our Staff/Leadership Vision
We have leaders at all levels within SMUUCh who guide and support consistent, excellent programming for all ages. We do this by

· Hiring qualified professional and support staff to meet current needs as well as positioning us for growth.
· Implementing a systematic volunteer recruitment, training, and recognition program.
· Encouraging members to develop and utilize their talents in a wide variety of volunteer opportunities, while strengthening the leadership of our community.

Our Facilities Vision
SMUUCh has buildings and grounds that support and reflect our mission and values. We do this by

· Providing appropriate facilities for worship, fellowship, education, programs, events, and staff.
· Allowing for growth of the congregation.
· Providing a welcoming environment for members and visitors.
· Being accessible to people with varied abilities.
· Following and promoting responsible environmental principles.
· Communicating our identity as a religious community.

Our Stewardship Vision
We have adequate financial, material, and human resources to realize the mission and vision of our church. We do this by

· Promoting an attitude of cheerful giving among our members.
· Encouraging each member to contribute money, material, and time according to their ability and the church’s needs.
· Responsibly managing the financial, physical, and human resources entrusted to our care.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Sermon: "What Would John Flaherty Do?" (Delivered 3-12-2006)

As a Baseball fan, every March my daydreaming wanders to Florida and Arizona – Spring Training – where ballplayers are preparing for the season. For most major league players, there is a going-through-the-motions element, but on the fringes there are also a few teenaged players trying to get over on the superstars and prove they deserve to make it to the Big Leagues. On the flip-side, there is always a cadre of seasoned veterans trying to prove that they still have what it takes to stick, despite the challenge of up-and-comers half their age. These experienced players are trying to stay on for one more season, and every March dozens of them elect to retire rather than accept release or demotion to the stuffy buses and bad buffets of minor-league barnstorming.

One such player to retire recently was John Flaherty, a back-up catcher for five teams over fourteen seasons. I remember when he was a youngster, challenging nearly-washed up veteran catchers for a roster spot with the Red Sox in Spring Training fifteen seasons ago. Flaherty’s retirement, having accumulated in fourteen years, the statistics a star player will reach in two or three, caused me to pause for a poignant and reflective moment. However, on the Red Sox fan message board, his retirement caused a different reaction, not a tear but a jeer: “Good riddance, ya bum. What have you have done for me lately?”

“What have you done for me lately?” My colleague, Rev. Jim Eller began a recent sermon by asking that question, and reflecting (paraphrase) that this is the archetypal question of a “consumer era that promises instant gratification, cheap grace, and urges us to always be shopping around for a better deal.” This question is one thing when assembling a baseball roster. Truthfully, what sports fan among us has not muttered in desperation, “What have you done for me lately?” It is a thought Royals and Chiefs fans frequently utter. However, Eller suggests, “It is something else when we ask that same fickle question of a spouse, or a friendship, or a religious faith.”

In Evangelical Christianity about a decade ago there was something called the WWJD movement. “What would Jesus do?” It was kind of an interesting campaign, the slogan appearing on bracelets and T-shirts. On one level, it is a question of ethical discernment. I remember commenting at the time that if you actually read the gospels you find an answer. Jesus would have visited the imprisoned, fed the hungry, healed the sick, given away all he possessed, and challenged the status quo. At the time, an enterprising Unitarian Universalist decided to make up WWUUD (“What would a UU do?”) bracelets, of which there were considerably fewer.

But, most interestingly, and bear with me here, within one corner of the evangelical community came a criticism of WWJD The critic envisioned the disciples sitting around and asking what would Jesus do, but subtly shifting the question to, “What should Jesus do?” and then to, “What should Jesus do for me?” and then to, “What has Jesus done for me lately?” The move from ethical discernment to detached criticism is gradual. The evangelical critic suggested the formulation WIJD (“What is Jesus doing?”) as an ideal substitute.

So, I wonder, by way of analogy: does the question “What would Unitarian Universalists do?” risk becoming “What should UUs do?” risk becoming, “What have UUs done for me lately?”

In this sermon, I am going to ask, “What Are Unitarian Universalists doing?” And I’m going to begin with this church, with us, because one of the myths that I want to explode, it being a false and injurious myth, is that our congregation isn’t very involved in the community. Consider the following:

+ In the past nine months we have held two collections for the food pantry at the heart of America Indian center, collecting an estimated $1,500 worth of food items.

+ Our collection of supplies for a school in Afghanistan netted so many donations that it cost $400 in postage to send the supplies.

+ Our quilting group, which sews quilts for the Rose Brooks Center, an organization that works with battered women and children in our community, reports that this year they created and donated ten beautiful, hand-made quilts.

+ Through our work as a support congregation with the Johnson County Interfaith Hospitality Network, we have trained nine members to work with homeless families. We’ve also taken up a collection for a garage sale to benefit them, and taken up a collection for the family center JCIHN operates – they reported being overwhelmed by our donations.

+ Last month, a new member led our congregation in collecting to support the Center of Hope in KCK, which works with homeless families. They also reported being overwhelmed by our creation of thirty care bags for the program they operate.

+ Last September we collected over $3,600 for the UUA Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund. A special collection taken on Christmas Eve sent nearly $1,500 to the local non-profit organization El Centro, plus the same amount for a fund here which helps members of our congregation in financial need.

+ In Religious Education, our “Service is Our Prayer” program made sack lunches for Crosslines, care bags for the TLC shelter and foster care program in Olathe, and went Christmas caroling at the Overland Park Manor.

+ Currently, a member is organizing a SMUUCh group to work with Habitat for Humanity. Another member is organizing a post-card writing campaign so our congregation can be a part of the Million Voices for Darfur campaign, and in April the Quarterlife Quorum, our group for folks in their twenties, will do a social justice project.

What I just mentioned are only the ways that our congregation works together to impact and assist the community. The list of organizations that our members volunteer for, lead, and contribute to as individuals would be tremendously long.

While I cannot mention what we do as individuals, I do want to mention a few of the things that I am involved with in the community. I don’t often publicize my involvement in these organizations, but I think a sermon that asks the question, “What are Unitarian Universalists doing?” would be incomplete if I didn’t talk about a few of the things I am involved with. This year I became a Board Member of the local organization the MAINstream Coalition that operates as a non-partisan educational non-profit and as a PAC and advocates for funding for public education and for the separation of church and state. I am also a part of the steering committee of the MAINstream Voices of Faith, the clergy wing of that organization that does public theology and public witness. This past week I spoke at our first press conference, condemning the current resolution being considered by the Missouri House that would essentially name Christianity as the official religion of the State of Missouri. Apparently, I even got my face on Fox 4 news on Wednesday night. I’ve posted a copy of what I said on my blog if you’re interested in reading what I said.

The other organization I work with is the Planned Parenthood Action Network. Since last Summer I’ve been a part of their advocacy efforts for better sex education standards in Kansas. The advocacy efforts I’m involved with deal with the issue of whether people, especially young people, have access to medically-accurate, age-appropriate information and education that has been scientifically shown to save lives and decrease unwanted pregnancies. For me, being involved in this is a no-brainer. The thing that originally got me passionate about this issue was learning about the curricula that are used by schools across our country, including schools in the Shawnee Mission school district. Some of these “abstinence-only” curricula contain factual misinformation, errors, and outright lies. They also include not-so-subtle moralizing and fear-mongering. Some of the curricula are produced by fronts for religious right organizations. One popular curriculum, entitled Choosing the Best, offers in its section about relationship advice that girls could keep their relationships strong by, quote, “not acting too smart.”

So, I ask you, since it is the time when we do our annual stewardship drive, how many of you are going to make a pledge to Focus on the Family this year? Well, your tax dollars are being used to fund “abstinence-only” sex education curriculum produced by the religious right.

Like I said, this was obvious for me. So, last September I went to Topeka to speak before the school board on this issue. We succeeded in getting a dead-lock vote, not easy to do if we remember the outcome of the Evolution / Intelligent Design vote. I was quoted in the local papers and got on Steve Kraske’s radio program. Then, in January, I was called upon to help introduce a piece of legislation that would mandate schools using credible health curriculum, rather than thinly-veiled, fear-rather-than-facts, Religious-Right health curricula. We got the Kansas Senate to pass it, and now we are lining it up to go forward to the House.

An organizer I work with has told me that, “We know we can count on [you] to speak eloquently and passionately in the public arena on behalf of reproductive justice.” I don’t doubt the organizer says this to every minister. But I do want share with you an invitation I received recently. I get quite a few invitations, more than I can possibly accept, but this one I got was definitely the coolest – not the most prestigious or highest profile – but the coolest. A group at KU is hosting the Gloria Steinem Leadership Institute at the end of this month and I’ve been invited as a special speaker. The invitation affirmed this role I’ve taken working for these values.

I want to say something else about showing up. When I show up to speak for values and principles that I consider to be at the core of our faith, a lot of times not many of my colleagues join me. In fact, it is often only the retired Methodist and retired Presbyterian minister that are there alongside me. And they say to me, we never could have shown up publicly when we were actually serving a church. Many of my mainline minister friends who are serving churches are afraid to take a stand on ethical issues. They’ve told me they’re scared of alienating the rich guy in their congregation who makes the big contribution. I tell them, “Sounds like hush money to me.” I tell them, “That’s the great thing about being a Unitarian Universalist. My parishioners expect me to act according to my conscience.”

And then I tell them this: There are for me certain things that, if I didn’t do them, I might as well just pack my bags and go home. I might as well not even bother to come to work. For me, being an active minister in the community – an advocate for our values – a voice for the principles we hold – is one of those things. If I wasn’t doing this, I couldn’t look you in the eye and preach from my convictions. It’d be inauthentic. I’d be inauthentic. If I wasn’t doing this, I might as well go home and call the whole thing off. The privilege is the price.

What are Unitarian Universalists doing? What have they been doing, lately?

Around the country, Unitarian Universalists are organizing around Freedom to Marry. Recent victories in Washington State, Maryland, New Jersey, and Connecticut can be owed to UUs in those states who have been at the front and center of that work, just as earlier victories in Massachusetts and Vermont can be owed, in part, to the tireless and courageous efforts of Unitarian Universalists. In Des Moines, the UU church has been at the center of Faith Based Community Organizing that is working to force health care providers to institute progressive billing, unlike the current regressive billing system where doctors and hospitals charge higher rates to people without health care than they do for those with health care.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, Unitarian Universalists have been at the center of organizing a program called Taking Back Sunday, which would seek to end youth sports on Sundays. The group argues that over-scheduling is harmful for children and families and that Sunday sport scheduling is harmful to family life and to family’s faith life.

That’s just a small slice of what Unitarian Universalists, here in this congregation and across the country, have been doing lately.

When he spoke at my ordination, John Buehrens said that Unitarian Universalists shouldn’t replicate those old theological ideas that they reject, like vicarious atonement, the expectation that it is somebody else’s job to take care of the work of salvation for you.

Another theological idea that Unitarian Universalists have rightfully rejected, and shouldn’t attempt to resurrect is original sin, the idea that we are born bad and broken, hopeless. What I’m saying is that shame is not a very good motivator. It really isn’t. I don’t have any hard scientific, psychological evidence of this fact. Spiritually, I just suppose that this is true, that emphasizing the positive, focusing on it, bringing it out into the light, will in turn breed more positive than shaming ever could. That’s what I’ve tried to do here this morning, exploding a myth or two along the way. I haven’t emphasized the positive so that we may rest on our laurels and devolve into a festival of back-patting and egotistic pride. In fact, my theology doesn’t say that will happen when we consider what we are doing well. Pointing out the positive leads to more positive. Shaming stifles and stultifies and discourages. I’d rather encourage. I’d rather give courage, so that we when we are asked, we will all be able to answer that question, “What have you been up to, lately?”

Speaking Out Against HCR 13 in Missouri

[On Wednesday, March 8 I joined with moderate Christian, Jewish, and Interfaith leaders from Kansas and Missouri in denouncing a Resolution put before the Missouri House of Representatives. Here's a transcript of what I said.]

I want to begin by offering a word of caution to the representatives in the Missouri House. The reason religion and religious institutions have done so well in the United States is due to the fact that there is no established church. The government, by refusing to meddle in ecclesiastical matters, allows churches and religious groups to operate with liberty and this way they flourish. The best thing the government can do for religion is to refuse to meddle in its affairs. In fact, when the government attempts to do theology it injures not only citizens of minority faiths but, paradoxically, even more strongly injures the faith that would aspire to the majority.

It is very clear to me, in reading House Concurrent Resolution 13, that it comes from Caesar and not from God. The Resolution talks about “prayer in public schools” and “religious displays.” Are these legislators reading the same Bible as I am? If they were, they would no doubt note Micah 6, where the people ask, “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased?” And the Prophet answers, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Do these legislators not recall Jesus’ injunction not to pray with effusive piety, looking to be seen as hypocrites do, but to pray in private.

God is not impressed by resolutions, by displays, by showy piety. God is not impressed by attention-seeking and brown-nosing. God is impressed when we treat each other with justice, and mercy, and love, and when we do this in the spirit of humility. And quite frankly, Missouri House of Representatives, The Lord is not pleased with you this legislative session, because you’ve been selling out the poor for silver and trading the needy for a pair of sandals. You’ve been hurting the widow and orphan, neglecting the imprisoned, and taking advantage of the vulnerable.

The Resolution is an instrument of idolatry. Idolatry is taking the partial to be the whole, making God out of what is not God. The Resolution is a self-righteous act of idolatry, and God is not deceived. And the people of Missouri won’t be deceived either. For they want justice and fairness; they want liberty and shelter; they want health-care and safety. They do not want your golden calves; they do not care for your sermonizing.

I want to end with the words of Thomas Jefferson: "Our Constitution... has not left the religion of its citizens under the power of its public functionaries, were it possible that any of these should consider a conquest over the consciences of men either attainable or applicable to any desirable purpose." The Resolution put before us is without desirable purpose.