Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Sermon: "Questions & Answers 2007" (Delivered 1-7-2006)

This year I approached Question & Answer Sunday a bit differently than in year’s past. Instead of requesting questions a week ahead of time, I asked people to write their questions down on a note-card as they entered the sanctuary. Following the first hymn, I sequestered myself in the foyer and dealt out the cards with Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” running through my mind. “You have to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.”

But I did not run. I returned and answered as many as I could, as best I could…

The Lead Off Question
Q. How do we logically argue the separation of church and state with evangelical Christians?
A. Something related to this has been on my mind this week, as I read a news story about the Congressman from Minnesota who intends to be sworn in using Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Koran, which was part of his library that became the original collection of the library of Congress. It’s been said that this book represents the founder’s intent to be a nation founded on religious freedom and religious pluralism. I would answer by asking the person you are discussing the separation of church and state with just when theocracy has ever worked well. Historians and sociologists tend to think that religion has thrived so well in America because it is not run by the government. In many nations in Europe there is a state religion, but only ten percent of the population is churched. In America, the free market and the state refusing to meddle in religion has been a great thing for the success of churches. When it comes down to it, we don’t want government running churches. That is one good reason to support the separation of church and state.

Q. What book would you recommend mostly highly for learning how to feel compassion for some of the idiots who see intent on promoting sexist, racist, homophobic policies – or should we feel compassion at all?
A. Actually, someone in the congregation recently recommended I pick up a copy of “The Force of Kindness” by Sharon Salzberg, who is an American Buddhist. As I have begun to read it, I have found a lot of what she has to say quite compelling. She dispels the notion that kindness is an expression of weakness. That is the book I’d recommend.

Q. Why do Unitarians need to study the Bible?
A. Let me rephrase this question a little bit. By “need” I’m not saying that you should be forced to. We’re not a religion that forces people to do anything. But I believe that Unitarians should elect to study the Bible. And, not just for reasons of “cultural competence” or to be able to understand art and literature. If we are truly a religion that seeks to understand our neighbors, if we are a religion that is mature enough to encounter other faiths, then we’ll study the Bible for understanding rather than treat it dismissively or with avoidance. By choosing to remain ignorant of the Bible, you cede its interpretation, not to mention your own power, to those who use the Bible for ill. By the way, I am teaching a course on the Bible later this Spring.

Q. Why is the UUA putting less and less emphasis on humanism?
A. I can certainly understand how it might feel this way, but actually, the Unitarian Universalist Association is not in the business of emphasizing any particular theology over another. Similarly, Bill Sinkford in his role as UUA President is not the head theologian of our movement. As a movement, our theology is shaped by what goes on in local congregations, what people teach in adult religious education classes and what they talk about in small groups. It is also shaped by who enters the ministry. I have noticed that theism and/or Christianity seems to be on the rise in the ranks of UU ministry.

Q. What are the characteristics of post-modernism?
A. Perhaps the person who wrote this question saw this KC Star article by Vern Barnet from a couple of weeks ago. I will say this: the term is often thrown around imprecisely and perhaps in a way that is designed to obscure. Post-modernism involves the calling into question some of the assumptions of modernism. Modernism assumed that we would be saved by technology and industry (progress), that we would discover truth, and that by appealing to reason we could create agreement. Post-modernism calls these assumptions into question.

Q. Is Jesus the Son of God?
A. I was actually quoted in an article by Bill Tammeus offering an answer to this question. By clicking here you can read what I wrote to Bill and what he actually included in the article.

Q. When I was a young thing in the Baptist Church, the minister often talked about “being called” to the ministry. Is there anything in UUism that compares to this?
A. Yes. I would refer the person who asked this question to the new book called Living a Call by Michael Durall in which several UU ministers write about the articulation and implication of their call to the ministry. If you asked a sampling of UU ministers, the answers might range from one extreme - "God spoke to me and told me to go into the ministry" - to the other - "My career counselor spoke to me and told me to go into the ministry." I might also say that not all calls need to come from God. "I heard my brothers and sisters calling." "I heard the oppressed calling." "I heard those longing for liberal religious community calling." Is this not the way that God also calls?

Our Church
Q. Can we change the name of the church? I don’t like “SMUUCh.”
A. Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? I assume that this person just doesn't like that our acronym is pronounced "smooch." Indeed, this comment has come up every year during question and answer Sunday. A change in name would require us to adjust our by-laws, a process that requires support from the Board of Trustees. I would also like to say that naming churches after geographic locations is a little bit passe. For decades, UU churches have tended to name themselves after the geographic location. My favorite example of this is Northwest UU Church of Southfield, Michigan. However, more recently UU churches have begun naming themselves in ways that identify a core image or concept. Examples of these include Horizon and Pathways in Texas, Wellsprings in Pennsylvania, Micah's Porch in Chicago, and Tapestry in California. (After the service someone did nix the Tapestry idea. "If we name ourselves after a Carole King album, I'm leaving.")

Q. Our church is growing but growth is a double-edged sword. As we grow, how do we ensure that the institution (buildings, parking lots) does not become more important than the people it’s supposed to serve?
A. Hey, I can guarantee we won't be building a cathedral. Nobody is suggesting we build a replica of the Sistine Chapel. Our charge to our Facilities Task is to recommend a facilities plan that serves our needs. Those needs include more space in the nursery, a decent kitchen, more space in the foyer, more seats, appropriate offices, and a room big enough for all-church events. These identified facility needs do put the people the buildings are supposed to serve first.

Q. Are there any plans for a women’s or men’s retreat?
A. Good question. Are there? As a church we are a volunteer-driven organization. Many of our programs are created and run by members. As a permission-giving church, we seek to empower our members to creative enterprises that further our Mission & Vision. If you find yourself interested in having a men's retreat or women's retreat, find some other people who share your passion and make it happen.

Q. Being new to SMUUCh, I was wondering if there are any rites of passage for children?
A. For newborns, adoptions, and children who join the church we do Child Dedication ceremonies. These take place during regular scheduled worship and involve the whole congregation making a promise to support the child and his/her family. For children in 7th and 8th grade we offer the Coming of Age program. This is the Unitarian Universalist equivalent of a bar/bat Mitzvah or Confirmation. By the way, SMUUCh was the first congregation to have a Coming of Age program.

Q. Why is there so little variety in the form of Sunday services?
A. Why does the stork stand on one leg? If it didn't it would fall on its behind. This zen koan was originally told to me by John Buehrens. This koan speaks to the importance of tradition. Recently, Brent Smith shared with me this story. At his congregation, they recently had no paper order of service due to a printing error. Nobody missed a beat. They sang the songs and recited the words perfectly. About this experience, he wrote:
"I think the mission of the liberal church is the liberation of the Spirit. I also think that's the proper affect of of liturgy, whether or not it is intentionally aimed at that. It is to give the heart and mind the order necessary for there to be a foundation to the self from which it can freely soar towards new thoughts and new revelations, and deeper experiences of affection and realize wider invitations to love; the Creative Event. Without the order of service this past Sunday people discovered that their five year practice of the church's liturgy yielded an ordered flowing in, around, and out of them.

"The heart and mind were stilled, that the spirit might be liberated through deeper relationship. It is a state beyond personal likes, dislikes, and preferences, a readiness to listen together to the call of the Spirit so that a rededication to the good and just can occur; something heard and received variously. It is not a naturally occuring, "organic" kind of thing. Spiritual freedom isn't that way. It is a liturgical equivalent of what our ancestors called 'federated liberty,' the order created by human beings that makes freedom possible. It requires focussed planning and continuous practice. But the multiple and various responses in the greeting line told me that something liberating occured in that 1 hour that, with enough practice, could significantly transform the other 167 hours of any given week in the lives of the church and its people."
What Brent Smith is saying is that there is deepening that can only come through practice and repetition.

Q. Have we considered “advertising” in the newspapers, etc.?
Q. The Saturday edition of the KC Star has two pages of ads for churches including the location and times of services. What would we have to pay for at least a minimal informational ad?

A. I would refer you to the members of our Communications Committee. I heard an estimate once that we could expect to pay around $2,000 annually for a small listing on the religion pages of the KC Star. I do know that our advertising has been a budget casualty the past two years, a necessary cut to create a balanced budget. I also know that some people have expressed doubts about the effectiveness of newspaper advertising. I'll also say that the two best types of advertising are free: word of mouth and making news for our outstanding work! If we all told our friends, neighbors, and dog groomers about us, we'd grow even faster than we are growing. Similarly, social action projects and community forums are a great way to get known.

Q. Thom, what is your #1 objective for SMUUCh for 2007?
A. Unitarian Universalist churches are a bit different from many churches in that the minister is not the singular vision-setter for the entire church. Here at SMUUCh, a democratically-elected board works together with the minister, staff, and committees to create shared goals. I do think that we are doing very well at the "Invite" and "Inspire" parts of our mission. I think we have room to improve on the "Involve" part. One of my goals is much greater Involvement of each and every member in both service to and service outside of the congregation. Another goal of mine is to follow-up on last Spring's Evolution series by offering a series on Stem Cells.

Personal Questions
Q. Who is your favorite theologian?
A. From our tradition, I am very drawn to the theological works of James Luther Adams and Rebecca Parker. I am also a big fan of Brian McClaren, the leader of the "Emergent" movement.

Q. Who are some of your favorite writers?
A. Once I find a favorite writer, I tend to read everything by them. During 2006 I read all of the published works (3,570 pages!) of David Foster Wallace. The year before I read six books (How to be Good, High Fidelity, About a Boy, The Long Way Down, Fever Pitch, and Speaking with the Angel) by Nick Hornby. Currently, I'm really big on reading Dave Eggers.

Q. What do you do to recharge your spirit?
A. I'm a big fan of live music and rock concerts. But, in a way my ministry to the chruch stays grounded by ministry to the community. I've really enjoyed serving on the board of the MAINstream Coalition and volunteering with groups like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.

Q. What is your favorite color?
A. Orange.

Q. Why did you choose to live in KC, MO instead of JO CO, KS?

A. This is my fourth year at SMUUCh. During my first two years I did live in Johnson County, before I moved to the Plaza/Brookside area. For a single person there seemed to be more things to do at 40th and Main then at 95th and Metcalf.

Q. Do you like Pokemon?
A. I don't even know what this is.

Q. What are you proudest or happiest about since you came to the Kansas City area?
A. I'm proud of being awarded Final Fellowship by the UUA. I'm proud of the Evolution Series we offered last Spring. I'm most proud of the growth and health and vitality of this congregation.

Q. What are your life goals and career plans? How long we keep you?
A. Hmmm... I've never thought of myself as "kept." That imagery makes me a little uncomfortable. One stays as a minister of a church as long as one feels called to that ministry, and as long the ministry that the church requires is in synch with the ministry you are called to. Listen, I'm 29. I figure I'm good for another 36 years of active ministry, at minimum. One goal that I do have is being active in the creation of more Unitarian Universalist churches. But who knows?

Silly Questions
[There are always some like these!]
Q. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
Q. How many Unitarians does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Q. If I were a moose and you were a cow, would love me anyhow?

A. A. A. No Comment

Q. Was “Andrew Dice K” worth all that money?

A. Clever nick-name. This question is a reference to Japanese pitcher, Daisuke (pronounced “Dice-K”) Matsuzaka, who the Boston Red Sox recently signed to a gigantic contract. They paid $51 million to his Japanese team for just the rights to negotiate with him, and on top of that it took another $52 million over six years to sign him. Was he worth it? Are any of them truly worth it?

Q. My 9 year old wants to know what 1062 X 1062 equals.
A. 1,127,844

Q. What should we name our baby?
A. I actually have an answer to this. I was talking with somebody the other day about all the interesting and creative names that parents give their children here at SMUUCh. (In just the past few weeks we’ve had an Easton, an Ava, and a Finlay.) But I was kind of lamenting the paucity of UU names. No Henry David’s. No Ralph Waldo’s. And then I remembered a British Unitarian from the 1700’s named Theophilus Lindsey. Nobody names their kid “Theophilus” any more. That is what I would recommend. You could even shorten it to “Theo.” Oh, what’s that you say. What if she is a girl? Does anybody know what the feminine form of Theophilus is?

More Questions
Q. Our country and now the world is money-driven and consumer-driven. Everything is based on things. Right now shopping zombies are walking through WalMarts all over the world trying to get more things. Is this good or bad? Ps. I’ve been looking all over for a Play Station 3. Will I be able to find it this week?
A. None of us are likely to ever become monks with begging bowls or desert ascetics who altogether renounce the world. That is to say, "things" will always be a necessary part of our life. I tend to believe that our culture encourages us to be in relationship with material things in a way that is neither healthy nor sustainable. One of the problems with consumerism is that we tend to act as consumers in all parts of our life. I would reject the idea that finding a church is like buying a car. In the religious life, "how much can I get for how little?" and "what can you do for me?" are not good starting places. I am also concerned about the "Bowling Alone" phenomenon. The findings in Robert Putman's book about the decline of civic organizations are of concern to me. Increasingly we know how to shop, but know less about how to organize in community. Community and church is something you build, not something you buy.

Q. My New Years resolution this year was “to be more in the world.” How can I “be more in the world”?
A. A couple of things come to mind. I am tempted to recommend that you pick up a copy of Thoreau's Walden (and maybe the Barry Andrews' book "Thoreau as Spiritual Guide.") I find Thoreau to be one of the most important thinkers about what it means to live in the world. I would also recommend a spiritual practice that helps you to notice more of the world. You may find it helpful to keep a gratitude journal, for example.

Q. Is it acceptable to come to SMUUCh more for the community than for the spiritual aspect?
A. I think that this question imposes a false dichotomy. Why can't the community be the spiritual aspect? But another question someone asked me helps me also to be able to answer this one. That person offered the quote, "Bidden or not bidden, God is present." What you come for does not need to equal what you get out of it. I love to tell the story of a minister who was visited by an elderly parishioner who said, "I've been coming to church for 80 years and, to tell you the truth, I can't remember a single sermon. Why should I bother to come?" The minister replied, "I've been eating meals for 50 years and, to tell you the truth, I don't remember a single menu. But I still continue to eat." Perhaps more is happening to you than you realize.

Q. How can I briefly articulate my faith when I feel under attack?
Q. Why do all my friends consider Unitarian Universalism to be a cult?
Q. What is a fast way to describe UUism to people not familiar with us?

A. I will come back later and answer this.

Q. How do you explain the differences between Unitarian Universalism and Unity?
Q. How is this related or unrelated to Unity or Science of Mind?
Q. Many times people in the community confuse Unitarian Universalism and Unity. Do you have an elevator speech to clarify the difference?

A. I will come back later and answer this.

Concluding Remarks
I want to end by simply saying that it has been a joy to stand before you and be challenged to give my best answers to these questions. How splendid a thing to be a part of a religious tradition that encourages us to ask questions. And, how splendid and superb to be a part of a faith that tells you not to take these answers as gospel truth, but encourages you to freely and responsibly search for your own answers.

In your going, I ask you:
How is it with your soul?
What are you spending and being spent for?
For what are you grateful?
What is calling you?
And, "What will you do with your one wild and untamed life?"

[In a few days I plan to post the questions I did not get around to answering last Sunday.]