Monday, April 26, 2010

Sermon: "The Abandoned Places of Empire" (Delivered 4-25-10)

The 3C Theme of this sermon is: Challenge - To challenge aspects of our culture that diminish life. Click here for more information.

Please take a moment to view the photo essay that is a companion piece to this sermon.

Very special thanks go to Rev. Ron Robinson for allowing me to interview him and for his willingness to share the good news of his ministry in Turley, Oklahoma. You can find out more this work here. (You can also donate to his minstry through PayPal.) You can read a three-part newsletter article on Ron's ministry here, here, and here.

Sermon
A month ago I was riding in a car with my friend Paul, a Unitarian Universalist in Rockford, Illinois. We were driving in his Mini-Cooper down the central thoroughfare through the small city of Rockford. I had never been to Rockford before, but the stretch of road was very familiar. It was pretty much what you see as you drive through almost any urban/suburban area in the country. To me it felt as if I was driving down Metcalf Avenue. [The main street running through Overland Park.]

We started out at the new development end, the end that looks exactly like 151st Street and Metcalf. The buildings were clean and crisp, utilizing glass, stainless steel, and fashionable stonework. Young saplings, secured to the ground with guide wires, dotted the islands in the parking lots. The shopping center featured upscale stores and brand new restaurants.

As we continued to drive we passed another shopping center with slightly lower end stores and restaurants, roughly the equivalent of 119th and Metcalf. This shopping center had been the new thing five years earlier. Next we passed even older establishments with concrete buildings that looked just the slightest bit run down and then strip malls which had been the new thing over a decade ago. It resembled 91st and Metcalf.

I began to call out, as one gifted with skills of prophecy, the types of stores we would pass next: tanning salons, ethnic grocers, and economy priced beauty salons, all in strip malls with salmon and green awnings and many vacant storefronts. As Paul and I continued past, I announced, “I bet we pass a Payday Loan lender in the next thirty seconds.” Paul responded, “Not so fast. First we pass the auto parts stores and then we pass the Payday lenders.”

Paul explained: As the make-up of the community changes, the first thing you see is more and more used cars on the road. These cars need more constant maintenance and so you need a store that sells auto parts. Show me a store that sells auto parts and within 18 months there will be a Payday lender next door. For Paul, who has lived there most of his life, driving through the Rockford sprawl was like passing through the rings of a tree from the outside to the inside.

You can do the exact same thing in Overland Park. Jump in your car and drive ten miles from 151st Street to 75th Street. When I moved to Overland Park seven years ago there were one or two predatory lenders (Payday lenders, check cashing businesses, title loan stores) between 75th and 83rd. Now there are seven.

Of course, that’s just the neighborhood around the church. Drive down Troost. Drive past the Bannister Mall. Look at the neighborhoods in KCK with abandoned lots and foreclosed homes. Consider all the schools they are closing in KCMO.

Whether you are in urban planning or local politics or sociology or the non-profit sector or the for-profit sector, you might have different names for this. Since I am in the theological sector, I call these places “The Abandoned Places of Empire.”

The Abandoned Places of Empire. I did not invent the term. This term comes from New Monasticism, one of dozens of contemporary, post-modern, alternative, experimental, Christian movements. (The first of the "Twelve Marks" of the New Monastics is "relocation to the abandoned places of empire.") The New Monastics view the world we live in as comparable to the Roman Empire at the time when the Roman Empire began to disintegrate and collapse. They would say that the United States demonstrates imperialist tendencies, and not just in terms of its international policies.

What are the tendencies of empires? In an empire, the state, the church, and the culture become deeply intermeshed, inseparably interwoven. Empires elevate entertainment and the marketplace as the central focal points of society. The Roman Coliseum and the marketplace of 2,000 years ago are found today at The Legends [an enormous, upscale shopping and entertainment complex] with its race track and Nebraska Furniture Mart. We know the legends of Roman mythology. The Legends of today has a Coldstone Creamery.

Another feature of empire is that it systematically draws the wealth and resources out of some places and centralizes that wealth elsewhere. When the Roman Empire occupied the Holy Land, it taxed the people and sent that money back to Rome. It set the terms of trade and pulled goods and resources from the margins to the center.

The Roman religion, first pagan then Christian, preached a message that justified the state. Today, the New Monastics and other alternative Christian groups are critical of dominant forms of Christianity that legitimize the larger culture. The New Monastics critique the mega-church movement and its shopping mall aesthetics. They express concern towards the Gospel of Prosperity that many of these churches preach, the idea that God wants you to be rich and that material wealth is a sign of holiness. They criticize what they call “cultural Christianity,” a church that implicitly or explicitly blesses the larger culture.

On this point, let me say that it is common for a church to offer a critique of culture on a superficial level at the same time that it implicitly confers a blessing upon the culture at a deeper level. It may rail against the sinfulness of rap lyrics or Hollywood or it may get itself worked up about homosexuality while at the same time remaining silent about the causes of poverty, the foreign policy of our nation, or our fascination with materialism and spectacle. If we’re going to talk about the merging of church and culture, it should be pointed out that America’s largest mega-church holds worship in the basketball arena that was the former home to the Houston Rockets NBA team.

So, an empire succeeds by fusing the state, the culture, the church, the marketplace, and entertainment. All the parts mutually reinforce each other. An empire depends on the ability to suck resources away from one area and centralize those resources in other areas. Gold rush towns become ghost towns when all the gold’s been taken away. When the gold is gone, what you have left is an abandoned place of empire. No gold, no Golddiggers. [This last sentence is an allusion to my photo essay.]

Sometimes, what is left behind is a ghost town or a clear-cut mountainside. Other times, it’s a ghetto. The dominant culture sends a message about these abandoned places. “They are places where cool people don’t go and you should avoid these places. The people that live there ought to leave and if they are smart enough or wealthy enough they have left. If you live there, it is probably because you are dumb or lazy.”

***

I want to tell you a story. It is a true story. It takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It is a story of two cities. It is the story of Owasso and Turley, two of Tulsa’s satellite communities. My good friend Reverend Ron Robinson lives in Tulsa. He is a UU Christian and wanted to start a new church. When Tulsa desegregated, the white flight sent people racing to Owasso. Owasso is an affluent suburb completely and completely lacking for liberal religion, or liberal anything for that matter. Since liberal Christianity didn’t even have a place in Owasso, Ron decided he would start a church there. He called it Epiphany and the church grew 600%. In other words, it grew from a church of two members (Ron and his wife) to a church of twelve. One Easter they managed to get 25 in worship.

The church grew dispirited with trying to make itself viable in Owasso. The spirit moved them and they decided to replant their church in Turley. Let me tell you a little bit about Turley. In the 1960s Turley was a solidly blue-collar town. By the new millennium it had become an abandoned place of empire. It had gone from blue-collar to no-collar. Its residents were either retired or unemployed. Here is what the community looked like: no new housing had been built in decades. There were almost no businesses, no employment to be found, and little if any public transportation. Parts of Turley are unincorporated, meaning no municipal government has responsibility for it. Trash piles up. Feral dogs and cats roam freely. There are few grocery stores and the community had no access to healthy food. There are no hospitals and no health clinics. There are no movie theaters and no spaces for youth to gather. You can’t even get a pizza delivered there.

So, Ron Robinson, his wife, and their 15 year-old daughter moved there and they re-launched the church, calling it “The Living Room.” Its impact was negligible. One Easter the church decided to line Turley’s streets with pots full of blooming daffodils and tulips. People came and cut the flowers or dumped out the dirt and took the pots.

The church changed again. They decided to stop holding regular church programs and to transform themselves into a community center which they called “A Third Place.” Today, the church is a core group of around 8 people. They operate a community center for the residents of Turley. The Community Center runs a food pantry, an extremely popular internet center, a modest library, a community medicine clinic, an art gallery, and a coffeehouse with live musicians. They offer free meals, community classes, a children’s area, a games area, meeting space, a sewing co-op, 12 Step programs, and an animal welfare clinic.

They formed a partnership with the University of Oklahoma which has launched public health and social work initiatives in the town and works to bring community health services to the residents there. They have started a community gardening program. Native American members of the Turley community plant the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash. With a donation of land, they have started a community orchard. They practice what they call “guerrilla gardening” which involves reclaiming abandoned lots or even a median strip or a sidewalk and planting there.

There is hope here, but there is also tremendous despair. Here is one more thing to say about Turley. “A Third Place” community center is actually on the exact same street as All Souls UU Church in Tulsa, the largest UU church in the country. They are eight miles apart from one another. The average life expectancy in the zip code where “A Third Place” is located is 14 years less than the average life expectancy of All Souls’ zip code.

***

But, let’s come back to Kansas City. When I did my slideshow of abandoned places of empire in Kansas City I chose just three different areas. I probably could have chosen one hundred and three. For example, I didn’t mention Wyandotte County. My friend pastors a congregation in KCK. He tells me that sixty percent of the homes and businesses around his church are vacant.

For the last ten months I, along with another member of our church, have been working in partnership with an organization called Communities Creating Opportunity, an organization that does community organizing and that brings together members of faith communities to build relationships, share stories, talk about the issues that matter in our families, and helps us to organize to effect change in our communities based on the power of our relationships. In the past month I joined a group of people involved in CCO who met in the office of Mayor Reardon of KCK and advocated for a solution to make foreclosed homes less conspicuous and therefore less of a target for vandals and squatters.

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting at the Kauffman Foundation with bank executives and ministers from throughout the city. This gathering had been organized by CCO and it was an opportunity to advocate for banks to offer a more moral and less usurious alternative to Payday loans. When it was my turn to speak, I talked about not being in the room purely out of a sense of solidarity with my brothers in midtown, my sisters in East Kansas City, or my friends in Wyandotte. I believe I was the lone Johnson County representative in the room and I talked about how every time I drive to work, I pass seven predatory lenders within a mile of the church. The presence of those predatory lenders speaks to the vulnerability present among our neighbors in this neighborhood. Under my working analysis of empire, I would say that payday lending is a form of grabbing what little is left of the wealth and resources of one area and relocating that wealth elsewhere. I do not want the area around this church to become an abandoned place of empire, surrounded by pawn shops and zombie malls.

I want to introduce another word, a word that isn’t theological in and of itself but can be infused with a religious meaning. The word is “reclamation.” To reclaim something is to take something back, to take something back that empire had wrongfully possessed. To take something back that empire possessed immorally and without consent.

The last pictures I showed you in my slide show had to do with reclamation. The community garden near my home is probably temporary, but I’d much rather have a community garden than an abandoned field where people dump their trash. And, sure, it is possible to scoff at the little garden. What difference does that make? Well, it raises my property value by a very small amount. A thriving public school system would make a bigger difference, so we will have to put that on the agenda. That garden provides an opportunity for people in my neighborhood to connect. It builds community which, in turn, has an impact on public safety. It is environmentally sound. If you grow food in your backyard, no fossil fuels are needed to ship it or truck it. The most environmentally friendly food is the food you can walk to your own dinner table. These changes are small. You might almost say they are insignificant. But, the biggest difference is the change it has made in me. I care about my community more. I think about my neighbors more. I notice more. I’m not saying that this was a Saul on the road to Damascus moment. I’m just saying those heads of lettuce are better… better than the shuttered store. Better than the trash heap. Better than a Payday lender.

The first abandoned place of empire to reclaim is the human heart.

We live in an empire. It is an empire that has fused faith, government, culture, business, and entertainment. It is a ravenous force. It leaves behind rust belts and strip-mined mountain sides. It can be resisted and much of its damage can be undone. Its abandoned buildings can be reclaimed. Its abandoned fields can be sown.

This Earth Day weekend you may have heard about the 4 R’s of environmentalism: reduce, reuse, recycle, replenish. To those I add another 4: reclaim, restore, rebuild, recreate.

Earlier in the service I read a selection from Rev. Vanessa Southern’s meditation manual, This Piece of Eden. In it she talks about the children of her church working to grow a garden. I conclude with her words,
It is odd to think that this patch of ground was once fallow, a trash dump for the local alley dwellers. In short order, it has gone from eyesore to asset. Listen carefully any day and you can hear the neighbors cooing in appreciation as they walk by. If in our neglect of this piece of land they saw evidence of a church not fully rooted in this community, in our care of this garden they may now see a love made manifest.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Photo Essay: The Abandoned Places of Empire

This "Photo Essay" is a companion piece to the sermon I delivered on April 25, 2010 at the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church.

On Saturday, April 24 I drove to three separate neighborhoods in the Kansas City metro area. I began in the Ivanhoe Neighborhood in KCMO. Our first picture is of a completely empty acre that has been fenced off at the corner of 39th and Prospect.



Nearby, at the corner of Troost and Linwood, is a boarded-up store.



And, here is a photo of the Horace Mann School. It has been closed since 1979, and has sat as a vacant eyesore for more than 30 years.



About this school, a member of the Neighborhood Association said, “Anytime you have a vacant building that used to be a thriving place, it leaves you with a sense of despair, hopelessness - particularly in this part of town, where we've lost so many residents and we have so many vacant buildings."



It is a twisted irony that the school was named for Horace Mann, an educator (and Unitarian) credited with the creation of public schools in the United States.

Behind the school, you find the ruins of a gas station that has become a dumping ground for trash.



Next, I decided to drive South about 50 blocks to the commercial ghost-town near the failed Bannister Mall. Here is a photo of an empty Super Wal-Mart.



And, here is another shuttered Wal-Mart.



I had no idea what this box building was until I saw the "labelscar." It is extremely faint, but you can just make out that this used to be a PetSmart.



Finally, I just had to snap a photo of "Golddiggers Restaurant & Ba"



There are just so many possible captions from which to choose.

Finally, I decided to drive over the area around our church. Here is the sleek looking Payday lender at 77th and Metcalf.



And, here is another predatory lender at 82nd and Metcalf.



A few blocks to the South, at 95th and Metcalf, you find the almost entirely vacant Metcalf South Mall.



Between the Sears at one end and the Macy's at the other, every store is closed. Walking around inside and taking pictures I encountered one other solitary being. He asked me why I was taking pictures. I told him I was taking pictures of abandoned places. He enthusiastically recommended that I check out this web site about the dead malls of America. Local contributors tell the stories of these dead malls. One sentence from the story of Metcalf South stood out. “Perhaps the saddest thing of all was seeing the sign that popped up a couple of holiday seasons ago that informed shoppers that Santa no longer visits Metcalf South.”

I want to conclude this "photo essay" with a word of hope. The neighborhood where I live is rather nice, and less than a block from my house I was delighted to discover that an abandoned lot has been converted into a community garden and rain garden and that fruit trees have been planted with an invitation for anyone walking by to pick their own fruit.



Here is a photo of the early harvest.

Sermon: "Community, Covenant, and Communication, or, How Nice is 'Midwest Nice'?" (Delivered 4-18-10)

The 3C Theme of this sermon is: Commit - To commit to a distinctly Unitarian Universalist way of life. Click here for more information.

First Reading
The first reading is from reporter Sam Stein, who covered the Health Care Vote on March 20, 2010.
Abusive, derogatory and even racist behavior directed at House Democrats by Tea Party protesters on Saturday left several lawmakers in shock.

Preceding the president's speech to a gathering of House Democrats, thousands of protesters descended around the Capitol to protest the passage of health care reform. The gathering quickly turned into abusive heckling, as members of Congress passing through Longworth House office building were subjected to epithets and even mild physical abuse.

A staffer for Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told reporters that Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) had been spat on by a protestor. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement, was called a 'ni--er.' And Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) was called a "faggot," as protestors shouted at him with deliberately lisp-y screams. Frank, approached in the halls after the president's speech, shrugged off the incident.

But Clyburn was downright incredulous, saying he had not witnessed such treatment since he was leading civil rights protests in South Carolina in the 1960s.

"It was absolutely shocking to me," Clyburn said, in response to a question from the Huffington Post. "Last Monday, this past Monday, I stayed home to meet on the campus of Claflin University where fifty years ago as of last Monday... I led the first demonstrations in South Carolina, the sit ins... And quite frankly I heard some things today I have not heard since that day. I heard people saying things that I have not heard since March 15, 1960 when I was marching to try and get off the back of the bus."

Second Reading
The second reading comes from the Epistle of James,
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.

Sermon
In conceiving this sermon I suffered metaphorically from a kind of myopia, a case of tunnel vision. With very narrow blinders I imagined that I would talk about communication. I would talk about how we here in this community talk with one another, how we communicate. I would talk about how the way our community exists is powerfully shaped by how we choose to communicate. And, I would talk about the idea of covenant, the idea that there might be some promises that we make to one another about how we will communicate with one another.

And, I had a target in sight. I had identified a habit of being in the world that I was going to take issue with and attack. I was going to describe a type of communication known as “Midwest Nice” and I was going to assail and declaim it from the pulpit. “Hey, Midwest Nice! Get ready to meet Yankee Blunt. I’m going to mess you up.”

And, then the blinders came off. Was I really going to preach a sermon critical of a reserved and measured (and often passive-aggressive) manner of communication at a time when there has been such a massive breakdown of civility in our wider country especially in our politics and in our media?

Three weeks ago, the FBI made arrests in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. Arrested were the members of a so-called Christian militia known as Hutaree, whose members were accused of conspiring to foment an uprising that would lead to the overthrow of the United States government. The militia allegedly had planned to murder a police officer and then attack the funeral by detonating homemade explosives in order to achieve the mass death of law enforcement and public safety officials. Federal prosecutors allege the group was planning to set its plans in motion in April in order to coincide with the bombing of Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (April 19, 1995) which itself coincided with the deadly raid on David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas on April 19, 1993.

Or, consider the news account I read earlier in which protesters shouted vile racial epithets at and spat upon African American members of congress just before the health care vote. The protesters also hurled homophobic slurs at Congressman Barney Frank. In the district of Texas Congressman Ciro Rodriguez, a moderate Democrat, protesters referred to Rodriguez and his staffers as “wetbacks” and members of his family received harassing phone calls in which callers shouted, “Go back to Mexico.”

And, here I was planning to preach about the horrible scourge of “Midwest Nice.”

Now, I have to admit, I think we in this church do a pretty good job when it comes to civility. That’s not to say that we never slip up; because we do. But, at least I can say that I’ve never had anyone shout at me during a worship service, “Go home, Yankee!” And, a month from now, at our congregational meeting, I am confident that when the elected leaders of this congregation stand before you, none of you are going to shout, “You Lie!” and that no one is going to throw a shoe at anyone else.

But, before we pat ourselves on the back, let me just remind us that the bar I have just set for civil conduct is extraordinarily low. We don’t throw shoes or shout each other down or spit on each other but, if that fills us with a sense of pride, then we have mighty low standards. We’ve all passed kindergarten communication. This sermon describes a different challenge.

The origins of this sermon came from observing how the leaders of another congregation described themselves. Some time ago I read the congregational record of a UU church in the Midwest, curious to see what they said about themselves. Let me back up a step and explain this process. When a congregation is in search for a new minister they select a search committee, work with an interim minister, and the members of the congregation engage in a series of meetings, intentional conversations, and are asked to complete a survey. Then, the search committee is charged with coming up with a twenty page written document called a congregational record in which the congregation is described by answering a series of questions.

One of the sections on the Congregational Record asks the congregation to name its strengths and its challenges. This congregation wrote that one of its most significant challenges is a culture of “Midwest Nice.” They wrote, “Out of a desire to be kind and ‘not make waves’, we can be indirect and conflict avoidant. This makes it hard to surface and resolve issues and also to make decisions.”

Wikipedia describes “Midwest Nice” (or “Minnesota Nice,” as it is more frequently called) as a stereotypical behavior in which residents are, “courteous, reserved, and mild mannered.” The entry continues,
"According to Annette Atkins, the cultural characteristics of [Midwest] nice include a polite friendliness, an aversion to confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, emotional restraint, and self-deprecation… She notes that critics have pointed out negative qualities, such as passive aggressiveness and resistance to change. Syl Jones suggests that [Midwest] nice isn't really about being “nice” at all. It's more about keeping up appearances, maintaining the social order, and keeping people in their place."
Well, those are a whole lot of ideas to unpack. So, let me pause right here and ask you, is this cultural stereotype something that you think resonates with some level of truth? Do you feel as if I’ve just described some people you know really well? Or, possibly, do you feel as if I just described you?

So, where exactly am I going with this? Don’t worry. I’m not going to suggest that we combat the scourge of “Midwest Nice” by forming a militia or by rudely interrupting the proceedings of some meeting. But, I do want to suggest that authentic community, by which I mean community at its most meaningful, is damaged by an overabundance of “Midwestern Nice.” It is damaged because if “Midwestern Nice” has do with keeping up appearances, then the community will be one where there will be a great deal of, if not phoniness, then at least something lesser than authenticity.

This sister church of ours in the Midwest listed, among its most significant challenges, a culture in which things get addressed indirectly, people are reluctant to surface concerns that they have, and that, as a result, decisions are challenging to make. They had identified that there was something important to them, something they hoped to achieve, something they hoped to become, that was more important, more critical, than worrying about whether waves got made or feathers got ruffled.

There is a famous formula in the New Testament in which Jesus instructs his followers on what to do when one person has a problem with another person. The formula goes like this: If you have an issue with somebody, go and talk to that person in private. If that doesn’t work, go ahead with a kind of mediation in which a few people of good and temperate judgment help you to have the conversation. And, finally, if that doesn’t work, appeal to whatever power there is in the system that is authorized to make binding decisions. This approach is not some weird and obscure passage from 2,000 years ago and half a world away. It is actually remarkably similar to conflict policies that are the best practices recommended in our denomination. This approach is also seen in other guides to conflict resolution.

I keep coming back to what that other church wrote about itself. We want to be nice to each other. We don’t want to get riled up. We avoid talking about things that might make anyone uncomfortable and because we do that we become stymied and issues of significance and consequence do not come to the surface.

They were asking a question: Is there something more important to us than smoothing things over and not rocking the boat? Is there something more critical than the keeping up of the status quo?

Now, I’ve been accused of being too focused on church. Well, that is just the type of minister that I am. But, for everyone here, I would imagine that you are involved in some association of human beings somewhere where the behavioral patterns of “Midwest Nice” make you feel stuck and stymied and mired. Maybe it is a family conflict. Maybe it is something you encounter in the workplace. Maybe it is a neighborhood association. Maybe it is an organization where you volunteer. Maybe it is this church.

Here are a few questions to ask about healthy communication: Are you able to speak the truth as we know it with kindness and conviction? Is it possible for you to feel heard and understood by another person even though the other person might still disagree with you? Have you ever avoided another person because being in that person’s presence made you uncomfortable because of something you felt as if you ought to say, but haven’t said?

I am fond of saying that church is both the house of the holy and the house of the human. It is also a laboratory of human interaction, a place of risk-taking and opening-up, a place where appearances give way to authenticity. It is a place where we practice the sacred art of being human. Therefore, a cultural tendency to maintain the social order, to resist change, and to avoid confrontation at all costs may actually work against this ability to grow as human beings.

Annie Dillard once wrote, “It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

That quote by Annie Dillard is a favorite one among ministers. I think every UU minister uses it at some point or another. The quote speaks to the idea and the ideal of religious community being a place of risk-taking, of choosing difficult honesty over expedient half-truths. [In the interest of being candid, I should point out that the full version of the Dillard quote is avowedly theistic. The congregation is issued crash helmets and life preservers in the event that God should appear and take offense at our blithe invocations. By excising this part of the quotation, I don’t think I have changed its meaning completely.] Dillard is saying that the religious life, honestly approached, is challenging and treacherous; it involves doing things that make us uncomfortable.

So, I conclude this sermon by urging you to strike a balance. The opposite of those hateful slurs we hear uttered in the public sphere is not disengagement. The opposite of violent extremism is not to smile at everything. As a covenantal church, which is to say a church where relationships take precedence over beliefs, it is imperative that we engage in relationships that are guided by real interpersonal honesty.

I ask everyone here to do one thing this week that moves you towards the edge of your comfort zone. Do something that you couldn’t imagine doing without a crash helmet and a signal flare. Speak the truth. Be kind, but speak the truth, by God.

And remember the words of St. Paul, set to rhyme in one of our hymns,
Though I may speak with bravest fire,
And have the gift to all inspire,
And have not love, my words are vain,
As sounding brass and hopeless gain.

Friday, April 16, 2010

This I Believe... (Part VII: Bibliography, Works Cited, and For Further Reading

Part VII: Bibliography, Works Cited, and For Further Reading

James Luther Adams, The Essential JLA: Selected Writings of James Luther Adams, George Kimmich Beach, editor

Ken Beldon, "Devotion," in The Growing Church: Keys to Congregational Vitality, Thom Belote, editor

Thom Belote, "Thomas Jefferson", The Dictionary of UU Biography (on-line)

Wilhelm Dilthey, On the Human Sciences: An Attempt to Lay a Foundation for the Study of Society and History

Michael Dowd, Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion will Transform Your Life and Our World

Michael Dowd, "A Story Big Enough to Hold Us All", in The Whole World Kin: Darwin and the Spirit of Liberal Religion, Frederic Muir, editor

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method

Laurel Hallman, Images for Our Lives

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature

Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

Brian McClaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith

Brian McClaren, A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished Christian

Jaroslav Pelikan, editor, The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought

Paul Rasor, Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century

Christine Robinson, Imagineering Soul

Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers

Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (3 Volumes)

Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle


Follow this link to Part VIII: Questions & Answers

Or, return to the Table of Contents

This I Believe... (Part VI: Beliefs About Beliefs)

Part VI: Beliefs About Beliefs

I want to conclude by taking a step back by saying a few words about my beliefs about beliefs. It occurs to me that some of you may wish to undertake a fearless inventory of your own beliefs.

First, I think it is helpful to imagine our religious selves as resting upon a four legged stool. (Many people imagine a three legged stool, but I say that there are four legs.) The stool represents ourselves as religious beings. One leg of that stool is belief: that to which we give intellectual assent. Another leg of that stool is faith. Faith differs from belief. Faith, I contend, is not an intellectual proposition but an emotional proposition. Faith is what we put our trust in at an emotional level. It transcends the cognitive functions and incorporates emotions and feelings. It is possible to believe in God but not have faith in God. That would mean something like to intellectually assent to an idea of God, but not incorporate the concept of God into your larger sense of what it is that you trust. Similarly, and perhaps more commonly, it is possible to possess an emotional faith in God even though your rational mind rejects the idea of God.

One leg of the stool is belief. Another leg of the stool is faith. The third leg is action. So is the fourth leg. I like to think of action as having two components when it comes to constructing the religious sense of who we are. One leg of the stool is action that we might call spiritual practice. Spiritual practice might include prayer, meditation, reverence for nature, worship, yoga, journaling, and other such activities.

The fourth leg is also action. The fourth leg is action in the world. I am not just talking about social action, social justice work, and service work. I am talking about every single aspect of your life: How you are in the world. How you spend your time. How you spend your money. How you raise your children. How you manage your priorities.

Because we are Unitarian Universalists, these stools of who we are as religious people are not mass produced. We can carve them and shape them. There are some points where the third and fourth leg might touch. If you attend the Julia’s Voice Stand for Peace event, you may experience it as not only an act of social justice but also as an act of spiritual practice. And, you might argue that I have sliced the first and second leg a little fine. The distinction between belief and faith may not make sense to you, according to your anthropology, your idea of what it means to be a human being.

I believe I first heard about this stool idea from my mentor in Carrollton, Texas, Reverend Dennis Hamilton. (However, the idea of the fourth leg is my own, I think.) But, I think this image can be helpful, especially for Unitarian Universalists who get stuck on the concept of belief. Your religious self is something larger than what you believe. It is what you put your trust in. It is what you do to practice your faith for the purposes of greater self-understanding, greater insight, greater patience, greater serenity, and so forth. And it is also how you practice your faith in the larger world, how you live your values.

And, I want to undermine everything that I’ve said this evening by saying that beliefs are tremendously overrated. Religion is not about belief, or, it is not entirely about belief. “We need not think alike to love alike,” said Francis David, the Transylvanian minister. My colleague Ken Beldon quotes Henry David Thoreau as saying, “I know that some will have hard thoughts about me when they hear that their Christ is named beside my Buddha. Yet I am sure that I am willing they should love their Christ more than my Buddha, for love is the main thing.”

For love is the main thing. I am willing that you should love your reason more than my epistemological God. I am willing that you should love your Buddha or your Einstein or your Goddess or your Mary Magdalene more than I love my Christ. I am willing that you should love your daffodil more than my hummingbird, your fir tree more than my birch.

Here is something else that I believe about beliefs. Not all beliefs are created equal. Some beliefs are ignorant. Some beliefs are stupid. Some beliefs are harmful. Some beliefs are just plain boring. So, rejoice in the fact that there is more to religion than belief. But also, do not forget what Sophia Lyon Fahs told us. She said,
Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.

Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.

Some beliefs are like shadows, clouding children's days with fears of unknown calamities.

Other beliefs are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth of happiness.

Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies.

Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.

Some beliefs are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one's own direction.

Other beliefs are like gateways opening wide vistas for exploration.

Some beliefs weaken a person's selfhood. They blight the growth of resourcefulness.

Other beliefs nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of personal worth.

Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world.

Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.
This I most enthusiastically believe! Thank you for coming out to listen [or for reading on-line.]


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This I Believe... (Part V: Disclosure of Beliefs)

God is a word that I find useful and that I use. I identify as a theist. I believe in God. What follows is an obvious need for clarification: Tell me about this God of yours. Is God male or female or transgender? Is God gay or straight? Is God active in the universe or is God like the watchmaker God of the deists, the God who has set the universe in motion like the pieces of a watch and then absented God’s-self from the picture? Is God up there, or all around us, or inside of us, or in nature, or represented by nature even though God transcends nature? Is God benevolent? Omniscient? Omnipotent? Or is God an unfolding process?

My theology of God begins with Paul Tillich. Tillich famously argued that God was not a being, but the “ground of being.” Tillich’s theology said that to say whether God exists or not makes God a conditional being. Existence is a higher category than God. Tillich rejected that concept and said that God was not a being but the ground of being. Therefore, for Tillich, it is not fair to say that God exists. Rather, you might make God into the verb instead of the noun and say that existence Gods. Thus, Tillich turns the ontological question of God on its head. (At least, that is how I understand Tillich’s theology of God.)

Tillich’s concept of God has never been entirely satisfactory to me, though I think Tillich is quite clever. And, I want to explain why Tillich’s “Ground of Being” God is unsatisfactory. Those of you with piously sentimental family members may have encountered the pietistic Christian piece of writing about footprints in the sand. It goes something like this:

A person walking alone looks back along the beach and sees two sets of footprints. It is discovered that God has been walking alongside this person. The person turns and asks God, “But what about those times where there is only one set of footprints?” God responds, “That was when I carried you.”

It is a horrible piece of writing. It is schmaltzy and the theology is atrocious. Yet, it contains a hint of something true and that something true is the sense in which it points to the idea of God as a relational being. If you think of the schmaltzy, footsteps on the beach poem, where is Tillich’s God? Tillich’s God is the context, the frame, that allows this image of God to exist.

I don’t reject the concept of a God who transcends being itself, but it doesn’t fully satisfy me either. Neither does the deistic God who works at a remove. Neither does the pantheistic God that lives inside of rocks and trees. Neither does a vaporous mist God, a God of the ether. Neither does the classical image of a God enthroned in the highest heaven. I’m okay with the idea of God as that still, small voice inside. I’m also okay with a God that is a relational being, a God that is the equivalent of interpersonal magnetism and relational connectivity. Sometimes I dig on the idea that God is present whenever two or three have gathered (Matthew 18:20), but sometimes I just want for two or three to be able to gather, if that makes any sense.

But, the image of God that is most real to me, most appealing, is a God that is beyond ontology but not beyond epistemology. I don’t mind the concept of a God that is the root of all knowing, but I want a God who is also an active knower. The root of my theology is that I am known fully by God, and I believe that each and every person, as well as each and every sentient creature is known completely and fully by God. My God is not a self, but a God who knows me better than I know myself. That is the God image that I use.

When it comes to the afterlife, I am an agnostic. I am, literally, one who does not know and I do not believe that it is possible for any living being to know what happens to us after we die. I believe that near death experiences are just that, near death experiences. I believe they do not contain any information about what happens to us after we die although I can completely understand why they are significant religious experiences for the people who have experienced them or who have had a loved one experience them.

I do not believe that we have an immortal soul that is distinct from the body. I love the word "soul" and I use it a lot. My use of the word "soul" is metaphorical. When I speak of a soul, I am speaking about the deepest core of our humanity, which is not apart from us but a part of us. Soul, in the metaphorical sense in which I speak of it, is not completely synonymous with conscience or empathy, though people whom I would describe as soulful tend to be deeply conscientious and empathetic. By soul work, I mean the way in which we become most able to access the deepest core of our own humanity.

Since I don't believe in an immortal soul, I don't believe that when we die an immortal soul absents itself from our body. However, while I am agnostic about the idea of the afterlife, I do not reject it entirely. I am fond of saying, “I do not know if there is a heaven or an afterlife, but I do know that if there is it will be pleasant." I may not be enough of an old-fashioned Universalist to accept the idea of a heaven created by a loving God to which all souls are reconciled. I am most certainly enough of an old-fashioned Universalist to completely and utterly reject the concept of Hell, especially an eternal hell. But, fitting with my concept of God as universal knower, I am most open in my agnosticism to the idea of heaven as a kind of universal consciousness. Again, I have faith that the afterlife, if there is one, will be kind and pleasant.

I used to joke that while I don’t know what the afterlife holds for us, the adventurous side of me is hoping for reincarnation. The problem with that is our concept of reincarnation is often caught up in the situation in which we live. Generally speaking, we tend to be privileged people living in a culture that encourages ambition and that continues to espouse teachings of upward mobility. I fear we are more class-bound and caste-bound than the story we tell about ourselves says that we are. All I am saying is that if life is an arcade game, most of us probably feel as if we have gotten our quarter’s worth. We may not have the high score, but many of us live lives that are in the top 1% of people playing the game on Earth right now and certainly in the top 1% of people who have ever played the game of life. Replaying life doesn’t sound too bad to us. In fact, the concept of reincarnation can seamlessly fit with a notion of American ambition and striving. It lets us add things to our "bucket lists."

Reincarnation, the infinite cycle of samsara, means something different if you live in a village in India. I’m riffing here. I’m playing jazz tunes with a world religion that is not my own. Scholars of Christianity tell us that when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, he wasn’t speaking of the future so much as speaking of heaven as a place on Earth, immediately available to us if only we had eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts that were ready to receive the gifts that the Gods of the days arrived bearing. Maybe, and I will fully admit to playing fast and loose with world religions here, just maybe samsara isn’t meant to be seen through the lens of ambition for more than we could possibly do in one lifetime, but rather it is meant to be seen as some reality that is here and now, giving cosmic significance to labor and toil and suffering and our own fate in a world that can seem repetitive and recursive.

I should probably say a few words about Christology, about how Jesus fits into my theology. When I begin to theologize about Jesus, I begin with the early Unitarians who regarded Jesus as an inspired teacher of a flawless and sublime ethic. In an 1803 letter to the Universalist physician and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, Thomas Jefferson wrote,
To the corruptions of Christianity, I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.
In my Easter sermon ten days ago I repeated the joke that has been going around on the internet: “Obama is not the dark-skinned radical socialist who believes in giving away free health care; you must be thinking about Jesus.”

But, there is a problem with holding this position. That problem was explained by Albert Schweitzer who in 1905 published Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer criticized more than a century of German scholarship that attempted to make claims about the identity of the historical Jesus. Schweitzer pointed out that scholars inevitably succeed in reconstructing a Jesus that looks a whole lot like themselves.

Schweitzer wrote a beautiful passage that compared looking for the historical Jesus to looking down a dark well. You gaze and gaze and see a shimmering figure and you think you see Jesus but you actually see your own reflection. We see a Jesus that looks like Jefferson’s Jesus of the Enlightenment. Mel Gibson’s Jesus is a cross between William Wallace and Mad Max; Mel Gibson’s Jesus is, well, Mel Gibson.

Hans-Georg Gadamer said, “My real concern was and is philosophic: not what we do or what we ought to do, but what happens to us over and above our wanting and our doing.” In other words, with the knowledge that our idea of Jesus will be shaped by our wanting and doing, are we capable of creating a true fusion of horizons, a true dialectical encounter with Jesus that challenges our own wanting and doing? I believe that Jesus provides a hermeneutic foil against which I can expand the horizons of my being. The Jefferson Bible is about Thomas Jefferson’s personal wanting and doing. He kept the parables and sayings. My encounter with Jesus is based on facing up to the parts of the story that are strange to me and challenging: the miracles, the unpredictable happenings, the passion, and the resurrection. These find a place in my theology because I feel a sense that my understanding is expanding when I attempt to gaze through the familiar shimmering reflection at the bottom of the well and gaze into darkness.

Let me quickly hit on a couple of other theological places worthy of consideration. As far as a cosmogony, an accounting of beginnings, goes, I am perfectly content and give full assent to the big bang and the theory of evolution. It is an account that fills me with a sense of awe, reverence, and wonder, but I do not go as far as Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow go in suggesting that the “epic of evolution” is a sufficient foundation for all theological ethics.

I could say even more about beliefs and I may have to another time. I haven't even touched on theological concepts such as soteriology, eschatology, or anthropology.

But, I want to say a few words about ministry and about the church. And, I also want to make the following attempt at self-definition.

Self-definition: I am a full-blooded, born and bred and educated Unitarian Universalist. My theological identity is informed by liberal and post-modern Christianities but also by transcendentalism among other sources. My calling is to serve the liberal church and the liberal expression of religion. I situate my ministry within the Unitarian Universalist tradition out of gratitude and out of a sense that my calling is to serve UU communities. I value pluralism and believe that my faith is sharpened, not diminished, by those whose faith journeys have led them towards atheism, humanism, scientific rationalism, secularism, Buddhism, Judaism, or earth-based nature worship. I believe my faith would be diminished if not for this pluralism and so I am committed to pluralism.

I rejoice in my ability to stretch and explore faithfully and playfully. This opportunity is truly present in Unitarian Universalist faith communities like this one in ways that it simply isn’t in others, and I believe that a significant threat to Unitarian Universalism is ideological arrogance that would diminish our capacity for theological playfulness. On the other hand, I also believe that a threat to Unitarian Universalism is theological sloth or smugness that leads to non-engagement with theological inquiry.

My theology of ministry is linked to my ecclesiology. I fundamentally believe that church is both the home of the holy and the home of the human. Churches are made up of real people with our own peculiarities, our warts and blemishes, our hurts and fears. Churches should be places where we make ourselves vulnerable and mutable. We are human beings and church is a place for human becoming. There needs to be the dynamic tension that we find in our UU third principle. Church needs to be both a place where we are accepted and where we accept one another and it also needs to be a place where we encourage others and are ourselves encouraged to spiritual growth. I believe that it is possible to flippantly rewrite our third principle to make it say something like, "I love you just the way you are. Now change!" The point is not to resolve this tension but to inhabit it fully.


Follow the link to continue to Part VI: Beliefs About Beliefs

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This I Believe... (Part IV: Interlude)

Ministry means my life is lived among people who are asking questions. In the Unitarian Universalist tradition the minister is not expected to provide final and absolute answers. The minister is expected to assist people in making meaning and discovering their own answers.

But now it feels as though the tables have been turned and you have asked me the question. “Thom, what do you believe?” When Chad asked me to answer this question I considered his request to be absolutely reasonable. But, ever since I announced that I would be delivering this lecture, I’ve heard interesting things. Several people have said that they have had lively discussions with other people in the church where people have debated what they believe that I believe. I find this a little bit embarrassing. Surely, people have more interesting things to discuss. And, so there is a little bit of fear that by naming what I believe I will actually be taking away your entertainment.

But, on a more serious note, I want to reiterate my concept of ministry symbolized by the hand and the question mark. While this lecture is about me, ministry is not about me. It is about you.

Incidentally, my favorite poem of self-differentiation is by the former Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins. In his poem, Litany, Collins writes,
It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and - somehow - the wine.
Allow me to be extremely metaphorical for a moment or two. It is perfectly all right if my theology is about rain on the roof and chestnuts on the kitchen table while yours is about bread and knives, crystal goblets and wine.

You can hear Billy Collins read his poem here.

Follow the link to continue to the next section, Part V: Disclosure of My Beliefs

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This I Believe... (Part III: My Religious Autobiography & Drawing My Faith Journey)

Part III: My Religious Autobiography

Thus far, I’ve shared an autobiography of my academic training in religious thought. But, I also want to give you an account of my autobiography in terms of religious experience. I grew up in the small town of Wayland, Massachusetts, 20 miles West of Boston, the son of a formerly-Methodist father and a formerly-Catholic mother who were looking for a liberal religious home to raise their children. They found it at “The Church,” as it was known in my hometown. The big, white, colonial New England meetinghouse on the town green in the center of town. First Parish in Wayland dates back to 1640. It became Unitarian in 1825. It currently serves around 350 adults and more than 200 children. My childhood minister was Ken Sawyer, who has served as First Parish’s minister since 1974. His 36 year tenure serving the same congregation is currently the longest streak in Unitarian Universalism, though in the Boston area long tenures are the norm. At the first church I served as a student minister, running the youth group of First Church in Boston (literally, the First Church in Boston, founded in 1630) their minister, Rhys Williams, had just retired after a 40 year run. That’s nothing compared to that congregation’s proto-Unitarian minister who served them during the 1700s, Charles Chauncy, who served that congregation from 1727 to 1787, 60 consecutive years.

My childhood minister, Ken Sawyer, grew up as a Unitarian in New Jersey, studied English literature at Amherst, and went to seminary at Harvard Divinity School during the Vietnam War. I grew up attending church in an austere, high-ceilinged meetinghouse, with all surfaces painted completely white. We sat in wood pews and the minister preached from an elevated pulpit that towered over the parishioners below. Ken Sawyer’s theological leanings were existentialist and his favorite person to quote from the pulpit was Albert Camus.

I do want to make this point. If you are a Unitarian Universalist in Kansas City, you can attend All Souls with slightly more than 500 members, Shawnee Mission UU Church with slightly less than 300 members, or the GAIA community with about 35 members. But, say you lived in Wayland and say you were willing to drive no more than 25 miles to church. You would have your choice of 75 different Unitarian Universalist congregations. Within just a 10 mile radius of the home where I grew up you find 17 different UU congregations with around 5,000 total members among them including the 800 member church in Concord, which is easy walking distance from Emerson’s home, Louisa May Alcott’s home, the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, the Concord battleground where the shot heard round the world was fired, and, if you’ve got good walking shoes, Walden Pond. Some of those congregations conduct worship services that are virtually indistinguishable from ours. Others have conducted worship in the same way for centuries and wouldn’t dream of allowing a new fangled worship innovation like a flaming chalice inside their sanctuary. Most of the churches use the grey “Singing the Living Tradition” hymnal. Others use the dark blue “Hymns for the Celebration of Life” hymnal from the 1960s. Still others use the red “Hymns of the Spirit” Unitarian hymnal from the 1930s.

Three miles from Wayland center you find First Parish in Weston, a 600-member Christian UU Church. There they say the Lord’s Prayer each Sunday and repeat a covenant that reads, "In the love of truth and in the spirit of Jesus Christ, we join for the worship of God and the service of Humankind." What’s more, two of those 17 congregations are multi-denominational. The First Parish in Lincoln, five miles from where I grew up, is affiliated with both the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. First Parish in Lincoln pays dues to both denominations. From their website,
The Sunday service is ecumenical in spirit, drawing from many faiths and spiritual sources. Communion is offered four times a year to anyone who chooses to partake (including children); we have baptisms or the Unitarian dedication of children; we recite the Lord’s Prayer or one of many other favorite unison prayers in our Sunday services. The First Parish also celebrates the Winter Solstice, as well as the traditional Christian holidays of Easter and Christmas.
Similarly, members of the Eliot Church of South Natick, five miles in the other direction from where I grew up, get to choose whether they wish to consider themselves UU or UCC. And, in smaller towns in Western Massachusetts, it is not uncommon to find a church whose members consider themselves to be UU or UCC or American Baptist or Congregationalist.

But, I grew up in the church in Wayland, and my childhood religious instruction included being slipped many cough drops on those Sundays when children were in church for a longer period of time. Seriously, it included the earlier versions of many of the same classes the children in our church enjoy. We learned about Moses and Noah and Jesus and about Buddha and Gandhi and the Hindu deities. We went on a pinecone hunt and planted beans. We made our own teepees and learned about Native American traditions. We did the Church across the Street program, an earlier version of the Neighboring Faiths curriculum that we teach here. We did AYS, or About Your Sexuality, which our church now offers as OWL, or Our Whole Lives. I went through Coming of Age.

I was a steadfast and devoted member of our church’s youth group, which had four different leaders in four different years, and a fluctuating attendance ranging from one (me) to sixteen (though only half of those had parents who attended the church.) I was also a devoted and passionate attendee of Youth Conferences, gatherings of UU youth from different congregations with widely varying programming opportunities. And then, after youth conferences got banned, I was a part of the steering committee charged with reviving them. The reason they got banned? Well, let me tell you a story. In the early '90s I attended a youth conference at one of the UU churches in Worcester, Massachusetts. Over 100 youth were in attendance and we had interesting workshops, well-organized small group discussions, moving worship services each morning and evening, and an uproariously hilarious talent show. And, from 7:00 on Friday night to 7:00 on Sunday morning, a span of 36 hours, not one single adult – no minister, no Director of Religious Education, no youth advisor, no passerby – did so much as even set foot within the building. At the opening meeting at the beginning of the conference, 100 youth sat there and the youth committee that had organized the conference basically said, “Well, we forgot to tell any adults that we were having this conference.” We concluded, reasonably but wrongly, that that just meant that we had to be extra-responsible, to make sure nobody got hurt and nothing got broken, and that we needed to be on our best behavior at all times. Which was exactly what happened. Which was also the wrong decision.

Almost twenty years later, I look back with very mixed reactions. At those conferences I experienced transformational acceptance, affirmation, encouragement towards creativity, leadership development, emotional intimacy, spiritual intimacy, and ecstatic states of reverence. It helped make me whole. And, yet, not everyone had the same experience. It is a miracle that nobody died, but there were casualties. There were casualties.

By contrast, my experience in my own local congregation had its higher points and its lower points, but it was always safely guided by responsible adults.

I think a person can romanticize those times too much. But they were deeply and powerfully transformative: personally, relationally, and spiritually. Earlier I spoke about my childhood minister, Ken Sawyer, but First Parish's second minister, Kimi Riegel, is probably the biggest reason I am a minister today. She used to tell us youth that the only magical power a minister had was the ability to come get us out of school if we had a reason that we needed to talk to her. I had to see if it was true, so I called her up and I had her come pick me up from math class one afternoon and we went to Caraway’s Bagels. I had nothing to talk about, really, so we sort of, kind of, got on the subject of ministry and I decided that ministry might be for me. I later met with her to learn how it is that one becomes a minister. I was told to go to college and get good grades, be very involved in church, and live an interesting life. I pressed her and she gave me a copy of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee reading list, which I started reading immediately and had basically finished before I entered seminary, only to find that much of the list had changed by that point.

I had the same conversation about entering the ministry with Ken Sawyer and I remember almost nothing of that conversation. But, Ken did take note. At age 19 I joined the congregation’s lay ministry team during summer break and I was assigned to visited Ernie. Sometimes we sat and talked. Often we shot billiards together at the Wayland Senior Center. Occasionally I gave him a lift to the nursing home where his wife was slowly dying from abdominal cancer.

Sometimes, before I let them have their moment together, I played messenger. Her voice was very weak and he was very hard of hearing so I sat very close and screamed into his ear what she whispered into mine. It was uncomfortable but it wasn’t. It was beautiful and sad and poignant. It was certainly a lot more comfortable than attending a committee meeting of the lay ministers, who were all the moms of my friends.

I was earnest. I co-taught second-grade Sunday school with the father of a friend of mine. I voluntarily attended board meetings, well, at least one board meeting. And the board went into executive session to discuss a personnel decision and I sat out in the hall until someone was considerate enough to unlock the church office so I could call my parents and get picked up.


Drawing My Faith Journey

After my first year as the minister here I designed a class that we now call the Exploring Membership class. Early in this class there is an exercise in which participants are given crayons and asked to draw their faith journey on a piece of paper. Every drawing that I have ever seen represents a path. Some paths are meandering. Others are like climbing a mountain or a mountain range with peaks and valleys. Some paths are spiral shaped and others are circular. When I draw mine, there is no path.

Here is what I draw:

I begin by drawing the church of my childhood, a large, white, New England colonial meetinghouse with a tall steeple and a bell made by Paul Revere and a weathervane on top, not a cross. The weathervane is not there because we Unitarians decided to take the cross down. None of the Puritan churches had crosses on top either. Even a simple symbol like that smacked of popery.

But the church I draw has two key features. The first feature is an open door to symbolize acceptance and affirmation. When my high school started a Gay/Straight Alliance in 1994, the founding members were basically the youth of the First Parish in Wayland. The second feature is a lawn in front of the church. The town green. John Buehrens theologizes the significance of the UU church on the town green by saying it is a spatial representation of a theological ideal: “The church is a spiritual center with a civic circumference.”

Below, the picture I put very strong brackets. The brackets are there to represent that no matter how my theology has changed over time, my church, my faith home, has always been large enough to contain my theology.

Inside the brackets I draw a parade of symbols. The first symbol I use is a bunch of symbols from the world religions arranged in a circle. There is no chalice in the center. (Many UU churches have artistic representations of the world religions with a big, fat chalice smack-dab in the center. I believe this is quite arrogant.) But, the reason my drawing has no chalice in the center is that my Unitarian Universalist religious education growing up was sparse on the Unitarian Universalist part, at least explicitly, which I regret. We learned about Christianity and Judaism and Islam and Taoism and Hinduism and earth-based traditions.

The next movement in my theology was towards a magical faith that was earth-based and neo-pagan. I believe that our physical biology as teenagers makes earth-based neo-paganism extremely enticing. Part of the reason for this is that our culture considers neo-paganism to be taboo and occult. And, teens love things that are taboo and occult and full of magic secrecy. But, more than that, earth-based traditions are based both on mythology, which features very interesting characters from very interesting places, and they are also based on rhythms and cycles, rhythms and cycles that teenage bodies are going through, and how! Neo-paganism’s embodied practice – dance, labyrinth walking, casting and un-casting circles – holds attention, as does the ritual burning of fragrances and the ritual consumption of food.

Perhaps most of all, neo-paganism implicitly contains a theology of power that makes it appealing to teens who struggle with issues of power, agency, and control. To make this clear, all you need to do is look at the Harry Potter books. For the record, let me say that the Harry Potter series is a part of the fantasy genre and isn’t representative of neo-paganism. But, if Harry Potter were a Catholic kid going through confirmation or a Jewish kid having his Bar Mitzvah, I contend the stories would be quite different. And, that difference has to do with a philosophy of power, the way power is obtained, mastered, and used. Neo-paganism is very high on the concept of self-authoring power and that makes it especially appealing to teens who are empowered to new responsibilities but also have limits imposed on their choices. Neo-paganism does not appeal only to teens, but it certainly appeals to teens.

My falling away from neo-paganism at age 19 was both gradual and extremely sudden. The gradual part was based in two criticisms. One criticism was based in growing doubts about the historicity of claims that were made by many practitioners of neo-paganism. At this time, I was looking at religion mainly through the lens of history and a lot of the story struck me as dubious. This was five years before Cynthia Eller published her book entitled, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Will Not Give Women a Future. The second criticism was based on a sociological analysis of how power operated in neo-pagan groups in which I participated. I had concerns about how power operated in these groups. (If you are interested in the sociology of neo-pagansim, I might refer you to a brilliant book of sociology by Helen Berger entitled, A Community of Witches.)

Though neither book had been written yet, my experiences resembled the analysis found in those two books and helped to explain my slow falling away from neo-paganism. The fast falling away is another story entirely, a story for another time.

My reaction against neo-paganism led me in the completely opposite direction and I embraced an understanding of the world that was absolutely free from mystery. From age 19 to 21 I was avowedly atheistic. I owned a copy of Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian but I didn’t read much of it. I much preferred the irreverent literature of Kurt Vonnegut, an avowed skeptic and free-thinker, but also someone who whose writings were deeply cynical about humanity. I found myself resonating with the final lines of Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle,
If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison [Ice-9, an imaginary substance that causes everything it touches to freeze] that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who.
My theology began to shift yet again when I arrived at Harvard Divinity School. At Harvard, for the first time in my life, I found myself in community with Christians. And it was great. I was probably a bit insufferable from time to time, but, let me tell you, everyone should be so blessed as to have their first significant encounter with Christians be with ministry students at Harvard Divinity School. I found them to be intelligent, nuanced, theologically-mature, devoted, and open-minded. My classmates included those preparing for ministry in the United Church of Christ and other liberal denominations, Catholics with a strong social justice orientation who were preparing not for the priesthood but for non-profit or educational work, future ministers in the black church tradition, and many of my fellow UU seminarians who self-identified as Christians. And, through my associations with my classmates I began to increasingly appreciate liberal Christianity.

Liberal Christianity became the next stage on my path. And again, I have to note that I consider myself lucky that my first serious encounter with Christianity was with these very lovable and extremely intelligent people: The UCC minister-to-be who shared with me Bobby McFerrin’s beautiful version of the 23rd Psalm, which ends with McFerrin singing praise to a different version of the Trinity. "Glory be unto the Mother, the Daughter, and the Holy of Holies." I enjoyed the presence of my Catholic classmates who read liberation theology, believed in a preferential option for the poor, and were engaged in working for the rights of immigrants and Catholic worker justice movements.

When I symbolize this theological stage I always draw a version of the cross that is usually identified with the United Methodist denomination. The flame represents the Holy Spirit that descends on the Pentecost in the Book of Acts and causes the early Christian community to speak in tongues. “And each hears in their own native tongue and each is understood.” I’ve always interpreted this passage as being about having the spiritual maturity to translate another person’s religious language into terms that you understand. It is a passage about translation and common understanding. It is the Biblical version of E Pluribus Unum: Out of many, one.

Well, I’ve been drawing these maps of my spiritual journey for the past six years and I always draw one step that is beyond the cross. I draw a pair of symbols. One of those symbols is a hand, just like the hands that you find on the stole that I wear over my robe in church on Sunday mornings. The other symbol is a question mark. To me, these are symbols of ministry. When Cassi and Leslie sewed the stole that was given to me during my ordination and installation in this church on October 26, 2003, I asked them to stitch cutouts of hands onto the stole. To me hands represent partnership. They also represent work and service. In adult church we say, “Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer.” Our younger children say, “May we have hearts that are open to love, minds that are open to learn, and hands that are ready to serve.” We are the church of the open mind, the open heart, and the open hand and so the hand symbol, for me, represents a lived theology. The work of ministry is the attempt to live out my theology every day.

The question mark is there because ministry is inherently other-centered. The question mark refers to those among whom I practice ministry. This is not to say that I am without questions. I have plenty of questions. But, my role as a minister is to be with you amidst the questions you are asking. Sometimes my role is to be a wise advisor. Often, it is to be a companion in searching. Occasionally, my role is to just be befuddled and unsure. But ministry means my life is lived among people who are asking important questions.


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This I Believe... (Part II: My Intellectual Autobiography)

Part II: My Intellectual Autobiography

It has been said that all theology is autobiography. In other words, all theology is a hermeneutical exercise that you cannot separate from yourself.

This lecture is structured into three major parts. In the first part, I will sketch out a bit of my own autobiography. In the second section I will sketch out my own belief system, and you may see links between my theology and my autobiography. Finally, I will offer you a framework for thinking about your own beliefs, which is to say that I will share my beliefs about beliefs.

I am actually going to share with you two different autobiographies. The first is an intellectual autobiography. The second is a religious autobiography. The two share many overlapping parts but I will attempt to tell them each distinctly.

I grew up in the town of Wayland, Massachusetts, a town of slightly more than 10,000 souls about 20 miles due West of Boston. Wayland is a wealthy suburb that invests heavily in education. My parents both worked as high school teachers in neighboring towns. For both my parents, education was important. My mother taught high school English and theater. Before becoming a high school physics teacher, my father taught nuclear physics at MIT for a decade.

Growing up, education was instilled into me as a core family value. And, it was also a core value of the town in which I was raised. I attended a public school system that was geared towards sending its students to elite universities. It attracted top flight teaching talent by offering high salaries. (Some of my high school teachers earned six-figure salaries.) My junior year high school English teacher had a Ph.D. in English literature from Stanford. My high school biology teacher had a Ph.D. Even my second grade teacher, Dr. Chafe, had a Ph.D. My high school history teacher published original research in scholarly journals. It is one of the best public school systems in the entire country.

In my early teen years my interests grew increasingly towards history, social studies, and English even though science was perhaps my strongest subject. I remember growing dispirited with science in eighth grade when my teacher, an adorable man with the unfortunate name of Mr. Stern, had us use lasers and note cards to set up a little classroom experiment in order to prove that light travels in a straight line. Out of my dismay for the orderly nature of existence I protested by writing a lab report that claimed that we had performed the experiment on the day when all light particles decided to fail to delight the joyless students in Mr. Stern’s eighth grade class by staying orderly and straight-lined. They were unimpressed by the simple holes cut in the notecards but might, on some other day, delight and entertain a more pleasant group of students. I knew the correct answer. I knew the answer I gave was not the correct answer. The correct answer just wasn’t that interesting.

As I entered high school, I was increasingly drawn towards literature and history and the social sciences. Science, especially biology, remained my strongest subject, but the social sciences were what captured my mind. It was during my high school years that I chose ministry as my future vocation, though there were certainly other temptations. My score on a national biology exam was among the highest scores in the entire nation and I briefly flirted with the idea of pursuing bio research or medicine. Those subjects failed to captivate me in the same way that the humanities did.

One of the tremendous advantages of attending the high school that I did was that it was designed to launch you into college. Of a graduating class of 134 students, all but two were college bound. Harvard capped the number of students they would accept from Wayland each year so there was great competition over which four students would get to go. Finishing in the top half of your class was enough to earn you a trip to an elite college or university. My high school classmates were bound for schools including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia, Stanford, MIT, The University of Chicago, Amherst, Georgetown, Wesleyan, Colby, Swarthmore, Bryn Mayr, and so on.

I finished just inside the top third of my high school class and I chose to attend a small liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon. Reed College had a well-deserved reputation as the most academically rigorous institution of higher learning in the country. It has produced more Rhodes Scholars than any other liberal arts school but one. (If you re-load the page that I've linked to several times, a picture of me juggling will eventually pop up.) Reed ranks third in the nation in the percentage of graduates who earn Ph.D.s; the only schools to produce more doctoral students are Cal Tech and Harvey Mudd, both science and engineering schools. Reed College was founded by a Unitarian minister and its students pride themselves on an intellectual and academic discipline that borders on masochism. The library closed most nights at two o’clock in the morning and every night there was a parade of students leaving at closing time. Reedies don’t close down bars; they close down libraries. The library was the hoppingest place on campus on many Friday nights at midnight. In the humanities, professors regularly assign an average of 500 pages of reading per class per week. Ten to twelve hours of studying per day is the norm for many students.

A week after my 18th birthday I moved from Boston to Portland, Oregon, with plans to major in religion, gain acceptance to Harvard Divinity School, and become a Unitarian Universalist minister. (I suppose you can call me driven or call me stubborn.) My academic work focused on the history and theory of religion, American history and American literature, the social sciences, semiotics, and literary criticism. For the most part I was an Americanist although I did explore other avenues. At age 19 I became enamored with Gnostic Christianity and spent a semester teaching myself Coptic. (I spent at least 6 hours each day studying Coptic.) I devised a special schedule that involved sleeping from midnight to 2am, studying Coptic from 2 to 4 in the morning, and then sleeping until 6:30 in the morning. I kept this schedule for about two months. I managed to finagle an all-access VIP pass to the British Museum and Library in London and spent the better part of a week in London handling ancient Gnostic Christian texts from the Nag Hammadi library and Oxyrynchus, including heretical Christian texts from the late second century of the Common Era and a beautiful illustrated copy of the book of Revelation from the fifth century. In other words, what the average teenage American tourist does in London.

I spent my summer breaks working as a lifeguard, but also immersed myself in the required reading list for the Ministerial Fellowship Committee for Unitarian Universalist ministers. I had actually read just about the entire required reading list before I started seminary. I read Forrest Church and James Luther Adams. I also read William James and I attempted to read Paul Tillich. Forrest Church’s early obsession with Thomas Jefferson inspired my own early obsession with Thomas Jefferson and my undergraduate thesis critiqued the Enlightenment approach to religious freedom as embodied by Jefferson. I also learned how to write grants and managed to get my college to fund a fall break trip to Charlottesville, Virginia which allowed me to handle Jefferson’s original architectural drawings and pamphlets from the 1770s both for and against the legislation of religious freedom. In other words, what the average college student does on fall break.

On a spring day in 1999 I received an admission letter from Harvard Divinity School along with a scholarship that would completely pay my tuition over three years. Several of my friends at Reed reacted to this news by expressing sympathy. “Oh, it is only a masters program not a doctoral program. Are you OK?” “Only tuition? No fellowship?” This was a dream come true for me and yet several people treated me as if I needed to be consoled.

My Harvard Divinity School education combined coursework in religious studies with practical courses in ministry, from homiletics and preaching to polity to counseling to theories of religious education. I continued my scholarly interests as an Americanist, studying the history and theology of New England religion from the Puritans through the Civil War. I also developed an interest in the psychology of religion and comparative mysticism.

I mention all of this in order to make a point by omission. In seven years of religious studies, I looked at religion comparatively, historically, sociologically, anthropologically, psychologically, and linguistically but the one place where my training was light was in the realm of philosophical theology. I somehow managed to work around a deep and sustained study of Augustine and Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, Kant and Hegel and Hume, Schleiermacher and Kierkegaard, Barth and Niebuhr and Tillich. These figures were not unknown to me. At the same time I didn’t feel like I had mastery over them. I remember when I was the student minister in Needham, Massachusetts having dinner at the home of John Buehrens and his wife Gwen when John asked me which theologian I found most influential. I answered, “Anne Lamott,” which is a fairly embarrassing answer. I’d now answer that question differently.


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This I Believe... (Part I: Welcome & Introduction)

Part I: Welcome & Introduction

I want to begin my lecture this evening by thanking Chad, a member of this church. Last summer, before I left for my sabbatical, Chad met with me for coffee on a warm, August afternoon. During our conversation Chad issued me a challenge: to make a declaration of faith. To state, clearly and forthrightly, what it is that I do believe. If I remember our conversation correctly, Chad observed that I tend to be a little bit evasive when it comes to stating my own beliefs. Other members of the church have made similar comments to this effect.

If I do evade, or elide, or maneuver, there are several reasons why. First of all, I strongly believe that ministry is not about me. It is about you: your struggles, your questions, your process of meaning making and making meaning. And, yes, ministry is relational. And, yes, perhaps there is something to be said about not only attempting to model a kind of life that is authentic and sincere and good (well, hopefully good); perhaps there is also something to be said for making public the way I do my own theology privately.

But, my aim in ministry is not - not before tonight and not after tonight - to get you to agree with me. My goal is not to have you believe what I believe. My goal is not to replicate my own belief system so I try to tread carefully.

I think when Chad asked me to do this he had in mind a sermon. I demurred for two reasons. For one thing, twenty minutes is too short. For another thing, a sermon has to have something in it other than, “Come hear Thom talk about himself.” Unfortunately, our hour plus that we have tonight is also too short of a time. Tonight I am not going to present you with a systematic theology.

The short stack of books that you see on the right side of the table in front of you is one example of what a systematic theology looks like. This is Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology in three volumes, nearly 1,000 pages of dense, theological writing. A systematic theology contains things like a theology of God, a theology of the Trinity, a Christology (which means an explanation of Jesus), and a pneumatology (a theology of the Holy Spirit.) It contains a cosmogony (an accounting of beginnings), an eschatology (an accounting of endings), a soteriology (an accounting of salvation), and a theodicy (an explanation of the existence of evil.) A systematic theology might also include a theology of scripture, a theological anthropology by which I mean an accounting of human nature, and an ecclesiology, which is to say a doctrine of the church.

And, in order just to make these theological inquiries, you need also to provide a philosophy of time and of history, as well as an ontology, a philosophy of what it means to be, to exist. And, most importantly, you need to provide a working epistemology, an accounting for how it is possible to know what you know.

But, allow me to complicate matters further. For those of us doing theology in the last 100 years there is also the question of hermeneutics. At the turn of the 20th century, a German philosopher named Wilhelm Dilthey, revisiting and expanding upon previous work by Friedrich Schleiermacher, coined the term Weltanschauung. The English translation of that word is worldview. Dilthey was the guy who invented the word worldview! From that point on, and thanks to the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer who built on the work of Dilthey, theories of interpretation have dominated not only Biblical studies, but also the social sciences, psychology, and the study of media. This is significant because it forced theologians (not to mention practitioners in other scholarly fields) to admit and account for the fact that their work is influenced by their own biases and identity.

And, I am going to argue that theology is a hermeneutical exercise. What does that mean? The field of hermeneutics is named after Hermes, the Greek messenger God. Hermeneutics has to do with the interplay—a two way, back and forth communication— between a text and its interpreter. In his magnum opus Truth and Method, Gadamer rejected an approach to the social sciences modeled on the scientific method as we apply it to the natural sciences. Gadamer also rejected a hermeneutical approach that attempted solely to arrive at original intent, to recapture the original meaning of a text in its time and place. Gadamer called his method of inquiry a “fusion of horizons.” He said, “My real concern was and is philosophic: not what we do or what we ought to do, but what happens to us over and above our wanting and our doing.”


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