Saturday, December 30, 2006

Another Tragic Misjudgment in Iraq

Personally, I couldn't have cared less whether Saddam lived or died. He was an evil man, a tyrant, a bully, a bad guy, and no doubt deserved whatever he had coming. But from a policy perspective, this semi-private hanging was a big mistake. The US is ultimately going to be seen as the responsible party, no matter which way it gets spun -- and the "due process" question cuts both ways. Giving Saddam's crimes a FULL and exhaustive public hearing may have seemed like a tedious waste of time for some, but it would have been much better than the odor of show trial and summary execution which will linger over this hanging for a long, long time.

In the meantime, I just can't get out of my own mind contrasting the grainy internet images of masked executioners leading Saddam to the gallows (not to mention his broken body after the hanging) and the ubiquitous CSPAN feed of the preparations for Gerald Ford's celebratory State Funeral. I long ago forgave Mr Ford for pardoning Mr Nixon, even as I recognize that in many ways we are still living with the hangover of that "long national nightmare" today. In many ways, the Saddam execution is simply one more piece of THAT bitter lingering post-Vietnam legacy, another taste of Dr Kissinger realpolitik coming home to roost.

If democracy truly is on the march in the Middle East, I think somebody better double-check its moral compass to make certain it is moving in the right direction. Because from where I sit, it looks like something very different indeed.

Monday, December 25, 2006

"An Earth Made Fair, and All Her People One"

Three Christmas Eve services last night, each of them special, each of them unique. 67 souls at the 3 pm "family" service. Used all child readers, and mostly child musicians, as well as recognizing infants born in the past year in a special ceremony where we read their names and ring a small triangle. It's what I think of as the "wiggly" service, and I'm trying to figure out ways to make it a little more engaging for kids who have "ants in their pants" and have trouble sitting still for long periods of time without squirming...having been such a child myself, and still remembering what it was like. Getting rid of the homily would probably be a good first step.

195+ at the "Main Event" at 5 pm: a half-hour prelude concert, followed by a traditional Christmas service of Carols and Scripture readings. I continue to be amazed by the abundance of musical talent in this relatively small (100 households) congregation, and how effectively my music director brings them all together to perform regularly throughout the year. But Christmas Eve is especially special. May have delegated just a little too much on my end of the Sanctuary - one of my lay readers was MIA, and no one had recruited either candlelighters or ushers. But we just picked up the slack and soldiered through. Preached the same homily I had at 3 o'clock and nobody squirmed at all...or at least not that I could notice. Lot's of "once-a-year'ers" at this service, so I want to give them a good experience and not scare them off -- neither too scholarly nor too sentimental, but just enough of each that they get a flavor for what we do the rest of the year.

20 hardy souls at the 11 pm Candlelight service. Had planned to share leadership of this service with our affiliated community minister, but she e-mailed in sick earlier this week after hurting her back...I didn't ask how. So I literally pressed into service one of my "stalwart" families at the 11th hour to help me with the Scripture readings. This is the service I'm least happy with, mostly because it is my favorite. So next year I think I may move it up an hour, make it even MORE simple, and see whether I can boost attendence a little.

In years past I haven't really preached on Christmas Eve, prefering instead to read things like Robert Fulghum's "Treated to Christmas" or (at the late service) Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Christ Climbed Down." But last year people complained that I was missing an opportunity, and so this year I wrote something of my own. But what I discovered is that the same homily doesn't really work for all three services, so next year I may try to do something much more child-friendly at 3 pm, preach a traditional homily at 5, and then perhaps speak extemporaneously that the Candlelight service and see how that goes.

Just in case anyone is interested, here is the text of this year's Christmas Eve homily.


“And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed into their own country by another way.” [Mt 2:12]

I don’t know whether anyone else is really bothered by this or not, but how wise would we consider someone today who took-off on a months-long journey to a foreign land inspired by something they read in their horoscope, simply so they might shower an unknown child with expensive gifts, and then just randomly changed their return itinerary because one night they had bad dream? And yet this is precisely what Matthew tells us the Wise Men did at the birth of Jesus, when they saw his star in the East.

I imagine as for a lot of folks nowadays, my first exposure to the story of the Nativity came from basically secular sources: from things like “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” or the Christmas Songs I learned in school, and Christmas Stories read to me by my grandparents. And of course, from experiences like our own annual Christmas Pageant, where as a child I also acted out as children have for generations the story of the miraculous birth of the baby Jesus. And somehow from all these experiences, I came to the conclusion that the whole thing happened in a single evening: Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem and discovered there was no room at the inn, found alternative lodgings in a stable, gave birth to a child, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and lay him in a manger, and then the angels and the shepherds and the Kings all arrived in turn, everyone sang “Silent Night,” and they all went home again.

But in reality, if it happened at all, it probably happened quite differently than this. The traditional “pageant version” of the Nativity actually combines two distinct (and in some ways contradictory) versions of the story found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Luke, as we heard, tells a tale of shepherds and angels and a manger; of a family traveling far from home and giving birth to a child under unusual circumstances; and then links all this to a Roman census which we think took place in the year 6 AD. Matthew, on the other hand, tells a story of astrologers visiting from the East in search of a child whose birth was foretold by the stars, sometime during the reign of Herod the Great -- who died in the year 4 BC. So there’s a ten-year difference of opinion right there...or maybe it was just an unusually long labor.

Even the time of year is a matter of some dispute. Shepherds typically keep watch over their flocks by night in the spring and early summer, which caused at least some early Church Fathers to place the date of Jesus’s birth sometime in late March or early April. The reason we celebrate Christmas in December is quite clearly an attempt to tie it to the symbolism of the winter solstice, a result of the Emperor Constantine’s fourth century accommodation with the pagan mystery religion of Mithraism, which also celebrated the birth of their deity, the Sun god Mithra, in this darkest time of the year.

But the visitation of the Magi is without doubt the most mysterious part of the story. Who were they, and why were they there, if indeed they were there at all? And what was this star that they saw in the East, which caused them to travel to Bethlehem? The word “Magi” is derived from a Persian word identifying a specific caste of Zoroastrian priests, and is more typically translated as “sorcerer” or “magician.” Tradition tells us that there were three, because it also tells us that they brought three gifts; and over the centuries they have even acquired names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.

The gifts themselves are highly symbolic. Gold is a symbol of worldly wealth and power, although in a powdered form it was also sometimes used as medicine. Frankincense is a type of incense burned during prayers and religious rituals, while myrrh, that “bitter perfume,” is an oil used for embalming the dead. Suitable gifts for a king, or even for another magician. But hardly appropriate presents for the infant son of a peasant carpenter, born amidst animals in a stable.

And what about that mysterious star? The most common interpretation is that the Magi observed an astrologically significant conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the year 7 BC, although others have speculated that the star was a comet, or perhaps even a supernova. And then there is the part of the story involving Herod, a part that we rarely dramatize in our pageants. But according to Matthew, shortly after the Wise Men’s visit Herod sent his soldiers to murder every male child in the region of Bethlehem under the age of two, and that Jesus only escaped death by fleeing with his family into Egypt. Thus having inadvertently alerted Herod to a potential threat to his reign, the Wise Men also warned Mary and Joseph of the danger to their child in time to allow them to make their way to safety.

Christmas for us is often thought of as a season of homecoming. It is a time when we celebrate family, and the values of Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All. It is a time for feasting, and philanthropy, and above all it is a celebration of and for children, each of whom is so precious in our eyes. And yet the Christmas story itself, as told in Scripture, is in many ways a very different tale. It is a story of a young family far from home, dependent upon the hospitality of strangers for their safety and security, and in danger of their very lives. It is a story of refugees living as exiles in a foreign land, pursued by soldiers on the whim of a murderous tyrant. But it is also a story of a great potential good which emerges from humble origins, and the hope, and the promise, of a better way of living in the world, and being at home on “an earth made fair, with all her people one.”

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Six Hours of Celtic Women

All three of our local PBS stations are holding their winter pledge drives this weekend, which means that if you have a taste for that sort of thing, it's possible to watch six straight hours of "Celtic Women." And I have to confess, they are strangely fascinating. Like "Riverdance" without the dancing. Or a cross between "Up With People" and the Spice Girls. Or maybe an Irish version of the Dixie Chicks....

I wish I had something truly profound to say about all this, but I don't. Six Hours of Celtic Women. That's a long time to have to wait for Victor Borge....

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Film Review (warning: spoiler alert)

One of the things I’ve been doing with all the extra time freed-up by three Sundays in a row out of the pulpit is catching up with some of those “Important but not Urgent” tasks that pile up on one’s desk over the course of a busy program year. For example, last month our congregation received two new DVDs from the Unitarian Universalist Association: the first on “Ideas for Growth: Welcoming the Newcomer” and a second profiling four “Breakthrough Congregations” honored at the 2006 General Assembly. Not exactly your typical Netflix wish list, I admit, but still things that, as a minister, I felt I ought to watch.

I generally hate this sort of thing, even though I often agree with most of the points they are trying to get across. The Welcoming Newcomers video in particular reminded me once again that membership growth is not really about mastering new and better “techniques” for attracting people into our churches. It’s really just about faithfully following a few simple, basic principles, while at the same time cultivating a WHOLE NEW ATTITUDE around the importance of “radical hospitality” as an essential characteristic of our faith communities.

Here are some of the grim realities, as pointed out by the video. Nationwide our congregations attract thousands of first-time visitors every week. But our current growth rate is only about 1%, or approximately one net new member per congregation every year. Furthermore, most UU societies are either on a plateau or slightly shrinking in size: roughly two-thirds of our net membership growth as a denomination has taken place in only 6% of our congregations. Given those two statistics: thousands of visitors, and only 1% growth, the obvious question becomes “why don’t more people connect with our churches?” or (perhaps more to the point) “How can we stop repelling newcomers in droves?”

Here are a few of the basic principles I mentioned earlier::

• Say “Hello” when people first arrive, and really mean it. By the time a new visitor shows up at our front door, they have typically already done a little homework, perhaps checked us out on our website, are favorably disposed to what they have seen, eager to make a connection with "like-minded souls" and have met us more than halfway by coming to where we are and expressing their interest. Now it’s OUR TURN to carry the ball, by welcoming them warmly as guests in our spiritual home. Newcomers arrive on Sunday morning as anonymous strangers, but they should NEVER leave still feeling that way.

• Show newcomers they really matter to us by taking a genuine interest in them, and following up. To use a metaphor (not part of the video), if we want there to be a second date, we need to be brave enough to ask them for their number, and then call...or at the very least send a welcoming letter. If we think it’s “too aggressive” to ask visitors for their contact information, we can pretty much count on them sitting home alone on Sunday mornings. But if we are willing to respond to their initiative by following up on their initial interest, it might just be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

• Finally, we need to be willing to offer a clear pathway and extend a personal invitation to formal membership in our community. This generally means developing a intentional and structured process by which newcomers can first orient themselves to our congregation and the UU faith tradition, share their own religious journeys while safely exploring how well they fit with us, and finally make an formal commitment to joining our church. This act of commitment is a Big Deal, and ought to be treated that way, with appropriate recognition and celebration by the entire congregation.

Lately in our denomination it has become popular to speak of the commitments of membership in terms of the “Three T’s” of Time, Talent, and Treasure. I have a lot more to say about each of these some other time, but for now I’d just like to point out that it’s difficult to expect newcomers to take these commitments seriously if the old-timers don’t take them seriously as well. One of the most important responsibilities of being a member of any church is to set a good example for those who are still learning what it means to be “one of us.” Membership growth begins with a commitment to spiritual growth, and to doing ourselves what we would have others do along with us.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

...and if you don't, you end up in Iraq

OK, so the Iraq Study Group (or whatever they are calling themselves) has published their report, and guess what? Turns out the invasion of Iraq was a BIG strategic mistake, one of historic magnitude, and that -- omigosh -- there are potential consequences to our (i.e. Dubya and Company's) terrible blunder. Iraq is disintergrating into civil war, our allies are bailing out as fast as they can pack their parachutes, the Taliban (and with them, al-Qaeda) are on the resurgence in Afghanistan, and perhaps most troubling of all (notwithstanding all the Iraqi CIVILIAN casualties), not only are we losing, but our magnificent military force (which we boast is the most powerful military force in the history of the world) is now stressed almost to the breaking point.

Not only do we not have more boots to put on the ground even if we wanted to (never mind the feet to fill them), but weapons and equipment are wearing out, recruitment is down, and casualties are mounting (nearly 3000 Americans KIA, perhaps ten times that number seriously wounded, and countless more "psychological" casualties -- perfectly understandable when you realize that combat itself is inherently traumatic, stressful, and disorderly).

According to an interview I heard with a retired US Army general earlier this week, at any given moment approximately 1/3rd of our Army is in Iraq, 1/3rd is refitting after returning from Iraq, and 1/3 is preparing to return to Iraq, leaving very few folks left over to meet our other military obligations. The Powell Doctrine is in shambles, and without the "backdoor draft" of the Individual Ready Reserve, we would be hard pressed to go to war even with the Army we have, much less the one we think we need. America's tradition of the "Citizen Soldier" is coming up hard against the realities of the neo-conservatism's imperial ambitions of World Domination. Something's gonna give.

If it hasn't given out already....

Of course, one wonders whether someone who had actually served in a combat zone themselves (someone like, say, Al Gore or John Kerry) would have made the same mistakes as our "chicken hawk" champagne soldier/leaders have. Although even as I say that, I realize it isn't fair. But perhaps this whole issue of who serves, and who is best served by their sacrifice, is worthy of its own post. What I really wanted to say is that none of this comes as a surprise to some of us. Here's what I had to say on the subject at the start of the war, over 3 1/2 years ago....


"A Busted Flush?"

a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the Second Congregational Meeting House on Nantucket Island
Sunday April 13, 2003

READING: Luke 21: 5-19

I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but with everything that’s been going on in my life and in the world of late, I almost forgot that today is Palm Sunday. Here it is, the start of Holy Week, the most sacred season of the Christian liturgical calendar, and all I can think about is tanks and jets and automatic weapons, toppled statues of toppled dictators, and images from half-way around the world of people running through the streets, often carrying stolen televisions or other consumer goods on their backs...images that remind me, more than anything else, of the pictures from Los Angeles following the Rodney King beating.

War is never pretty, and this war is no exception. But I also have to admit, again with some embarrassment, that I’m actually kinda proud of the performance of our armed forces in Iraq this past month. I still believe that this war was one that could and should have been avoided, and that a policy of unilateral, preemptive military invasion is both morally wrong and politically wrong-headed. Yet the actions of our troops in the field have really been quite remarkable -- they have accomplished their mission with great effectiveness and professionalism, and with what must be admitted (by historical standards at least) have been minimal casualties on both sides. And so, while I would have just as soon not seen this war happen at all, I’m relieved now to see it rapidly drawing to a close, and only hope that whatever comes in the aftermath of battle will prove worthy of the standards set by our young men and women in uniform. As we all know, it’s a lot easier to tear something down than it is to rebuild something better in its place.

In many ways, I am as ashamed of our political leaders as I am proud of our soldiers and sailors and aviators. The President ostensibly ordered this invasion in order to protect America from the threat of Saddam Hussein’s “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” And who knows? they may still show up somewhere, but we haven’t found them yet, and they haven’t been used against us on the battlefield either. Saddam’s “regime” has been overthrown, but the future of the Iraqi people is still very much in doubt, and already we are hearing thinly-veiled threats from certain voices within the Administration that Syria and Iran should “draw the appropriate lesson” from America’s military success next door.

Opinion polls show that 71% of Americans approve of the President’s handling of this war, but not everyone in the world shares this high opinion of our Commander in Chief. If the end result of our overseas military adventurism is merely to cultivate resentment and bitterness, both among our historical allies, as well as the people we are purportedly attempting to help, it’s hard for me to see how that policy furthers American interests, or makes us safer from the threat of terrorism. Before we get too excited about celebrating the triumph of our military victory, we need to realize that, in many ways, the most difficult days are still ahead.

One of the most disturbing news items to come out of Iraq in the last few days, at least for me personally, was the report of the looting of Iraq’s National Museum of Antiquities. I was only a child when I first read about Mesopotamia -- the “land between the rivers” -- the “cradle of civilization” where over 7000 years ago human beings first began to live in cities. There are over 10,000 archeological sites in Iraq, and until just a few days ago, the National Museum of Antiquities was the home of the largest and most extensive collection of Ancient Near Eastern artifacts in the world.

But not any more.

It only took a few hours for looters to ransack the museum and strip it clean, while the curators watched helplessly, and American soldiers refused to intervene. It’s a tragedy of immeasurable consequence, as well as a poignant symbol of America’s own cultural myopia, that we should plan so assiduously to protect the Iraqi oil fields from sabotage, yet allow the wanton plunder of Iraq’s priceless cultural heritage.

Perhaps the most amusing news item was the unveiling of a deck of specially-designed playing cards bearing the names and likenesses of 55 members of Saddam’s inner circle wanted by American authorities as possible war criminals. The plan is to distribute these playing cards to American soldiers in order to help them more easily identify these fugitives from American justice. Saddam himself is the Ace of Spades, but so far the only card our soldiers have drawn is the Seven of Diamonds, 64-year-old Iraqi General Amir al-Saadi, who was Saddam's top science adviser and in charge of Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons program at the time of the first Gulf War, and who turned himself in to United States Marines after learning from watching the BBC that his name was on the list.

Saadi had been cooperating closely with UN weapons inspector Hans Blix prior to the start of the current invasion, and insists that, to the best of his knowledge, the Iraqi government had discontinued its weapons programs and destroyed its pre-existing stockpiles of chemical and biological agents long ago. Here are some quotes from an interview he taped for a German journalist just before his surrender. “I was knowledgeable about those programs, those past programs, and I was telling the truth, always the truth.... We were finally approaching the point of getting everything accounted for, but things have turned out differently.... Time will bear me out.... There will be no difference after the war is over.... I’m saying this for posterity, for history, not for defending the regime....”

The judgment of history has a funny way of trumping the momentary passions and political spin of the 24/7 news cycle. And nowhere is this principle more vividly illustrated than in the gospel narratives of the original Holy Week. I encourage everyone here, sometime this week, to take a little break from watching CNN and read them again for yourselves, but just in case you don’t get around to it let me summarize the story for you. For approximately three years following his baptism by John in the River Jordan, Jesus traveled with his followers among the villages of Galilee, developing something of a reputation for himself as an itinerant religious teacher and healer. The content of his teaching, as best as we can tell, wasn’t all that different from that of a lot of other Jewish religious teachers of the time. It would have been considered radical by some, because it tended to be critical of hypocrisy and of the privileged priestly class, and in that sense also subversive of the established order. But this was also very much in line with the traditional role of a Prophet in the Jewish faith.

And then at some point in his career, Jesus decided to travel to Jerusalem, for Passover. In those days, Jerusalem at Passover made Nantucket in August look mellow. The population swelled to perhaps ten or twenty times its normal size with pilgrims, all of whom were in a heightened state of religious enthusiasm. Passover is the commemoration of the escape of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and it always made the Roman “protectors” in Jerusalem a little nervous, for obvious reasons. It doesn’t really matter how powerful you are militarily, keeping the lid on a city swarming with religious fanatics, who are celebrating the memory of their freedom from past oppression, is never easy.

According to the Gospels, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem in a style deliberately evocative of a messianic prophecy from Isaiah, riding on a young colt (or maybe a donkey) who had never been ridden, and was greeted by a throng of cheering admirers. And the first thing he did was to go to the temple and upset the tables of the moneychangers, the merchants who exchanged foreign money for temple coinage so that pilgrims could purchase the ritual animals one needed in order to sacrifice properly according to Levitical law.

After that little outburst, he continued to teach on the steps of the temple for the rest of the week, criticizing those who held power and authority within the city, and protected from retribution by the size of the crowd, which might easily become a violent mob if provoked. At night, he and his followers would slip away to a private place to sleep, once again protected by their relative anonymity within the overcrowded city.

Unable to lay hands on Jesus by force, the temple authorities resorted to subterfuge. They bribed one of his followers to reveal to them the location where he slept, and seized him under cover of darkness. They tried him before a secret tribunal, found him guilty of blasphemy, then turned him over to the Roman authorities with a request that he be executed for sedition under Roman law. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, cared little for the legal nuances (not to mention the theological subtleties) of the case; he was only interested in preventing a riot. He offered to release Jesus to the crowd as an act of mercy, but when the mob called instead for the release of the revolutionary Zealot terrorist Barabbas, Pilate washed his hands of the entire situation, and turned Jesus over to his soldiers to be flogged and crucified, fully expecting that this would put an end to the matter.

But of course, things didn’t quite work out that way. And I hope I haven’t been too subtle (or for that matter, too heavy-handed) in relating this parable about the arrogance of power, and the ultimate power of the Truth. Jesus entered Jerusalem at the beginning of the week like a triumphant, conquering hero, but by the end of the week he discovered that the mob had turned against him, and he was executed like a common criminal. But it didn’t end there. The temple authorities thought that they could put an end to the teachings by putting an end to the teacher, but that didn’t happen either -- if anything, the faith only grew stronger and more formidable through the martyrdom of its founder, as the spiritual practices taught by Jesus rapidly evolved into a religion about “the Christ.”

Rome’s attempt to quell civil disturbance through the ruthless application of military force proved equally futile; within a generation they were back in Palestine with an entire army, laying siege to the city of Jerusalem and tearing down all but a single wall of the magnificent temple which stood at its center. And yet, when we think of Rome today, we think, not of Caesar, but of Christ; Christianity conquered the Roman Empire from within, transforming it into something far different than it was, and being dramatically transformed itself in the process.

History never really repeats itself; the nuances of cultural difference, the complexity of specific events, the dynamics of progressive change over time, make each new historical situation unique. But patterns of human behavior do repeat themselves within history, because frankly human nature hasn’t really changed that much in the past 2000 years, or the past 7000 for that matter. Sure we’ve made some technological progress, our scientific knowledge of the world is much better than it was; and I like to think that we’ve made some progress in ethics and theology as well. But unless we are willing to learn from the lessons of history, we find ourselves repeating again and again the mistakes of our ancestors, because it really doesn’t matter how much we know unless we are willing to be guided by the wisdom of that knowledge.

I can’t begin to tell you how much it bothers me to think that someday posterity will remember America in the same way that we remember Imperial Rome -- a brutal, arrogant, bloodthirsty and oppressive military power whose ingenuity as engineers far outstripped their moral conscience. I can’t tell you how much it bothers me to think that, even today, there are many people around the world who look at the American flag and feel the same sense of revulsion I feel when I look at the red, white and black armbands and battle flags of Nazi Germany.

A generation ago the German people supported their troops through a series of stunning military victories: in Austria and Czechoslovakia, in Poland and Denmark and Norway, in France and the Balkans, in North Africa and Russia. They willingly sacrificed their own civil liberties in order to protect the security of their homeland from the supposedly dangerous influence of non-Germanic “foreigners” who lived among them. And then, as the tide of history turned against them, they found themselves essentially powerless to do anything to change it, compelled instead to follow their fanatical leader all the way down that terrible path which ends in history’s “unmarked grave of discarded lies.”

Don’t get me wrong. The United States of America is NOT Nazi Germany, nor is it Imperial Rome. And this is why it is so important for us to remember history’s lessons about the fundamental emptiness of military power, as well as the more subtle lesson about the transformative power of a good idea, faithfully held and practiced even in the face of adversity. I have little doubt that, on some level at least, the world will be a better place now that Saddam Hussein no longer holds power in Iraq. But it remains to be seen what kind of government we will be able to establish in his place, and whether we will attempt to do it all alone, or will at last enlist the assistance of others in a true “coalition of the willing.”

In this difficult task, American military power will matter far less than American compassion, tolerance, and generosity, as well as our willingness to put into practice our most cherished beliefs about human rights, civil liberties, and democratic self-determination.

It’s one thing to say the words. It’s quite another to put those principles into action, especially when we think we hold all the aces, and forget that there are always a few wild cards out there capable of transforming what we thought was a winning hand into a busted flush....


and if you liked that, here are some other things you might enjoy....

No Holiday for Doves
(preached Sunday November 10th, 2002 at the Second Congregational Meeting House on Nantucket Island)

(preached Sunday May 25th, 2003 at the Second Congregational Meeting House on Nantucket Island)

A Dog that Quacks like a Duck
(preached Sunday November 9th, 2003 at the First Religious Society in Carlisle, Massachusetts)

Patriots & Scoundrels
(preached Sunday April 25th, 2004 at the First Religious Society in Carlisle, Massachusetts)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

ChaliceChick responds to the Eclectic Cleric

Will wonders never cease? Now not only do I discover that someone who isn't related to me is actually READING my blog, but I've accidentally discovered how to link her blog to mine. So here is ChaliceChick's response, along with my reply to her

The ChaliceBlog: Itty Bitty: CC responds to the eclectic cleric

Great Response! You don't exactly miss the point, but you don't entirely get it either. One of the difficulties of carrying on a conversation like this in multiple forums is that not all of the participants get to hear all of the contributions. My post was originally a response to a much longer thread on this topic in the UUMA-chat, which I cross-posted to my blog because I'm basically a lazy enough blogger as it is, and felt it deserved a little wider audience.

Among the ministers, several have attempted to distinguish between the issues of "size" and that of quality or excellence. There is a difference between being good (or bad) at what you are (a small church), and being dismissed as inferior simply because you're not something else (a larger church).

Which still leaves in place the most urgent question: how do we best help small churches become more excellent?

Obviously, as a minister myself I like to believe that what I do is important, valuable, and worthwhile. And yes, the issue of leadership is CRUCIAL. But I've known (and worked effectively with) many superb, visionary LAY leaders in small churches; and I also know that simply because someone has jumped through all the hoops and acheived ordination does not automatically make them a good leader (much less a good preacher).

Finally, I've been doing this work long enough to harbor very few "romantic" notions about churches of any size. But for me, the "performance" aspect of the large church experience ultimately seems a little hollow, while the authenticity of caring about Myrtle's hurt feelings feels a little closer to what church SHOULD be about. That's not to say that feelings won't be hurt -- the Church is an institution which routinely breaks our hearts because it aspires to be so much, and unavoidably disappoints. And one of the most heartbreaking things about serving small churches is that you are compelled to take the disappointments personally. In the big church people simply disappear, and we never see or hear from them again.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Previously seen on the UUMA-chat

There's an interesting thread running now over on the UUMA-chat about New Starts, the "Fellowship Mentality," sitting on the "Franchise," and the economics of "Itty-Bitty" churches. Here's my contribution to the dialogue.

Itty-Bitty churches are tough. Often times you can't even kill them with a stick if you try. But they also often lack the resources to do the the same kinds of things that bigger churches do, and when those things become, by definition, "real" church the itty-bittys often only grow to feel inferior, because their attention becomes focused on the things they can't do rather than the things they do well.

What makes "big" church "real" church? Well, lots of things...but mostly it's the fact that they can pay a (relatively) bigger salary to a "professional" minister. Which brings me to the truly irksome question: is the "real" mission of the church merely to provide clergy with paychecks? And if that's our tacit understanding, it's no wonder our churches aren't growing.

Of course, we all have to eat...and even though there are plenty of people (even in big churches) who would love to muzzle the ox, the laborer is worthy of their hire. Which brings me to the second irksome point: what are we actually doing to provide "value" to our "customers?" And if the very language of that question troubles you as much as it does me, then you are ready to move on to the next level.

Bribing small churches with the promise of outside money if they are willing to take on an often-times difficult-to-place-elsewhere minister and provide them with a steady paycheck is generally a bad idea, and one of the reasons Extension Ministry in our movement developed such a bad reputation. There were plenty of good Extension Ministers out there, but rather than developing into a specialized vocation (like Interim Ministry), the program became sidetracked and lost sight of its more basic purpose. Or at least that's my opinion as an historian. Likewise, supporting small (and new) churches who have a clear vision of how they hope to serve their larger community, and a deep commitment to making that vision real, is a tricky business. The availability of outside money (in the form of grants or subsidies) often transforms the real mission into obtaining more of it. Offering training and "professional expertise" can often come across as "we know what to do, and you don't." And so on....

If you look at the experiences of successful megachurch pastors like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, you will discover that their "success" has little to do with their techniques, and a lot more to do with their own personal commitment and willingness to share the sacrifices of their people in devotion to a shared vision and common goals articulated by the ministers themselves! Willow Creek didn't start out as a megachurch. It took an entire professional lifetime to grow it to that size.

I also have some questions about how compatible the "culture" of megachurch is to the predominately "anti-authoritarian" ethos of Unitarian Universalism as we know it now. Each of the four church sizes (Family, Pastoral, Program, Corporate) has its own organizational culture, and tends to attract souls who feel comfortable there. When we complain about the "anti-clericalism" of the "Fellowship mentality," we are both disrespecting the culture of the family-sized congregation, as well as often reacting ourselves to the push-back we receive to a perceived sense of our own "professional" arrogance, privilege, superiority and entitlement. In other words, we are buying into the paradigm that, by virtue of our superior education and credentials, WE know what "real" church is and our people don' assumption both of dubious veracity and extremely dangerous politically.

As I've written elsewhere, a truly effective denominational growth program will develop proven and workable strategies for improving the effectiveness of churches of all sizes, recognizing that they all have a place in the "ecology" of a healthy religious movement. To suggest that "one size fits all" and that we just need to figure out which size is best is at best simple-minded, and potentially downright dangerous.

Finally, I think it's important for each of us to recognize that we all have different vocations as well, and that the opportunity to "be" ministers and to "do" ministry is as much a gift that is given to us as it is a gift we give to others. We are not entitled to lifelong financial support simply because we have earned an advanced degree and received a credential. Ministry is a relationship both to a community and to a "higher" purpose -- and the better we serve those two masters, the more likely it is we will be able to make an honest living doing so. But let's not forget who ultimately does sign our paychecks, and the sacrifices THEY make in order to do so.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

No Longer a Black and White World

I've been ruminating quite a bit about actor Michael Richards' recent rant, trying to find an appropriate context for both the intensity of the outburst and the sincerity of his apology. None of us likes to think of ourselves as harboring secret prejudice, and so generally we don't (think about it, that is), at least until we do (often because we can't avoid thinking about it any longer). So I guess on that level "Kramer" is no different than anyone else I know or know of. We all are, after all, only human.

The problem is not so much that human beings are instinctively xenophobic and suspicious of "the Other," or that we create stereotypes based on limited impressions, and then "discriminate" on the basis of those stereotypes in order to protect ourselves from the unknown threat of the unfamiliar, or even that we occasionally lose our tempers and say things we later wish we hadn't. That's just what people do.

The real question is whether or not we can find the courage to outgrow our prejudice, through better knowledge, broader personal experience, improved communication, sincere forgiveness, and ultimately real understanding. And the key to all of this is mutual trust, which (as we all know) doesn't exactly grow on trees. Yet Trust is also essential for forming the kind of honest and authentic interpersonal relationships we need to allow us to overcome our prejudices in the first place, and become better people than we are.

Intellectually, I've understood for a long time now that the whole idea of "race" itself is simply a social construction: a despicable fiction created to justify the "Peculiar Institution" of buying and selling one's own brothers and sisters as if they were chattal property. But Racism itself is very real, and deeply woven into almost every aspect of our social fabric and our cultural institutions. And so skin color becomes a "marker" of social class, our mutual ignorace of one another evolves into fear and suspicion, existing inequalities of wealth, power, and opportunity are reinforced, and the pervasive threat of violence which lurks just beneath the surface, both keeping everyone in "their place" and threatening to turn the entire unjust system inside-out, remains a constant part of the landscape of our everyday reality.

And I freely admit, I don't know what the answers are. If the answers were easy, this wouldn't still be a problem, would it? But the Good News is, when we finally do figure this all out, our shared wisdom will be a great benefit for us all. That's the day I'm praying I'll live to see. God willing, it won't be far away.

Friday, November 24, 2006

An Ecumenical Thanksgiving homily

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth....” [First Timothy 2: 1-4]

I know it’s a little silly, and more than a little naive, but when I was young I always kinda felt like Paul’s epistles to Timothy were addressed personally to me. And even now that I’m older, and realize that these so-called “Pastoral” epistles of Timothy and Titus were probably written by someone else perhaps a century or more after Paul’s own death; and that they probably weren’t actually written to anyone actually named “Timothy” either, and are among the most socially and theologically conservative documents in the New Testament (tonight’s lesson, for example, comes just a few verses prior to that notorious injunction about women “learning in silence with full submission”); even knowing all of that, it still feels kinda special to open the Bible and see my name there on the printed page, along with all sorts of centuries-old advice (some of it better than others) about how to be a better pastor.

And there are several things about this particular reading that I have always found particularly intriguing.

Why, for example, does Paul (or at least the author of this epistle) make such a big deal about singling out those in authority or “high position” as the beneficiaries of our prayers? Is it just that he feels that they need it more than the rest of us? Or is there something intrinsically worthwhile about a “quiet, peaceable life,” and those in high positions are somehow in a more influential position when it comes to nurturing or disrupting our “dignity” (σεμνοτητι) and “godliness” (ευσεβεια)?

But it’s actually the next part of the lesson that intrigues me most, because historically this is one of the classic “proof” texts for the doctrine of Universal Salvation. Yet often it gets translated and interpreted in such a way it is made to seem to say just the opposite. “For this is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires EVERYONE to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” The passage continues in the next verse with a confessional formula “For there is one God [and] there is also one mediator (μεσιτηs) between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” And it’s this last phrase in particular, αντιλυτρον υπερ παντων, that I particularly want to draw your attention to this evening. A ransom “hyper panton.” For All. For Everybody. Not just a few. Not just those who believe, or are powerful or in positions of authority. Hyper Panton. For Everyone.

Of course nowadays, because of all sorts of subsequent theological speculation surrounding a doctrine which became known as the “Substitutionary Atonement,” the word “antilutron” or “ransom” has taken on a whole suitcase full of other connotations that influence our contemporary reading of this passage, in many instances essentially turning its meaning upside-down. And yes it’s true that the word λυτρον in ancient Greek is often used in the sense of “ransom” or “recompense” -- especially in the context of money paid, for example, to redeem a hostage or even a slave, such as in the case of a family member who might have been captured by pirates, and was either going to be ransomed back to their loved ones or sold into servitude -- it didn’t really matter which, since the pirates were going to get their "lutron" in the end regardless of who paid.

At the root of the word is the Greek verb λυιεν meaning “to loose” or to release, to liberate; a word that is very familiar to every first year New Testament Greek student because it’s the one we had to memorize in order to learn the proper conjugations of those regular, first declension verbs: λυω, λυειs, λυει, λυομεν, λυετε, λυουσι and so on.

It’s also the active verb in one of the first verses of Scripture I ever learned by heart, and still one of my favorites: John 8:32 “For you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Ransom, Redemption, Freedom, Liberation -- it’s all basically the same idea in Greek, and it all comes from the knowledge and understanding of Truth.

Which brings us to the complicated part. Whose “Truth” are we talking about? And this is where (in my mind, at least) the Scripture sometimes gets turned on its head. Because in this particular verse (and so far as I know, this is the ONLY example of this anywhere) the preposition "anti" has been added to the noun lutron as a prefix, to form the word antilutron -- also translated as “ransom,” but interpreted (at least by certain theologians of the more conservative persuasion) to mean that Jesus substituted HIMSELF as a ransom “as opposed to” allowing humanity to remain in captivity, and it is only everyone who believes that this is true who are going to be “ransomed,” and not “everyone” everyone (like the Scripture itself plainly says).

Now I want you all to appreciate that I personally, after all, am a Unitarian and a Universalist, so I tend to believe that any God truly worthy of the name who really WANTS us all to be saved is going to save us all anyway, regardless of what we personally may believe about it, or what it may or may not say in the Bible, in any language. But there is one more word I would like to draw your attention to tonight, and this is the word “Thanksgiving” itself , or ευχαριστιαs -- a word with which I’m confident the Catholics here this evening are intimately familiar.

The Eucharist is above all else an expression of gratitude: gratitude for the gift of life, gratitude for the many blessings we have received in life, gratitude for the good fortune being part of the family of God, and therefore brothers and sisters to one another.

And I especially want all of us here in this room, whether we are Catholic or Unitarian or just sorta here out of curiosity or family obligation, to think about “Thanksgiving” in the context of tonight’s Gospel lesson from Luke 17, where ten were healed but only one, the Samaritan, the foreigner, the outsider, returned to offer thanks. And in that act of Euchariston he was not only healed of his affliction, he was also made “whole” (σεσωκεν ) through his faith, his “trust” (πιστιs).

We have much to give thanks for here in this community, not the least of which is that we CAN come together as members of different faiths living in the same community, and give thanks together for the blessings we all share with one another as human beings, regardless of who we are or where we come from, or even what we believe. It’s a blessing not known in many parts of the world. And for it, may we this day be truly Thankful.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

This WILL be on the Midterm...

By now George W. Bush's legacy as one of the worst Presidents in United States history is relatively secure. Warren G. Harding. Ulysses S. Grant. And then the competition starts to get a little thin. Maybe Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, or Rutherford B. Hayes. I mean, even Hoover and Nixon look good by comparison!

Not only was Dubya caught with his pants down on September 11th, 2001 (after first setting in motion the greatest transfer of wealth from working people to the obscenely rich in the history of the world), but the policies of his administration in the aftermath of those attacks have been both cynically self-serving and singularly ineffective. Osama bin Laden is still at large, while the war to change the regime in Iraq and rid Saddam of his imaginary weapons of mass destruction has simply led to the proliferation of nuclear technology to other "rogue nations," while at the same time creating a "new front in the War on Terror" which has tied down our military in a no-win civil war between irreconcilable religious fanatics, while at the same time making American soldiers easier targets for terrorist insurgents of every ideology. Secret overseas prisons, government-sanctioned torture, the dismemberment of the Bill of Rights: when you actually step back and take a good, hard look at what is really happening, the reality is MUCH worse than the partisan political rhetoric.

Stocks (and Oil Prices) are at record highs, but real wages are stagnant and a collapsing housing market threatens to rob many middle class Americans of their only real source of financial security. And then of course there was Katrina. But the real travesty of the Bush administration has been its utter disregard for the problem of Global Warming, and its refusal to take seriously our nation's dominate role in the creation of that problem. Our children and our children's children have far more to fear from out of control climate change than they do a terrorist attack. Yet if controlling carbon emissions threatens to cut into oil company profits, the idea might as well be dead on arrival.

The Bushies stole an election in Florida in 2000 to come to office in the first place. This is not just my opinion; it is an objective, historical fact. They quite likely stole another (in Ohio, in 2004) in order to maintain their grip on power. We know that they will lie; we know that they will suppress voter turnout; we know that they are willing to race-bait, gay-bash, appeal to religious prejudice and spend massive amounts of money in order to polarize our nation through fear-mongering and jingoism and maintain their places of wealth and privilege. And it really does need to end. Soon. Like next Tuesday. Rome wasn't built in a day. But the Roman Republic collapsed in less than a generation, to be replaced by a brutal system of autocratic, authoritarian government in which a handful of unimaginably wealthy individuals dominated the known world, and treated its entire population as their slaves. Don't be distracted by Bread and Circuses. Regime Change truly does begin at home.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Now that my brain cells are down to a managable number...

OK, my 50th birthday has come and have the 575th and 576th sermons of my career. Tonight is All Hallows Eve, followed by All Saints Day and then All's a season of the year (as I said last Sunday in my Dia de los Muertos homily) when the "spirit world" seems especially close to our own, however we may choose to understand that. But the contrast between my birthday celebration and "the day of the dead" seemed especially noticable this year -- basically a sharp reminder that our experience of church spans the entire spectrum from birth to death, cradle to grave. It's a shared experience of Community, which binds us together in both celebration and compassion; its the Universal Experience of All Humanity, which unites All Souls in one common, human family.

Personally, I've been very lucky when it comes to death. Both of my parents are still living, as are all of my siblings, both of my aunts, all of my immediate cousins, nephews and neices. My grandfathers both died within a month of one another in the Autumn of 1978 -- the year I started at Havard Divinity School. One was 88; the other (the disolute one, who smoked two packs of Lucky Strikes a day) only 82. My maternal grandmother passed away five years later, also at the age of 88; whyle my paternal grandmother lived well into her 90's, and passed away only a decade ago.

But in my work and role as a minister, I am frequently brought into the presence of death: both with individuals who are dying, and also their loved ones...more times than I can count, really -- although even now the mere mention of a name will bring back a flood of memories decades later. Death is the one universal experience of all living things, and often it seems to me that how we choose to deal with the reality of death is the one key thing that defines us people of faith.

We all know of folks who appear to believe in some form of the hereafter: from vague notions of the immortality of the soul and the possibility of reincarnation through an never-ending series of past and future lives, to literal understandings of "pie in the sky when we die" -- heaven and hell, eternal reward and punishment, a "life everlasting" not TOO dissimilar from our lives here on earth. Yet it also seems to me that those of us who are skeptical of such things are also often guilty of taking it all too literally -- weighing bodies at the moment of death in vain attempts to discern the "weight" of a soul, or probing about the pineal gland in search of the physical location of the human spirit.

But the truth is simply that the "other side" of death is a complete mystery. And what we think we know of it we know only through metaphor -- through a process of analogy to familiar things which seem to provide insight into things we will NEVER know or experience, at least in THIS life.

Still, inuitively we seem to know that there is more to us than just our bodies. And so (at least here in the West) we divide our "selves" into flesh and spirit, body and soul. And we also know that at our death, our flesh returns to the earth from which it came -- ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The various elements that make up our bodies: the oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon -- are all recycled into something else. So why should we not assume that at the moment of our death, our spirit also becomes "at one" with the Creative Spirit of the Universe that gives us life, and exists at the source of all existence? Yet even the idea of "spirit" itself is simply a figment of our imaginations. It's something we make up in order to speak about an aspect of our experience of a mystery we will never fully understand.

Here's another insight about the nature of the spirit. In culture after culture, thoughout recorded history, we are taught that spirits which cling too tenaciously to life fail to become at one with their creator. They become instead "hungry ghosts" -- thirsting after something that is no longer theirs to possess, tormented shadows of their former selves, neither satisfied nor at rest. It is only when we can surrender our lives graciously that we are free to experience whatever lies beyond. And this too is something we know in analogy to our experience of the "real" world.

I'm struck, for example, by the contrast between the families of the victims of the recent Amish School shootings, and the families of the victims of the Rhode Island Night Club fire, who were so angry that those they felt responsible for that tragedy were not more harshly punished. Their need for vengence and retribution -- to "get even" with those who had caused them pain -- simply created an even bigger hole in their lives, preventing them from feeling whole again. Yet the Amish community -- victims of a premeditated act of deliberate violence -- were quick to accept their loss and even to forgive the perpetrator. They will never forget, nor cease to love those who were so brutally taken from them. But they are moving forward rather than clinging to their grief, simply by forsaking vengence for forgiveness.

And this is the dualism of life and death, between a desire to get even and the ability to move on. Grief AND Compassion. Loss AND Forgiveness. Sorrow AND Celebration. And yes, Birth and Death....

Thursday, October 19, 2006

October is Clergy Appreciation Month?

OK, I’ll admit it. I was as surprised by this as anyone. Like a lot of ministers I know, I'm just now starting to come up again for air after a busy autumn start to yet another church program year. Until just a few weeks ago, I had no idea there was any such thing as a “National Clergy Appreciation Month,” much less that “Clergy Appreciation National Day of Honoring is always celebrated on the second Sunday in October.” But thanks to the Hallmark website, not only do I now know that Clergy Appreciation Month was established in 1992 (although I'm still not sure who established it), and that its “mission is to uplift and encourage pastors, missionaries and religious workers by providing physical, emotional and spiritual support,” I’m also aware that “Hallmark offers 35 Clergy Appreciation cards,” and that “Clergy Appreciation cards may be found wherever Hallmark brands are sold.”

I also have to admit though that I kinda like the idea of there being a National Clergy Appreciation Month. Heck, I think it ought to be International Clergy Appreciation Season. Not that I generally go around feeling unappreciated for what I do. In fact, just the opposite -- I generally feel like I am able to accomplish relatively little compared to all the things I WISH I could do in my ministry, and am always a little amazed by how much people seem to appreciate my feeble contribution to the quality of their spiritual lives.

But the truth is, I’m not so sure that anyone can really appreciate what clergy do except for other people who have been doing ministry themselves for a significant amount of time. I know this was true for me. I first got involved in this line of work because I thought I’d like it, that I’d be good at it, and that it would provide me with an opportunity to accomplish something important with my life. I also liked the idea of working with both books and people, and that there was only one hour a week when I absolutely had to be in a certain place at a certain time.

Of course now, twenty-five years after my ordination, I’ve discovered that ministry is easily the most emotionally and intellectually demanding thing I’ve ever done in MY life, and doubtlessly among the most emotionally and intellectually demanding occupations on the planet. The relentless and unforgiving weekly deadline of Sunday morning can quickly become all-consuming if I let it (and often even when I don’t). I still like my job a lot (most days), and like to feel that at least now I do it better than I did when I first started out. But sometimes it’s still hard to see what tangible good I’ve been able to accomplish with my life, especially since so much of my work is intangible and highly subjective to begin with.

More to the point, I also have a much greater appreciation at this point in my life for how much ministry truly is “shared.” I try to do my job for the benefit of the people under my care, but I also can’t do my job without their active encouragement and support. Furthermore, a good portion of my job is to help equip people to be of service to others (i.e. to “do ministry”) themselves, and in this regard it is sometimes hard to tell where my ministry leaves off and all of theirs begins. Ministry is a lifestyle as much as it is a profession or an occupation or a vocation. Or to put it another way, ministry is what we do together when we make up our minds to take the mission of the church seriously.

In any event, I'm very grateful for all the expressions of appreciation I've heard for my ministry over the years -- not just during National Clergy Appreciation Month, but often at some of the most random times and places. And I also hope you all know in your heart-of-hearts, more than I can express in words, that the feeling is mutual....

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Weasel Wranger!

Earlier this week I attended a program led by my friend and Divinity School-era classmate Larry Peers, who edited the UUA Congregational Handbook when he worked at 25 Beacon Street, and is now a full-time consultant for the prestigious Alban Institute. Larry is one of the smartest guys I know, and superb at what he does; every time I hear him speak I learn something new and thought provoking, and I’ve never been disappointed.

This time the theme of Larry’s workshop was “Juggling Roles as Leader, Minister, Supervisor, Human...and Miracle Worker.” One of the exercises was to brainstorm a list of the various roles clergy play in the performance of their duties. Here’s the list I came up with (some of them metaphorical), with a little help from peaking at the papers of the other ministers sitting around me.

Preacher, Teacher, Pastor, Leader, Writer, Performer, Caregiver, Coach, Student, Scholar, Historian, Storyteller, Advocate, Mentor, Mediator, Negotiator, Entrepreneur, Peacemaker, Prophet, Priest, Rabbi, Chaplain, Sage, Mystic, Poet, Pilgrim, Spiritual Seeker, Spiritual Guide, Visionary, Organizer, Manager, Long Range Planner, Professional Expert, Organizational Consultant, Institutional Memory, Personal Companion, Partner, Parent, Trusted Friend, Philosophical Gadfly, Administrator, “Boss,” Strategist, Facilitator, Fundraiser, Expeditor, Supervisor, Servant, Shepherd, "Sheep Dog," Master & Commander, Major Idiot, Skipper, Experimenter, Analyst, Observer, Pundit, Critic, Counselor, Motivator, Devil’s Advocate, Wise Fool, Court Jester, Plucky Comic Relief, Medic, Personal Trainer, Baby Sitter, Dog Walker, Cat Herder, Snake Charmer, Duck Aligner, Weasel Wrangler, Chef, Gardener, Fisherman, Firefighter, Dishwasher, Custodian, Repairman, Jack-of-all-Trades, Quarterback, Point Guard, Relief Pitcher, Cheerleader, Pinch Hitter, Lead-off Hitter, Clean-up Hitter, Catcher, Center Fielder, Utility Infielder, Free Safety, Placekicker, Punt Returner, Bench Warmer, Water Boy, Umpire, Groundskeeper... and, of course, Juggler and Miracle Worker (which Larry gave us right in the title of the workshop).

Larry encouraged us to think of these various roles as a “team of players” which we can call upon as needed in order to help us do our jobs. Of course, as coach and general manager of this motley team, my first question was: How am I going to find enough playing time for everybody on my roster? Who do I put in the starting line-up, and who do I leave on the sidelines? Who is first out of the bullpen; who’s missing from my team entirely; and who do I need to trade, waive, send down to the minors for more experience, or cut outright? I don’t really have answers to these questions. But Larry certainly did provide an intriguingly different perspective on this complex and fascinating vocation.

Of course, this exercise isn’t restricted to ministers only. No matter what you do for a living, what kind of roles do you play in your life, and what kind of players do you need on your team in order to take yourself to the next level? Be creative; think outside the box. You may discover you have a lot deeper bench than you think.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Pink Martini

Almost ten years ago now I officiated at a large wedding in a private home in Portland's affluent Dunthorpe neighborhood. The processional was performed by Gavin Bondy, a trumpet player for the Oregon Symphony, and afterwards the rest of the band showed up to play the reception. And I've been a big fan of Pink Martini ever since. Won't even try to put into words who they are or what they do -- they are simply amazing, and if you've never heard them you are really missing something.

Sunday night I saw them perform for the first time since I moved away from Portland Oregon five years ago. Four rows back on the left hand side, and both the seats and the band were magnificent! Probably their best show I've seen yet, and I've seen a lot...more times really than I can even remember. Benefits and fundraisers, a private Christmas party, the "Taste of Beaverton" (where gay pianist/band founder Thomas Lauderdale made a quip about "the taste of beaver" and his Harvard classmate/vocalist China Forbes unforgettably replied "What would you know about it?") and, of course, the debut concert for their first CD "Sympathique" at "the Schnitz" -- Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in downtown Portland. And since Thomas lives just across the street from My Former Wife's law office in downtown Portland, I've often heard him practicing at home, and even seen him out walking his dog Heinz on Yamhill Street.

Of course, now that they've hit the "big time" (such as it is), Pink Martini doesn't play weddings any more. And I do miss some of the people who've left the band: Miss Khilmony Downs, in particular, who, though not quite as strong a singer as China Forbes, still had a certain stage appeal that endeared me to the band in its early days. Pepe Raphael has gone on to form his own band, Pepe and the Bottle Blondes, and apparently they still do play wedding gigs. The band is actually much stronger, tighter and more focused now that China has really come into her own on stage, while Timothy Nishimoto (Pepe's replacement) does a solid job in a much more limited vocal role. The original percussionists Brian Davis and Derek Rieth, along with guitarist Dan Faehnle, are a huge part of the band's unique sound, the brass and the strings are strong (with Gavin's outstanding trumpet a familiar anchor), and Thomas M. Lauderdale is simply brilliant, magnificent, remarkable, and incomparable. Pink Martini is really his baby and his brainchild, now twelve years old and going strong. Check out their website, buy their albums, see them perform live and go home with a tee-shirt.

Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11 + 5

Five years ago today, I was sitting in the small, downstairs study in the parsonage on Nantucket Island, shopping on-line for a new coffee grinder. I'd only been on-Island for a few weeks, and was still settling in to my interim ministry there. Then the phone rang, and a few seconds later I was upstairs watching TV while the whole world changed before my eyes.

I don't have anything uniquely profound or insightful to contribute to what I'm sure will be an animated dialog regarding our national experience in the five years since that day. The President has vowed that he will never forget the lessons of 9/11, but personally I wonder whether he has learned anything at all. He also cautions us not to underestimate (or was it misunderestimate?) the "intentions of evil and ambition men." And that is advice I will certainly take to heart.

Yesterday in church, I quoted a portion of the sermon I delivered on Nantucket the Sunday following September 11, 2001. That Sunday, and the Sundays following it, represent some of the most prophetic preaching I've been called to do in 25 years of ordained ministry. If you're interested, you can find the texts of all those sermons at my Nantucket blogspot site The text of yesterday's sermon should appear at in another day or two.

And let us all attempt to be gentle with one another today.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

More Advice to Ministers in Search

Dan Harper at "Just Another Unitarian Universalist" offers good advice to ministers in search in the UUA. As someone who spent nearly a decade technically "in search" (albeit with a pretty profound geographic restriction) I'll second Dan’s field tested advice, and would like to add a few insights of my own.

• When I started out, I spent a lot of time trying to make my materials look different from everyone else's, on the theory that this would make them stand out. Eventually, I discovered it was much more effective to make my materials look exactly like everyone else's, only better -- which made ME appear outstanding.

• Even while you are "in transition," don't pass up opportunities to build your resume...and your reputation. Do the supply preaching gigs and the outside many as you can schedule. Consult with small churches. Network with other ministers to offer Adult RE classes to their congregations (trust me, they'll love you for it). Don't worry so much about getting paid at it for love, and the money will follow. I earned a PhD while technically in search, and helped half-a-dozen different small congregations settle full or part-time ministers and/or build or buy new buildings. Not such a bad track record for a full time grad student looking for a full-time job...and good for the movement too.

• Ministry is both a calling and a career. The issue is not which takes priority, but rather how best to keep them in alignment. I know too many colleagues who seem to feel that the real mission of the church is to provide them with a paycheck. It's not, so get over it. The question congregations will be asking you is this: What can you do for us to make our SPIRITUAL lives more satisfying? All of this business about growing the church by increasing membership, attendance and the amount of the average pledge means a whole lot less to them than it does to us. If you really want to know what people are looking for in a pastor, check out this report from Duke. Plenty to chew on there, not all of it especially appetizing:

• Finally, don't try to hide from your mistakes, or hide them from Search Committees. Rather, look at them closely, figure out what you *really* learned from them, and turn that "lesson" into a positive selling point. Let's face facts: ministry isn't that difficult a job, but it is an Impossible one. None of us will EVER do it perfectly, meet every expectation or even every need, land on our feet (rather than flat on our face) every time. Ministry is the kind of work that will take everything we have to offer without it ever really being enough...and yet somehow we manage to do it anyway. Search Committees are generally a lot less interested in what you can DO than in who you ARE. Character, candor, compassion, integrity, authenticity and real spiritual "depth" -- these are the things that churches truly want and need from their Religious Leader. So don't try to fake it: FIND IT!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Ingathering Sunday

Here at FRS, we've developed a practice of sending out a congregation-wide mailing at the beginning of September, welcoming people back to church. The mailing includes a letter from the Parish Committee describing the program priorities for the coming year (which individual parish committee members divide among themselves in order to include a handwritten postscript) and a more "inspirational" letter from the minister (me). Here's the text of my letter for 2006-07, which I've made generic so that anyone who would like to can feel free to "borrow" my words (with appropriate attribution, of course).


What is Church, anyway?

Some folks think of a church as a building: a physical structure of bricks and mortar, wood and glass, standing tall as a visible landmark in the landscape of a larger community.

Others think of church principally as a religious institution: an organization with principles and purposes, policies and by-laws, and charged with the mission of doing God’s work in the world.

Theologians sometimes speak of “the Church” as a mystical body of believers: a spiritual community of faith, memory and hope which transcends the boundaries and limitations of time and space.

But when I think of church, I think of the people. Real people, like you and me, who inhabit the building, who embody the spirit, who do God’s good works with their own two hands.

This congregation is a spiritual community of real people devoted to values and principles larger than ourselves. And it takes the combined efforts of each and every one of us to make our faith community everything it should be.

If your experience of organized religion hasn't quite lived up to what you’d hoped for, the answer may be simpler than you think. It may well be that the only thing missing from this CH_RCH is U.

Welcome back from what I hope has been a refreshing and relaxing summer. I look forward to seeing you Sunday!

Friday, August 25, 2006

Minister Stuff

When we were still newlyweds, and I was serving my first congregation in Midland Texas, my former wife came home from work one afternoon and asked her daughter "Where's Tim?"

"Oh, he's gone to a motel to meet a girl," my eight-year-old stepdaughter replied, then quickly added as she noticed the change in her mother's expression: "Don't worry mom. It's Minister stuff."

The girl was a sixteen-year-old runaway I'd met the previous evening while working as a volunteer hospital emergency room chaplain. I'd given her my card, and told her to call me when she was ready to be helped. I ended up bringing her back home with me, where she lived as part of our family for about three weeks while I negotiated long-distance with her mother to give Ruth one more chance. As I was taking her to the airport, just before Christmas, I noticed the six-inch Bowie knife she'd been carrying in her handbag while living on the streets, and later in my home.

"You can't take that on the plane with you," I said calmly. Ruth looked a little confused, then took the knife out of her purse and handed it to me. I put it in the glove box of my car, where it remained for years, until I sold that car and the knife disappeared somewhere into a box in my garage.

That was then, in Midland Texas...when I was young and idealistic and full of hope, and my pastoral boundaries were perhaps not quite so well-defined as they are today. Yesterday, I was in my car and called my now thirty-year-old stepdaughter just because I felt the need to talk.

"I'm on my way to the hospital," I told her...then quickly added "Don't worry Hon; It's Minister stuff." A parishioner of mine had fallen from a ladder and struck his head on a rock while helping his daughter and son-in-law build an addition on their new home. He was not going to survive this accident; in an instant, a heartbeat, a blink of an eye his life was over and the lives of everyone who knew and loved him would be dramatically changed forever. The rest of the details aren't really that important. I cleared my calendar for the next few days, and drove for an hour to be with this family as they navigated this terrible tragedy: to help guide them spiritually when I could, to support them emotionally as best as I was able, to represent all of the other members of their faith community who would have liked to have been there to help as well if it were somehow possible.

This is the kind of thing a minister can do in a congregation of only 100 households, at the tail-end of a long, slow summer. Still, it's a helluva way to make a living. I guess I keep doing it because I can, and because I know that it's important. Because after a quarter of a century in this strange and outrageously demanding profession I've experienced some things in life and about myself which make me of service to people who are facing this sort of crisis themselves, maybe for the first time, maybe even for the only time in their lives. And I don't want to make it sound sentimental or melodramatic, because it's not. It's just matter-of-fact life and death in its devastatingly uncompromising simplicity.

Minister Stuff.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Heart of the Matter


Which shall it be?

Light and Soft certainly: that's just the way I'm wired. Hard when I have to be, but never whole-heartedly; and heavy-hearted when I have to be hard. Often half-heartedly, which is its own tragedy: to discover your heart just isn't in it. Seems like there is so little these days worthy of giving our hearts to.

Hearts and Minds. Body and Soul. Heart and Soul. But for some reason mind and body often appear at odds with one another, until the Heart brings them together and creates a Soul that unites them as one in the mind and in the image of God. The Spirit is willing but the Flesh is weak without the Heart to encourage them.

It takes courage to take heart in the face of the discouraging -- disappointment, frustration, dissatisfaction, despair. This is the real Heart of the Matter. Where do we find the courage to surrender our hearts to God? A God who softens the hard hearts of a stubborn, stiff-necked people...and leaves us feeling light-hearted again.

Simply a handful of heart-felt thoughts before heading over to church this morning....

Friday, August 11, 2006

Our Trust in Things Not Seen

Overheard one of my people the other day describe Faith as 'belief without evidence." This upset me a little...basically made me feel like I haven't really been doing my job very well, but then here's the kicker: for half my lifetime (25 years - which is essentially my entire life as an adult), I have "served" as an ordained clergyman, even though most days I don't really believe in God...or at least not anything that would pass for God in 98% of the so-called "Christian" churches on this planet. I CERTAINLY don't believe in the Virgin Birth, the Physical Resurrection, the Substitutionary Atonement, the literal Inerrancy of the Scripture, and Christ's Bodily Second Coming...much less that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God in any sense other that we are all metaphorically God's Children, and thus brothers and sisters to one another. In fact, if I were re-writing the creed it would go something along the lines of: I Believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a bastard, born of a young woman in the usual way, that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate and that he was never buried at all, but rather his body hung upon a crude Roman cross until it had been entirely consumed by ravens and wild dogs, and that people have been trying to turn him into something he never was for their own purposes ever since. Not exactly the most inspiring set of beliefs, I know. Maybe it's a good thing I wasn't a First Century Christian.

What else do I believe? Well, I believe in Evil -- in cruelty, selfishness, deceit, deception, greed, avarice, lust, pride, gluttony, and all the rest -- believe in them because I see the evidence of them with my own two eyes almost every day. In a word, I believe in Sin. But not Original Sin; rather, just the plain old-fashioned ordinary sin...and I hate it, which means that often I also hate myself, and feel ashamed to be a member of the human race. Yet I also know (in large part THANKS to a healthy sense of shame and self-loathing) that "sin" and "hate" will NEVER be "conquered" by more of the same, and that the ONLY way to overcome them is through the Transforming Power of Love: through compassion, generosity, gratitude, trust, forgiveness, mercy, and random acts of kindness.

And yes, through Sacrifice. Like Jesus. Like Socrates. Like Abraham. A sacrifice which trusts the unknown mysterious power of a reality larger than ourselves, and submits to that reality in order to become at one with it. And yet, this act of self-sacrificing submission to the unknown is incredibly frightening and requires unbelievable much that often we tend to "chicken out," telling ourselves instead that it is irrational, illogical, naive, foolish and stupid...because (frankly) it is. Yet this is precisely the difference between "belief without evidence" and "a trust in the reality of things not seen." Because, let's face it: who could attempt this work of Ministry at all if we didn't believe in the Unseen Power of Transformative Love? And more to the point, why would we even want to try?

There are caveats, of course. There are always caveats. Being only human, there is naturally a dark side to our Love as well. When we allow our blind faith in the Transforming Power of Love to encourage and support the self-destructive addictive narcissism of others, we become enablers rather than healers. When we attempt to use the power of Love inappropriately to manipulate the behaviors and limit the freedom of others -- to keep them powerless and under control rather than allowing them to discover the liberating power of their own potential for transformation -- we become instruments of oppression rather than messengers of Good News. Not only must Justice be tempered with Mercy, we must also learn to temper our Mercy with Justice, to balance compassion with accountability. An honest sense of where we leave off and the other begins, together with a humble appreciation and acceptance of our own human limitations, create the kind of "healthy" boundaries which allow two souls to meet and touch, rather than fusing and becoming lost in one another. The slogan "hate the sin but love the sinner" has often been shamelessly twisted in horrible ways to justify all kinds of terrible treatment of our fellow human beings. Perhaps it is better merely to remember to "Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged," and to do unto others as we would have others do unto us....

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

First of all, let me just say right off the bat that the only thing I hate worse than whining clergy is being one of them myself. Ministers have the most magnificent job in the world, and simply because it is also impossibly difficult doesn't give us the right to complain. We are so privileged to be given the opportunity to do this work, and those of us who are lucky enough to be able to make an honest living doing it are even more fortunate.

Still, we're only human. None of us are perfect, and we all make mistakes...or at the very least decisions which in retrospect might have been better. And because of the visibility of our office, when our imperfections finally do reveal themselves we are also likely to hear about them. At some point in every ministry, the honeymoon is over and one begins to discover all of the various ways in which people have been disappointed by your multitude of limitations and shortcomings as a religious leader. As someone who has been through this process many times (and is going through it again even as you read this) here are some helpful hints for weathering the storm.

1) Don't Take it Personally. Trust me: everything that is being said about you now has been said about clergy from time immemorial. It just comes with the territory. We've all heard these same criticisms about ourselves, and we've all struggled to address them. There's even a technical term for it: Authenticity Testing -- you can learn all about it from the Alban Institute. No one EVER "masters" the "skills" of ministry -- it's the kind of vocation that will literally take everything you have to offer it, and still it won't be enough. So simply endeavor to do your very best, and know that you will get better in time.

2) Do Take it Seriously. It IS a test. But what is being tested is not so much your expertise as your character. People are trying to figure out whether or not they can trust you, and whether or not you care enough about them to take their concerns seriously. Often they are dissatisfied with their own experience of church, religion, spirituality -- and are hoping that you can somehow make it right for them. So take them seriously, because it's the only way you will ever get them to take YOU seriously.

3) Don't Become Offensive by Getting Defensive. Not even a little. Don't make excuses, don't try to explain: just listen carefully and empathetically, and try to draw them out a little more. Ask them if they can be more specific, or give you examples; ask them also about things they may have liked or that they think you've done well. (I once had to ease the mood of a particularly vocal meeting of critics by asking "have I done ANYTHING right since I got here?") Remember, it's not really about your shortcomings as a minister; it's about how you are coming up short as THEIR minister. So listen and learn.

4) Try right away to do something very visible and very tangible to let them know that you've heard their concerns and are trying to address them. If they complain about your sermons, enroll in a preaching seminar. It may not make you a better preacher overnight (we all eventually become better preachers with practice anyway), but at least it shows that you want to improve. If they feel like you don't really know them, or don't visit enough, make a point of at least trying to learn everyone's face and name, and of calling people by their name whenever you do see them. It takes a little effort, but it's not as much work as you might think. And take advantage of opportunities like you newsletter column to communicate your vision with the people you don't see in church every Sunday. It may not help you get to know them, but it will help them feel like they know you.

5) Cultivate some sort of personally meaningful devotional or contemplative practice. Anything you like, so long as it feeds your spirit and keeps you centered and focused, humble, grateful and generous, (Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent...or whatever the equivalent Girl Scout values were). As I said earlier, this is incredible and amazing work we do, and we are incredibly luck to get to do it, but it is also amazingly difficult work, and will drain us to empty unless we find ways to renew our own sense of amazement and personal spiritual credibility.

6) Remember the difference between spiritual and secular cultures, and the so-called "speed of church." In the secular world, business leaders are advised to hit the ground running with a vision and a plan in place, to clear out the deadwood and promote their own people, and to try to show a positive impact to the bottom line in the first 90 days by adding value, solving problems, improving efficiency and creating new opportunities for growth. The "old school" conventional wisdom for ministry was not to change anything in the first year, and that it is only after seven years with the same congregation that clergy truly come into their own as effective leaders. In a church, anything less than three years is considered a "failed ministry" (or, more kindly, a "mismatch" or "involuntary interim"). In business, more than two or three years in the same job and you are off the "fast-track" and "in a rut." These paradigms are both shifting a little, but both clergy and laity who are familiar with business culture can find the speed of church unbelievably frustrating. And although it seems a little counter-intuitive, smaller churches actually change LESS quickly than larger ones, which again can be frustrating to recently-ordained ministers eager to try out all of their new and innovative ideas on an actual congregation. But resisting all the young ministers and their new ideas that have come down the pike every two or three years is how these congregations have survived (in some cases) for two or three centuries. Yet even as you feel you are beating YOUR head against the wall, remember that there are OTHER people in the congregation who are frustrated with YOU for not moving more quickly. Why does it take seven years for a minister to become effective? Because that's how long it generally seems to take for the change-resistant people to trust the new minister enough to move to the sidelines, and allow a new team of leaders who share the ministers vision to step up. It can be a difficult path to navigate, I know. But the authority of a minister is different from the authority of a manager. We lead through trust, authenticity, inspiration, encouragement, a shared sense of commitment to a common vision, and the desire to forge profoundly meaningful relationships with our people, our vocation, and the transcendent. Managers often lead solely through the incentive of promotion and the threat of termination. Yes, I know how tempting it can be to want to fire half the congregation and bring in your own people But the good news is that even business leaders are starting to move away from the carrot and the stick, and discovering the value of shared inspiration and a compelling vision.

* a note on the title. I saw this phrase printed on the back of a tee-shirt in a Nantucket tee-shirt shop last week, and it made me laugh out loud... Haven't enjoyed a tee-shirt so much since the classic "Hellfire and Dalmations" shirt of the Hot Springs Convo....

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Washed Ashore (and Back Again)

Just got back from a ten-day vacation on Nantucket, where I served two years as an interim minister before being called here to Carlisle in 2003. The Island is lousy with clergy this time of year: visited with my successor, my predecessor, two Island colleagues from other denominations (Methodist and Episcopal), the visiting "summer" minister (who arrived while I was there to fill in for the current minister while she and her son enjoy a little well-deserved vacation OFF-Island), plus a former intern of the minister emeritus, who had come to the Island to reconnect with HER call before heading off for what promises to be a difficult interim ministry in Eugene, Oregon -- the city where I earned my PhD. So the old saw about whether our movement is best understood as a small religious denomination or a large extended family remains intact.

For me this was supposed to be a "real" holiday -- didn't even bring a pair of long pants (which was actually a packing mistake, but worked out OK) and had no intention of doing anything even remotely "ministerial" -- yet even so, everywhere I went I was introduced as "our former minister," "our interim minister" "the guy who used to be our minister" and the like. Eventually I just started describing myself as "the Temp," which seemed to go over pretty well. Yet once again I was reminded that ministry is a vocation that depends as much on who we are as what we do -- and that (like it or not) we remain ministers in the eyes of others even when we are not actually "doing" ministry.

I love it on the Island -- felt at home there in a way I have rarely felt anywhere else, especially in the dead of winter when the weather closes in and the rest of the world "off-Island" fades into obscure insignificance. But after two years there, I also knew that it was time to move on -- that like Brigadoon or Shangri-la, Nantucket has a way of making time disappear and leaving little to show for it other than enduring friendships and fading memories...which are generally considered good things, but which (as Odysseus discovered in the arms of Circe) have an addictive, dreamlike quality that can easily consume all other considerations.

In any event, left for the Island in a bit of a hurry, playing cat and mouse with boat schedules and a tropical storm...and returned to discover that in my haste to depart I had left my refrigerator door slightly ajar, which meant that much of my first night back home I spent throwing out spoiled food and cleaning up a puddle of warm water from my kitchen floor. Thursday I begin my career development consultation in Dedham -- the "25 year check-up" which was part of the original inspiration for this blog to begin with. Meanwhile, I've got a week's worth of work to catch up on in the next two days...and the "excessive heat warning" here in "America" begins at noon....

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

More Nails and a Bigger Hammer...

OK, first of all just let me say that I'm actually a big fan of the Big Dig. But I have the unusual experience of having left Boston in 1981 (just before it all got started) and returning again in 2003 (when the project was basically finished, if not completed). So I managed to miss most of the hassle and expense and controversy surrounding its construction, and simply get to compare "Before" and "After." And let me tell you, After is way better. Never mind how much easier it is to get in and out of the airport (not that I go to the airport that often anyway; and when I do, I still generally take the Blue Line when I can...or, better yet, ride the commuter rail into North Station, and then the water taxi to Logan). But even unfinished, the Rose Kennedy Greenway is a HUGE improvement over the John Fitzgerald Expressway. Even though the improved access has threatened to turn the entire North End into a giant summer frat party.

Over the past year or so, persistent water leaks in the various tunnels running under Boston Harbor have been a matter of great embarrassment for Big Dig Big Wigs, and likewise a matter of no little concern for those of us for whom the claustaphobic image of being drowned in our automobiles while simultaneously trapped and buried deep underground is just a little too vivid for comfort. And now comes an even more tangible danger: apparently the glue (that's right, epoxy is a glue) used to hold the three TON concrete ceiling panels to the ceiling of the tunnel isn't quite up to the job. Four of these panels have already come loose, killing a young woman in the process, and the subsequent political kerfuffle, blame passing, and finger pointing have risen to national proportions (mostly, it seems, because Republican Governor Mitt Romney has Presidential political aspirations, and is looking for an opportunity to appear strong and decisive by crucifying a scapegoat and then washing his hands of the matter).

But here's the thing that kills me. What is the proposed solution to this complicated engineering problem? Something worthy of my grandmother -- Basically, the governor's commission is recommending creating "redundancy" in the system by reinforcing the existing epoxied connectors with high tech hanger bolts similar to what one might use to hang a picture frame on dry wall. That's right: more nails and a bigger hammer. Damn! I KNEW I should have been an engineer....

Friday, July 14, 2006

For Whom the Bell Tolls

It's been raining furiously here the past few days, including buckets of hail...a perfect excuse for staying indoors and killing time with a good book. Or a good blog....

The current quotation in the Wayside Pulpit on the town green in front of the FRS Meetinghouse is a Danish Proverb: "A good example is like a bell that calls many to church." For five years now, first on Nantucket and now here in Carlisle, I've slept beneath a church bell that rings the hour all through the night. It never wakes me, nor keeps me awake...although it does sometimes remind me that I've stayed up reading well past my bedtime, or (more often) that even though I'm already awake I'm free to linger in bed for another hour before I need to get up and begin a new day.

On Nantucket, the clock was linked by GPS to the Royal Navel Observatory in Greenwich, England...which meant that it was accurate to within a thousandth of a second (or some absurdly small number). And beneath my bedroom window on Fair Street was the Meridian Line which Mariah Mitchell's father used to "true" the compasses of the Nantucket Whalers before they weighed anchor on their three-year voyages to the South Seas. So I always pretty much knew exactly where and when I was in the Universe. Or at least which way was "up."

Here in Carlisle, we do things the old fashioned way...with a mechanical clock, as well as a fire horn that sounds each day at noon -- sometimes (although not often) even as the bell is tolling. Of course, if we were truly "old school" we would simply wait until the sun was directly overhead and "make it noon." But the invention of Standard Time (in the 19th century) and Daylight Savings Time (in the 20th) pretty much put an end to that practice once and for all. Except, of course, at sea, where (at least until the widespread availability of GPS) the noon observation was the critical datapoint in determining one's latitude and longitude.

The Nantucket church bell was cast in Portugal and hidden from the British during the War of 1812 so that it wouldn't be stolen and melted down into...well, something martial. In addition to striking the hour, it also rings 52 times at 7 am, 12 noon, and 9 pm. These 52 rings (colloquially known On Island as "the fifty-twos") last precisely 3 minutes, and are also controlled by a computer chip, although originally 52 rings was simply a convenient way of measuring three minutes, and were intended to let Islanders know a) when it was time to get up, b) when it was time to break for lunch, and c) when it was time to go home to bed. Kids who grew up (or even "summered") on the island a generation ago often speak of how the tolling of the bell signaled their evening curfew...when they first heard it strike they basically had three minutes (or until the bell stopped tolling) to be home and under the watchful eyes of their parents again.

I don't really know that much about the history of the Carlisle bell, except that (as on Nantucket) the bell belongs to the church but the clock belongs to the town...a marriage of convenience between church and state, which in some ways mirrors our joint stewardship of the town common. When I first arrived here I initiated (or perhaps re-established) the practice of inviting children from the congregation to ring the bell before church on Sundays to signal the start of our 10:30 service. This was one of three small "innovations" I made to the service early in my tenure here (the other two being a 90 second "peace" greeting following the announcements, and eliminating the practice of announcing the titles or topics of my sermons in advance) and the only one which has survived the notoriously stiff-necked, hide-bound conservatism of long-established New England small town small church traditionalism (since the kids do love it so).

Another thing I've learned is that there are basically two ways to ring a bell: you can strike it, or you can swing it. When the town clock chimes the hour, it basically strikes the outside of the stationary bell with a mechanical hammer -- one strike for every sound. But when the kids ring the bell to summon people to church (or rather, to let them know that they are late) they pull on a bellrope which moves the bell and causes the suspended clapper to strike against the inside of the bell. One thing you NEVER want to do is both of these things at the same time, since allowing the mechanical hammer to attempt to strike a moving bell is definitely NOT a good idea. Just a little safety tip, in case you ever find yourself in that position.

When I first started writing this post (yesterday morning), I had intended to continue my little rumination regarding the respective qualities of the church and the military as institutions of social advancement and social control. But naturally, tempus fugit (or perhaps I should say, tempest fugit), and now I find I have more pressing demands on my time. So I guess if you really want to see what I have to say on that subject you may have to wait another day. Or two. Or maybe three.... Ask not for whom the bell tolls my friends. It tolls for us all....