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.