Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Another Episode of "God, Inc"

These continue to just crack me up. IMHO Episode Five is the best one yet. In the meantime, let's all pray to the primordial enchantress for a divine spell to encourage converts....

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Here's another fine mess you've gotten us into....

OK, maybe this isn't that funny outside of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. But it's got me rolling down both sides of the aisle....

Creatures of Habit

My little dog Parker (generally known around here as "Theadorable Parker") is very much a creature of habit. Especially first thing in the morning, there are certain rituals and routines which MUST be observed -- when she gets up, when she goes out, where she goes, how long she stays, what she expects to find waiting for her in the way of treats and breakfast when she gets back. Deviate from this drill even in the slightest, and she's sure to let you know about it. Loudly.

Of course, like most dogs, Parker is also a very effective "single instance learner," which means that it is also possible for the routine to change dramatically based on experience. For example, a few months ago her vet prescribed a round of antibiotics for Lymes. The first day we wrestled in the kitchen for about 10 minutes before that pill went down, and the next morning when she came in from doing her morning business she ran straight upstairs and hid under my desk rather than coming into the kitchen for another before-breakfast wrestling match. So I started crushing the pills and mixing them in with her food; now the new ritual is when I come back upstairs with my coffee, she goes back downstairs to eat her breakfast...and to take her medicine without knowing even knowing it.

They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but I know for a fact this isn't true. The tricky part is teaching them the tricks you want them to know, rather than the other way around. To teach a dog you need to learn to think like a dog, and to shape and motivate their behavior in ways that make sense to THEM. Dogs are very clever animals. But like any other animal, they relate best to a changing world on their own, familiar terms.

What does all of this have to do with anything about ministry, you ask? Good question. Some years ago church consultant Lyle Schaller developed a clever way of describing congregations of different sizes as "Cats," "Collies," "Gardens" and "Ranches." Gardens and Ranches are both organizations of organisms, rather than organisms in their own right, and need to be understood in that context. Cats are small and independent creatures; they like to be fed, petted and admired, but apart from that pretty much prefer to be left alone. Collies, on the other hand, (standing for the Pastoral-sized congregation of approximately 100 households, give or take), love to be loved, trained, exercised and praised by the leader of the pack, to whom they look for both nourishment and direction.

Collies are eager to please; but without proper training, they can also become quite rambunctious and unruly. And even more than cats (who tend to act by instinct), they are very much creatures of habit, who can often become quite set in their ways, especially as the result of a single bad experience. A well-trained collie will sit, stay, heel, fetch, follow you anywhere without a leash, and go for help when you fall down a well. But an untrained collie is a danger to itself and others -- a critter who chases cats up trees and digs up budding gardens without a second thought, and then comes home wagging its tail and looking for rewards and approval. And the problem is not the dog. The problem is the lack of training.

Moving away from the metaphor for a moment, the Pastoral-sized church is under a lot of pressure these days. Not only is it the most labor-intensive type of church for clergy to serve, but the financial realities of modern American society are also making it increasingly difficult for a congregation of 100 households to employ a full-time, seminary-educated pastor at a living wage. Seminary students who learned their trade in the ranches and gardens of "teaching" congregations can usually (after a few scratched fingers) figure out how to feed a cat, but learning how to train a dog (especially an old dog) to perform at the same level of excellence as a rancher's border collie is often beyond them, and thus merely a futile exercise in mutual frustration. It's one thing to bark out a few commands and watch dogs trained by others herd the errant sheep back into the fold. It's quite another to be able to train a dog to do that by yourself, and not be bitten a few times in the process. The key to successfully training a dog is to earn their love AND their respect, their loyalty AND their obedience, and to direct their natural desire to feel comfortable knowing their familiar place in the pack in such a way that pleasing you pleases them.

So (returning once more to matters of ministry) how do we learn to do this? How the hell should I know? I'm a historian, not the Dog Whisperer. But I do know this. Many of the people attending our churches these days did not grow up in one, and lack much of the old-fashioned cultural familiarity with "the ways of church" that their parents and grandparents took for granted. And the same is also true of many of our clergy. Instead, we come to our participation in church with all sorts of norms and expectations formed in other places -- work, school, the "school of hard knocks" -- which may or may not be appropriate to an ecclesiastical context. Exaggerated clerical expectations of professional privilege and entitlement run head-long into the customer service expectations of 'consumer religion," where the desire for "free, perfect and now" is only fueled by a broader societal reality of "the best quality available, wholesale and overnight." We can talk and talk until we are blue in the face about "mission" and "covenant" and "a culture of generosity," but for most folks a contract is a contract, and they want what they want at the least possible cost. After all, we are all creatures of habit. Why should Sunday be any different than any other day of the week?....

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Out of the Mouths of Babes

"It's a blessing we were born,
and it matters what we do,
What we know about god
is a piece of the truth,
Let the beauty we love
be what we do,
And we don't have to do it alone."

These are the lyrics to a song written for “Chalice Camp,” a Unitarian Universalist summer day camp created by Laila Ibrahim and the Reverend Sheri Prud'homme for six to twelve year-olds in California’s Pacific Central District. I learned about Chalice Camp from Jory Agate at our last Mass Bay District UUMA meeting, and was delighted by how well these simple words written for children expressed the lessons I've been trying to teach to grown-ups for the last quarter-century.

Laila and Sheri are both members of the First Unitarian Church in Oakland, and Sheri is also an associate faculty member at the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley. Chalice Camp was developed around a philosophy of using accessible theological language to help our youngsters become better able to understand and articulate their connection to our larger faith tradition in a environment that was fun, utilized “multiple learning modes,” and which offered the kids an opportunity “to have deep and lasting connections with each other.” Yet often “out of the mouths of babes” come important insights worthy for us all.

“It’s a blessing we were born...” None of us actually asked to be born, and none of us really deserve to be here either. Yet through grace, luck, or perhaps simply an accident of nature, here we are, and now it’s up to us to make something of ourselves. The gift of life is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as well as a blessing -- not only for ourselves, but for all those whose lives we touch in a positive and meaningful way.

“It matters what we do...” The things we choose to do with our lives are important, and again not only for ourselves. In a very real sense, we are a part of the Universe which can think, and feel, and then act in ways that either make the world better or make it worse. Our decisions have consequences, which often last well beyond our own lifetimes.

“What we know about god is a piece of the truth...” Let’s face facts. Nobody knows ALL the answers. But each of us, if we try, can at least cultivate a little insight into our own lives, and perhaps a little empathy for the experiences of others. Simply learning to be slow to judge and quick to forgive can do wonders for improving the quality of our relationships with one another, and eventually lead us all to a deeper understanding of the bigger picture.

“Let the beauty we love be what we do...” Listen to your passion. Follow your bliss. How many times have you heard that in your life? So what are you waiting for?

“...and we don’t have to do it alone.” The blessings of family, friendship, community and society itself all provide deeper meaning and a broader context to the blessing of our own existence. Once again, none of us have perfect relationships, and often times many of our most significant relationships can be quite difficult and troubling. But even so, we don’t have to do it alone. With over six and a half billion people on the planet, it would be hard to do so even if we wanted to.

Take these simple thoughts to heart, and let them guide your lives. Just because profound ideas can be printed on the back of tee-shirts or sung aloud by children doesn’t make them any less profound.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Thick Hide, Thicker Head...

Thank God I was watching the Patriots defeat the Chargers (and then the Ducks defeat the Wildcats), so I blissfully missed having to watch the President moviing his lips last night on "60 Minutes." But for what it's worth, I think someone needs to explaino to our fearless leader that this war is not a football game, and that his half-time pep-talk rhetoric is starting to sound a little stale.

I understand that the President has gotten our nation into a tough spot in Iraq. Like his father, I understood it before it even started, and said so out loud at the time. But lets face facts, this time the Supreme Court isn't able to give him a "do over." And more of the same is only going to dig us deeper and deeper into the same old hole.

Abu Ghraib was a mistake. "Bring it On" was a mistake. Great. I'm supposed to feel REASSURED because the President finally understands this? This whole war was a mistake; this whole Presidency has been one long mistake -- and just so there's no misunderstanding on this point, Mr Bush is not going to be able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in Iraq with a long, Hail Mary pass or a last-second field goal.

Rather, he somehow needs to understand that he's been playing bin Laden's game from the moment he decided that this was a "War on Terror," and that the path to "victory" was to "get tough" and fight fire with fire.

Mr President, if Karl Rove taught you nothing, he should have at least helped you see that you can't win a pissing match with a skunk. You will never defeat Al Queda on their own terms, because they will ALWAYS be willing to go one step further than we are.

And the mistake is not refusing to take the next step.

The mistake was taking the first one....

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

God, Inc.

So, is this what we have to look forward to in the afterlife?

Friday, January 05, 2007

New Leaves

The beginning of a New Year is a traditional time for turning over a new leaf. And somewhere on the list of most popular New Years Resolutions, well below losing weight, getting in shape, quitting smoking and being more responsible about money, you’ll find “Attend Church More Frequently.”

There are all sorts of good reasons for NOT attending church. It feels good to sleep late on Sunday morning, to linger over coffee with the Sunday paper, or just to spend a little more time at home with the family. And besides, who needs to sing hymns or listen to a sermon when you can always feel inspired by reading poetry, or taking a long walk through the woods?

But notwithstanding all of these excellent excuses, here are five good reasons for attending church more regularly BESIDES listening to a sermon...

1) It’s a great opportunity to catch up with your friends. Sure, there’s always the transfer station. But how much time do you really want to spend socializing with your “neighbors and fellow creatures” while sorting through your garbage? Church is warm, dry, and out of the weather. Plus it smells better....

2) It’s a great opportunity to let your friends catch up with you. Authentic Community is a two-way street. It’s about mutual give and take. To have a friend you need to be a friend, and do unto others as you would have others do unto you. What better place to practice these important principles, if not at church?

3) It sets a good example for your children. And your spouse. Church is traditionally one of civilization’s most family-friendly activities. Don’t let coming to church compete with quality family time. MAKE it quality family time!

4) There’s free food. OK, maybe if losing weight is also one of your New Year’s Resolutions, this isn’t the most persuasive reason for attending church. But for what it’s worth, there’s free food.

5) It is a perfect, unquestionably socially-acceptable excuse for spending a little quality time “alone in the company of the solitude of your own thought.” Just because someone is preaching a sermon doesn’t mean you actually have to listen. Some of the most inspiring worship services I have ever attended were in churches where I couldn’t even understand the language of the sermon, much less the message. Daydreaming in church is not only acceptable, it is a time-honored tradition both universally tolerated and widely encouraged (provided, of course, that you don’t draw too much attention to the fact by disturbing the other daydreamers).

Most folks come to church already knowing the sermon they need to hear that day. Being in church simply gives you a chance to listen to the wisdom of your own thoughts. You can always go back and read the text of my sermon on-line later if you’re so inclined. That's why I post them on the website. There are lots of churches where I doubt anyone would attend regularly if they actually paid close attention to what the preacher was saying. Why should a UU church be any different?

In her novel The Color Purple, Alice Walker has one of her characters say: “Be honest, have you ever found God in church? I haven’t. I have only found a bunch of people hoping He would show himself to them. The only God I have ever felt in church I had brought along myself. I think other people do the same. The come to church to share God, not to find Him....”

I’ll confess, as a preacher I like it when you come to church. When you’re not there on Sunday morning, I miss you. And so does everyone else. It’s really just as simple as that. Most of the time I’m too shy (or too polite) to call you up and ask you where you’ve been. And I certainly don’t mean to embarrass anyone, or put you on the spot. But don’t kid yourself. When you aren’t in your seat on Sunday morning, people notice. And we’re sad....

So do yourself and all your friends a favor, and resolve to come to church more regularly in 2007. You’ll be happier for it. And so will all of us. You can read poetry or walk in the woods any old time. But Sunday Morning only happens once a week.

See you in church.....