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Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

We’re Better Off Together

This sermon, is part two of my Exploration of the 5 Smooth Stones. Before starting this sermon I read a lengthy section from a James Luther Adams essay called Our Response in Society. 

During the Sermon I have an extended reading from Eboo Patel’s book Acts of Faith, and will reference it often as I explore the question of why do some choose a violent path.


Early on in my work with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson I would have to confront a basic question from good natured believers of a differing theology. When I explained the lack of theological homogeneity (as it refers to the existence of God) of our collective, I would no doubt be met with blank stares and then the question, “So you’re not really a church?” Early on I was dumbfounded when met with this question because I had work to do, I didn’t know how to enter into a dialogue that would begin with, “Church, I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”


Parting the Veil: Lessons from the Threadbare Season

In Defense of Religon

Since coming to the Unitarian Universalist Church I have meditated often on reclaiming theological language, I have enjoyed getting to write sermons and blog posts about things like faith, hope, redemption, and salvation. These words have deep theological history and meaning but over the years have been overwhelmed by religious baggage. At the end of the day these ideas are still relevant but we have to be responsible about the way we use them. For me reclaiming a theological heritage that has been hijacked by one group is paramount in the study of theology. And though I would never take away their right to use these terms narrowly it doesn’t mean I have to give them up either.

During the late 90’s into the 2000’s the statement I’m not religious I’m spiritual became popular. The goal of this article is not an incitement of the people who make this statement but to ask the question what is religion? It is an important question because within the culture the terms religion and religious are often spat out like bad fish. So this post will ask, what is this religion we do not want to associate with? It is important to explore this because the current aversion to religion makes clear one basic truth religion is failing people. The second question we will discuss in the latter half of the article is, what is spirituality? Finally we will explore a different understanding of true religion.

I find it easier to understand the negative usage of the term through a series of basic images. The first that comes to mind is luxury. The preacher makes six figures and has even more hidden off shore. The church has an IMAX Theater and gift shop that sells little crosses that say things like Faith, Hope, and Love, with the name of the church printed on the stand. This church, feeding off of its congregants, looks beautiful, and makes us feel even better while we are inside, whether it positively effects and represents its community or not doesn’t matter, but it sure is sparkly.

The next Image is described by the word Mask. The preacher, the elders, the staff, they are not what they seem to be. They all have their own sins that stay hidden. The congregants are the same. They act one way in church and a different way at home or at work. They talk about helping the poor, but take few actions, they mention freedom but rest in control. This church is not about making the community better, but about making its members look better. In fact they all live somewhere else and drive in. They revel in the theology, “Do what I say not what I do.”

The last image I will use is described by the phrase, out of touch. This gospel was for another time. It doesn’t take into account the world in which we live. The congregants aren’t part of the neighborhood like they were when the church was founded, they rest behind gates both in their communities and the church itself keeping the neighborhood from finding its way in. The curriculum screams 1972, and the music no longer has depth. And if you don’t like it they will be happy to quote Hebrew 8 that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Their god doesn’t like you, and chances are they don’t either, just keep walking.

I suspect there are many people who would not feel accepted in the places I just described. These places are unfeeling, disconnected, and unaccepting. They only care about their issues and they don’t want to change anything because they are afraid of change. These churches are all about what they look like, not what they do. They are luxurious, out of touch places where people where masks. And these practices have been the defining factor of religion for a few decades now. So prevalent in fact that people stopped using the word all together.

But what I find most important about these images is that they are caricatures not real. Don’t get me wrong there are some frustrating churches out there but most churches I walk into, even the out of touch ones with which we don’t agree, are full of people who struggle with life and do the best they can. The descriptions I have given, I do not believe. In fact, I would call them inappropriate and judgmental. If I were to explain them to a copy of myself seriously I would respond with the statement, “Who made you their god, and who gives you the right to judge them?” Though it is these images we use to describe religion as “everything that is wrong with faith.”

Now we have to look at the other side of the matter, spirituality. Merriam Webster defines the word spiritual simply as relating to a person’s spirit. That’s a nice definition and I like it, but will expand on it because I am a minister and that is what I do. Spirituality relates to our individuality, it is a part of who we are as a people. It is our communion with our spirit, and it relates to our core. We all have spiritual practices, many of them are personal, and they all help us understand our meaning and purpose. We do not seek to infringe on someone else’s spirituality with rules and regulations, they can be as orderly or chaotic as one like. Being spiritual is freeing, no one else can say how it should be done for you, but sometime we need others.

Spirituality is very personal, and we choose how much of our personal spirituality to share, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be spiritual together and when we are spiritual together we have to talk about guidelines and basic rules that help us treat each other with respect, which brings us to religion. Religion, when appropriate, becomes a vehicle for spirituality, it is a part of but not the whole. However, religion cannot exist without spiritual people. Religious practice then offers an opportunity to be spiritual together. When we light the chalice, sing together, share joys and concerns, and listen to a sermon, we are being spiritual and since we are doing it together we are being religious too.

Originally the two words were synonyms, but the movement to be spiritual but not religious changed that. I don’t think that was a negative change I think it better helps us understand who we are and our part in the community. It helps us bring a very personal thing into our relationships with others in a way that benefits everyone but protects who we are. Because of this multiple decade conversation I can say very clearly I am a religious person, but I could not be one if I was not first spiritual.

Religion doesn’t have to be close minded, hateful, and set in the old ways. Religion should be as vibrant as the people who practice it, and we as UUs are a very vibrant people, with many different traditions. But when religion becomes a negative force I question then whether it is truly religion anymore. The book of James describes true and faultless religion to be one that looks after orphans and widows. We expand this as UU’s but keep the core of the verse, religion should be about the things we do to make the world better not about making us look better. Once it stops being that it stops being true.

Spiritual Themes in Earth Day

A few years ago I watched a youtube video especially dedicated to Earth Day. The man in the video started a gas blower and set it down, then he started a gas weed eater and set it down, then he started a push mower (remember all these things are still running) then a ride-on mower, then his car, and his truck. At the bottom of the screen flashed the words “Happy Earth Day.” The creator of the video was making an obvious statement. He did not support the ideals of Earth Day, and obviously didn’t accept the concept of climate change. This offended my sensibilities. I remember driving an old car with no air conditioner on I-240 in Memphis, Tennessee, reading signs that said, “Smog Warning: Leave Your Windows Up.”

As Unitarian Universalists, we articulate very clearly our ideals through our principles, specifically the 7th principle:

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

This principle reminds us that that we are part of this world and this world is a part of us. We should, therefore, care for the world so it can care for us. However, even before coming to the Unitarian Universalist Church, taking care of the planet was a spiritual issue for me. Every year around Earth Day when I had the chance to preach a sermon I showed pictures of the great Pacific garbage patch, smog warnings, and oil-covered ducks. Of course, I didn’t start there–I started with the Hebrew Bible.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”-Genesis 1:28

Coming near the end of the creation narrative, this statement defines the roll of man in the new creation. Upon a simple read, it doesn’t say much, the only thing that really ever stuck out to me is the word “subdue.” The word in Hebrew is generally used during war–in referencing the control of something hostile. In this case, there is nothing hostile working against Adam and Eve. They are working in congruence. Quite simply put, “you are in charge.” The next word that sticks out is “rule” (or to have dominion over). This is not being used in a violent context. In essence, humanity is set up as steward of creation. There is nothing violent here. Humanity is never asked to fight against creation but to care for it. In fact, it is one of the oldest commands in the Hebrew Bible. In this context, the world will be shaped by humans and it will reflect their own nature. Later, as we move through Genesis into Noah’s narrative, we find that reflection to be found wanting.

Some Unitarian Universalists, however, don’t really give much precedence to a biblical or Christian argument. We have been presented with scientific studies that inform our cultural milieu in regard to environmentally sound solutions and that is fine. However, I still think it is important to know. I think it is important because as we study the political landscape we often find that those who oppose earth friendly solutions are often aligned with the political/religious right, and in that context, it often means Christians. If we look upon the recent history of our planet, we clearly see that human beings, since their rise to power, have shaped this earth.

Even more importantly it creates a spiritual alignment that connects most religious belief systems; that is, we are connected (or maybe interconnected) spiritually to the world around us and all things dwelling above and below it. Spiritually, we are part of the whole, we are interdependent, which means we are individual and corporate at the same time. In fact, whether one believes they are created in God’s image or not, the responsibility to our home is the same. If in fact one believes this world was created “good,” wouldn’t that mean we should try to keep it that way? Sometimes I struggle working with people with that worldview as they ignored smog and pollution. They ignored species after species becoming extinct and the destruction of the forests necessary to provide us oxygen. I always struggled to understand how any person, religious or not, could look upon the earth we created and call it good.


In the Attics of My Life

Some nights I sit in my home office to write. I might be writing a sermon or even a blog post. Sometimes my fingers hover ever so motionlessly over the keys of my keyboard. Some days I lack inspiration. Growing up, when this happened I went to the hymnal. The hymnal was full of so many subjects ordered in a way that spoke, in song, directly to my spirit. A hymn is defined as “a song of praise, or a religious song; a synonym might be canticle, or carol.”

Early in my practice as a chaplain I noticed more songs beginning to fill the place of hymn in my mind. More and more, I found that music spoke to me in a different language and very much, a different voice. Even in my home my habit of listening to music has become very much a practice. I recently pulled my vinyl records and I would sit to listen to them in whole, without break; not as background music but the foreground of life. I have started the spiritual practice of chronicling this procedure–writing down my experience.

I notice that when I need inspiration my fingers walk over the tops of my records and often stop at one in particular. I take that record and often place it is on its “B” side. Then the sound of the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty overtakes me. I close my eyes, open my ears not just to the words, but the music and the harmony.

And we sing together–the record and me:

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung,
Would you hear my voice come thru the music,
Would you hold it near as it were you own?
Robert Hunter (The Grateful Dead)

This song speaks to me–not just because it is AMAZING but also because I have an emotional connection to a specific human being that is forged forever in this song. He has long passed, but this song provides conversation, remembrance, and a reminder as to why I work where I work, believe what I believe, and dream the things I dream. It settles me, resets me, and clears out the gunk that stops me from writing. The whole album does that. The words have become to me like scripture, the images like icons for my own theology. The songs are hymns that speak.

Perhaps you know another song that will say it better. So I will leave you with a song but I want you to answer a question when it is done–what songs, hymns, and spiritual songs drive you to be a better person?

In the attics of my life,
full of cloudy dreams unreal.
Full of tastes no tongue can know,
and lights no eyes can see.

When there was no ear to hear,
you sang to me.

I have spent my life seeking all that’s still unsung.
Bent my ear to hear the tune,
and closed my eyes to see.

When there was no strings to play,
you played to me.

In the book of love’s own dream,
where all the print is blood.

Where all the pages are my days,
and all the lights grow old.

When I had no wings to fly,
you flew to me, you flew to me.

In the secret space of dreams,
where I dreaming lay amazed.

When the secrets all are told,
and the petals all unfold.

When there was no dream of mine,
you dreamed of me.
Robert Hunter (The Grateful Dead)

What We Lose in the Debate

I would assume many of you who follow or read this blog know about the debate that took place Tuesday night between Bill Nye and Ken Ham at the Museum for Creation Science in Petersburg, Kentucky. The event was well attended and live-streamed on the Internet. Bill Nye represented a side that said the earth came into being through a multi-billion year process, whereas Ken Ham argued that the earth came into being through a six-day creative process invoked by the God of “The Bible.” Both sides outlined their viewpoint, articulated their evidence (as they saw it), and probably didn’t convince anyone listening of anything new. I would guess that most people watching were already set on how they felt.

I suspect most Unitarian Universalists went to bed feeling that Bill Nye articulated well the right view and probably won the debate, as I suspect evangelical Christians went to bed feeling the same thing toward Ken Ham.

That doesn’t mean the debate was fruitless. Both debaters acted civilly toward one another and articulated clearly their views. It is necessary to model communication without name-calling and fighting.

But I got something else out of the debate. My questions for Ham would have come from the realm of theology not science, in fact it didn’t sound as if Ham was conversant with the Hebrew text, and when converting theology to science you might as well start with the original text. But the problem is when anyone tries to fit theological text into a scientific mold, we lose something very important–soul. In fact turning Genesis into a scientific text waters down the great theology that can be derived.

Genesis 1 and 2 is a piece of beautifully crafted literature. The words were not chosen simply or quickly. There was redaction and obvious work done to weave the beauty of humanity, ethics, and morality into the world. Humanity is created in this story and placed into an important role–that of steward. We were made, planted onto this earth to care for it, the world was good, we were good, and when we are good, good things happen. But the flood teaches us that the world will reflect our work–even when the work is not so good.

The first chapter of the creation story actually tells a wonderful story about the conversion of chaos into beauty. When I first read the story in Hebrew, it reminded me of something Michelangelo had said about sculpting marble. He didn’t add things, he just removed the parts that weren’t supposed to be there. In the creation story, life is art. I will never forget the first time I read the creation story in Hebrew–it completely changed my understanding.

It wasn’t about days, it was about hearts; it wasn’t about structures, it was about majesty; it wasn’t about science, it was about soul. I can theologically argue why I think this text is being misused, but I fear if I do that I become part of the problem.

In Genesis, God breathes into our nostrils, into our souls, makes us special, pointing out that the spirit of life is our spirit, and the poetry of our days remind us that all good things require work. That is just fine for someone like me.