Thursday, August 16, 2012

How do I make sense of this?

I want to teach myself to play French Horn again, and jazz horn at that . . .
. . . and the recorder
. . . the harmonica
. . . the bagpipes
. . . the trumpet
. . . and the guitar a little.

I want to make masks and art pieces again . . .
. . . and do photography
. . . and cross stitch
. . . and start carving wood.

I want to take up juggling again . . .
. . . and start jogging
. . . and weight lifting
. . . and tai chi
. . . and bicycling
. . . and unicycling
. . . and walking a tight rope
. . . and hiking in the woods.

I want to study the work of Joseph Campbell . . .
. . . and the new cosmology
. . . and writing
. . . and nutrition/health
. . . and coaching
. . . and the theology of Tielhard de Chardin.

I want to write more of the books I have ideas for . . .
. . . and articles
. . . and slam poetry
. . . and keep my blog up to date.

I want an active prayer life . . .
. . . and to practice a simple life
. . . and to work for justice
. . . and to have balance -- and peace.

I want to earn my living as a writer and public speaker . . .
. . . and a spiritual director/life coach/pastoral counselor
. . . and a church consultant and workshop leader
. . . and, of course, in doing what it is I'm doing right now, right where I'm already doing it.
I want to go fishing with Lester . . .
. . . and build train layouts with Theo
. . . and go on dates with Mary
. . . and have some time with myself
. . . and God.
How do I make sense of all of this?
I don't know.
And yet, I think there's a clue in that "simple life" and that "balance" I'm looking for.  This is way too much for any one lifetime.  The Renaissance was a long time ago, and even then there weren't all that many Renaissance Men.  Perhaps if I were Duncan MacLeod of the clan MacLeod, or one of his ilk, I could make my way through this list. 
But I have . . . maybe . . . another fifty years.  And I guess that means I have some choices to make.  My dad always said to "keep your options open," but that makes it kind of hard to choose.  A "yes" to this is a "no" to that.  (Or, at least a "not yet.")  If it's true that "when one door closes another opens" -- and, for that matter, even if it's not -- it's also true that "when one door opens most of the others close."
"Discernment" it was once called -- the ability to choose between this and that.  This seems to be getting more difficult in this "on demand" world.
Good luck to us all.
In Gassho,

Monday, August 13, 2012

Are You DAF?

On Friday my post made reference to a new position being created here at the congregation I serve -- the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist of Charlottesville, Virginia.  It's called The Director of Administration and Finance.

Today I want to write a little more about it, because it's more than just a new position -- it's the beginning of a new way for us to be doing church.  And I'm excited!

The kinds of faith communities I am most familiar with -- and TJMC is no exception -- are voluntary associations.  While the ordained clergy person -- aka, "the Minister" -- may often be seen and even act as a de facto Chief Operating Officer, the real power, the real authority is held by the Board of Trustees as delegated by the congregation.  It is the congregation -- the individual members joined together in common cause -- that really, ultimately, "runs the show."

That means that congregants -- both "formal" members and dedicated "friends" -- do an awful lot of things that are primarily focused on institutional health and maintenance.  And let's face it . . . these things are not always particularly conducive to deepening one's spiritual life or transforming society.  But they need to be done.

As congregations mature, there is a tendency for them to become aware of this tension and often respond by bringing on professional staff to take responsibility for the things that members either don't want to or really can't do effectively or efficiently.  (As one example, when volunteers are responsible for all of the administrative functions of the institution the quite natural and desirable turnover of leadership creates a challenge in holding on to long-term institutional memory.)

Several years ago the TJMC community recognized it's growing maturity and began to evolve what had been a "church secretary" position into a role that has been called the Congregational Administrator.  A lot of extra responsibility was added to the position but, to be honest, not a whole lot of additional authority.  (This is a bit of a digression, but that's not too atypical an experience in churches -- individuals and groups being given responsibility without the concomitant authority.  Therein lie many, many a churches problems.)

During this past year a truly dedicated band of folks worked to assess the staffing needs of our congregation.  They interviewed staff and key volunteers.  They reviewed job descriptions.  They identified the various tasks that are currently being performed, or that need to be yet aren't.  And they asked, "how could this multiplicity of tasks be accomplished in the most effective and efficient way?"  The report they delivered to the Board, and which has been formally adopted now, is a really exciting vision of church that is growing into greater maturity.

One aspect of this vision is the continued evolution of the "church secretary," then "congregational administrator," into a Director of Administration and Finance.  This new position will take on much of the responsibility for the day-to-day administrative and financial functions of our community and will have the authority to do so.  Responsible directly to the Board of Trustees, the Director of Administration and Finance (DAF) will not have to check each and every decision through web of committees, councils, and strong personalities.  She or he will be given the authority to actually do the things we ask of them!

The Board has created a search committee, and this committee is now actively advertising this new opportunity widely.  It is hoped that we will be able to have interviews in September, with a start date in October.  If you know of anyone who would be -- or should be! -- interested in this position, please pass along the ad below.

This is an exciting first step of a tremendously exciting journey that will assist our congregation to be more fully what I've described as "a total-immersion language school of the soul."  (See my book Serving With Grace:  lay leadership as a spiritual practice for more on this metaphor for congregational life.)

I think that this is going to be an exciting year!

In Gassho,


Director of Administration and Finance
Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church – Unitarian Universalist
Charlottesville, VA

Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church – Unitarian Universalist (TJMC-UU) seeks a Director of Administration and Finance, starting at 30 hours per week, beginning in October 2012, to manage the administrative and financial functions of the Church under the direction of the President of the Board of Trustees.  Will oversee the daily operations of the Church business office, and supervise administrative staff, working closely with the Minister.  Responsibilities include: office management; budget preparation, controller duties, and financial management; oversight of IT operations; and facilities management. 

Qualifications: A degree in business administration and/or five years of managerial or significant professional experience in a non-profit (preferably religious) or a not-for-profit organization.  Excellent communication and interpersonal skills required.  Flexible office hours with some evening and weekend meetings and activities.  Background check required.

Salary based on professional standards and applicant qualifications.  Salary range: up to $ 30,938, with benefits.  Closing date: August 31, 2012   Please submit resumes and two references by email to:  For more information, call 434-205-4087.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Who Made MeThe Jell-O Sheriff?

On one of Bill Cosby's early records he said something that has become legendary among his fans, and thanks to his years as a Jell-O pitchman among others as well.  I first heard it, actually, from a dear friend during my summer camp days. 

It's a question, really.  The kind of question you ask when someone acts like they've got some kind of authority you don't agree they have (like, for instance, when your brother catches you stealing the last pudding in the 'fridge.) 

"Who made you the Jell-O Sheriff?"

I've been thinking about this lately in relationship to my role in the church I serve and, for that matter, when I think of the role people like me play in congregations all over the place.  Yes, I am an ordained minister who has attained final fellowship within my ministerial association.  I have fifteen years of experience in parish ministry.  And I was duly called (by a unanimous vote!) by the good people of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist

But who made me the Jell-O Sheriff?

During this past year a great deal of work by a really marvelous task force went into a series of recommendations for the staffing of our congregation. One piece of this rather exciting whole is a new position -- the Director of Administration and Finance.

It's been decided that the Director of Administration and Finance will not report to me, the Lead Minister.  Rather, she or he will report directly to the Board.  Some thought that the Lead Minister should be the supervisor of this new position, as the ordained clergy person in many, if not most, of our congregations functions something like a CEO.  What finally swayed the day was the argument that one reason for creating the Director of Administration and Finance was to take those sorts of things off the plate of the Lead Minister, and if I was the supervisor of this new staff person we would, essentially, be putting all of that stuff back on my plate again.

In terms of an organization chart, then, the Director of Administration and Finance and the Lead Minister are on the same level, each of us with our own particular area of focus -- one on the "administrative" side of the church and the other on the "program" or, as some people would like to put it, the "spiritual" side of things.  Co-equal.

It makes sense, does'nt it?  And yet when I talk about it with folks -- lay people, other clergy colleagues -- especially if I use that word "co-equal" a lot of people freak out a bit.  It seems that there is an underlying assumption that the ordained minister should be the person who is ultimately in charge.

But why?  Who made us the Jell-O sheriffs?  What part of my divinity school training prepared me to run a non-profit organization?  What part made me an expert in religious education, or finance, or even volunteer coordination?  Do you want to know something about Biblical exegesis or church history, then I'm your man.  (Although you'd better come quick because a lot of that stuff is fading fast!)  But if you want to know about these other things then I've got to admit that while I've picked up a lot over the years pretty much I'm winging it.

So why not have a Director of Administration and Finance at the same organizational level as a Lead Minister?  (We might even change the later title to Director of Ministries.)  After all, isn't the congregation the ultimate authority in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, with much of that authority delegated to the Board of Trustees?  And since we already have a Director of Lifespan Faith Development, why not bring that position in line with the other "directorships" while we're at it?  And then there's the Director of Music . . .

In the movie The Big Chill there's a scene in which William Hurt's character has just said something that really shocked and upset his friends.  He replies, in his defense, "I was just trying to keep the conversation lively."  Perhaps it was my recent experience at the Canadian Unitarian Council's Spiritual Leadership Symposium, at which I was engaged to be a provocateur, but that is really what this post is about, too . . . keeping the conversation lively.

And so . . . let the conversation commence!

In Gassho,


Thursday, August 09, 2012

This preaching thing

This is a piece for all my preaching colleagues, all the folks -- both lay and ordained -- who get into a pulpit or in some other way come before a gathered community and attempt to say something meaningful.

Each Sunday at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia there is a time during our offering when folks are invited to text and tweet and update their FB statuses as a way to reach out to those not in the room with us.  Yes, folks are encouraged to go digital -- we consider it another expression of the offering. 

This past Sunday, here's part of what I wrote on our FaceBook page:

"This preaching thing is not always easy . . ."

It's not always easy, is it preaching pals?
This past week, for example, I had an idea, a vision, of what I wanted the sermonic exploration to feel like.  And it just wouldn't come.  I tried several different approaches, and each time I hit a new wall.  I just couldn't bring into existence what was so intangibly present in my head.

One of the elements I was weaving into the homiletic tapestry was the anniversary of Philippe Petit's legendary 1974 high wire walk between the Twin Towers in New York City.  Watching the film Man on Wire again I was reminded that Monsieur Petit and his accomplices had made an attempt to stage le coup once earlier, before that incredibly August day.  They tried, but they weren't ready.  They couldn't get the vision grounded enough (and, yes, that pun was intended), couldn't create what they could see, and, so, they postponed.  That's what I did this past Sunday -- postponed the experience I so want to create for a time when I'm really ready to do it.
This preaching thing is not always easy.

In the days since I have had another reflection on why this vocation of preaching can be so difficult.  I was listening to the incredibly Playing for Change CD Songs Around the World.  One of the tracks is a really lovely choral interpretation of the Bono/Bob Dylan song "Love Rescue Me."  The second verse really jumped out at me:

Many strangers have I met / on the road to my regret . . .

Okay, maybe that one doesn't really resonate all that much.  At least the "road to my regret" part.  But doing this ministry thing I have met a whole lot of folks who were strangers to me, at least when we met.  That's a part of it all, isn't it?  We who preach put ourselves out there in front of folks we know and folks we don't.  And even the folks we know may be in some place that's different for them this week than we've known them before.  And as Woody Allen's character said in The Front, "can we ever say we really know anybody?"

Many lost who seek to find themselves in me . . .
There was a parishioner in the first congregation I served who said this nicely.  "Clergy," he said, "are walking rorschach tests on which people project their feelings about religion."  Over time, of course, we cease being such strangers to our congregations, and they to us.  We get to know one another.  And, yet, it's honest to admit that there's a whole lot of projection going on . . . again, in both directions.  People look at their preacher and see not only her or him but also what we want them to be; what we think they should be; what all of our previous exposures to preachers, and church, and religion lead us to expect of them.  Folks see to find themselves in our sermons.

They ask me to reveal / The very thoughts they would conceal . . .
And this might be the hardest part of all.  The Rev. Ken Patton once wrote a sermon titled "The Prostitution of the Clergy."  He said that preachers are, in some ways at least, like prostitutes who, he noted, sell something precious -- their bodies and their sexuality -- for money.  Clergy, he said, sell something precious as well -- their spiritual lives.  The song hadn't been written yet, of course, but I think Patton would have agreed with Bono -- our congregations often ask us to reveal the very thoughts that they, themselves, would rather not express out loud, they ask us to go places, to look at things, that they would rather avoid.

This preaching thing is not always easy.

Love rescue me
 And that's the prayer, isn't it?  When overwhelemed by the enormity of the task, it does us well to look to that spirit of love, that spirit of life, which both holds us close and sets us free.  This preaching thing is not always easy, but it is so worthwhile.

In Gassho,


Wednesday, August 08, 2012

An Articulation of the Vision That Guides My Ministry

I have been very lucky -- blessed, gifted, challenged, encouraged, stretched, supported -- this year.  I've been working with a professional Clergy Coach.  The work we do together is more multifaceted than that name might suggest -- we've talked about my personal life, my "spiritual life," my professional life . . .  It's been a really helpful addition to my self-care tool box.  

[If you're interested, I've been working with the extremely skilled and talented Rev. Mark Hoelter.  And he's but one of the UUMA's team of clergy coaches, although Mark was already doing this before that program got started.]

Recently Mark and I were talking about whether or not I have a vision that guides my ministry and for the first time, really, I found I was able to articulate a pro-active response.  What follows is that response:

Over the years I have often been asked to articulate my “vision for my ministry.”  This is a favorite question of search committees as they interview potential clergy partners.  And generally I’ve answered in essentially the same way – I downplay the idea that I have any kind of premeditated, predetermined vision.  I have said – and I believe deeply – that ministry is a collaborative interplay, a dance among all of the ministers of the church.  (And by this I mean the ordained clergy person(s) as well as all of the members of the faith community – including both the “official” members and the so-called “friends.”)  If I have a vision, I have said, it is that together we co-create the vision of our mutual ministry – for me to have my own map in my head would betray this essential process.

And yet . . .

In a little over a month I will turn fifty.  I will have been an ordained clergy person – a professional minister, if you will – for nearly twenty years.  I have served three different congregations, and even did a stint as part of the Association’s national staff.  And while this summarizes my professional ministry, I have actively and knowingly been a minister for more than thirty years – through my work in camp and conference ministry; my freelance parish-based clown ministry; and the ministry of my years as an itinerant juggler, magician, and clown.

Looking both backward and forward – as well as at where I am right now serving as Lead Minister for the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church – Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia – I’ve come to realize that my ministry has had some recurrent themes, and that I do have a vision I want to explore before I’m finished.

Three strands weave together to form this vision:

First, during the 1980s I worked with The Midway Caravan, an interactive family entertainment company.  We provided shows to venues such as county fairs and theme parks, yet did so in a way which subverted the traditional performance paradigm.  Traditional performances gather together a group of people for the purpose of watching trained and skilled individuals do something that the gathered crowd cannot.  “Look how good you are!” is the audience’s response to the performer’s demonstrations.  With a Midway Caravan program on the other hand –the quintessential example is their Backyard Circus – a group of people is brought together for the purpose of, themselves, putting on a show for one another.  Here the professional performer’s primary skill is the ability to facilitate the transformation of this group into a community.  “Look at what you can do!” says the performer to the audience; “We didn’t know we could do this!” is what the audience says to itself.

The second strand that weaves into the tapestry of my ministry is the faith formation that I experienced in my home church (the First Presbyterian Church of Baldwin, Long Island), in the camp and conference centers of the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church (camps Epworth and Quinipet), and in my work of “clown ministry.”  What I learned in these places was that religion isn’t about catechisms and creeds, it is about learning to live a life of love.  I learned that people can have all sorts of different ways of describing the divine, that the sacred can be given all sorts of names, but that the heart of the matter was just that – a matter of the heart.  Can I be alive to the absolute miracle that is life – my life, all life – in this universe?  The brief definition I have developed to describe Unitarian Universalist theology was born during this time:  we are one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous Universe, bound by love.  And it was clear to me that the “priests” and the “professional clergy” did not have a monopoly on this truth – either living it or encouraging others in their attempts to do so.  All of us humans, and all of creation, are ministers of this gospel.

While there may well be a myriad of other strands, the last I will lift up is the influence of some of the Universalist ancestors who have inspired me.  One such is the Rev. Kenneth L. Patton who, in his 1964 magnum opus, A Religion for One World, wrote:  ““Engaged with the religious task before humanity, it is time for the liberal church to cease being a group of neighborhood dispensaries and filling stations, operated for the amusement and dilettante dabbling of discontented intellectuals, and to become creative workshops wherein the problems of humanity can be investigated and alleviated. [. . .].”  His idea that the local congregation is a workshop or, as he elsewhere calls it, a “laboratory” in which a congregation actively engages with experiments in living was thrilling to me when I first encountered it.  And this echoes nicely something written by the Rev. Clarence Skinner back in 1931:  “[We] may set [our] hand[s] to the task of building a new kind of church adapted to the new age, thus creating a demonstration center that will prove what can be done by a radical reconstruction.”  I began my career with the declaration that Unitarian Universalism is a “Grand Experiment” in religious community.  This constitutes the third thread.

Where does all this lead me?  I realize that I do have a vision, a passion that’s guiding the ministry with which I’m currently engaged and which I can imagine engaging me for some time to come:
  1. I aim to inspire, cultivate, and nurture the congregation’s understanding of itself as a laboratory, a workshop, and a “demonstration center” that is engaged not only in the specific Grand Experiment that is Unitarian Universalism – the development of a creedless, multi-faith community and the “radical reconstruction” of the forms of religious community – but also the individual on-going experiments in the lives of its members to make sense of the twin realities of being alive and having to die (which is, arguably, the fundamental purpose of all religion).
  2. I am continuing the subversive work of the Midway Caravan and expanding it beyond the realm of theater into the realm of religion.  This work dissolves the distinctions between “lay” and “ordained” ministry and, by extension, encourages the dissolution of the categories of “us” and “them.”
  3. The Holy Fool & Trickster which has been my companion since the earliest days continues to lead me forward in not only proclaiming the truth that “we are one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous universe, bound by love” but also exploring the practical ramifications of living this gospel.

This is my vision for my ministry.

In Gassho,


PS -- I have, in past posts, raised some questions that might be part of this experimental program.  See, for instance:  It Is Us; The Member-less Church; The Member-less Church, part two; The Member-less Church, part three; Membership, Openness, and Thinking Outside of the ...; Open Source Church: a sermon; What's In A Name?;  and Open Source Church, continued . . .;

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Happy International Philippe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day!

"Magic Triangle"
© 2012 Jean-Louis Blondeau
All rights reserved.  
Used with permission.
See Jean-Louis Blondeau Photography
When I finally saw him in person he was dressed all in black, from his top hat to his shoes, and was riding his unicycle like a mad-man, zig-zagging through pedestrian traffic in Washington Square Park in New York City.  He stopped by a lamp post and, with a piece of chalk, drew a circle on the sidewalk.  Then he started to work.

What amazed me was that he didn't call attention to himself.  Aside, that is, from careening through the crowds perched on a unicycle and carrying a bag of juggling props -- that kind of got people's attention.

I mean he didn't make a big deal about who he was.  What he'd done.

He simply began to juggle -- and even that wasn't especially flashy.  Three balls -- simple, white lacrosse balls -- and his pattern was small and tight.  Like he was.  An extremely slender man, he was not particularly physically impressive.  Except for his face.  He had the smile of a mischievous elf and the sparkle in his eye is rarely seen outside the world of faerie.

It was clear to me that a lot of the people in the crowd that gathered didn't know who he was -- just another street performer out on a summer afternoon.

But this was Philippe Petite -- the man who, shortly after 7:15 am on August 7, 1974, stepped off the top of one of the World Trade Center towers and onto the 3/4" cable he and his co-conspirators had spent the better part of the night rigging.  The wire stretched the 200' between the twin towers.  It was about a quarter of a mile above the street below.

And it was here, amidst the clouds and the soaring seagulls, that Philippe Petit danced for approximately forty-five minutes.  And changed the world.

At least for me.

I was twelve years old at the time of Monsieur Petit's "artistic crime of the century," as it's been called.  I was already a magician, a bit of a clown, and I wanted . . . to be him.  I wanted his skills, of course, but I also wanted his audacity.  I wanted his whimsy, his magic.  I wanted his insanely poetic vision.  I wanted his courageous commitment to his art.

When asked why he would do something that was at once both illegal and so incredibly foolhardy -- he did this cross with no net and no safety cables! -- Petit answered, "There is no why."  He said that to demand a "why" was such an American thing to do.  Finally, when he could no longer resist the pressure for an answer he said this, "When I see three balls, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk."

He did this thing for no other reason than that it cried out to be done and that the doing of it would be so very, very beautiful.  I have read that Albert Einstein said that he realized the equations of his General Theory of Relativity were correct because they were . . . beautiful.  I fear that the dominant culture within which I live is almost entirely bereft of this understanding of beauty -- that it proves the "rightness" of things and that it is, in and of itself, all the reason one needs for doing something incredible.

Several years ago I began to intentionally celebrate what I came to call International Philippe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day.  I talk about Petit's walk with whoever I can get to listen.  (Most likely . . . again!)  I look at photographs of it.  (And here is an incredible collection, taken by his friend and collaborator Jean-Louis Blondeau.)  And I watch the awesome film Man on Wire.  I immerse myself in this legendary event. 

This year, as part of my celebration, I'm going to take out my own white lacrosse balls and do a little juggling.  Because ultimately the story of Philippe Petit's dance between the towers is not simply the story of an incredible individual doing an inconceivable thing.  That's the myth, and the myth has a certain magic to it.  Yet the truth is no doubt far more complex.  It'd be the story of a group of ordinary people who created together an extraordinary experience -- for themselves and for the world.  I hope that that story is eventually told.

One of the most incredible things of all, for me, about my encounter with Philippe Petit in Washington Square Park all those many years later is that I have heard him say that his dance between the towers was, for him, like the dance I saw him do between the lamp posts in Washington Square and that both, in fact, are just expressions of the dance he does every day of his life.

So . . . I still want to be Philippe Petit . . . living my life, like his, dancing on the tight rope.  And I also want to be like Jean-Louis Blondeau, Jean Fran├žois Heckel, Annie Allix, Jim Moore, Jean-Pierre Dousseau, Barry Greenhouse, and all of the others who were equally invested and equally involved in purusing their own dreams.  Most of all, I suppose, I am inspired to be myself.

May you be as well.

Happy International Philippe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day!

In Gassho,


PS -- This is the best International Philippe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day in the history of its celebration! In order to use the photograph of Petit as a juggler, I reached out to ask permission of Jean-Louis Blondeau, the photographer and Petit's collaborator on the World Trade Center walk. And he responded! One of his requests in response for his permission was that he have the opportunity to read this post before it was published, so that he could see in what context his work would be used. This means I have now had several e-mail exchanges with the man I personally consider to be as integrally involved in Petit's feat as the cable itself or, for that matter, Petit's feet! No one can accomplish something like what happened 38 years ago today entirely on her or his own. That is another lesson I take from that dance. Thank you, Monsieur Blondeau.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Dancing Between the Towers

This is the sermon exploration preached at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia.

If you'd like to hear the podcast, click here.

Erik Wikstrom's Exploration:
This is not the sermon I’d intended to preach this morning.  Not be a long shot.  I’d wanted to do something really clever.  Something a little bravura . . . with style and panache.  Something theatrical. 
That’s not what you’re going to get.

I’d told Wendy that after hearing Tony preach last week I really wanted to take this exploration all on my own – both, to be honest, to see if I still had it in me to do it, but also because what we’d said we were going to try to do this morning was not going to be easy.  I thought that I’d need a whole sermon length to be able to pull together what I had in mind.

We’d promised to try to show a link between three events the anniversaries of which fall this coming week.  August 6th is the 67th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan.  August 9th is the 67th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.  And in between, on August 7th, is the 38th anniversary of the day that the French wire walker Philippe Petit danced for forty-five minutes a quarter of a mile above the streets of New York City on a ¾” cable he and his accomplices had spent the better part of the night before stringing between the towers of the World Trade Center.  (I like to call this International Philippe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day, and it’s one of my . . . yes, the pun’s intended . . . High Holy Days.)
So I thought I’d create a juggling piece – I’m already all in black like Monsieur Petit.  I’d take these three dates, these three events, and . . . juggle them.  Create a pattern with them.  I’d imagined that I’d develop a lyrical, poetic exploration (in words and movement) of the folly of war and the wisdom of, well, folly; thought I’d try to dance on a tight rope myself, with the most horrific of human actions on one side and one of the most enchanting on the other.
But, as I said, that’s not what you’re going to get this morning.
I tried.  Oh, I really did try.  And it’s not just that my juggling skills aren’t quite up to it – as I often say to my kids, “if someone offers you the opportunity to fall down the basement stairs and break your arm in three places . . . say ‘no.’”  But what really got in my way is that this topic just doesn’t call out for clever.  Cute just isn’t going to cut it today.
Let me, instead, begin by sharing with you something I wrote back in 2007 when I preached about Hiroshima and Nagasaki to our congregation in Brewster, Massachusetts.  This is the way I started that sermon (those of you who like will be able to read it in its entirety on my blog tomorrow morning):
At 8:14 there was a clear blue sky.  Birds flew in the morning sunshine.  Children laughed as they made their way to school.  People were doing tai chi and calisthenics in a city park.  There’d been a scare earlier in the morning but it seemed now that everything was okay.  Even when the world around you seems to be going crazy, days like this can make you feel alive and grateful.  The air is clean; the sun, warm.  You can forget the insanity.  On a day like this.  For a moment everything makes sense.
And in that moment—31,000 feet above the birds, and the children, and the men doing tai chi—the bomb doors on the Enola Gay opened and let loose a metal cylinder.  Ten feet long and two-and-a-half feet in diameter, it would change the world.  Not just for the people below or the people in the plane, but for every man, every woman, and every child who lived or ever would.
Forty-three seconds after it was flung loose that metal cylinder was 1,900 feet above the ground and it exploded with the force of 15,000 tons of TNT.  The birds burst into flame in mid-air.  So did combustible things like paper—even as far as a mile away.  Instantly.
The people in the park right below turned to ash.  Instantly.  A woman sitting on the steps of her bank, waiting for it to open, was reduced to a shadow.  You can see it today in the Hiroshima Peace Museum where they moved the steps so that she might not be forgotten.
Next came the blast wave.  Moving at a rate of two miles a second, people were blown from their feet, buildings were blown to the ground, trolleys and cars were blown from the roads.  Glass shattered twelve miles away.  A boy was blown through the windows of his house and across the street; his house collapsing behind him.  Within minutes, nine out of ten people half a mile or less from ground zero were dead.
And the numerous fires that erupted around Hiroshima soon joined together creating a monstrous firestorm that engulfed nearly four and half square miles of the city.  In its heart it is estimated that this beast reached temperatures of over seven thousand degrees.  (For comparison, the surface of the sun is just under ten thousand degrees.)  An interesting fact:  a postwar study showed that less than 4.5 percent of survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima suffered leg fractures.  That’s not, of course, because those injuries didn’t occur but because those who couldn’t walk died.
It’s estimated that somewhere around 150,000 people died as a direct result of the blast and the fires.  150,000 people. 
And yet, as I noted back then, those are just numbers.  Joseph Stalin famously said that when one person dies it’s a tragedy; when a million people die it’s a statistic.
And then, three days later, it all happened again in Nagasaki.  Oh the more uneven, hilly terrain there contained some of the effects of the blast, the devastation was not quite as widespread, but it was as incomprehensible none the less.  When Robert Oppenheimer, lead scientist on the Manhattan Project and often known as “the father of the nuclear bomb,” saw the first test explosion back at Los Alamos he turned to the Hindu scriptures for his reaction.  “I am become Death,” he said, quoting the Bahagavad Gita, “the destroyer of worlds.”  Albert Einstein reflected that our capacity to destroy had advanced so dramatically that we now needed an equal advance in consciousness if we were going to survive.
And while neither we nor anyone else has ever again exploded a nuclear bomb in time of war, from that day ‘till this our planet has never known a period in which there was not some war going on somewhere.  I looked it up and found references to nearly 250 separate wars since 1945.  Not battles – wars.  250 wars in 67 years – that’s nearly four new wars each and every year.
Have we learned nothing?  Has that advance in consciousness that Einstein called for still not come about?  I’m afraid that we are still unconscionably good at savaging one another . . . and our planet.  And that’s why I just couldn’t find the way to be playful this morning.  When I ponder our penchant for positioning this against that and then bringing ourselves to the brink of oblivion to defend the differences . . . well . . . I just don’t really feel like juggling.
Yet maybe that’s exactly why I intuitively wanted to take the two poles of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and put a little line between them, and on that line place a crazy twenty-five year old French juggler.  A pixie.  A denizen of a magical realm where the impossible is possible and absolutely nothing is beyond our grasp.  The more outrageous, the more compelling.
At some time later today – and by Tuesday night at the latest – get yourself a copy of the movie Man on Wire.  It’s an extraordinary documentary – available on Netflix if you don’t have your own copy – and watching it has become part of my annual celebration of International Philippe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day.  I watch it over and over again, with tears in my eyes, because it reminds me that we human beings are capable of acts of profound beauty, as well as demonic devastation, and that our species’ tendency toward insanity does not just result in evil.  We can hatch plans of inspired idiocy, lyrical lunacy, and then literally put our lives on the line for them . . . and, really, just for the sake of having done it.  (When asked why he’d strung a wire a quarter of a mile above the earth Petit at first answered, “There is no why.”  The closest he ever came to explaining a reason was words to this effect:  “When I see three balls I must juggle; when I see two towers, I must walk.”)
Perhaps I am overly romantic.  Or perhaps it’s an occupational hazard left over from the old days.  But in Petit’s walk that August morning – and the way the whole world was enchanted by it – I believe I see a glimpse of that new consciousness that might just save us. 
Oh, I don’t think it’ll necessarily involve death-defying circus acts.  (Not necessarily.  Although by 2016, when the 7th will fall on a Sunday I may be up to stringing a wire in here and preaching from up there . . .)  But I do think it has something to do with seeing the world as enchanted and enchanting, and believing that beauty is something worth striving for.  And maybe it’s not so much a new consciousness as, perhaps, a renewed one – did you know that when the Chinese originally developed gun powder it wasn’t for use in weapons but, rather, for fireworks?  Oh, to have a Manhattan Project dedicated to creating fireworks.
Because there is so much to celebrate in this life.  And, perhaps, it turns out that I’ve chosen to dance on that wire after all.  I invite you to join me.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

On the Movement for Marriage Equality

Does the world need one more blog post about Chic-Fil-A and its CEO's stand on same-sex marriage?  Isn't this one of those tempest-in-a-teapots, those much-ado-about-nothing situations that are only blown out of proportion by all the pontificating?  After all, Dan Cathy has an absolute first amendment right to free speech.  And if I want this constitutional right which I so deeply cherish to mean anything I must defend it even when the speech seems to me to be mean or hateful.  Even when I find it deplorable.  What's the old saying?  I disagree with what you have to say but will defend to the death your right to say it.

I am, after all, a liberal.  I'm a Unitarian Universalist minister, for God's sake!  "Acceptance" and "tolerance" are our hallmarks.  "Freedom" is our mantra.  It's been said that the only thing a UU cannot tolerate is intolerant people . . . and to avoid being one of those intolerant people ourselves we're willing to put up with a whole lot of things.  Sometimes we even end up defending the right of people to say and do those things.

Well, that's just wrong.

Let me say that again because I know some people think that a wishy-washy, moral relativist who "respects the inherent worth and dignity of every person" would never take a stand and say that someone or something else is wrong.

Well, that's wrong too.

My faith tradition affirms and promotes "the free and responsible search for truth and meaning," not a feckless and meaningless search for half-baked platitudes.  And while Dan Cathy certainly has the right to voice his opinions, I have a responsibility to respond with the truths I have found in my searching.  My openness to having my opinions changed as I make new discoveries does not preclude my lifting up the truths I have found and challenging the opinions of others.  In fact, it requires me to do so.  The search I am engaged in is for "truth and meaning," not mere opinions -- whether mine or others'.

So . . . there are people who feel that marriage is a sacred institution that has, since time immemorial been a covenant between one man and one woman.  There are people who feel that heterosexuality is the norm and that homosexuality is, then, abnormal.  Some even believe that there are strict moral strictures against homosexual behavior of any kind and, so, certainly against homosexual "marriage."  These people often feel that the very foundations of civilization are jeopardized by an acceptance of this abnormal and immoral lifestyle.

Here's some of what I have discovered in my "search for truth and meaning":
  • Homosexuality may be less common than heterosexuality, but it is no less "normal."  Homosexual behavior has been observed in nearly 1,500 species and is well documented in 500 of them.  And evidence of its presence has been found in every civilization and culture we human beings have ever developed throughout our history.  Feel whatever you want to about it, hold whatever opinions you wish, but the truth of things is that we live in a world in which some men love men and some women love women.  (And not to complicate things, but there are also men and women who are bi-sexual, not because they "can't make up their minds" but because they are naturally and normally attracted to persons rather than genders.  In fact, there are those who argue that this is really the norm for our species . . . but I digress.)
  • Marriage is not the monolith so many want to make it out to be.  Throughout our history on this planet -- across countries and cultures -- we human beings have come together in all sorts of different configurations and have held all sorts of opinions about who should, and who should not, be allowed to enter into these relationships.  These opinions have changed over time.  Even looking at one particular swath of human history -- the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition -- we see huge variations in understandings about marriage . . . many which would be considered abhorrent by modern standards.  And just looking at the history of the United States we don't have to look further back than the 1960s -- a mere fifty years ago -- to find a very different conception of marriage than we have today -- marriage between people of different races was considered amoral and illegal.  (The Supreme Court's decision in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case is fascinating reading in light of the current discussion of marriage equality.)  The formula marriage = one man + one woman has never been carved in stone; no understanding of it has.
  • And even if you believe that there are religious strictures against homosexuality in general and, so, homosexual marriage in particular, the United States is not governed by religious law.  It never has been, nor was it ever intended to be.  (As lead minister of a congregation named in memory of Thomas Jefferson, I think the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom illustrates the mind-set of this nation's founders quite well on this matter, as does Jefferson's famous comment about a "wall of separation" between church and state.)  The United States is not a theocracy; "Christian Sharia" should be as anathema here as Islamic Sharia would be.  We are a nation of law, not religious codes.
So what about Dan Cathy's right to voice his opinion?  He has that right, or course.  And I applaud his willingness to put his money where his mouth is, as it were, and to financially support the organizations he affirms.  Yet it has also been sagely noted that "your right to swing your arm ends when it impacts my face."  And the opposition of the religious and political right to marriage equality is impacting a lot of faces.

As the bumper sticker puts it, "If you don't condone same-sex marriage, don't marry someone of the same sex."  Affirming the right of homosexual couples to marry does nothing to so-called "traditional" marriages.  (If our culture of serial marriage and convenience divorce has not yet destroyed the "sanctity" of marriage, if our cult of celebrity with their marriages that can be measured in days or hours has not destroyed the "sanctity" of marriage, nothing will!)  Affirming the right of homosexual couples to marry -- and I don't say "giving homosexual couples the right to marry" because I believe that they already have this right as human beings but are currently being denied it -- will not require any clergy or congregation to bless such unions.  Religions will, and should, continue to be able to create their own codes of conduct and their own internal laws.  But religion should not be allowed to dictate the laws of our land.

One final thought:  Although the discussion has been framed around the issue of marriage equality the fundamental issue at stake is equality.  Given that the United States is a nation governed by law, and given that both a survey of history and a survey of nature shows that homosexuality is no more nor less "normal" than heterosexuality, should homosexual couples be denied a right that heterosexual couples take for granted?  Should the law distinguish between and create two classes of people -- one with certain inalienable rights and the other without?

That's what we need to be chewing on these days.

In Gasho,