Thursday, October 31, 2013

It's hard to put my shoes back on . . .

While I was serving the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, Maine I began to get a reputation as the preacher who preached barefooted.  So much so, that when a member of our congregation was ordained a friend of his from seminary was disappointed to see that I was wearing shoes for the ceremony.  (I wasn't preaching.)  So much so that when I began serving our congregation in Brewster, Massachusetts a couple of our congregants bought me a collection of funky socks to wear.

Shoeless Joe Jackson, meet Shoeless Rev. Wikstrom.

It all started about a dozen years ago.  (Could it really be that long?)  I was engaged in a two-year program on Spiritual Direction with the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.  During our first nine-day residency we were given one 36-hour period of silence.  During this time we could do anything we wanted, as long as it didn't feel like something we "had" to do -- we were to be open to the movings of the Spirit.  A real Sabbath time.

At one point during this silent retreat-within-a-retreat I went for a walk.  It was a beautiful day -- clear skies, warm sun, brisk air.  As I walked along one of the convent's many trails I came across a large stone at the corner of a cross-road.  It was a large chunk of crystal, actually, and was situated just so that the sun shone directly on it.  To say "it called out to me" might sound strange, but there's no other way I know how to describe it.  And, so, I sat on the still partially frozen ground by this rock and proceeded to meditate.

The story of Moses turning aside to check out a burning bush was certainly in my consciousness, but I was still a little surprised when I "heard" a voice say, "Take off your shoes, you are on holy ground."  And as this was a 36-hour period in which the only "rule" was to follow our instincts, I proceeded to do so.  I stayed by that rock for a little while, and then just as quickly as I felt called over to it I felt ready to move on.

But as I began to put my shoes back on I found myself wondering about where the boundary was around this "holy ground."  Was there a circle of some as yet indeterminate diameter that was holy ground with everything beyond being more mundane?  I stood up, still barefoot, and took a couple of steps away from the stone.  This ground felt exactly the same to me as the ground on which I'd been sitting -- I could feel the icy coldness of it, and the soft oozy warm of the surface layer of thawed mud.  I took a few more steps and then realized -- not just thought or came to the conclusion that, but truly realized -- that there was no place that was not holy ground.  I kept my shoes off for the rest of my walk.  And the rest of that day.

And when I returned to Yarmouth I began to honor that experience by taking off my shoes before I preached.  I did so both to remind myself of this powerful experience and to recognize that when I had the privilege of standing behind the pulpit and preaching to that community I was standing on holy ground.

Yesterday, during the mid-week worship service we hold here on the labyrinth (in good weather) I felt compelled to remove my shoes before walking, and I remembered that experience at Bon Secour so many years ago.  And again I found it hard to put my shoes back on.  Where does "holy ground" end and "unholy ground" begin?  I have to say, I've still never found that demarcation.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

There is More Love Somewhere

On Monday New Jersey became the 14th state in the nation in which it is legal for same-gender couples to be treated identically with two-gender couples.  Even the Governor, Chris Christie, dropped his lawsuit and acknowledged that the court had spoken loud and clear.

I have to say . . . I have never understood what all the brouhaha has been about.  Over the years I've known a number of homosexual couples and a number of heterosexual couples.  And in those years I've seen some relationships work, and others not.  I've seen loving care and respect, and I've seen dishonesty and betrayal.  What differentiated the two was not the gender expression of the couple, but the quality of the relationship.

I am honored to have met and gotten to know two of the plaintiffs in the Massachusetts case that set the marriage equality dominoes falling.  They are members of the congregation I served there, and are two of the loveliest people I've ever known.  The love between them was palpable.

And recently two members of the congregation I now serve went to Washington to have their union legally recognized.  They've been together for forty-four years but it is only after their wedding ceremony that they feel they can say to the heterosexual world, "our relationship is as valid, as legitimate as yours." 

Can you imagine?  Doing the hard work of keeping a relationship alive and thriving for over four decades and, yet, being constantly told in ways both overt and subtle that your relationship isn't "real" and doesn't really "count"?  Can you imagine this?  Far too many citizens in our country don't have to -- they live it every day of their lives.

For years, now, people have said that a general acceptance of "gay marriage" will damage and possibly even destroy "traditional" marriage.  The same was said, of course, about interracial marriages until the famous Loving v. Virginia case in 1967.  It was obvious that only people of the same race should marry.  Anything else would be an affront and a danger.

And it's been said that the true purpose of marriage is procreation, the creating of a stable family unit for the perpetuation of our species and our civilization.  Well, them, older couples and infertile couples should only be allowed to have "civil unions" too, because they wouldn't be able to generate biological offspring either.

And it's been said that "the American people" are against same-gender marriages -- at least, under that name -- so that not only tradition but public opinion are against it.  But since 2004 -- a mere nine years -- we've gone from same-gender marriage being outside the realm of most heterosexual's conception to being legal in fourteen states!

If the institution of marriage was able to survive the 2000 on-air nuptials of Rick Rockwell and Darva Conger, highly publicized 55-hour marriage of Britney Spears and Jason Alexander, and the 11-year run of the Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise,  it will certainly survive it's expansion to include loving couples who just happen to share the same gender expression.

Pax tecum,


PS -- the title of this post comes from a really wonderful hymn we Unitarian Universalists sing quite a lot.  It is an African American hymn, sung to a tune named after South African activist and martyr Steven Biko.  It's words are:  "There is more love, somewhere. / There is more love, somewhere. / I'm going to keep on / 'till I find it. / There is more love, somewhere."  And so may we all.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Another God?

I was listening to El Rushbo the other day, as I am wont to do from time to time, and he lit into a rant that I found absolutely fascinating.  Conservatism, he said, is not a philosophy.  It is not a set of policies.  It is a way of life.  It is a way of life, he said, based on values, history, and tradition.

Sounds a whole lot like religion, I said to myself.

And then what I was hearing struck me:  Rush Limbaugh was -- whether he was fully aware of what he was doing or not -- was saying that conservatism is the conservative's religion.  It is the conservative's way of life.  It is evident in what they choose to do and what they choose not to do.  It guides their thinking.  It provides direction.  Some of this, to be clear, Rush did not say in so many words.  But it certainly seems to me that all this is a logical inference from what he did say.

And if, it seems to me, that what he said is true -- that conservatism is not merely a set of policies but is, instead, a way of life -- then it seems clear that conservative's claims to be Christian are demonstrably false.  After all, the first commandment -- the very first of the ten conservatives claim to hold sacrosanct -- is "thou shall have no other gods before me."

Christianity was, in its formative years, known simply as The Way.  It is to this day not a mere philosophy, not a set of policies, but a way of life that is based on values, history, and tradition.  Yet if Limbaugh is right, these so-called "Conservative Christians" have set another god before God -- conservatism.

Maybe this is why it's so infernally difficult to understand how people who claim to revere Jesus and the Bible can behave in ways so contrary to the message of both.

Pax tecum,


Friday, October 04, 2013

In Gratitude for St. Francis

Today is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi -- Giovanni Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone.  He was born in either 1181 or 1182, and died in his mid-forties in 1226.  He is known in some circles as Alter Christus -- the other Christ.  I know him as the religious figure who speaks most directly and powerfully to my own soul.  A charismatic preacher who yearned for a life of prayerful solitude; a holy fool, whose primary message might well have been Rejoice! and yet who himself knew such deep melancholy.  I could go on.

Last evening I was surfing the web for images of Francesco and came across this one on the FaceBook page of the Order of Ecumenical Franciscans.  I do not know (yet) who created it, but it is without a doubt my current favorite.  Here's why:

A number of years ago I had a revelation.  It came to me that the best image for God (at least the best image for my understanding of God) would not be a King, nor even a parent.  It would be a puppy.  A dog is joy unbridled.  No matter who you are, or how you are, a dog can't give you enough kisses.  And over and over and over again a dog calls out to you, "Play with me!"

So here is that holy fool of God, Francesco Bernadone, embracing and being embraced by that most playful of pups.

Pax tecum,


Thursday, October 03, 2013

What If The DRE Ran The Church?

Of all the things I've done in my career perhaps the thing with the best title was when I was hired by the Canadian Unitarian Council to be a "provocateur" for one of their annual conferences.  Professional Provocateur -- arguably the role I was born to play.

So I'd like to be clear that what I'm doing in this post today is being provocative.  Intentionally.  Consciously.  I'm not saying that I don't believe what I'm writing, but only that my goal is not to convince you of its rightness or wrongness.  I'm hoping that a conversation might ensue.  I'm hoping that others might stop for a minute, cock their head to one side or the other, maybe squint one eye, and say to themselves (and anyone who happens to be around them), "Huh.  I never thought about it like that.  I wonder . . ."

That's what I think "What If . . ." questions are really all about.  To get us to see things from a new angle, to try on a different perspective, and to remind us to wonder.  Today's What If?  What if the Director of Religious Education ran the church?

Let's start with a few assumptions.  I am writing about the religious community I know best -- Unitarian Universalists.  Others may find something useful in all of this, but it's really to and for UUs that I'm writing right now.  And let us for the moment at least agree with one another that I consider Unitarian Universalism to be its own religious tradition.  You may not think so -- and there are certainly folks with divergent opinions on this issue -- but I'm the one writing and I am beginning with the premise that Unitarian Universalism is its own distinct and unique religion.  We grow out of Protestant Christianity, that's true.  But Christianity itself grew out of Judaism and nobody's running around saying that Christianity should feel compelled to adhere to Jewish traditions, norms, and forms.  So I'm writing primarily to Unitarian Universalist and with Unitarian Universalism in mind, and our tradition is its own thing.

All that said, I think it can also be agreed -- and if you wildly disagree remember who's writing this! -- that the forms of our tradition still look awfully like the Protestant traditions from which we were born.  Many of our churches are called, well, "churches."  And lots of them look like churches.  What with the pews and the pulpits and all.  And lots of them have an ordained clergy person (or two) who are seen to a greater or lesser extent as the CEO of the church.

This makes a certain amount of sense.  Our tradition grows out of the Protestant strains that advocated for a "learned clergy."  And today's ordained UU ministers spend a fair amount of time (and money!) preparing for the roles through which we serve our congregations.  We study preaching, and church history, and theology, and pastoral care, and comparative religions, and . . .  If we're not all really smart folk we at least have a whole lot of learning!

But here's where I want the head tilt to come in.  Does it make sense for a Unitarian Universalist congregation to have an ordained clergy person at its head?  Let me play this out a bit.

In some traditions the clergy person -- Rabbi, Imam, Minister -- has been, not to put too fine a point on it, the smartest person in the room.  At least, often, the most educated. And for certain the most well trained to do things like interpret sacred scripture.  It seems self-evident that traditions that value such things would look to someone who looks a whole lot like a modern ordained minister to lead them.

But Unitarian Universalists don't necessarily fit this mold.  In the vast majority of UU congregations today the ordained minister is decidedly not the most learned person in the room!  Per capita, UUs have more Ph.D.s than just about any other religious tradition.  And our clergy don't even necessarily know more about scripture and religious history than the people in the pews, not that that's a particularly powerful need in most UU congregations.  We don't have a sacred text that is in need of interpretation.  And is a seminary-trained, ordained clergy person the only one who is able to draw meaning out of life?

In some traditions the clergy -- priests, let's say -- are thought to be imbued with a special authority to perform certain acts.  Only an ordained priest, for instance, can officiate the sacraments.  But UUs don't have sacraments, per se, and even if we did it would be the rare congregation that would say only an ordained clergy person could perform them!

Where am I going with all of this?  I have heard it articulated, and have said it myself, that everything a UU church does is in one way or another part of the process of "faith formation."  Everything we do is part of that "free and responsible search for truth and meaning" that we affirm is one of our guiding principles.  It's long been noted that ordained clergy are woefully uneducated about issues of church governance and administration.  But I think it can just as certainly be asserted that another area in which our training is generally underwhelming is faith formation.  A cursory course in religious education, sure, but that is not the area of expertise most of us were encouraged -- or even assisted -- in developing.

It is, however, precisely the purview of the Religious Educator.  In recognition of this, in fact, more and more congregations are changing the title of their Director of Religious Education to Director of Lifespan Faith Development.  And, so, I'm just wondering -- why, if there has to be one person who is at the "top" of the UU org chart (if you will), why is it the clergy person and not the religious educator?

To be sure, in many of our congregations the religious educator is a part-time, and even a volunteer, position.  The person filling the role does not have anywhere near the training and preparation of the clergy person.  These folks may mean well, but they are in no position to "run the church."  I acknowledge that this is so.  I don't, however, assume therefore that this means it should be so.  It may be that we've been putting our preparatory energies in the wrong place.  Perhaps, rather than putting so much time and energy into clergy preparation we should be developing better prepared, and better supported, DREs!

I also want to head off any argument directed at the idea that I'm saying clergy are unimportant.  I am not.  We bring skills, and training, and sensitivity to the game that's important.  Even essential.  Clergy have a capacity for seeing connections, and weaving things together that is, indeed, a part of our training.  And while I do believe that nearly everyone is qualified to "pass life through the fire of thought" (as Emerson described the art of preaching), I also know that the clergy's training in homiletics and worship theory make us indispensable in training and guiding the laity.  There is no question -- in my mind, at least -- that ordained clergy bring great value to congregational life.  I do not, however, believe that that ipso facto translates into the elevated role most of us have inherited and are assumed to deserve.

It seems to me that it would be ideal for the religious professional, and the "ministry professional" (for want of a better term), and perhaps even an administrative professional to work together as a team -- each one bringing their own particular skills and perspectives to the task.  But I want to question the virtually unquestioned assumption that it is the ordained minister who is -- and should be -- "in charge."  And, to be honest, if I had to pick only one role to be "on top" I think I would choose the DRE.

So . . . thoughts?

Pas texum,


Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Happy Birthday, Gandhi-Ji

"Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this in flesh and blood
did walk upon this earth."  (Albert Einstein reflecting on the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi)

I was in college when Richard Attenborough's film about Gandhi came out.  My friends and I were floored by it; moved by it; profoundly touched by it.  I'd say that in the first week it was out we must have gone four or five times to see it.  (To be honest, by the fourth time we went we were smuggling in large bags full of our own popcorn and were only a little self-conscious about stuffing huge handfuls of popcorn into our mouths while Ben Kingsley was onscreen asking for "water . . . and a little lemon.")

I do understand that there was more than a little hagiography in that film, and yet from all that I've read over the years since, it painted a fairly accurate portrait.  It might have been ever so impressionistic, but that doesn't mean that it's not true.

And, so, each year I try to mark Gandhi-ji's birthday.  Sometimes it's just being quietly aware of the anniversary.  Some days I re-watch the movie.  And some days I just try to be a little bit better than I am, so that I can help the world to become a little bit better than it is.

This year I've written this post, discovered this lovely photograph, and wish to encourage anyone reading this to spend a little more time to read a collection of Gandhi's thoughts.

Pax tecum,