Why go to church?

I imagine that every person who attends regular church services has a unique answer to this question.  So, let me suggest a universal answer to which we all can relate.  Primarily, we go to church to be ministered to.  After all, you can go other places to learn, to partake of community, and to sing.  There is no lack of charitable and other organizations that could benefit from our skills and energy.  But church is one place where the primary mission of the enterprise is to provide ministry.

Let me immediately clarify that I do not see the function of ministry to be the sole province of so-called “ministers.”  Yes, I have jumped through certain hoops of preparation so that I can function among the various types of ministry.  But, long before I attended seminary, I taught religious education classes and advised youth groups – activities that I considered to be youth ministry.  In this broadest sense, every one of us is capable of ministering to others.

So I will amend my answer to the title question.  Primarily, we go to church to be ministered to and to minister to others.  Your presence in a worship service alone is enough to be a part of the ministry of a church.  Worship is the group celebration of that which is of worth, and religion is the binding together again and again of people in community.  Each person brings with them absolutely unique experiences, attitudes, and emotions that enhance the flavor of the religious stew within a church.  Salty or sweet, bitter or soothing, each of us contributes a necessary and valuable ingredient to a successful church community.

So, on those Sunday mornings when the newspaper and coffee maker beckon, remember the special richness that church offers.  One never knows when the spark of enlightenment will flicker into a flame of transformation.  And we never know when our presence may produce a special moment of joy for another.

Who?

Interim ministry differs from called ministry in several significant ways.  My time is short (relatively speaking), so some urgency exists to help the church prepare for its next pastor.  On the other hand, new ministry always carries a good deal of anxiety.  The interim minister must tread lightly, while exploring needed change and evaluation.

Key to both ministries, however, are the key questions every minister should ask any congregation:

  • Who were we?
  • Who are we?
  • Who do we want to be?

When looking at who the church was, one should spend time examining why the church was the way it was.  Churches nurture some traditions like a garden, carefully pruning and meticulously feeding each plant.  But every garden also has weeds – habits that emerge uninvited and unplanned for.  Sometimes, those weeds take root and are difficult to eradicate.  One task of interim ministry is to help a congregation kill the weeds and help the garden thrive.

One of the greatest gifts the interim minister brings to a church is fresh eyes to answer the question, “Who are we?”  Over time, every congregant sees their church through rosier lenses.  The interim minister sees the clutter, the cherished decor items no one remembers receiving, the outmoded practices, and the habits ingrained in a community of friends that may not be as welcoming as it thinks.  The interim minister can tweak those spots of chaos and territorial boundaries that inhibit healthy change.

Interim ministry is a great time to re-examine the vision of a church.  The interim minister can challenge a church to ask, “what if?” in an environment that is perhaps more forgiving and less encumbered with assumptions.  If goals already exist, the interim can help the church maintain momentum and keep focused on achieving established objectives.

For me, the key to interim ministry is my lack of agendas or preconceptions.  I come to a church with the eyes of a visitor.  I have two primary goals – to be present where needed and to help the church best prepare for a long and successful settled minister.

The Blazing Barn

The farm is on fire.  Smoke rises from the fields; sparks alight on the house; and the barn is ablaze.  Some people carry buckets of water.  Others try to free animals trapped behind walls.  Still others gather valuables from the house to prevent destruction.  The remainder stand frozen, not knowing what to do, and fearing that nothing they do will make a difference.

Since the election of the current President, our nation has burned with the fires of hate, greed, privilege, cruelty, and selfishness.  Our social justice organizations exhaust every bit of money, time, and energy available and nothing seems helpful.  Many of us experience depression and trauma over our inability to stop the destruction and help those most in peril.

What is the solution?  First, we must all agree that the barn is indeed ablaze.  We no longer possess the luxury of time to develop legislation and to nudge along the slow machinery of social evolution.  We must agree that change must happen now and that we all have roles to play.

Second, we must not allow the flames to divide our forces.  If one group tries to save the corn, another the tractor, another the horses, and another the building itself, we will all fail.  No one group possesses the needed resources to eliminate the threats before it.  We must work together to save the entire farm, or we will all perish in its ashes.

Third, we must embrace new forms of firefighting.  As we struggle to extinguish the flames and rescue threatened resources, we must also attack the root cause of the flames.  What good is putting out this fire if our farm remains vulnerable?

Our nation is on fire.  As Unitarian Universalists, what can we do to respond to the danger?  First, we must embrace education about issues and quickly move toward accepting our complicity in the current situation.  Reading the right books no longer suffices for church members to successfully engage in social justice work.  We must acknowledge the roles we and our ancestors played in creating our present country, accept those facts, and then change ourselves into better people of faith.

As a religious community, we must unite in our common ideals to fight all injustice together as one.  Love can only defeat bigotry and violence when people join together in an army of compassion.  Every issue facing us as a people today affects us all.  If we allow marginalized people to suffer, we too will suffer.

And we must set aside traditional boundaries and create new structures to address the array of intersectional issues troubling the waters today.  We must share resources, let go of outmoded titles and organization, and embrace the strength of more organic, more responsive structures of social justice.

When we transform ourselves, and unite in new models of cooperation, we will lay the groundwork for a fireproof farm.  We will plant the seeds of Beloved Community that can repel the pestilence of tyrants and oligarchs.  And we will rebuild our faith in each other as brothers and sisters , one family, regardless of skin color, gender identity, ability, age, or belief.

Justice and the Future Church

During the past 50 years, membership in nearly every American religious denomination has been in decline.  Pundits argue many causes, but I see one primary reason from which all others derive – relevance.

Our military-industrial complex has kept America at war my entire life.  Growing up on movies about World War II, these wars have lacked clear concepts outlining why we were at war, who the enemy actually was, and what would constitute victory.  Generations of military men and women returned home with no clear sense of purpose, suffering horrific injuries and emotional trauma.  Unlike WWII veterans, these men and women received no ticker tape parades, and none of the well-earned rewards of past patriots serving their country.

Our nation faced other problems – institutionalized racism, homophobia, and gender inequality; unchecked capitalism causing unstable markets and recessions; and the near complete erosion of any public confidence that their government works honestly and ethically in their best interest, among other things.  And through it all, the church has stood largely mute.

Today, America remains embroiled in multiple senseless wars; the rights of our citizens face constant attack; and government officials seem to have lost any sense of right and wrong, or what constitutes moral leadership.  Why, then, should we be surprised that today’s young adults stay away from churches, looking elsewhere for relevance in a country that has lost its moral bearings?

That is why a Justice Center at our church matters.  As people of faith, we must reclaim the moral high ground on which the founders built this nation.  They were imperfect, but their vision was bold and unique.  And they recognized the value of a free church, independent of government control or influence, as a guardian of the spiritual values of the nation.

The time has come for us to show the people that we have not abandoned that responsibility.  Our churches must once again become relevant institutions challenging oppression, bigotry, violence – any barrier to the supreme commandment of every faith tradition – love your neighbor.

I look forward to helping build that Justice Center here in Louisville and showing the people in our community that our church still stands for freedom and equality, democracy and compassion.

New Beginnings

The inevitability of change affords us frequent opportunities for new beginnings.  The past year was an exhausting journey through the world of protest, advocacy, and agitation.  Living in a state capitol, I found myself at public events nearly every week, allowing me little time for reflection and writing.  As I start my new position here at the Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church in Louisville KY, I am committing to more online engagement as I build partnerships with local organizations and help the church achieve its dream of creating a Justice Center.

To that end, let me state clearly that I believe Unitarian Universalism will thrive as a relevant religion in this nation only if we embrace our Living Tradition of direct action to make a difference in the world.  We will always be a haven for freethinkers and the growing number of Americans who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  But as people of faith, we must aspire to be more than truth seekers — we must be justice makers.

I believe the most important reason for the existence of the church is to build a community where we can become more together than we can when isolated and alone.  That is true whether one talks about worship, pastoral care, social activities, or education.  And it is especially true when it comes to fighting oppression and defending our innate human freedoms.

Changing Our Gun Culture

I spoke today at a vigil for those killed and injured during the act of domestic terrorism last Sunday in Las Vegas.  The spokesperson from Moms Demand Action said something during her introduction that I found curious.  She said that the group is not against guns; rather, the group opposes against gun violence.  A quick internet search found this sentiment expressed by a number of activists associated with Moms Demand Action.

I support the work of all the organizations advocating for legislation that will stem the gun epidemic in this country.  This approach seems to me, however, timid and lacking in the grounding necessary to effect any real change.

I am against guns.  I am against the Ruger AR-556 Takedown semiautomatic tactical rifle, the Bushmaster QRC Quick Response Carbine semiautomatic tactical rifle with mini red dot, the Colt LE6920 semiautomatic tactical rifle, and the Smith & Wesson M&P 15 Sport II semiautomatic tactical rifle (each of these weapons is available for purchase from Cabela’s Outfitters).  I see no reason why these weapons should exist outside of the military and law enforcement – and only in very special cases for the latter.  The threat these weapons pose to the safety, health, and well-being of this nation far exceeds any possible benefit that can be derived from their private ownership.

I don’t give a damn about curtailing the profits of the manufacturers, imposing onerous regulations on gun shops, or any individual’s claim to the inalienable right to buy these weapons.  We routinely ban products deemed unsafe for consumers and even prevent products predicted to be unsafe from ever being marketed.  These guns serve no purpose but the expeditious killing of people from a distance.  Therefore, they should be banned.

There is only one more vigil I want to officiate – the memorial for the death of semiautomatic rifles.

Out with Facts

America’s gradual decline into kakistocracy (government by the most incompetent) continues.  Our national security teeters atop the Washington Monument waiting for our man-child President to lose his temper.  Corporations are persons, and people are disposable commodities existing only to fill the coffers of the wealthy and influential.  Our children graduate from college deep in debt with evaporating career opportunities.  And our headlong rush to destroy the environment continues in spite of a Himalayan pile of evidence from experts.

The Age of Facts is dead.  We now live in the Age of Unenlightenment.  Nowhere is this more apparent than the clinical insanity of our gun culture.  There was a time when the events in Las Vegas might have been a tipping point for reason and common sense.  But the hundreds of victims of Stephen Paddock’s arsenal will soon be forgotten, along with the children of Sandy Hook and thousands of other victims of our slavish dependence on firearms.

So, I offer no facts.  Facts make no difference to Second Amendment fanatics.  I only offer moral observations based on my personal ethics.

  • Only one reason exists to own an automatic rifle – the desire to kill masses of people as quickly as possible.  Possession of such a weapon is sufficient evidence of mental illness and a criminal danger to society.
  • Any politician who denies the American people the right to open hearings on gun control legislation is a whore of the NRA and should be impeached.
  • Anyone profiting from stock sales of Sturm Ruger or Smith and Wesson in recent days represents the most vile and soulless human attributes.  I pray that you somehow acquire a heart to fill the current cavern in your chest.
  • Wayne LaPierre does more to damage this nation and its people than Edward Snowden ever will.  His religious mantra of entitlement and sacrificing the blood of innocents on the altar of violence violates any sane interpretation of the writings of our Founders.
  • The media is complicit in America’s institutionalized racism and xenophobia.  By refusing to call these murders terrorism, the media feeds the agenda of white supremacists, Christian extremists, and anti-immigrant radicals.  Mass murder is by definition an act of terrorism, whether it is committed by a young, brown-skinned Muslim or an elderly, well-off white man.

The time is long overdue to take to the streets and bring an end to this madness.  We must hold the gun lobbyists and their puppet politicians responsible.

Out of Sadness

I am out of sadness. I am numb, having used up all of my sorrow for idiotic and preventable gun-related deaths in this country.

I wish I felt surprise, even shock at the loss of life and the massive injuries inflicted by one man. But, since Columbine my shock tolerance has steadily increased.

I want to speak with the calm voice of reason. But the bile rises in my throat with the acid burn of rage. I want to look NRA backers in the face and tell them that they helped make this slaughter possible. By resisting even limitations on weapons of mass killing, opponents of gun control legislation helped Stephen Paddock pull that trigger.

I have no calm, no compassion to share with Second Amendment radicals today. I don’t care whether you think that is fair. Fair would have been Mr. Paddock failing a background check and being referred to mental health treatment before buying one of his many automatic weapons. Fair would be living in a world where civilians could not get their hands on guns that could fire hundreds of bullets in a matter of minutes.

So yes, I am filled with anger, with rage, with white-hot fury. Sitting here at my desk, I find myself incapable of thinking about anything but my revulsion at a government unwilling to collect statistics about gun violence, let alone talk about gun control.

But, at the same time, a sliver of my being still holds onto the emotion that will save me – the only emotion capable of saving us all. As the hours pass, the Love returns, pushing out the directionless rage, the unfocused fury. Love-fueled passion slowly displaces even the anger.

This is not the love of the healer and teacher, but the love of the agitator, the love of those who know that we must change our paradigms or die. This love tells me that we must enter the temple and overturn the tables again. We must chase the money lenders from our sacred spaces and reclaim the soul of the nation. We must stand up to the Pharisees who preach the status quo, as they line their pockets with bribes of gold and power.

A classroom full of school children wasn’t enough. A sitting congresswoman wasn’t enough. Is Las Vegas going to be the tipping point?

Capitalizing on Grief

I waited all week since our new President’s address to the joint session of Congress to see the reaction to the only truly memorable moment of his otherwise vague and unrealistic speech.  I waited for people to express outrage at the way Mr. Trump used Carryn Owens as a shameless public relations tool.  This woman lost her husband in Trump’s first military action as President, a disaster that also took the lives of dozens of innocent women and children. while the Commander-in-Chief could not even be bothered to attend in the Situation Room.

But, no outrage emerged.

I presume that most Americans correctly chose to honor her loss in silence – an appropriate response.

However, I could not help but recall a similar situation at the end of 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut.  In the months following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, so-called “truthers” in the alt-right movement called the shooting a government conspiracy aimed at opening the way for stricter gun control laws.  They decried liberals’ “use” of the victims of Newtown as shameless propaganda.  Many of these same people, such as Alex Jones and others, are ardent supporters of our new President.

I cannot help but relive the sadness of every senseless loss of life from our gun culture when hypocrites take advantage of grieving family members for political gain.

Change is Coming

There is in the land today a sense of restlessness. Women across the nation have arisen. They march in celebration of diversity and civil rights. They call and write elected officials advocating for compassion and reason. We have entered an era in which women will no longer accept the patronizing platitudes of men who preach smaller government, but use their power to promote misogyny, racism, homophobia, ablism, and xenophobia.

Young and old, those with years of activist experience and those who have never marched before, are sharing their feelings and joining in a glorious sisterhood of resistance. The movement grows with each new harm inflicted on the American people, with each new lie from Washington, with each patriarchal tantrum from our child President. For men, the time has come to join our mothers, sjsters, and daughters and help them foment a long overdue change in this country.

shifrapuahb1Women have resisted the tyranny of men before. The Book of Exodus tells the story of two women defying the will of mighty Pharoah. The growing population of Jewish slaves in Egypt worried the ruler, so he called Shiphrah and Puah – midwives to the Hebrews – before him. He warned them that they must kill any newborn Hebrew boy at birth. He explained to them how they must do this horrible act and sent them forth to implement his demand.

But the women persisted in delivering every Hebrew child safely. One of the babies saved by these midwives was Moses, who would eventually lead the people from their cruel bondage.

Shiphrah and Puah were summoned once again before Pharoah. He demanded to know why boys were still being born to the Jews. Standing before this man who held their lives in his hands, they told him that the Jewish women were more vigorous than Egyptian women. They even used Pharaoh’s own bigotry against him, comparing the Hebrew slaves to the beasts of the field who gave birth without assistance. Their ruse worked, and the midwives saved a generation of Jewish boys from execution by a paranoid tyrant.

The Bible cites few women by name. But the Torah proclaims the identities of these women who defied a king and saved a people. Whatever your religious belief, this story inspires action, resistance to those who would oppress others, and opposition to those who use fear and intimidation to justify ignorance and injustice.

Last week, men warned Senator Elizabeth Warren to stop speaking. They explained the consequences if she continued to share the thoughts of one of our most highly-regarded civil rights leaders. And she persisted until these men silenced her. They submitted to the will of a Pharoah and abrogated their responsibility to the American people to confirm qualified and competent individuals to high positions.

Men, the time of male rule in the United States draws to a close. The kakistocracy of Donald Trump will signal an era of women leaders that will fundamentally change the demeanor and spirit of our nation. I for one welcome such a change. Groups like WOMAN (Women of Michigan Action Network) are quickly changing the landscape of participation in the political process. We can join with them as allies, or be brushed aside into the ash pile of historical irrelevance.