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.

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.

Hiding in Plain Sight

We must no longer dismiss the threat posed to American democracy by recent changes in the White House. We face a very real circumstance that the United States will change radically for the worse, not just in years or even months, but perhaps in weeks or days. Some have suggested that we are looking at a repeat of 1933 Germany.

picture1Trump and Hitler. Donald Trump bears no resemblance to Adolf Hitler. Hitler grew up in low middle class status and received no help pursuing his dream of becoming an artist. Hitler served in combat in World War I and returned to a nation offering few prospects for employment. He rose quickly in the ranks of the tiny National Socialist German Workers’ Party. And while in prison for inciting open rebellion against the government, Hitler wrote his own magnum opus Mein Kampf without the benefit of ghost writers.

One can certainly not debate the vast difference in polished delivery and presentation between the leaders; nor the fanatical love held by millions toward Hitler, especially as his leadership lifted Germany like a phoenix from the ashes of the Great Depression and from the emasculation of the Treaty of Versailles.

Republican Party and the Nazi Party. The Republican Party possesses a long history of shared political control in America, as one of the two undisputed leaders of our two-party system for most of the past two centuries. Third parties come and go – and the Republicans certainly changed – but the Republican Party survived and remains a major American political party. The Nazi Party, on the other hand, was born out of the defeat in World War I. The movement attracted returning soldiers with its nationalist message and represented an utterly insignificant force in German politics.

The two parties do, however, share dominant principles – anti-Communism and populist appeal. Both parties also share a willingness to espouse racist, homophobic, misogynist, ablist, and anti-immigrant positions. And yet, from its inception Nazism was a people’s movement of the lower classes and the disenfranchised. Republicanism has, at various times, attracted populist support, but perhaps more accurately reflects a party catering to the agenda of the wealthy and of middle class conservatives.

Nazism and “Trumpism.” Both Hitler and Trump reached out to a similar base – the disenfranchised majority. Many Germans felt victimized by foreign influences that threatened the health and well being of the German people. Many also held groups within Germany accountable for some of their hardships – most particularly, the Jews. Germans wearied of the Weimar Republic and the rules of enforced democracy that ran counter to traditional German values. They welcomed a call to return to a better, purer time of the German volk, proud of its traditions and unafraid to flex its muscles on the global stage.

Trump largely spoke to white, lower middle class Americans who felt unrewarded for their hard work and unappreciated for their “traditional” American values. Many supporters of Trumpism hold a wide variety of minority groups to blame for the ills facing our nation. Specifically, however, Trump supporters direct the greatest animosity towards immigrants, and most particularly toward Mexican and Muslim immigrants. Regardless of their infeasibility and almost certain illegality, the wall on the Mexican border and the Muslim ban stoked the fires of Trumpism and now lead the way in Trump’s executive actions. Trump supporters hearken back to a time when America was “great,” before creeping liberalism eroded core Constitutional freedoms and historically religious (read “Christian”) moral standards.

Whether this comparison holds true will depend on whether Trump follows through on his promises. Even then, the comparison is strained. Nazism saved a nation with a decimated economy stripped of its military and facing crippling reparations. Despite Trump’s claims to the contrary, America’s economy is healthy and its people maintain a high standard of living.

So, Trump is no Hitler. The Grand Old Party is not the Nazis. And while Trumpism bears disturbing similarities to Nazism, Trumpism seems far too chaotic and incompetent to accomplish its grandiose goals. Also, the American people are not so desperately compelled to completely discard the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That leaves one last comparison.

Democracy or Fascism? Author Robert Paxton provides this definition of Fascism.

Fascism is a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

Any sane and rational person, upon reading this definition and observing Trump’s rhetoric and first actions as President, would be justified in feeling true terror.

Could this really happen? The United States makes mistakes just like any other nation. But for more than two centuries, this nation carried the banners of freedom and democracy and stood as a model form of government in defense of rights and liberty. Are we seriously discussing some dystopian future America capable of the kinds of unspeakable cruelty we associate with the world’s worst tyrants? Surely such a vision cannot possibly come to pass here in the 21st century.

picture2Why not? The recent Women’s March wasn’t the first assemblage of thousands of people on our nation’s capital. In the 1920’s, fifty thousand Klansmen proudly and unashamedly paraded on the same ground. Trump is not the first American to envision himself as Führer. In 1939, 22,000 Nazi Americans filled Madison Square Garden in New York City to hear Fritz Julius Kuhn, the Bundesführer of the German American Bund. The German people possessed no monopoly on wrongly incarcerating enemies during wartime, or exterminating undesirables who stood in their way of nationalist expansion. In point of fact, Hitler praised America’s genocide of indigenous peoples, citing it as a model for similar cleansings.

So let’s dispel any illusions that Americans are somehow immune to the behaviors normalized while Fascism ruled Germany. In normal times, when presented against strong political options, Fascism seems too extreme, too radical a choice for most populations. But when the existing parties show weakness, room exists for Fascism to seem not only possible, but even desirable. American history shows us that whenever the mainstream parties fail to reach the majority of people, extremist movements will arise to fill the void.

Imagine the history books 50 years from now. Researchers will talk about the birth of the Tea Party movement, with its radical rhetoric and simplistic message of patriotism and libertarianism. In less than a decade (much like the National Socialist German Workers’ Party), this fringe element went from wearing ridiculous tri-corner hats to completely dismantling the mainstream Republican Party. The Tea Party blew open a hole wide enough to allow consideration of a Presidential candidate who, in saner times, would never have emerged from the starting blocks. Our grandchildren will read accounts of the rise of Trumpism and the impact his political philosophy had on America.

Or, perhaps not. Instead, our grandchildren will about a great resistance movement that stood up against Fascist forces and restored America to its true greatness. And in the center of this resistance will reside people of faith, like the Unitarian Universalists whom I serve. Present at every rally, challenging every assault on the democratic process, hounding unprincipled politicians, we will proclaim proudly and publicly our commitment to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, whether that person is Muslim, immigrant, LGBTQIA, or female, regardless of their ability, age, or socioeconomic status.

Why do I believe this? Because there is another common element shared by successful Fascist regimes – the lack of people of faith willing to fight and sacrifice for what is morally right. Fascism thrives when churches fail to shelter the oppressed, to stand beside the persecuted, to act with conscience, and to protect our planet. Whether you attend a church, mosque, or synagogue; whether you follow Buddhist, Hindu, or Pagan teachings; if you reserve your faith for the wonders of the unknown universe, then you can be part of this faith movement. Few other institutions can successfully resist Fascist regimes, such as academia, labor, and the press. When those institutions falter, the movement of the faithful must be willing to call the truth the truth and to call alternative facts lies.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison, “Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?” I say, yes. So long as we affirm our principles of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, we will find the strength to resist. So long as we commit to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, we will find the will to be remorselessly honest. And so long as we recognize and respect truth and protest lies, we will reclaim the simple and straightforward American ideal of freedom and liberty for all.

Dear Mr. Trump

Congratulations on your upcoming inauguration. Many of us voted for you despite your lack of experience holding public office. So, on behalf of the hundreds of millions of us you now serve, I want to take this opportunity and offer you some advice as you enter the Oval Office. Please forgive us if some of these suggestions sound simplistic, even obvious. Given your public discourse to date, however, we have confidence that you will find value in them.

trump-meryl1. Think. Our mothers taught us, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, then don’t say anything at all.” We Americans can be obnoxious, even rude. But, we look up to the Office of the President largely because it stands for the highest level of decorum and class in our society. Our President should be better than us, and should model for us the best human behavior. We all understand the satisfaction derived from beating someone in a war of words. But, we need our President to rise above personal pettiness and insulting retorts in response to criticism.

2. Listen. Like many of us, you have decades of life experience. But, you can now access thousands of people with unbelievable knowledge about every topic imaginable at a moment’s notice. You are smarter than most of us – otherwise you would never have succeeded in the election. You are still a human being, however, and we do not expect you to know everything. Please listen to people the way you expect us to listen to you.

3. Review. We admire your spontaneity. In a complex world, however, every word spoken by our President matters. When you tweet without subjecting your words to careful review…you frighten us. We don’t see grammatical mistakes, factual errors, and statements revealing a lack of knowledge of basic governmental functions as amusing signs of a delightfully quirky leadership style. They scare us. They scare us because they are mistakes that we would make – but we are not President. We fear the consequences of your unedited statements, and need to see that you understand our feelings and the power your words wield.

4. Respect. We respect the Office of the President like no other position in the world. Likewise, we need the person filling that office to respect us. We elected you. So, we logically expect you to respect our intelligence and wisdom. When we feel disregarded by our President, we can delude ourselves with false hopes; we begin forming unrealistic expectations of a nation already responsible for unprecedented historical achievements; and we allow our fears to override our reason. The American people will follow your example. We need you to display the respect for us that you expect from us in return.

5. Awaken. Citizen Trump owned every privilege available. Unlike most of us, you were born a white, straight, male, Christian, healthy and wealthy American citizen. But we need President Trump to represent people of color and women; gay and transgender people; Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and Atheists; and people suffering from physical and mental illnesses. We need our President to serve all the people, whether they live in mansions, houses, apartments, or packing crates. Whether we work as executives or lawyers, nurses or plumbers, cashiers or migrant farmers, we must feel that you empathize with our lives and acknowledge our inherent worth and dignity.

6. Mature. To be honest, many of us voted for you because you acted like us. You said things we might say and acted in ways we might act. But we know that we don’t always say the right things, or act in the right ways. Candidate Trump was an adolescent – a malignant narcissist and expert self-promoter. And many of us loved that persona. We now need President Trump to heed the lesson we learned on TV from that great philosopher Spock of Vulcan, who said, “Having is not nearly so pleasing a thing as wanting.”

You wanted our ultimate position of celebrity and we gave it to you. But with ownership comes tremendous responsibility. Billions of lives across the world now depend on you owning every attribute of a great leader, qualities such as wisdom, integrity, and humility. Perhaps most important, we need you to show the courage to make decisions that might make you unpopular, but that are morally correct choices. Sadly, there isn’t a kinder, more gentle way to say this. Now that we have entrusted you with the most important office in our nation, we need you to grow up.

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul wrote, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Every one of your constituents – regardless of skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, theological persuasion, ability, or legal, social and economic status – can agree with these sentiments.

His letter continued. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

7. Love. Mr. Trump, on the morning of January 20, you will gaze into that golden mirror you caress so often. Our nation, all of us living and yet to be born, and the planet Earth that sustains us need you to see the full reflection of a President. We need that mirror to reflect a thoughtful, considerate, careful, respectful, aware adult. We desperately need that mirror to project an image of love. We know you love yourself and your family. We know you love your fans and supporters. As President Trump, we need you to share that love with every person equally.

trump-reporterWe need you to love every Black man looking in the rear view mirror at the flashing lights of a police car; the woman entering the Planned Parenthood office for a cancer screening because her insurance won’t pay for her to go to the local hospital anymore; the young gay man cast out of his parent’s home because of who he loves; the woman wearing the hijab being berated for her religious beliefs; the man publicly mocked for his congenital disability; the mother living in her car because her employers pay poverty wages; and the hard-working, courageous man seeking the same American dream for his children that our own ancestors sought.

We Americans can love deeply. But we will emulate our President. If our President displays impatience, arrogance, rudeness, and resentment, we will do the same. So, Mr. Trump, please model that love for us, for our nation, and for our planet as you become President Trump.

Renovations

I began blogging in 2008 as I progressed through the discernment process toward becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister.  With the changing times comes a need to upgrade my platform and appearance for my Pizzatorium.  Over the next few weeks, I hope to migrate the old Blogger content and enhance other elements.  So, stay tuned for further developments.