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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine

Strange it is how loss, departure, and bereavement often 'come not in single spies, but in battalions'. Stranger still how such sorrows put what is truly important into focus, instantly prioritize, and thus transform into the very stuff of renewal. Life from death: the eternal mystery that drives people to the bottle and to the Bible, to Deepak Chopras and to deep-dark churches.

To back up: there has suddenly been a great deal of mortality, and of leave-taking, and of enforced letting-go in my narrow window of life lately. To list a few:
  • the valediction of a close friend so beleaguered with cancer that she is not expected to recover from a precipitous and a shocking decline; her prognosis a matter of weeks
  • a daughter who has suddenly chosen to depart the nest well before expectations; the house an echoing emptiness
  • a memorial service for Mandela here in the greatest Cathedral in this 'city of churches'; joy and sadness fused together
  • and today, an urgent, death-bed visit to a beloved church member; the faces of her family at the bedside a shattered landscape of grief
It's been easy to feel alone and at sea.

This last bereavement, especially, has hammered home some of the paradoxes of ministry that are still revealing themselves to me, newbie that I am: I was today both utterly useless and yet absolutely required.

To be clear: in our ministry education, we received no formal training in these matters. No clever theory, no strategies, no tactical psychology. Perhaps the wise heads who decided I was a fit candidate for the role, saw something in me which made them feel I could handle times like this. But whenever I go into such a situation, I am far from sure I will know how to respond.

And when I'm far from sure, I pray. How sweetly old-school. How charmingly naïve. How (what is the word?) weak.

And, again, to be clear: when I pray, I talk to my best self to find my highest thought, my most loving disposition, my deepest feeling. If the divine is in any sense within us, I would recognise it in these guises. But it does not talk back to me. Not in words at any rate. Nevertheless, I find it opens a clear channel, and steadies the tossing dinghy of my heart on the heaving seas around me.

Unitarianism can feel a bit mealy-mouthed at times like these. What should a Unitarian minister say to someone who is dying before them, reaching out to them for succour, the certainty of mortality snapping at one's heels? Shall I ask if they've made 'arrangements'? Shall I go all spooky and talk in vague terms about the great mystery to which all must go? Shall I offer wry and dapper observations about how in life we are always in the midst of death? Shall I give them false, comforting hope?

Shall I quote Emerson?

Today, you see, the oddest thing happened.

Having prayed on the way and met only the usual silence, I went in disarmed. I held her hand, stroked her head, sat with her laboured breathing for what seemed like ages, but wasn't.

And then I leaned over and whispered into her ear this clutch of words from my childhood faith. Words I thought I'd forgotten, that simply bobbed to the surface from somewhere:

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum:
Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.

Which, in it's most recent, hippest, Unitarian-disinfected translation, might read;

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people

Yes, Bible fans. It's the song of Simeon from the Luke gospel (the one most interested in the nativity and early life of Jesus). Simeon was a faithful, elderly Jew whom God had promised would not die until he had seen the saviour. And when he had, he simply let go of hanging on to life, and was at peace.

Though I did feel a squeeze of the hand, I will never be sure if she heard me or not, barely conscious as she was. But in the corridor, the talk among the family was of letting her go, of our letting go of her, of honouring her DNS wishes, and how we would support her grieving husband of 6 decades. And love. All the important stuff. There was a gentle acceptance and peace.

I'm not taking credit for anything. I'm not especially clever in navigating the tigerish waters of violent feeling. All I know is this: I prayed and something helpful was revealed.

And though I've spent this day waiting by the phone for the inevitable call, and in melancholic mood, it is hard not to feel blessed.

Because you see lately, I've been seriously questioning why I got into this job/role/vocation. Soul-sickened by the usual internal politics of church systems, irritated by the inertia of sloth and selfishness that attend a fundamentally conservative cohort, maddened by its lack of vision and mission and relevance, beset by its internalized consumer-model mindset of expectation, demand, and complaint. So much ME and so little WE. And even less of what's really important.

But suddenly none of that matters a toss any more. I, too, let go.

Today, this day, this is what I was for, what it was all for--ready or not. That I got what was needed says far more about the workings of God (or whatever you will) than about me. Its says things about perspective and priorities, about life and death.

And maybe even a little thing called "grace".

This from Isaiah:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

Sunday, November 24, 2013

An Open Letter to Scott Morrison: "You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

Dear Mr. Morrison,

I refer to the article in the Sydney Morning Herald of 22/11/13.

A good, Christian, family man. And a monster.
Why does it take a court order to get you to behave like the Christian you claim to be? Do you need a judge to tell you your plan to send a two-week old baby to detention is monstrous and an affront to God and man? You are a Minister of this country. How obtuse can you be?

Or perhaps I've got it all wrong...

Perhaps you might re-read the Gospels, and indicate to me, my congregation, and my international readership where exactly we are enjoined by Jesus to behave toward others as you are behaving toward these wretched people, and their utterly helpless baby, legally seeking asylum in our country?

But happily, refusing asylum IS illegal.

Every Sunday school kid knows that Jesus had a special place in his heart for children, "suffer them to come unto me, for such is the kingdom of heaven". What poor excuse for Christian education did you have that failed to include that titbit? Let alone the utter failure of that education to have conveyed the essence of Christ's teachings--that we are to help those in need.

"Get away from me kid, ya bother me."

Short of the Third Reich, it is hard to imagine a politics more morally repellent, xenophobic, and cruel than those this government is employing with regard to the world's most desperate. Whilst I have breath in my lungs, and can vent clamour from my throat, I will tell everyone within the scope of my ministry, that you and the current government do nothing less than evil in pursuing your asylum seeker policies.

I am forced to conclude that you can be no Christian, sir. If you had the least Christian sensibility, you would quail for shame that you would visit such suffering upon those already suffering. And that when you go to face your maker--a day your 'Christian' values claim will surely come--you will have to account for this with your very soul. It will be a heavy reckoning, sir, and something in you (however deep) must know it.

How can you sleep at night under the watchful eye of the God you uphold? Temazepam? What quantities of drink does it take to quell the pain and live with yourself from day to day? Or do you simply pray the heartache away?

Is it all worth it? Is the power and money, and the assurance of a secure government pension for life, and future consulting and directorship gigs on the public purse, and all that--worth what you are doing? And the acid contempt all genuine Christians, your brothers and sisters, must feel toward you?

It doesn't take a Christian to know right from wrong. A Sikh Temple, a Zoroastrian Atash, a Wiccan circle, even the new Sunday Assembly atheist-and-comedy church would show you the door for being so beastly to a baby its sick mother.

As it's the season in which Christians commemorate the birth of Christ, you might recall the pity evoked by the story that Joseph and Mary, a poor couple far from home, gave birth to a vulnerable baby in squalor and desperation. Jesus himself was one such as the baby you've tried to exile. Do you not see?

This is actually cleaner than the squalid manger would have been, as it lacks the requisite donkey sh*t.

But even if you had made no claim to Christian values, and thereby willingly taken on the mantle of 'glaring hypocrite' (the only group, btw, Jesus condemned), you would still be open to a question which rings down the ages, from a not dissimilar context, 50 years ago:

"You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

No, he didn't.

With pity and prayers for your dark heart,

Rev. Rob MacPherson

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Putting the 'Unity' back in Unitarian

It's a commonplace that the world we inhabit is nothing if not diverse--geographically, biologically, climatically, linguistically, socially, politically (et cetera...) diverse. As the Temptations so aptly sang forty-some years ago, "Ball of confusion/that's what the world is today/hey hey!"

The source of most of our frustrations is that we struggle to accept and live with the stone-cold reality of inherent complexity, about which we can (and, I suggest, should) do nothing.

Frequently, too frequently, alas, this frustration boils over and a reactive craving to homogenize lashes out, to eradicate the tensions inherent in diversity, to have the world conform to our tastes and our convenience, to what meets our approval.

"My way or the highway", as they say. And that is the subtext of all dogma.

Usually, this means things/people/ideas that are not like us nor that we understand. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc., are the spook-stories people usually tell to make this point.

Uncle Joe liked his society like he liked his grooming--even and orderly.
It's so understandable, so very human, this urge for homogeneity, for sameness, for what we take to be peace, an end to confusion and tension and endless choice. And it always always ends in the building of walls-- in 'otherizing', excluding, demonizing, disenfranchising, who's right/who's wrong, and simply keeps the cycle of tension and conflict going by creating new divisions. This is a karmic tale as old as time.

Interestingly, our current best understanding of the metaphysical reality itself seems to suggest that diversity is inherent in the very nature of the cosmos, that the universe is not our poodle, will not be pinned down. If light, say, is BOTH a wave and a particle (two contradictory physical states), if there is matter and anti-matter and 'dark' matter, if solid matter is really energy (etc., etc.) our human impulse to homogenise anything seems delusional, a fool's errand.

Not 'either/or', but 'both/and'.

It would seem a radical humility regarding the nature of reality is called for. But how to LIVE in that? This is where Unitarianism comes in. Or at least, where it's supposed to...

(For Unitarian tragics only: all others can skip this next paragraph:)

(A caveat: the root word 'Unity' is a trifle misleading. We're rather odd in being the only denomination whose name bespeaks a theology, and yet we've no set theology. The word "Unitarian" was coined as an opposing response to Trinitarian Christianity, since early Unitarians found the concept of the Trinity neither scriptural (which is the case), nor in accordance with reason (er, how can three be one?). Instead, we suggested that if there was indeed a God, it made more sense (and was truer to scripture) to think of him/her as one and indivisible, hence 'Unitarian'. Interesting footnote in the history of theology though this may be, it is not the point of this post. I just needed to get that out of the way.)

The 'Unity' in Unitarianism can be traced to the 1557 Edict of Torda, an early attempt to guarantee religious freedom in Europe. In essence, it sought freedom of thought, practice, and faith-teaching, for everyone not just those with whom we agreed. A radical humility indeed, based on the fact that no one can know the absolute truth of God (or Ultimate Reality or whatever you will) for absolute certain. Therefore, it called for tolerant respect for the diversity of faith practices and teachings at the time. In that respect, times have changed but little: a tolerant embracing of diversity is still sold as the Unitarian way.
You can thank, if you want to, Unitarian Francis David for being WAY ahead of his time in saying: "I'm okay; you're okay."
And so it follows as does the night the day, that within the Unitarian movement, there is also  great diversity of views about absolutely everything. This makes them less a flock of sheep than a herd of cats: difficult to muster together, and often fighting amongst themselves. But, in theory, held together gently by a covenant that says that your right to your view is as legitimate as mine. And I will defend your right to hold your well-considered views.  I may challenge, admonish, question the substance of those views, but I will NEVER so disrespect you as to try to wrest them from you, or to exclude you from fellowship.

And yet, depressingly, the exact converse of these sentiments were exactly what I heard bandied by many of my fellow Unitarians, including some of the eminence gris, at our recent ANZUUA conference in Auckland. A few snippet of the dogmatic, exclusionist assertions put forth in paraphrase:

  • There is only the big bang, evolution, and randomness. All else is b*llshit, and we don't want people in our membership who recognise for anything else.
  • We are alone in a material universe.
  • We don't want 'sheep' from other denominations (ignoring the fact that nearly everyone recent began life in another faith tradition). We want only secular atheists. This is what we are.
  • Fundamentalism is wrong; therefore ANY and ALL conventional religion is wrong (especially Islam)
Yes, this has all the ingredients of a new creed, the very idea of which we were meant to have rejected hundreds of years ago as being exclusionist, arrogant, and coercive.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I disagree (though I do). It's that while I would defend to the death anyone's right to hold these views, I clearly would not be accorded the same respect if the old guard had their way.

It was as if the old guard of ANZUUA decided that veganism was the only morally defensible lifestyle and stated baldly that carnivores need not apply. Talk about cognitive dissonance: I wondered what church I had wandered into.

Look guys: even the eminent evolutionary biologist JB Haldane admitted:

"The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."
So how can a gaggle of superannuated (and let's face it) amateur theologians have the chutzpah to suppose they alone know the true way? I am no longer young myself, and I too understand that feeling there are things that time and experience and some reading should make you sure of. And I understand the urge to homogenize your environment, silence the ball of confusion, and have everything conform to your weary requirements. But that, right there, is what drives the young, the seeking, the truly open minds away from our movement and spells its death in a generation or two.
What all genuine science assumes is a radical humility toward this unknowability, including a understanding that scientific materialism is itself a construct that obscures as much as it reveals. As Unitarians, our principles require a humble embracing of the diversity of life, an acceptance that "there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of" in our half-baked philosophies.
And to learn to love it all.
Our church, our world, is a messy unity, but only by lovingly holding the contradictions, the confusion, the opposition in equipoise, can we put the "Unity" back into Unitarianism.
Looks almost like a chalice.

So may it be.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Theology and Sexuality: 3 short posts

In post-federal-election Australia, we are about as far from marriage equality as we've been in the last generation. Indeed, by the election of a conservative "Opus Dei" Catholic to the top job, and the parallel implosion of the Labour left, we have probably taken a big step backwards.

I am heterosexual, and I am committed to equality on the basis of sexual orientation. As part of that commitment to political activism, I write a regular column for Blaze, a local magazine, part of the Gay News Network, exploring the theological dimensions of LGBTi issues.

Since many of you, dear readers, won't be able to get your hands on a hard-copy, I've decided to post the most recent articles here as well.



History is made by those who show up (July 2013 issue)

 “Just ignore those bigots,” they said.

And of course, they were--and are—right about this. The rational part of me sees this clearly. Nevertheless, I still bristled at their bilious hate-speech and poor scriptural scholarship on their surprisingly well-made and huge placards. And eventually, I allowed myself to be baited into a confrontation with them that a calm, friendly cop had to step in and defuse. I am not so much ashamed of what I did, but how I comported myself. Violence—even in the form of intemperate speech--begets violence… (something you’d think a minister would know).

Why the bristling and the intemperate speech? Because I was the only actual clergy present at last month’s marriage equality rally. I was there to support the cause, as the Unitarian church, my denomination, has always done in the USA and the UK and New Zealand. My appallingly un-aesthetic, homemade placard read “Unitarians Support Marriage Equality”—along with a picture of our flaming chalice symbol. I might just as well have not been there at all.

The problem was (and is) that all the general public (through the ever-balanced mainstream media) see of religious representation at such demonstrations are people like the self-appointed Street Preachers. And so the message is: “If you’re in any way religious, you’re anti-LGBT rights.” And this simplification is just damn well not true.
Lies, damned lies, and people who use the parts a big book to confirm their prejudices...
Our theology says it’s simply not okay to cherry-pick an encyclopaedic ancient book from another culture, make up stuff from what you’ve picked, and use it to harass and oppress people. Especially when the over-arching theme of that book is: “Learn to love all beings.”

Unitarian theology prizes the use of reason, confident that humans wouldn’t be given that capacity to ‘fust in us un-used’. So the rational argument for marriage equality goes like this: “People do not choose their sexual orientation (this is well-establish science). Justice requires equal treatment before the law for all citizens. Denying equal legal rights on the basis of something over which one has no control (like skin colour) is discriminatory. Therefore this law needs to be changed.”

Progressive religion is NOT the enemy of LGBT rights, and I know clergy who agree. Where were they? The recent SCOTUS decision to overturn Prop 8 in the USA indicates that marriage equality is now the ‘low-hanging fruit’ (pardon) of social justice issues, easier to endorse now that it has ever been. If progressive clergy want to show that religion can be a relevant and effective force in positive social change, THIS is the issue to help move to its logical and inevitable conclusion.

But on the day, the voice of religion defaulted to the usual shrill bigotry. And that is what is called a wasted opportunity to help incarnate divine love in the world.


Be yourself to death (August 2013 issue)

Few people appreciate this, but there is a crucial theological imperative to being ‘out and proud’, whether or not you happen to believe in a personal God.
Absolutely everything in the universe has its own unique and inherent nature, a one-off mix of limits, potentials, and physical properties. In human beings, sexuality is one rather basic expression of one’s nature. A humanist would call this nature one’s ‘identity’ or ‘integrity’; a theist might refer to this as ‘the imagine and LIKEness of God’.  Ask any parent, and they will tell you that no child comes into the world a ‘blank slate’, as raw material to be shaped entirely by social forces. There is a unique selfhood to each and every one of us.
Thus, we are called (by Nature, by God, of whatever you will…) to live out this authentic selfhood. As many of you, dear readers, will attest, the psychological costs of NOT doing so can be profoundly crippling, and warp not only yourself, but your entire network of relationships when you try to be that which you are not.
Being true to your self...so much easier than the alternative.
Not that this is easy. The playwright Harold Pinter, in an interview, said:
“Self-acceptance is terribly difficult…It is the ultimate sin, you’ll find, to ignore or to deny who and what we are….One of the most potent ways to discover and to accept yourself is to tell your story honestly. There you will find your true self.”
But when pervasive social/cultural forces not only demand a normative sexual identity, but also ‘otherise’ and demonize any transgression from a moral standpoint, the notion of feeling ‘natural’ or ‘beloved of God’ can seem very far away indeed.
I invite you, then, to consider replacing the familiar, narrow, judgemental God-of-morality, not with nothing, but with a God-of-reality, one who not only accepts the unique and inherent nature of every piece of his/her/its creation, but also cherishes it for its expression of the endless, delightful diversity of that creation.
The “Universalist” part of Unitarian-Universalism used to assert that there was no such thing as Original Sin, that a benevolent and loving creator would not and could not engender a thing with inherent corruption, only to then condemn it for being corrupt. For a Universalist, all were saved, and the concept of Original Sin was replaced with ‘Original Blessing’. Though such antiquated theological language has fallen from our church’s everyday use, it gets close to what I mean that your first responsibility in this life is to “Be yourself to death.” After that act of self-love, you can then begin to love the uniqueness of all other beings, as you yourself are loved.

I Support Chelsea (not the FC) (September 2013 issue)

Bradley/Chelsea Manning’s ‘Wikileaks’ whistle-blower status was over-shadowed recently when she struck yet another heroic blow for liberty: gender re-assignment. Her recent statement:

“As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility). I look forward to receiving letters from supporters and having the opportunity to write back.”

Her defense counsel had been claiming all throughout the trial that Manning suffered from ‘gender identity disorder’ all her life, but (gosh) no one seemed to be paying attention to that aspect off the proceedings. The timing of her announcement—on the eve of serving 35 years in a MEN’S prison—suggests some rather difficult incarceration scenarios, making Manning’s claim to her true gender identity all the more heroic.
Seriously...how does his freedom to do this impinge on you?
Cue, of course, predictably cruel and loopy and denial-ridden responses from the ‘sexually normative’ (inverted commas for sarcasm)—a choice selection:

·       Taunting insistence on using the male pronoun when referring to Manning

·       Transgender identity is evidence of mental illness

·       Gender reassignment is as ridiculous as species reassignment (‘I am the Walrus’, Dude.)

·       Boorish high-school-teacher puns around the surname (“Manning? More like Womanning! Geddit? Geddit?”)

·       Gender reassignment is an elaborate ploy to be sent to a ‘cushy’ woman’s prison, and so avoid the enforced sodomy ‘justice’ demands

Leaving aside for a moment the obvious issues of the dispiriting lack of compassion and empathy for someone identifying as transgender, there is an underlying truth to human sexuality such bigotry glosses over. Gender, like all creation, is not binary. We are not either male or female, but a mixture of both, and this has nothing to do with the presence or absence of a key chromosome. One gender may assert itself more than the other, through nature and nurture and culture, but no one is entirely any one thing. Think of it as a continuum, with equally unattainable ‘absolute male’ and ‘absolute female’ at either end. An individual’s gender identity is located at neither extreme, but somewhere along the line, inclining more on one side or another, but only inclining. There will, in each of us, be qualities of both what we recognise as the masculine as well as the feminine.

Try it. I’ve placed an X where I think Manning has staked out her identity. I’ve put a Y where I think mine is. Where does your gender identity sit?



Absolute male                                                                                                               Absolute female

The important moral point is that just as I would demand the freedom to discover and live my true and uniquely gendered nature in my one human life, so I would support Chelsea and you, dear reader, in doing likewise. If issues of gender assignment, transgender identity, or indeed human freedom matter at all to you, do what Chelsea asks to help her face 35 years in the US justice system: write to her, offer support, offer compassion.

And don’t forget to use the correct pronoun!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Extreme Unction: The Well-Lubricated Church

It's funny what people do, and don't, notice in church services. For example, I once did an entire service on the history and various meanings of our flaming chalice symbol, one which was very well received. The very next week, the service was taken by very devout and committed congregant who utterly neglected to light it, a defining ritual which begins UU services. Sigh...

A different example on the same theme is the story of the dreaded "SKRAAAAK" of our church microphone.
Like this, but noisier
For years now, every time someone took the pulpit other than the speaker for whom the mic was set, they adjusted the mic to suit their height, and a "SKRRAAAAK" would rasp out of the sanctuary's speakers, and everyone at the service would jump, or wince, or both at once. The pulpit mic is a 'gooseneck' type that is made of a flat piece of spiralled metal twisted ingeniously onto itself to form a tube, allowing for infinite adjustment. And, boy, did we like to adjust it, despite the fact that we knew, knew mind you, that the ensuing "SKRAAAAK" would be emitted as sure as night followed day. Never mind that the mic, wherever it is placed, is sensitive enough to pick up the Pastor's stomach growling as the service approaches lunchtime.

When I knew someone rather shorter than I was about to use it for, say, a reading, I'd do what I could to conceal the harsh sound, shoving it abruptly downward as the last chord of the preceding hymn sounded, so you'd get a quick muffled "skrak" rather than a drawn-out "SKRAAAAK". I hoped I was subtly modelling mic etiquette, but subtle doesn't always read. All of which means I had more or less learned to live with this openly and obviously dysfunctional element, this fly in the ointment of a professional, reverent church service, just like everyone else had learned to live with the obvious and actual aesthetic pain the wretched thing caused them every week. No one mentioned it, let alone fixed it. For years.

I guess I'll just offer this up as penance
That is, until a recent stroke of genius from one of our newest members. The genius was not in the mechanics of the fix, which should have been obvious even to a non-engineering-type like myself. From early childhood, in fact, I had the knowledge about how to fix this problem, in that I had an average person's working knowledge of lubricants--silicon-based, petroleum-based, graphite-based, glycerine-based. I had used lubricants with such household names as RP-7, WD-40, and 3-in-1, in spray, liquid, and unguent forms, to lubricate cars, tractors, bikes, hinges, locks, chainsaws, lawn-mowers, saddles, and even stage rapiers. I had 50 years of experience with what would fix this mic. Never mind: someone will do something someday.

Ahh, that's better...
The genius was in how it was fixed. The squeaky mic finally got the much-needed, silencing grease not because a motion was put before committee, or because a working party of interested technophiles was rounded up and set to address the most cost-efficient upgrade to a new mic, but because this new member, in his innocence, had no idea of processes, procedures, or whose turf he might be treading on, but just went ahead and fixed the problem. With a few drops of lubricant. Genius.

After I finished thumping his back and wringing his hand, and after waggling the mic around in silence (to confirm that the "SKRAAAAK" was really, truly gone), my heart sank a bit. For in this incident I felt I could see all I needed to know about how church does and doesn't work:

  • First, churches can be inertia made flesh; it is better to wince and bear it than to get on and fix things.
  • Second, even though familiarity with dysfunction can feel like comforting tradition, we in fact de-value ourselves if we don't see it as important to get things right.
  • Third, new members can see things more clearly than those who are comfortably used to the way things are, so it is vital to bring them into the dialogue.
  • Fourth, aesthetics matter in worship; getting the tone/mood right is as important as getting the content right. If we are not invested in the feel of worship, we risk making the content less relevant.
While this message has played at being facetious, the import of what the incident tells us is deadly earnest. Given the general trends in church decline I shared with you in the post "The Little Chapel That Cried" and how our own church's attrition rate over the last generation matches those trends, this church will be on its last legs in one generation, maybe two. Not for lack of money, but for lack of people to engage with it. Where is the lubricant to fix that?
The real lubricant to ensure functional church workings is purposeful, positive engagement, even at the risk of bruising a few toes. Bruises heal, and our fellowship should heal them all the more quickly. And of course proper processes are important to protect the vulnerable from chaos.
But sometimes even chaos is preferable to inertia, just as life (with all its awkward complexity) is preferable to death.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

So Much of the Time We're Lost

All court room dramas are, ultimately, morality plays.

But the best of them capture, in our desire for justice, a religious sense--our longing for ultimate meaning in the universe. 
This is a great piece of writing by award-winning playwright David Mamet from his screenplay for the Sidney Lumet film The Verdict, a story of as rigged and corrupt a trial as can be imagined, to protect a Catholic Diocese against a rightful claim of complicity in the death of a young girl.  Paul Newman, playing the broken-down whiskey lawyer Frank Galvin, gets these lines to say to the jury at his summing up:

You know, so much of the time we're lost.  We say, 'Please, God, tell us what is right.  Tell us what's true.  There is no justice.  The rich win, the poor are powerless...'  We become tired of hearing people lie.  After a time we become dead.  A little dead.  We start thinking of ourselves as victims.  (pause) And we become victims. (pause)  And we become weak...and doubt ourselves, and doubt our institutions...and doubt our beliefs...we say for example, `The law is a sham...there is no law...I was a fool for having believed there was.'  (beat)  But today you are the law.  You are the law...And not some book and not the lawyers, or the marble statues and the trappings of the court...all that they are is symbols.  (beat)  Of our desire to be just... (beat) All that they are, in effect, is prayer...(beat) ... a fervent, and a frightened prayer.  In my religion we say, `Act as if you had faith, and faith will be given to you.'  (beat)  If.  If we would have faith in justice, we must only believe in ourselves.  (beat)  And act with justice.  (beat)  And I believe that there is justice in our hearts.  (beat)  Thank you.

(The power of Newman's acting, by the way, is in the pauses, which show you a broken man trawling the depths of his soul to find the capital-T Truth.)
You can watch it here:

There was a documentary last month on Rupert Murdoch. As you may be aware, Mr. Murdoch has decided that "Tony Abbott should have a go at running the country for a while." This would be just one man's opinion, were it not for the fact that the famously megalomaniacal Mr. Murdoch owns 70% of Australia's media. (The press is free, if you happen to own one!) Banana Republic, anyone?

And so, repeatedly brayed at by the world's biggest megaphone, the world's best-performing economy (Australia) actually believes itself to be in a fiscal Armageddon, with the opposition declaring an 'emergency budget.' 
You get a country with international law obligations to humanely deal with asylum seekers, vowing to 'stop the illegal boats', despite the fact that most unsuccessful applicants for asylum arrive not on boats, but on airplanes. 
It's your own fault for not ponying up the airfare
You get a country with endless energy resources of wind, sun, and coastline fracking for coal-seam gas at the behest of the petrochemical multinationals.
They call it 'fracking' in the rest of the world
And on and on: up is down, black is white, so why not elect Mr. Inside-outski?

Seriously, would you buy a used car from this man?

Mr. Murdoch's multi-faceted, polyphonic, and persistent message to us can be summarised: "Here's your bloke.  Make it so, and go back to sleep.  There's a good little country."  And so is it any wonder we've developed a fatalism about the outcome of the coming election.

Before the 1997 UK general election, the Rev. Judith Walker-Riggs (an early inspiration for me) said that "election day is the only Holy Day of Obligation for Unitarians".  Fortunately, here we have compulsory voting.  But we do not, alas, have compulsory rational thinking.  Nor do we have compulsory diversity in the media, which provides us with the information upon which we build informed political views.

So, much of the time we ARE lost, as Mamet says.  But on election day, YOU become the compass for the laws of the future.  As Unitarians hungry for Truth, I urge you to put down the Advertiser, The Australian, turn off Sky News, and think very carefully about whether or not you want a self-professed conservative Catholic running the country.  This is not really being talked about but should be, as Catholic orthodoxy takes very particular views about gender equality, reproductive rights, sexual preference, and the environment (if heaven everlasting is your reward for being a good Catholic, what do you care if this veil of tears is laid waste?)
The anointed of the Lord
As an immigrant, it's always baffled me why a country of such no-nonsense, down-to-earth people would regularly allow themselves to be so poorly led.  But I believe too that we have a deep sense of justice in our hearts.  But it's hard to hear when we also have the incessant drumbeat of conformity in our ears.  Tune it out, get informed, and turn in to your heart, which is where true justice resides.
If you do that and still prefer to vote for Rupert's bloke, go for it. But at least you'll be making a choice that involves both head and heart, and at least you won't have sleep-walked into whatever's to come--lost and weak, like sheep to shambles.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Accidental Activist

Who knew such an obviously just cause could be so contentious within the most liberal of denominations?

I refer to the cause of marriage equality. To cut swiftly through all the shrill, reactionary, and inflammatory guff that's been burped out about it, the issue is actually a rather simple one, and can be subject to clear thinking if you really try.

Major premise: People do not choose their sexual orientation. (This is a verifiable fact, supported by masses of medical and psychological research over the past twenty years. It is not a lifestyle choice; it is a matter of discovering and living truthfully your own personal identity.)

Minor premise: Denying someone equal rights and legal standing based on characteristics beyond their control (race, gender, disability) is manifestly unjust. (People can be answerable and accountable for acts of their will, but one cannot will oneself to be a different race (pace Michael Jackson). Nor can they will themselves to respond sexually to what they do not respond to sexually.)

Conclusion: Denying the legal right to equal marital status, based on sexual orientation, is unjust.

Professional logicians who want to pick that apart, 'go yer hardest', as they say Down-under.

Notice the far more professional placards of the "God Hates You" brigade at the back
The thing is I seem to be pathologically unable to jettison the clear direction this reasoning affords simply for the sake of a quiet life. Unitarians pride themselves on the application of reason to matters of religion and morality. But sometimes, I swear, you wouldn't know it...

My wife and a few congregants and I showed up recently to a rally in support of changing the marriage law to reflect simple justice. Australia, often an innovator in social policy, has been woefully retrograde on this issue. Witness, without weeping for joy if you can, the moment tiny New Zealand passed such a change in their laws:

This expression of joy was in part an emotional release from love long denied, but it was also, I think, a burst of positive energy that, in these times of divisive and polarized politics, a simple and obvious good can still be done by people who have the will to do it.

Now, all Unitarian umbrella organisations in the world are behind this movement toward marriage equality. All of them, and not without much internal soul-searching and debate, I am sure. In the UK, a couple of Unitarian churches were granted special licenses to perform same-sex marriages before the bill changing the law was passed through Parliament. The Standing on the Side of Love movement within the UUA is well-subscribed and well-known.

Unitarians are also committed to tolerance, and that means respect for the diversity of views. Reason and tolerance. Do you see the problem here? Suppose the views you are called to respect are irrational, fear-driven, or cravenly change and risk averse? How do you resolve that? Are there any 'wrong' views that may be, respectfully, dismissed?

I suggest one view we might dismiss is the one championed by the theological illiterates waving the anti-gay placards in the distance in the top photo. You're entitled to your opinion, of course, but you're not entitled to cherry-pick an encyclopaedic source, make up stuff from what you've picked, and use it to oppress and harass people. Are we agreed on this? Good.

But a far more insidious view on the issue is "let's just wait 'til everybody agrees and no one is offended". First, like THAT's ever going to happen. Second, apparently it's perfectly okay to let oppression you acknowledge carry merrily on until YOU'RE feeling perfectly comfortable. Had this fear-based approach been applied to the civil rights movement or the women's movement, we'd still be living in the 1950's when inequality for minorities and women were pretty much institutionalized.

Worse: when you don't stand up to those taking the first view, they win.

No, the wheel of justice turns damn slowly, and turns even more slowly if you don't bother to put your shoulder to it. Complacency is incompatible with a desire for social justice.

So when I let it be known around the church that I planned to appear at this rally in my role as Pastor, it was as though someone had turned the temperature in the room down 5 degrees. I was told I was not to speak for the church of which I am the Pastor, because some in the congregation might be uncomfortable with it. Hence the wording in the placard I am holding in the photo.

It's our tradition that no one individual speaks for the Unitarian movement, and given our lack of hierarchy, this is as it should be. But what that means in practice is that nobody speaks. At all. On anything. As a result, we've been here in a not-large city for 158 years, and we might as well be invisible.

Hey ho. So in living out my UU values, I find myself an activist. I didn't actually mean to, but as someone said, "I can do no other, God help me."

In the end, I was the only clergy there. The only other religious representation there was, you guessed it, the crowing bigots with the well-made placards. By sheer dint of numbers and volume, their view was the view of the religious community for those assembled. And the reality is it damn well isn't.

The bleak shall inherit the earth
This is what happens when religious liberals and progressives fail to stand up for their values: all the unchurched know of the religious life are the very zealots Jesus himself would have had no truck with. Those who preach hate instead of love.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Pastor's pet peeve #1: Sages and stooges

Look: I know I'm meant to be all holy and above such venial misdemeanours as peeves, everyday irritations, and mundane kvetches like impatience with bad drivers, klunky grammar, and people who don't pick up after their dog.

But a pastor is just as human as the next mortal and therefore has the same struggles with his temper, his judgementalism, and the unique make-up of his own 'craw'--that overlooked organ which seems to exist only for things to get stuck in.

But what am I, a monument to justice?

Note the lack of resemblance.

So I achieved a sort of tipping point of peevishness recently over this: the epidemically dishonest practice in UU ministers passing off other people's stories, parables, quotes, poems, and such as their own.

There is a kind of systemic loophole in our tradition that actually encourages this practice. Because Unitarians draw from all sources of wisdom, rather than only from the Bible, ministers are constantly on the hunt for new and improving material to use in worship. This means that, by default, the "book" of the church is only as wide or narrow as the minister's library shelf or Google search terms. The more obscure the material they use, the less likely congregants are to recognise it, and the more tempting it is to just claim credit--not for simply finding it, but for having come up with it. Ego and the fear of drying up or being a repetitive bore clearly play roles in this temptation. See my earlier blog on narcissism in the ministry.

Normally, this practice is not so crass and obvious as ministers actually saying "Here's this cool, sage thing I wrote". Usually, it takes the form of working the obscure 'gem' into your preaching seamlessly. Like all good performers, a talented minister can believe the words he/she is saying in the act of saying them, so they sound and feel like they come from the heart.

"Sage with many wise precepts, I am."

The net effect of building a career on this practice, as many have, is that you sound wiser than you are, and in the eyes of credulous congregants, you take on the aura of a sage. Sages need stooges of course, but it is becoming clear to me that stooges need sages too. The more credulous congregants need to believe that the person at the pulpit is really, truly wise.

An example: I have a lovely congregant and pillar of the church who never tires of referring to a sage UUA interim minister, now deceased, and how transformative her wisdom was. In particular, one bit of sage advice stayed with her:

God has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
God has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours

For this congregant, this cemented her atheist humanism and sense of higher call into one Unitarian identity. And I kept hearing how WONDERFUL this interim minister was who spoke so to her heart.

And hearing this time and again, I ground my teeth and bit by lip and said nothing. Why? Because if you change the word 'God' to 'Christ' (a very Unitarian sleight-of-hand), these words are the words of the relatively obscure 16th century Christian saint,  one Teresa of Avila. Most UUs would of course, not know this.

Actual author

So I sent the congregant an email, citing the source of the quote, and the words verbatim. What do you suppose her response was?

She wrote back that it was remarkable that both these powerful women, from such different places and times in history, had such strikingly similar insights. It must be something to do with gender!

The notion that this was a simple case of common plagiarism never crossed her mind. I gave up. I know of whole careers built on that kind of credulity.

So great is the need, even among professed atheists, to believe SOMEONE has all the answers, that SOMEONE can be looked to make sense of life--this very vulnerability among people coming to church to seek answers, demands that we not aggrandize ourselves unduly, and have them look to us as false prophets, or worse, false Gods.

Now, who wouldn't just love an adoring legion of these little guys?

At their best, most ministers of my acquaintance, are, by and large, not so much prophets as prompters, supplying the missing lines from the wings when we get lost on the stage of life. This is noble and useful, and requires broad reading and a fast mental Rolodex to come up with the right words at the right time. But prompting should not be confused with authorship. As easy as it is to confuse the credulous about this, it is just as easy to confuse ourselves and begin to believe we are the new Isaiah.

Prompter, not prophet.

Now this does not mean that a minister can't work in the prophetic tradition, blaze new trails, and break new ground. But if you're going to go down that road, you'd better be prepared for all the sacrifices, messiness, challenge, burn-out, and existential angst of being a psycho-naut, an explorer of the soul. Not everyone has the pluck for this, and that's fine, because as a minister you're job description probably won't include this requirement. (If it does...re-negotiate!)

The solution seems simple to me: disenthrall yourself and your congregation by paying your intellectual debts and attributing your sources. One of the end-games of the UU project is to empower and inspire others to seek their own answers, not look to the pulpit for them. To make them curious enough to do their own reading and their own web-searching, and to share what they find. Otherwise, you are just one of these, disguised by a gown and a pulpit:

Abraham Lincoln said, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master" (see how easy it is?). Similarly, as I would not have those in my charge be stooges, I must refrain from creating the impression that I am the font of all wisdom.

For that, my friends, is a hard role to live up to for very long, unless you've got the true gravitas for it.

Coming next: the other side of the argument.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The 'Good Enough' Shepherd

If you were to visit the Adelaide Unitarian Church, you could not help but notice our lovely heritage stained-glass windows at the back, a keepsake from our former 19th century Neo-gothic pile in the city centre. These stand in stark variance in style to the current building's 1960' architectural style, all pale brick and teak. They also stand in stark variance to our post-Christian theology. In particular, one of these windows features the familiar Christian meme of Jesus as “the good shepherd”,  gently cradling an deceptively passive lamb.
Okay, see...sheep never allow this for very long
Even in my Catholic youth, this parable always puzzled me. I mean, I understood what the church was getting at — that one aspect of Jesus’s self-denying love was that he would go far out of his way to retrieve the lost sheep, trustingly leaving the other 99 to graze. This was part of the early Christian strategy of radical inclusion: that no matter how wayward one of the flock became, we should rejoice more in the one that was“saved” from falling prey to wolves, than for the 99 who went not astray.
I bred and raised organic sheep for a few years on our spread in the Adelaide Hills. The breed was a particularly ornery one that resisted mustering in much the same way Unitarians resist conformity. Our land was hilly, rocky, and alive with foxes, so chasing after strays was difficult, urgent, and more or less constant. Because of the terrain, we had to do this on horseback, so there was another animal to manage as well.
Looks bucolic, doesn't it? I thought so too...
Sheep are singularly unintelligent creatures, and the ornery-ness of this breed doubled-down on that. To escape the apparent horrors of muster, strays would tumble over rocky outcrops, their stiff, brittle legs askew. They would try to leap fences and get tangled in barbed wire lines at the top. And then hang there upside-down, going “baaaaa” as if they were totally surprised at this outcome. They would charge head-first into cyclone fencing and break their stupid necks! And despite all this, still I chased them up hill and down dale.
Sheep may be thick, but which animal in this scenario is thicker?
Because in the meantime, lacking my “pastoral” presence, the other 99 also went astray, drifted off into other paddocks to graze, as their nature demands. And then the muster would have to begin all over again. I would spend whole days doing this, or until my horse (ironically named “Rebel”) would simply quit and lie down, citing his deplorable working conditions.
This experience left me thinking that Jesus (or the biographer who attributed this parable to him) was, like Rob-the-Shepherd, a well-intentioned imbecile. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, how can the greatest good be done for the greatest number if the Pastor keeps chasing those who (for whatever reason) do not want to be included in the fold? Says the 'Good Shepherd', “No, please come back! Come back with all your anger, dysfunction, and self-destructiveness! Don’t leave us, we can’t bear rejection! Not even yours! Meanwhile, the flock of 99 dissipates . . .
Okay, but this is the last time I bail you out...
One of many useful and enlightening notions, gleaned from my recent conversations with the Rev. Dr. David Usher, was the seemingly counter-Christian idea of “The Fierce Shepherd”, who refuses to waste time, energy, and resources running after the strays, but stays with and looks after the greater flock. Like me, David has some experience of sheep mustering. Unlike me, David has 30 years experience as a congregational “pastor”.
Ministers and pastors aren’t Jesus, and shouldn’t pretend to be. Jesus’s ministry was mobile; ours is anchored to brick-and-mortar. Jesus’s ministry did not have to contend with modern working legalities of health and safety, contractual obligation, and even a routine preaching schedule. We can’t, and shouldn't, just leave our “flock” to tilt at the windmills of Christ-like perfection.
No, we can’t be this idealized, entirely mythical “Good Shepherd”; what we can try to be is “The Good-enough Shepherd”.