Sunday, December 30, 2007

Fun Sunday

I've long thought that the "down Sundays" (the Sundays after holidays) are as much self-fulfilling prophesy as anything, and I always try to do interesting things on these weeks. The Sunday after Christmas is one of the hardest and most interesting, since we don't have RE that day and it has to be an intergenerational service. This year we tackled the Golden Compass. Both services were full and I think everyone had a good time. (Since someone asked, here's what we did. We talked a little about the story for those who had not read the book, I lead a guided meditation for the purpose of letting everyone find their daemons, after which people shared their experience with their neighbors, I talked about the UU values in the story (about thinking for yourself, and about being open minded to new understandings of words like God) Ron did a brief theology of Dust, and we ended with an "imposition of dust", inviting all who wished to come forward and get a smudge of glitter on their hand or forehead or just get dusted with glitter. We used the new, tiny glitter so I'm still in good with my janitor, and somewhat to my surprise, most of the people who came up wanted glitter on their forehead. It was great fun.)

Also present at the service was someone from my first congregation. She introduced herself as having known me from the days "of the church of Jesus Christ of the Air Conditioner." That got a non-comprehending laugh and took me back years and years, to the early 1980's, when the church I served in Columbia, South Carolina, owned a tiny church which had once been an Episcopal chapel in a Mill Village. it did indeed have a lovely stained glass window of Jesus in the back, and at some point, the bottom panel had been removed for an Air Conditioner. John Buehrens, later the president of the UUA, visited the congregation before I arrived and dubbed it with that name.

At the second service there were a couple of guys from Knoxville, a church which I served for a Summer as an intern and then for a year as a part time interim.

So many people told me they'd seen The Golden Compass for this service that if there is a sequal, I'm going to take credit for pushing this movie over the top.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Boxing Day at the Hospital

My husband had some elective day surgery today, so I spent a bunch of time hanging out in a nearly empty hospital, mostly, as it turned out, listening to staff chatter. We were there early, as folks were coming to work, and the conversation went like this. "Hi, how was your Christmas." and the answer, "Good, I'm glad it's over." The same thing happened in the cafeteria. I must have heard a dozen variations on that exchange. The nurse for the empty recovery bed next to us confided that she had awakened this morning to a broken clock that told her it was December 23...what a nightmare, she have to do it all over again!

It didn't seem that anyone had had a terrible experience on Christmas, it was just too stressful overall. It seemed as if the hospital staff's Christmas was a little like our Boxing Day... nothing awful, but we were glad that it was over with.

Christmas Celebrations are not completely voluntary, but this universal elective surgery response surprised me. I wonder what celebrations would suit people better? Is it just too much of a holiday for families with excited children aged 3-15? That's a relatively small proportion of us, after all. As a family with a 17 year old, we've noticed that it's not quite the same any more. (These days, parents put together the gifts in the morning. The teen now goes to bed after we do and gets up late, too!) But we had a very nice day yesterday, all working our our art projects for nearly a full day. That's a luxury! Late in the evening we made a quick Christmas Visit to drop off gifts at a friend's, which topped off the day nicely.

We have a few treats planned for later this week and a New Year's party to go to. Tomorrow's work is to get ready for the Golden Compass service on Sunday, which, we hope, will bring in the kids who usually don't come to church the week after Christmas. Since most of you, dear readers, can't come to church and discover your Daemon's wisdom, check out the movie site (, where, after a short personality inventory, you'll be assigned a deamon of your very own!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Certain Poor Shepherds

Christmas Eve Homily

Last year, someone informed me that when she was a kid, she thought that the Three Kings brought the baby Gold, Frankincense, and Mirth. I smiled for 24 hours. I wrote about it on my blog, and someone commented that when he was a kid, he had confusions about Certain Poor Shepherds.

The way this young person puzzled it out, “to certain” must be a verb, meaning,” to reassure,” so the angels came to reassure some poor shepherds in their fields. Which is not far from the mark, after all. This young person, when told the “real” meaning of the carol, that the angels appeared to “particular” shepherds, wanted to know why some and not others? A young Universalist in the making!

That got me to thinking about other meanings of the word “certain.” Here’s another possibility. They were not “reassured” poor shepherds, or “particular” poor shepherds, they were “confident” poor shepherds…sure of what they have seen and heard. They see an angel in the sky, and nobody says, “Ho, boy, it must be indigestion” or “I’m so stressed out I’ve started imagining things!.” They are certain: it’s an angel. The angel says “Go and See!” and nobody asks if by any chance this is the devil in disguise, or moans about a long walk into town: they Go and they See. They are sure that what they are seeing is their next king in that cold stable, and that’s good news to the poor.

Angels appearing in the sky with crystal clear messages makes for good stories, but it’s never happened to me that way, or to you, I’d wager. The times I’ve thought, maybe, I felt a nudge from God, the message was kind of…well, let’s just say, subtle. Easy to ignore, easy to miss, not at all clear. Never angelic voices. Mostly just a feeling; at a concert, on the bus, hiking, reading, listening to someone. The messages only come when I really need them. They often have a shine of good feeling with them, but no hosanna’s, no voices, no heavenly lights… nothing certain. Always a matter of “hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses,” as the poet T.S. Elliot complained

My experience, really, is much more like what the Magi’s experience must have been: You see a new star in the sky. What does it mean? Who knows what it means? Maybe nothing. maybe Everything. There’s an obscure prophesy about a baby or is it a king? Or is it just restlessness, boredom, avoidance?

Most people, even Magj, would have stayed at home by the fire. They’d have responsibilities, doubts, plans of their own to easily trump the lovely new star. The shepherds had it easy. Big voices. Bright Lights. Clear Instructions. Go and See the Baby! The Bible says they went, but there are any number of folk stories about the Shepherd who stayed behind. Someone had to tend the flocks, after all, and there’s always a skeptic in the crowd. That would be me. Maybe it would also be you.

Certainty or not, the task of our lives to follow the hints that come to us, whether in heavenly voices or, more likely, in the voices of friends, authors, musicians, teachers, and that still, small voice inside us.

They urge us to grow in love and spirit,

and remind us that the journey begins with single, tentative steps.

They urge us to open our hearts to what comes into our lives,

and remind us that it is the unexpected that is often the greatest blessing.

They urge us to look inward.

and remind us of the jewels beyond price that reside there.

They urge us to appreciate the world around us.

and make the things of the world our sacred teachers.

They urge us to give away what is precious to us,

and remind us that when we give in joy, we receive one hundred fold.

They urge us to test our voices and discern our best path,

but remind us not to turn away from new faith and new hope, waiting for a certainty that may never come.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Stumble Upon

Stumble Upon is a little tool for your web browser. Set up a few categories you are interested in (I've got knitting, alternative energy, on-line games, and religion going right now), and whenever you have a few idle minutes, click and get websites in those categories. I've found some wonderful knitting blogs, interesting alternative energy ideas, and browsed a world of religious websites. Every time you get a site, you say if you like it, and Stumble Upon gets better and better at entertaining and enlightening (and addicting) you. (more info and download here)

How do websites get chosen for this kind of dissemination? By vote of users. If you're a stumble upon user, and you click the thumbs up on your toolbar...right now, for instance, this blog would get a vote. If you don't use stumble Upon, I've provided a button at the bottom of this post.

We early adopting UU's can help get the UU word out by voting for UU websites in this way. The more web-users who stumble upon UU websites, the more people discover us.

Evangelism...and you don't even have to explain UU!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Gold, Frankencense, and Mirth

Reprise from Last Year.....

A woman at church yesterday said that when she was a kid, she thought that the three Kings brought the baby Gold, Frankincense, and Mirth. I've been smiling ever since.

Those three universal beings (in the folk tradition from which manger scenes are made, they are an elderly European, a middle aged Oriental, and a young African) on their strange journey to bow down before a baby and bring gifts, were supposed to have brought three items of financial worth, gold, a precious incense used in religious ritual and worship, and a precious spice used in, of all things, embalming. Some make something of the latter; a gift for a person whose life was destined to be short.

I'd rather universalize these gifts, making them symbolic of what we need for a good life; a modicum of financial resources, the spiritual resources symbolized by Frankincense, and the emotional and relational resources symbolized by mirth.

Food and fire, hope and spirit, love and community. May your Holiday season be blessed with Gold, Frankincense, and Mirth.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Showing Identification

There's been quite a bit of consternation about the fact that the Fort Lauderdale Convention Center, site of next June's GA, is in a Homeland Security Security Zone (vulnerable port, oil tanks etc. etc.) Everyone entering has to show ID.

Well, that's a bummer. It will be a constant reminder of all the unpleasant changes that have been a part of our lives in the past 7 years and (since no one imagines that terrorists can't get Government Issued ID) will, no doubt remind us of vulnerabilities we'd prefer to ignore. Some people are talking and writing as if it's the step before Concentration Camps, worth boycotting, protesting, and loosing large amounts of money to stand up for democracy.

That's the part that really bugs me. As one who pulls out her ID with every check, every airplane, every Credit Transaction (I sign my credit cards, "Please Check ID") I just don't equate ID checks with Fascism.

It is true that ID checks can be abused. If a government record was being kept of ID's checked, so that a list of people attending GA could be created (not that I doubt that it could be easily created in other ways), that would trouble me. If the ID's were being checked in ways that violated the civil rights of the young, the dark-skinned, or the scruffy, that would trouble me. Every time a layer of enforcement is added to a society opportunities are created to violate the rights of citizens...sometimes because of nefarious government policy, more often because human beings deal so poorly with power. Every local cop has the ability to violate Civil Rights in just the ways we are worrying about, and nobody is talking about observing them! But as I've watched the airport situation develop over 6 years, I have to say that I've been hugely impressed with how much attention has been paid to rights, to cultural sensitivity, and to training people who have a lot of power to use it well. As one who travels with a sometimes scruffy teenager who has looked like he could be over 18 for several years now, I can say that I think we ought to give governments some credit here. We are not the only people in the world who understand privilege and oppression.

The UUA has been assured that ID's will be only checked, not recorded, that everyone will be dealt with courteously, that they welcome observers of this process. One of the conventions they had lately was a Muslem group, and that apparently passed without incident, so I'm not actually very worried about our sometimes scruffy and defiant teens, or our persons of color; something they are actually pretty used to in South Florida.

It is true that those illegal aliens who have not been able to obtain Government Issued ID will not be able to attend our worship services, but I'm having a hard time getting very excited about this. I'm all for putting our force behind a sensible, enforceable immigration policy, but to say as some are saying that we simply can not have a worship service that not everyone can attend makes no sense at all. There are so many people who, for so many reasons can't attend our worship services, week after week, and we do so little about it that in my opinion, it would be the worst kind of hypocrisy to draw our line in the sand about ID checks.

I am still left with the bummer, about how the world has changed, about how much we actually have lost, about the huge expense of dealing with the world as it is today, but that's a post for another day!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

One Last Comment about Growth

I can't tell you for sure why this congregation has grown by 40% in the past 7 years. One thing about congregations, you just can't do controlled experiments on them. But their history goes something like this: 1949-60: slow and steady growth to about 200. 1960-1965: Rapid Growth to about 500 (not so rare in those days!) 1965-1988 Plateau/slide to 400 (considering that many of our congregations dropped by half in the late 1960's, this is not as bad as it sounds.) 1988-1992: growth spurt to over 500. 1992-2000, 500-550, which is a glass ceiling hard to burst through. 2001-2007: 489-720.

One thing we did in 2002 was add a second minister to our staff. This was a huge task which was paid for with every penny the congregation had in savings and aggressive fund raising for three years. In some ways a second minister is more expensive than a first minister, because in order to attract someone (outside of a Seminary city, anyway) you have to be paying everyone better than you probably are, you might need new office space, and so on. It's also a huge task because nobody will help you with it. A 100 member church looking for its first minister has everyone's sympathy. There used to be an entire extension program devoted to helping churches hire their first minister, and more than one chalice-lighter grant has helped a congregation over that hump. If they took that minister and grew by 50 members they were considered very successful. But the 400 member church trying to hire its second minister has nobody's sympathy. I said more than once in that near decade of plateau that if I could only have an extension grant for a second minister I could add a small congregation's worth of members to my congregation. I was wrong. With a second minister, we added a medium-sized congregation worth of members.

Other things were right. 9/11 happened. The senior minister (me) quit getting sick and needing months of recuperation time. In our case, a second minister not only did all the things a second minister usually does but changed some very unhealthy dynamics in the church about which I had no leverage by myself. Our city grew almost as fast as the church. Still, if I had to suggest one intervention for a 400 member church which was willing to become a large congregation, that's what I'd suggest.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Golden Compass: The Movie

Yep, they took liberties with the story and played down the anti-religion theme, and gad, was it loud! But if you kept your fingers close to your ears, it was a magical two hours, in many ways a better story than the book.

The whole church staff has seen it now, and we're planning an intergenerational service on it for that always awkward Sunday after Christmas. (I so want to throw gold glitter around to demonstrate Dust but the last time I did that the janitor didn't speak to me for weeks, so that's out.) I'm looking forward to the opportunity to talk to kids about this new way to think about God or the Spirit of Life.

Is anyone else planning worship or RE around this movie?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Guns and Tooth Powder

I saw tooth powder for sale yesterday. Hadn't seen it in years. Had it as a little kid. You use it instead of toothpaste. Pour a little into your hand, mush your toothbrush in it and brush. Very kid-friendly mess. Adults...they hated the stuff.

It's for sale to travelers. Tooth powder can be taken in one's carry-on luggage. The possibility that a terrorist might put a bomb in a toothpaste tube has changed our lifestyle.

Four people killed in church on Sunday by a suicide gunner. Six kids wounded as they got off a school bus today. This is happening a lot. Add these needless deaths to the ordinary gun related crimes; crimes of property gone wrong or crimes of passion gone all too well, and you have the daily reality of gun violence, right here, in our own neighborhoods, schools, churches, work places. It could happen to any one of us tomorrow.

Let's ditch the ban on toothpaste and put the ban on guns.

When will they ever learn?

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Thriving Branch Congregation

I visited our Branch congregation in Socorro yesterday. I preached"live" at the service their lay worship leader conducted, a member of the Albuquerque congregation provided music, substituting for their regular musician, our DRE told the children's story and then took the group of pre-schoolers off to draw while she gave their child-care provider some tips and materials for future classes. There were about 30 people there. Later that evening, I met with their core leaders and we talked about starting a steering committee, about the Covenant Group and the meditation class they are going to start in the new year, and about the details of their first "solo" service, which will be a Christmas concert gift to their small community. They are expecting about 100 people to pack the sanctuary of the little Episcopal church they meet in.

We also talked about tweaking their regular order of service so that the children will leave a bit earlier in the service. They are looking into getting a stretch of highway to pick up and are wondering how to be more involved with the town's food bank. They have two college students attending and one professor from the State University in the town and they have established a student group on campus. We talked about how they might organize any needed pastoral care, when to call for assistance, and a variety of other things. I brought home a pledge card, a new member's sign-up sheet, and a request by an elderly woman to know how to put the church in her will. (also an envelope with their offering coins, bills, and checks...we're having difficulty getting a local bank account set up for them.)

The core group in Socorro started meeting six months ago and they began weekly worship two months ago. They are a thriving, attractive congregation. They are enjoying each other's company. More than one person has said that this project has hugely enriched their life in their small town. It's been a great project for the whole church; we're all getting a kick out of being on a cutting edge of a new way to organize new congregations.

I've been a part of starting two other congregations, one in a similarly small town in South Carolina and one in the western suburbs of Albuquerque. The first one failed after its first year. The second has been 'on its own' for a decade now and is settling its second minister, but they have not been able to take advantage of the housing boom around them and remain quite small. I felt about both groups that they were fighting nearly impossible odds; they were abandoned babies left to fend for themselves way too early in a hard world. Years ago I promised myself that I'd never do that again.

Our Socorro branch, age 2 months, has access to a good sermon every week, an RE library, advice, training for worship and covenant group leaders, pastoral care, and moral support. It's such a pleasure to watch them take all that and thrive!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Golden Compass

No blogging lately; I've spent all my spare moments in the last week or so reading Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials. Pullman's books are not as long as the Harry Potter books, but they are substantial, and they are much harder to read. These are stories ABOUT children, not FOR children; they are complex, contain several threads, and there are so many mysteries to keep track of, and you don't know who the good guys and bad buys are for quite a while. My son says he tried to read them in Middle School and gave up; now, at a sophisticated 17, he likes them. We'll get to the movie sometime, and I'm planning a service the week after Christmas about the books, the movie, and the controversy.

There are more than a few potshots at the Catholic Church, although in this alternative universe, this institution seems to have been founded by Calvin, and so is clearly meant to be a diatribe against any kind of religion which represses human freedom and creativity. The church folks who are putting up a stink are damning themselves by their reaction...if I tell a parable about a bad guy and someone says, "How dare you make fun of me!" they have accused themselves.

The big irony about the book is that it's author is a Humanist who believes that all value resides in this world, but his book, for all that it's about a war against the Church, is luminously spiritual. Never again will I look at dust as merely the grit under my feet. In reality, it connects us all, and in parable, is our reminder that grace abounds. The children's values (and in spite of the fact that they've got the authorities in three worlds looking for them, their values are solid and good) are rewarded not only materially but spiritually. I hope to find something more about Mr. Pullman and his beliefs.