Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Brown Bag of Pain

This month's CLF mailer included a sermon that included a story about a moment from Starr King life a few years ago, when, apparently, there was a decree that lunch meetings would be called BYOL rather than Brown Bag. Exactly who had decided that and who was effected by the decree is not clear in the story, and bloggers have been taking the issue to town with various assumptions and diatribes about PC language. (And most of us have learned a painful bit of history; that once upon a time, in the Black community of New Orleans, some people judged how "black" people were by reference to the common paper bag. Just another little bit of evidence for original, or at least ubiquitous sin, but that's another issue) But it does bring up the question of Politically Correct Language.

I am both a big fan of the power of language and suspicious of PC language campaigns. There are times when language hurts. Calling grown women "girls" and grown black men "boys" takes a chunk out of their dignity and gives not-so-subtle permission to society to treat these people, well, as less than full adults.

Where I get off the PC language train is the demand that since certain words have meanings which cause some people pain, "good" people don't use them. Such as, "The 'brown bag' reference is so painful to me because of the history of my people, that you can't use that word around me without doing me damage."

Now, this is not a completely bad argument. I imagine that most of us don't use the word, "niggardly" in spite of the fact that it has nothing to do with the extremely painful word it sounds like, because...well, that what it sounds like and the pain to all who hear is real. There's enough pain in the world, who wants to cause more when "stingy" will do just fine?

If that's one end of the PCLanguage argument spectrum, the other end veers quickly into something not very healthy, which is, "I've discovered this obscure reference to badness and I'm going to pretend to feel hurt by it so that I can test how willing the people around me are to cater to my pretend hurt. " That end of the spectrum is a hypersensitivity and a demand to extra consideration because of one's status as a victim. Not only is it unhealthy behavior for individuals and communities, it actually causes hurt, because it tests persons "goodness" by reference to a fake test, which is whether they are willing to alter their behavior because of what turns out to be an arbitrary demand for consideration. And that is why PC language riles people up so much. Most people like to be thought of as "good" without reference to arbitrary tests, just like they like to think of their skin color as acceptable without reference to paper bags.

I don't know what happened at Starr King over brown bags. It may be that the community contained someone who had been repeatedly tested for full humanity against the color of a brown bag. If I had a classmate or professor who had experienced that horror, I'd start talking about byolunch in a heartbeat. That's real pain to a present person and life is fraught enough already to be causing more. From the telling of the story, however, it sounds like this was more like, "This bad thing happened a long time ago and a long way away and someone here has decided to feel hurt by it and so everybody has to conform themselves to that hurt or they are being insensitive, racist, bad persons." That's actually too sad to be called silly. That's an unhealthy community. That's fake hurt masquerading as vicitmhood and nobody willing to say that this emperor has no clothes.

The good news is that the point of this benighted story in the original sermon was that someone DID ask what the point of the language change was so that the issue could be discussed. Yeah, Starr King! Discussion is where PC language becomes "this is my hurt, can you honor it?" and "now that you explain this to me, I'll never see lunch bags in the same way again," or "you know, I don't see that this really is causing you pain and I don't like this game of "gotcha!" that you seem to be proposing." Or something in the middle and a community that has listened, learned, and weighed, in a rational way, their choices of words.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Museums, Theme Parks, Church

My son has been fascinated by theme parks since he could first say the word, "Disneyland", and a year or so back he joined the Themed Entertainment Association, a very specialized group of design and architectural professionals who work on theme parks, malls, casinos and themed restaurants such as the Rainforest Cafe. With his membership comes the most fascinating magazine introducing this minister to worlds she had never imagined but which have some relevance to church work. It makes great breakfast table reading.

Today's opening article muses on what Themed Entertainment can learn from Museums. Museums, of course, have lately been learning a lot from the amusement industry, so here's the turn around. The gist of the answer to the question is that museums offer authentic experiences; real meteorites, live fish, and amazing but true tales about our world, our universe, our history, and ourselves. This author believes that truly attractive themed entertainments will have some of that authentic quality of "realness" to them, and not try to offer too much "story-ed" theming. I was reminded of the best amusement park ride I ever went on, at the Epcot Center. It was a simulation of a trip to Mars, and when, after all of the wild "G's" and and other "ride" stuff, I saw the earth rise in the little window of my "space ship", I felt a thrill as authentic as any I've known.

The author ends his article this way:

Why do people go to museums in the first place?....if you ask visitors why they came, the top answer isn't generally "to learn something," so purely educational motives don't explain the attraction. What does? I think the answer is at the core of what drives much of the human experience. It is the same reason some people read books, raise families, go to church..."meaningfulness". We'll go to the aquarium to feel a connection to the environment, the science center to ponder mysteries of the universe, the zoo to witness the truth of our evolutionary human ancestry. We go to quench a thirst, fill a void...Of course, many TEA members know this instinctively, and even at our most cynical moments on entertainment projects yearn wistfully for more. We call it heart.
There's a lesson here for church, especially for people responsible for worship. Why do people come to worship? It is not to learn something. (Repeat after me, please, every new minister and every member of a worship committee: It is not to learn something. ) It is to quench a thirst, fill a void, connect with mystery, experience meaningfulness, find heart. If the people who design Legoland and the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai (largest indoor ski mountain on earth) know this and think they can deliver on it, we who do church should be able to be instantly articulate and extremely skilled at it, too. But, we're not.

How do we church folk do any of this...and without animatronics and special effects budgets? Not to mention for the same clients, week after week? I think I have a knack for some of this, but I don't feel very articulate and I don't have a recipe. To some extent there is no universal recipe; what quenches the thirst of one person leaves another dehydrated. I know that energetic singing, real silence, beautiful music, and sermons that use new information and humor to entice people to open their hearts to a new place are some things which are likely to help some people fill a void, experience meaningfulness, and connect with mystery. I think that offering rituals is helpful to people. More and more often we are giving people a chance to do something towards the end of the service: today, Memorial Day Sunday, those who were remembering deceased loved ones were invited to come forward to light a candle, but we've done things with stones and for several years the church's Christmas Tree has been decorated only with white lights and paper doves on which members have written their prayers. Mostly, I am touched and humbled by the fact that even the designers of amusement parks know that it is "heart" and "thirst" and "meaningfulness" which bring real satisfaction to a human life.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

RIP Jerry Falwell

I'm researching Spirituals today, getting ready for a sermon to go with our Choir's Sunday Celebration of the music they've been working with all year. They'll be singing mostly old favorites; but I've been struck with several spirituals that I've never heard and with the layers of meaning and sly humor they contain. Here's one...a celebration of Nat Turner's slave rebellion, which seems an appropriate last word for the Rev. Jerry Falwell

You might be a Carroll from Carrollton
Arrived here night before the Lord made creation
But you can't keep the world from moving along
and NOT TURN HER (pronounced Nat Turner) back from the gaining ground.

Jerry Falwell believed he was the Entitled One of Christendom, and was comically willing to speak for God about the reasons of things. He was particularly inclined to blame homosexuals and feminists for the ills of the world, for which I hold him no love.

But he couldn't keep the world from moving along.

(Nor did most Evangelicals think of him as an appropriate spokesperson for their increasingly diverse and more spiritually oriented causes any more. If our media wasn't so religiously color blind, they would have quit giving him their attention long, long ago.)

What Makes a Church

My church is involved in an exciting program...we're adopting some new folks into our church family in our Branch Ministry Program. The congregation is growing branches long enough to stretch to two towns in New Mexico 40 and 90 minutes drive away. The members in these branches will have a full program in their town, with sermons delivered by video.

The Branch Organizer and I talked today about what constitutes a "full program"? for a small (or big!) group of UU's? Here's what I think.

Worship and Celebration for all ages is the core of what a church does. Our Branches will have weekly worship services, with the first 15 minutes for all ages. They will sing, celebrate milestones, affirm their faith, and hear a story/sermon appropriate for all ages, have a brief moment of quiet, and take an offering. After the kids leave, the adults will continue with more complex fare.
Spiritual Growth and Learning The kids will have an RE program and adults will have covenant (spiritual sharing) and discussion groups and classes.
Community of Relationships and Care The branch congregations will get to know each other, take care of each other in times of difficulty, and celebrate life's milestones. They'll have potlucks and memorial services and visit each other in the hospital.
Serve their Community Together Each Branch will have a local service project to give the coins from their offering and time and talent. Members will have the opportunity to join the rest of our church in opportunities like Just Works trips, UUSC membership, and so on.

Members usually come to churches by ones and twos and fit into existing nooks and crannies in the congregational house. Getting ready to adopt whole groups of people...that's requiring building an addition. What fun!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A Seat in the Sanctuary

Watching the congregation from pulpit and chair, ministers soon learn, if they didn't know before, that many people sit in the same seat, or at least nearly the same seat, week after week. And when they've come as a couple to church, and one of them dies, the other, after an absence, returns to church and usually sits in a different part of the sanctuary. It's just too painful to sit in the old place where one sat with one's beloved, by one's self. So they make a change.

(There are exceptions to this rule, of course. The one I remember most vividly was a woman who had been attending the same New England Unitarian church for nearly her whole life, and when she lost her husband of nearly 50 years, she began a practice of hanging out in the vestibule with the ministers until a stranger came in, then attaching herself to that stranger and asking them to sit with her. Sometime during the service she would confess to that stranger that when her husband died, she had tried all other parts of the sanctuary and didn't like any of them and then had decided that what would make her old seat, "new" was to invite a newcomer to sit in it. She always thanked them, invited them to coffee hour, introduced them around, and disappeared. That church had a good retention rate of visitors, and every new member class produced at least one, usually several people who told that story of being welcomed and made to feel useful on their first visit.)

These past few weeks a newly widowed woman has come back to church, and she has also tried new places to sit in the sanctuary. Last week she found a seat in a nearly empty section of the sanctuary only to discover that it fills up late with young adults and their babies. (Ministers see all these little don't think we notice, but we notice everything.) But this week, I was gratified to see, that she was sitting in a new place with another widow...a woman who, this time two years ago, had to find herself a new place of sanctuary in the sanctuary.

This is a big church, and most people are a part of a discrete sub-group and of course, ministers don't know everything but I didn't think that these two women knew each other. But somehow, they got together and they sat together during a mother's day service without the spouse who was, for each of them, the center of their lives and even their motherhood. Somehow the larger community that is the church worked its little magic, and this minister saw it and found it very, very good.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Technology makes things harder

This morning, I spent almost 2 hours making two fairly simple plane reservations; one for my son to go to a Summer program, and one for me to pick him up at the end of it. (Not that he needs picking up I hasten to add, but said Summer program is near my parents home and I want to visit them as well as attend the end of program festivities.)

I have more than once made on-line reservations for non-refundable tickets for the wrong day, or for Robinson Christine rather than Christine Robinson (security took a dim view of this, I can tell you) so I'm slow and careful and a bit anxious. Shopping around took a while. I had to read an entire page of information to figure out that a 16 year old, while still a minor can travel unaccompained without a fee. (A relief. My 6'3" son would have felt pretty silly being hauled around the airport by a stewardess.) However if the passenger is not traveling as a child, the person making the reservation has to have the same last name as the passenger, unless the reservation is made by phone. And after waiting for the phone I discovered that there was a $10 fee for this, unless one is a frequent flyer on that airline, which I'm not, but I returned on line, signed up to become one and made reservation #1. (They said this was for security purposes, but the ease of signing up to be a frequent flyer puts the lie to that excuse.) But it insisted that I was giving the wrong security code for my credit card, which I wasn't, so I changed cards, entering all the data again. And dealing with streams of numbers in an accurate way is one of my weak skills, so that took a couple of tries. Reservation #2, was easier, (being a frequent flyer, now, all those numbers were magically remembered) but still the whole thing took, as I said, almost 2 hours.

Once upon a time, one called a travel agent. But travel agents have been put out of business by internet ticket sales. Or one called one's favorite airline, and if they didn't fly where you wanted to go, they'd take a quick peak at their computers and tell you who of their competitors had the best deal. That used to be free. Now it costs extra. People are "supposed" to get their tickets on the internet.

This is how it is that technology has made things harder than they used to be.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Real Men Don't Stink

At the gym yesterday, I was toiling away on my elliptical trainer and a fellow started his work out on the one right next to me. And he stank of old sweat. As I was trying to decide what to do about this unpleasant intrusion, I glanced at him. He appeared not only well-groomed but quite fresh; clearly just starting his work-out and a man who took some care of his appearance. A man, in other words, who doesn't use deodorant and had had a hard day.

I know, it's a gym and you have to expect sweat. And I do expect it and I even exude it. No problem. But this wasn't the smell of gym sweat, it was way too old for that. It was sweat from some toil or trouble of 6 hours before which had been attacked by bacteria and stank. Just exactly the problem that deodorant was invented to solve.

I moved to another machine. Too unpleasant. I've belonged to this same gym for 15 years now,exercising twice a week in close quarters with men and women and this is the first time I've moved away from someone who stank. Never happened 10 years ago or 5 years ago. Still never happens around women. But actually, I've had the same problem out of the gym several times this year with well-groomed men who obviously care about how they look and take care of themselves, and I'm starting to wonder if someone has started whispering that real men don't use deodorant.

The one man with whom I could have a conversation about this told me that it had something to do with how artificial scents bother people, and as one person who is sometimes (in allergy season) very troubled by artificial scents, I can appreciate the concern but I have good news for us all...deodorants are available in unscented versions! Yea, Chemistry!

As I moved and set myself up on a new machine at the gym, I wondered if the real reason for not wearing deodorant is an unconscious need to make space around one in a crowded world. If so, it's gonna get worse. In reality, of course, the more crowded the world, the more important that we take care not to create a large olfactory footprint. If you are herding cattle in the wild west all day, you can get away with taking your shower before you go home. If you exercise, work, and move 10 inches from everyone around you, it's only polite not to stink. I'm glad I use deodorant, and I wish that everyone else did, too.

And please, no comments about women and perfume. I agree with everything you say and will catch that subject another time.

Monday, May 07, 2007


In church we have to be scrupulously fair to everyone. It's not a club and we bend over backwards to make sure every voice is heard. This isn't church, this is my blog, and in this weekend of unprecedented traffic (who would have thought!) and commenting, I've been pondering what my rules for comments are.

Gosh, I do like comments. They are what turns a blog into a blog, rather than a personal journal kept on line. I don't get many comments, until last weekend, anyway, and it did add a bit of sparkle to my days. But I also feel that, since it is my blog, it is my obligation to keep some standards of communication.

In the end, I've removed three comments. One because it was a link to one person's unrelated obsession with the past history of his church, which I removed as quickly as I've removed the occasional links to commercial enterprises. It's my blog. The only shameless self-promotion allowed is mine.

The harder decision was to remove two comments because they went beyond my standards of politeness to others which in my opinion apply even more to internet communications than to in person communications. The verbal viciousness that characterizes lots of internet commenting is a great sadness to me, and I just don't want it here. After pondering for a while, I decided that I really didn't want anything on the Blog which, if I'd been a part of in a face-to-face conversation, would have made me leave the conversation. To the fellows who did it, I say..thanks for the defense, if that's what it was, but really...I can take care of myself.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Falling into Spring

In spite of the fact that it spit snow at us this morning at church, it really is Spring here. The trees are fully leafed out, the roses are in bloom, and the city is scented with pyracantha blossoms. If it seems a little chilly for this time of year, at least it LOOKS like Spring.

Therefore I was more than surprised on my walk around the neighborhood today, to notice a lovely autumn leaf flutter to the street at my feet. It was perfectly formed, red and yellow; just the sort of leaf that gives Fall it's glory and moves grade school teachers to wax eloquent about letting go and Winter's long Sleep.

Out of season, however, a colored leaf it is a harbinger of death, for only trees stressed unto death color their leaves in the Spring. I picked up the leaf to save it; not only as a reminder of the ever turning seasons and soon-enough-Fall, but as a reminder that death comes to all, even in the Spring.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Owl and RE

Stephen Caldwell comments below about my math skills and his belief that OWL is good Religious Education worth the 18% of RE hours that we put into it. OK, I didn't do my math. But the real point is not actually the number of hours spent but the depth of programing and whether it is religious education or simply good education.

I have no problem with the notion that comprehensive sex education takes time, and I am much happier with sex education programs that are outside of Sunday morning, although I have noticed that even when they are, Sunday morning attendance drops off. And I'd agree that there is a subtle but real relationship between one's own body awareness and one's spirituality. But are the kids who take the class made aware of this? Is there any place in OWL that talks about Rumi or the Song of Songs? Do we ever tell them that many people believe (and they might consider believing) that their bodies are sacred or that the love they experience with other humans is for many people a "leg up" to the love they might experience of God? Is there anything in OWL, in short, that could not be a part of a good public school sex education program? (I realize that these are few and far between, but my son was a part of an excellent school sex education unit that was nearly identical to OWL: bodies, health, relationships, good choices, justice, diversity of expression...all good things, but only in the most general terms, religious education.)

It might seem that I'm picking on OWL but I feel the same way about most of our RE curriculum. Just one more example. I happened into an elementary school classroom last Winter. They had all brought in pictures of their pets and were talking about the care they gave their pets. It was a sweet class. But I also thought...nobody ever talked about love. Nobody ever said anything like, "one thing about our pets is that they seem to love us matter what we do. That's how the Universalists thought God loved us. Do you feel like your pet loves you unconditionally? Do you love your pet unconditionally (pause for many wonderful stories of pet misbehavior and owner forgiveness). Many people who believe in God think that God is like that. What do you think?

Now, that would be a piece of spiritual education. Since we don't do anything like that ever, our kids leave our program without a clue as to how the majority of the world's people connect with the divine and not tuned in to how they might do the same.

Why People Come to Church Part II

People come to church for all kinds of really good reasons, (see yesterday's post), but amongst them, only two are uniquely served by churches. There are a variety of ways, even in this fractured society, to find community. There are many groups in which one can join with others to be of service. But transformation and religious education are uniquely the purposes of church. (Not that they can't happen elsewhere, of course, but they are one thing that we're about as churches that no other institution is about.)

Therefore it's unfortunate, to my mind, that we don't focus more on these two areas. One particular bee I have in my bonnet is the inordinate amount of time we tend to spend on sex education in our RE programs. It's a worthy and needed cause, and not divorced from faith and transformation, but if you add up the hours we have with, say, our 5-18year olds, (13 years, and hour a week for, let's say, an average of 40 weeks a year) and compare that to the number of contact hours a church doing the entire set of OWL offers and you discover that kids will have spent about 1/4 of their hours and almost all of their "intense" hours on the topic of sex. Most of the kids graduating from our programs know everything they ever wanted to know about sex but don't know much about religious literature, don't have a clue about how to meditate and think a journal is a diabolical tool invented by teachers to torture them.

End of Rant.

But the reason we engage in such an extraordinary amount of sex education, in my opinion, is that we're scared of teaching religion or encouraging transformation. We fill the void as best we can. The problem is not with OWL, it is with the lack of really compelling religious and spiritual programs for kids and youth.

Adults in our churches too often get the same short stick, and often because they themselves are skittish about matters and language of faith and transmit that skittishness to their clergy, who then turn to safer projects of community-building and world-saving. It's a long, hard, risky, project for a minister to work with a congregation to create a worship service which is consistently, deeply inviting people to identify and trust the transformative processes in their lives. And they themselves have mostly been far better prepared in seminary and by our credentialing processes to identify racism than to identify transformation.

I feel another rant coming on and will stop here. It is good to be able to identify racism, and not without transformative potential. But that's not, in the end, what a church is for.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Why People Come to Church

Somewhere in last week's cursory reading of blogs, I came across a statement about church growth which stated flatly that people don't come to church for community, they come for transformation.

Now, there's a statement to warm the cockles of a minister's heart, but it's way too simple. "People" come into the mansion that has many different rooms for many different reasons. Some do come for transformation. Some do come for community. Some come to join with others in good works. Some come because they've always come. Some come because they want to think of themselves as worthy members of a worthy group. More than some come because they want a religious education for their children and, at least initially, it does not occur to them that their own religious life could use some development, too.

A growing church welcomes all these folks and attempts to help them find a comfortable place. A deep church helps them then move around and explore some of the other rooms in the mansion. The person who came for community then finds that community is built when people work together on common projects. The one who came for transformation discovers the pleasures of community. The one who came for his kids and thought to daydream through the service while waiting for their program to finish hears and feels something that changes his own life.

It's a challenge for a church staff or program committee to keep an eye on whether people are moving around through the contributing to committees, now leading covenant groups, now doing Social Justice, now accepting the care of the church's people and growing in spirit as they do. Some people will never move and never want to move. Most will need to be invited. But it is when people tell me, "I came for my kids, and stayed for myself," or "I was lonely and new in town and found myself weeping through the service," or "I did social justice for years and then I discovered the children,"...that's when I know that the church has been both wide and deep, and done it's job.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Shift Happens

Someone in my congregation sent me this interesting and enlightening little video, called "Shift Happens." It's mostly about globalization, (great sermon fodder...) but it is also about change. And while I'm mostly willing to go with the program that change is life and life is change, I like the edgy quality of "Shift Happens," because I'm feeling frankly edgy myself.

There's been too much change at my church these days, which is why I have not been blogging much. Or gardening much or reading much or doing anything much except what has to be done this very moment and working with two hiring committees.

The video is really very good; well worth the loading time.