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Your Life Is A Gospel Posts

A Bill of Obligations

Last Sunday, I talked about the responsibilities that I believe go along with our rights. I even went so far as to suggest a “Bill of Obligations” that we might consider living by as part of being a good citizen (and how this looked an awful lot like a covenant we might live by). My list looked like this:

  • I shall at all times consider the rights of others as well as my own.
  • I shall work to ensure that the exercise of my rights does not impede upon the rights of another, especially their right to exist.
  • I shall work to ensure that the exercise of my rights does not cause harm to another.
  • I shall not grant my personal preferences more value than that of another’s fundamental rights.
  • I shall participate in the civic life of my community in an informed manner, and not hinder another’s right to participate.

After the service, I heard from a few of you about what you’d add to such a bill. Still more of you went home with quite a bit to think about. This week, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic. If we had to enumerate our responsibilities to one another as citizens (or as members of a church community), what would you include? What should a covenant among free individuals gathered in community look like?

Drop a comment below.

Dear Elected Official . . .

Dear Elected Official,

I read today that once again you have offered thoughts and prayers in the wake of another mass shooting tragedy in our country. I’ve also read the responses of my family and friends taking you to task for this response, and asking you to stop praying and start doing something.

I am angered by your response as well. Once again, I’m scraping wax off the floor of my church from all the candles we’ve burned, mourning the loss of life and the fact that your “thoughts and prayers” have failed to prevent another tragedy. But, unlike others, I’m not going to ask you to stop praying. Because I don’t believe you ever really started.

You see, I pray for a living. As a pastor, I’m called to live as a public example of what it looks like to live a prayerful life in all its beauty and struggle and messiness. I pray with my congregation each Sunday. I pray for them daily, and for myself and for the rest of the world while I’m at it. Not everyone gets it. Not everyone necessarily wants it. It’s a Unitarian Universalist congregation with its fair share of atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and dissenters. Prayer befuddles some of my flock, but I do it anyway. Every once in a while, they ask me what the point of it is, what I’m expecting as a result.

I tell them: I don’t pray with any expectation of outcome. I don’t pray so that I can put in an order from my “wish list” with some all-powerful deity. And I especially don’t pray to shift any of my responsibility to myself and others in this world off onto that same deity.

I pray to remember who I am and who I’m supposed to be and what I’m called to do in the world. I pray so that I can get over myself and stop thinking that I’m the center of the universe. I pray so that I can name my struggles with hard choices and seemingly impossible situations. I pray to shut out the white noise of the all-encompassing hopelessness of the world. I pray so that once that noise is cancelled out, I can see the heart of my struggles with more clarity. I pray so that with that clarity there comes an openness to the person who was already offering their help, to the answer that was already staring me in the face. I pray so that I can focus on what it is within my ability to do in the face of the seemingly impossible – and maybe muster up the courage to act accordingly.

THAT is the real power of prayer.

And this is why when another episode of mass gun violence shakes this country to its core, and you tell us that your prayers are with the people, that I have such a hard time believing you. There are countless examples, home and abroad, for what a government can do to curb the rise of gun violence – of what is within your ability as an elected official to do. There are common sense ideas that millions of Americans agree are worth putting into practice. There are the examples of how other civilized nations have addressed the epidemic with striking success. There are examples of state legislation in place that has been achieved through compromise between gun control advocates and gun owners. The answers are out there.

If you were truly praying, you’d have seen these answers staring you in the face by now. If you were truly praying, you’d have mustered up the courage to act on behalf of the safety of your constituents instead of the safety of your campaign war chest. Instead we get the bloody-minded Pavlovian response of “thoughts and prayers” with no evidence of sincerity or the action that should follow.

It is the emptiness of the sentiment that angers so many people I know. I don’t blame them. I’m angry, too. But while others might ask you to stop praying and start doing, I suggest the opposite course.

Start praying. Start doing it for real. Do it for all the reasons I list above. Then show us you’ve seen the answer. Prove to us that you’ve actually done it. And do it now. Time is brief and we’ve lost too many.

Midweek Message 4/28/16 — “Barriers”

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This is one of my favorite moments in Mexico a few weeks back. Here’s Lynn, our most fluent Spanish speaker, making a new friend. She’s a juggler by hobby, and brought balls and clubs along on our mission trip in hopes of some cultural exchange. The gentleman juggling with her was the brother of one the folks we were building a new house for. He made his living juggling on the beaches in the tourist area. Before the day I took this picture, he’d never juggled with a partner. Despite Lynn’s fluency, she didn’t have a juggling vocabulary in Spanish. And yet, somehow with the language and the skills they did have in common, the two of them were passing clubs together like they’d been doing this act forever. As you can see, he started to get pretty tricky (later in the week, he’d give us a demo of juggling fire on a unicycle — while my camera was packed away, of course).

This bridging of seemingly insurmountable barriers is just one of the many reasons that I’m thrilled our youth get to take part in these building trips, and why I’m excited to go with them when I get the chance.

This Sunday at 10:30, the youth and adults who participated in this year’s Mexico Mission trip present reflections on their experiences. This is a multi-generational service, and all ages are welcome to remain in the sanctuary. See you in church!

Midweek Message — 4/21/16 “Evangelism?”

Go out into the highways and byways of America, your new country. Give the people, blanketed with a decaying and crumbling Calvinism, something of your new vision. You may possess only a small light but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men [and women]. Give them, not hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.
~John Murray

“If you were accused of being a Unitarian Universalist, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” It’s an old chestnut of a question (and not original to us — Christians have been asking the same question of themselves for decades), but it makes an excellent point. For years, I’ve described our faith tradition to newcomer classes as the church that asks not “What should we believe?” but “How should we live?” To bring a 25¢ seminary word into the discussion, our tradition values orthopraxy (right action) over orthodoxy (right belief). We are, rightly, a religion of doers. The question I’ve posed this year is this: What shall we do together as a community of faith?

This Sunday at 10:30, “Get Out!” — the Unitarian Universalist imperative to live our religion into being outside the sanctuary doors. [And stick around for a yummy lunch and the annual meeting after the service.]

Midweek Message 4/7/16 — “Hope”

I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.
― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

We are a beacon of hope.
― from the vision statement of the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos

But aren’t we living in hopeless times?

Isn’t naive to talk about hope?

How could we possibly live up to our vision when times feel so hopeless? Where do we even begin?

This Sunday at 10:30, “A Unitarian Universalist’s Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse.”

Midweek Message – 3/17/16 “All Souls?”

My spirituality is most active, not in meditation, but in the moments when: I realize God may have gotten something beautiful done through me despite the fact that I am an @**hole, and when I am confronted by the mercy of the gospel so much that I cannot hate my enemies, and when I am unable to judge the sin of someone else (which, let’s be honest, I love to do) because my own crap is too much in the way, and when I have to bear witness to another human being’s suffering despite my desire to be left alone, and when I am forgiven by someone even though I don’t deserve it and my forgiver does this because he, too, is trapped by the gospel, and when traumatic things happen in the world and I have nowhere to place them or make sense of them but what I do have is a group of people who gather with me every week, people who will mourn and pray with me over the devastation of something like a school shooting, and when I end up changed by loving someone I’d never choose out of a catalog but whom God sends my way to teach me about God’s love.
― Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor in Denver. The quote above comes from her most recent book, Accidental Saints, which was the common read for my annual reading retreat/reunion with my seminary friends. I had the pleasure of hearing her speak last May at the Festival of Homiletics in Denver. The church she began in Denver (while still in seminary!) is named House for All Sinners and Saints, which is at once an aspirational name and quite the mission statement, and it ministers to many in Denver who might be considered to be living on the fringes of the community. The congregation lovingly shortens the name to “House for All.” It’s a church name that reminds me of our own UU aspirations for community ‑ there are so many of our congregations that bear the name “All Souls.” To those who are unfamiliar with Universalist theology, that might seem like a name dedicated to the reverence of people who have passed, of people who are in the past. I’ll admit, my own lingering Catholic schoolboy heart has often taken that phrase to mean just that, despite my own Universalism. It only takes a little imagination to tack Rev. Nadia’s “House for” onto that “All Souls” to begin to grasp the true meaning of the aspiration in the name ‑ and, given the challenges in her quote above ‑ to glimpse the real discipline it might take to build that “house for all.”

This Sunday at 10:30, “A Room for Every Soul” — one final exploration of what the community we dream of building might require of us. 

Midweek Message — 3/10/16 “Belonging From the Beginning”

The weekly Wednesday vespers service at seminary was a true family affair: students and faculty, along with respective partners and spouses and children of varying ages. It was a new experience for Jess and me. We’d grown used to our UU congregation where there was nursery care and RE during the service — kids downstairs and grownups up above in the sanctuary. We needn’t have worried. Once we explained to Brandon and Nora (who were 6 and 3 at the time) what it meant to sit in church with the grownups, they took to weekly worship as if it were a natural thing. They grew to know many of the songs by heart, they knew when to sit and stand, and they could always snuggle in one of our laps if the sermon made them fidgety. Vespers was for them as much as it was for the grownups. They belonged to the community and it belonged to them.

That sense of ownership was on full display especially once the service was over and the fellowship hour had begun. Snacks were laid out, juice and wine were poured, and everyone milled about in conversation — including my kids, who flitted about having brief checkins with my classmates and teachers, often with that “little kid serious” look on their faces that is at once adorable and gives a parent pause. And then, conversations finished, they would climb up onto the chancel and sit in the pulpit chairs with their snack plates in their laps and just watch the community as it did its thing. The first time that happened, I knew that they had arrived at a place where they felt comfortable and safe in a community. There they were, week after week (and in the years to come, shepherding the new kids who arrived into that same space), embodying what it meant to feel like one truly belonged to community and felt some sense of ownership of and responsibility toward it.

This Sunday, we take a look at why a real multi-generational community is so vital to the future of church. Join us at 10:30 a.m. for “A Time and Place for All Ages.”

Midweek Message — 3/3/2016 “Labels”

What I really resent most about people sticking labels on you is that it cuts off all the other elements of what you are because it can only deal with black and white; the cartoon.
~Siouxsie Sioux

I’ve been on something of an 80s music nostalgia kick the last few weeks, so I was amused when I found the above quote while reading up for this month’s sermons. Siouxsie’s probably not the best known, or most influential philosopher out there — unless, like me, you’re a child of the 80s, a member of Generation X, maybe more nerd than jock, possibly the tiniest bit weird . . . and more new wave than metalhead.

And there I go, labeling myself. They’re old labels. Some I placed on myself way back when. Others were placed upon me. And while they’re handy shorthand for signaling one’s identity, they’re also rather limiting and, like Siouxsie intimates, somewhat cartoonish. None of them were, or are, wholly me.

The theme for the month of March is “Balance.” Each of my sermons during the month will touch on some aspect of promoting the wholeness of self or the wholeness of community. This Sunday at 10:30, we’ll talk about (you guessed it!) labels — both their usefulness, and the perils they present to the care of the whole person.

See you in church!

Midweek Message – 2/25/16 “Welcome”

I just returned from my annual retreat/reunion with a small group of seminary classmates. Each year, we gather to discuss one book we’ve read in common (more on that later) and share the things we’ve read/watched/done in the last year that have fueled our various ministries. And we cook for each other. And drink too much coffee. And — this is the most important part — we remember how good it is to be connected and to belong to one another. It’s been over a decade since we all first met, and I can still remember the first time we all sat down in the same room together, a much more nervous and wary bunch. We were prompted to talk about our biggest fears about the journey we were embarking on.

“What if,” I asked, “I only really have one sermon in me?” Everyone laughed — not a mocking laugh but that nervous laugh that’s almost a scream, the kind of laugh where you recognize your own fear in another’s. And in that laugh, I knew I’d found my people and I’d come to the right place at the right time.

It’s a blessing to find a place like that and know you’ve come home.

This Sunday, the topic is welcoming — not just how we say “hello” at the front door, but how we create an atmosphere of true welcome, where a stranger can feel like they’ve come home. 

With this in mind, I have a little thought assignment for you all. Think back to the first time you walked in the doors of this church  (wherever it may have been located at the time). How did you know you arrived at the right place? Who made you feel welcome and comfortable, and how did they do it? How might you pass that on to the next newcomer?

Join me on Sunday at 10:30 for more on this subject. Nylea leads our ever-growing choir in a traditional spiritual, a Spanish hymn, and a song from our own Bonnie Kellogg.

Sermon: “Water in the Desert, Coals Upon Our Heads”

delivered Sunday, September 13, 2015 at the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos