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Author: John Cullinan

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

 

An Advent Prayer for a People Tired of Waiting

Eternal

Beloved

Gracious Spirit of all life and all love

In this season of waiting we light a candle in anticipation of the advent of peace.

And yet, we wonder: How long, Spirit, must we wait for peace?

We are weary —

weary of young black lives gunned down in the name of what some would call “order”

weary of the powers that serve us making excuses and looking away

weary of watching our world come apart at the seams

weary of waiting for hope and peace, for joy and love that now seem so much farther off than Christmas Day

weary unto sorrow and paralysis

In the face of all this, O Spirit, breathe into us a second wind.

Unsettle us

Discomfort us

Do not let us grow complacent in our weariness,

But rather stir up the embers that glow within our tired souls.

Make our an active waiting, a raucous waiting with a voice relentless in its cry for justice,

So that we might at last become co-conspirators in the advent of peace we so desperately need.

Fired for Studying Atheism?

Ryan J. Bell, a professor at Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary was fired last week after he announced he would spend a year “living as an atheist” while documenting his experience. While the schools call his study “important,” they couldn’t seem to stomach having one of their teachers living outside of their profession of faith in the name of scholarship.

You can read more at Hemant Mehta’s Patheos blog. He’ set up a fund for Bell, who’s saving will run out in about two week’s time.