Lovely examples of order of service?

Another request. I’m looking for lovely samples of orders of service. Necessarily available in a downloadable format online, and preferably from a small church (of whatever stripe) or one that works with a tight budget. Feel free to chime in, even years from now.

There’s something dispiriting to visit a church and find something that was clearly made with love (I’m trying to be nice here) but is ugly, disorganized, jam-packed with add-ins or otherwise unpleasant to use.

I’d ask the same for newsletters, but those are harder to find in print. Alas.

Reading “Search”

I’ve started reading Michelle Huneven’s church memoir Search, about her experience with a ministerial search in a California Unitarian Universalist congregation. The details are altered to create a cloak of anonymity, though it doesn’t take much effort to pull back the veil. (I don’t know how much is fiction; the author and the protagonist have a little dance of identity.)

I’m about a fifth the way through. I’m not sure how a general audience will read it, but I feel like another veil — the practices of and about the ministry — are also being pulled back, and that’s not a bad thing. Several times already, I’ve been slingshot back twenty or twenty-five years to my own formation and the search that brought me to Washington. But I also see the clouds gathering in the book; conflict is coming. I’ll comment more as I go along, or when I finish.

While I don’t recommend prospective ministers develop their vocation in a Unitarian Universalist context (more about that later) if you feel yourself drawn that way, go ahead and get a copy: it’ll surely become part of the folklore of the calling. Anyone else reading it?

What would you want to see?

Part of me wants to start blogging again. Part of me says that the blogging age is over and that almost nobody would care.

I’m putting this out there not to cultivate sympathy, but to get a sense of whether anyone would read anything I write, and if so (and this is the important part) what kind of things would you like to see in 2022?

Please comment.

Visiting the Ukrainian embassy

I was restless after work and needed exercise. Before I knew it, I was walking the mile or more to the Ukrainian embassy in Georgetown.

As I am sure with many of you, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has worried and upset me deeply. But I am also emboldened to see the people of Kyiv, Kharkov, Lviv and other places not be cowed; the crisis is existential and they will not capitulate. This is no time for polite handwringing or (worse) both-siderism.

Sidewalk in front of embassy with flowersExterior of embassyFlowers and signs

 

 

So after taking a few pictures to share, I prayed for these people and hopes to a quick and just resolution to the invasion. And if not, then blessing and strength under their suffering and loss.

Will you join me in this prayer? And should you be in a position to do so, send money in relief?

Getting back on the horse

Thanks to several of you for kind words over the last few weeks. These have encouraged me do my best to "get back on the horse" and reactivate this blog and my Universalist Christian Initative project.

I suppose the pandemic (and before that the culture wars in my denomination) took its toll. As I look for a new voice, I’d gladly take suggestions about what I should address and what you would find helpful.

Online Universalist church with worship services

I was happy to recently find the Community Universalist Church at universalist.church. Memorable, no? They are an entirely online church, but are friendly and substantially organized (that is, it’s not the exclusive work of one person.) It’s a member of the Christian Universalist Association and not the Unitarian Universalist Association (which I see as a plus) and it’s worth noting that it makes good use of "off the shelf" ministry and social media services. Smart.

Were it’s live services not exactly at the same time as my home church, I’d have more reason to participate, but it may suit your needs. That time being 1500 UTC Sunday. Subtract 4 hours (11 o’clock a.m.) for Eastern Daylight Time or 7 hours (8 o’clock a.m.) for Pacific Daylight Time. They are a global church and timing is a known problem.

Maybe I’ll visit when the clocks change…

The Dream of the Rood, 2021

As every Holy Saturday, I read the Old English poem, "The Dream of the Rood."

This year, I read the translation by Aaron K. Hostetter, Associate Professor of Old and Middle English at Rutgers University-Camden (New Jersey).

A passage I lingered over:

The young warrior stripped himself then—that was God Almighty—
strong and firm of purpose—he climbed up onto the high gallows,
magnificent in the sight of many. Then he wished to redeem mankind.The young warrior stripped himself then—that was God Almighty—
strong and firm of purpose—he climbed up onto the high gallows,
magnificent in the sight of many. Then he wished to redeem mankind.

You may read the text here and I commend it to your spiritual welfare.

Sermon: “Understanding Divine Revelation”

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on February 21, 2021 using lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 9: 8-17 and Mark 1: 9-15.


Thank you for having me back in the pulpit, and to Pastor Dave for inviting me. Last week, he found us metaphorically on mile twenty-two (or so) of this year-long marathon; the end might still be almost a year away. Solutions take time, and can outstrip a human patience. Despite the vaccine roll-out, the declining death rate, the better-functioning government and even the brighter skies, it could change suddenly. We might face a mutant variant of the virus or that wind storm on Tuesday. We’re not at the end, even if we want to be (I want it to be) and there’s no promise we won’t get something new and awful to replace it. The virus replaced, or rather partially displaced, other troubles for too many of us. They’re still there. This is the first Sunday of Lent. All that was my way of saying I’m not giving up anything for Lent.

Lent is the period of reflection and abstinence leading to Holy Week and Easter. But the last year has already been odd mixture of abstinence and indulgence, but without spiritual benefit or earthly pleasure. Like suffering the hangover without having the party. I’ve gained thirty pounds and lost hair. Ordinary pleasures, like talking to your neighbors or a cup of coffee out, are dangerous, or suspected of being so.

In other years, Lent comes as an opportunity to reflect on one’s spiritual state and to act to improve or develop it. The pandemic is different than other challenges because it has been a common struggle. Our personal griefs and hardships, even unmanageable opportunities; for not all stress is because something bad happens — all these happenings that force to look at ourselves and examine ourselves — or pay the price if we don’t — happen without regard to what’s happening to the mass of humanity. The pandemic is more like more like modern war, where you will be affected whether you like it or not.

All those party-goers and revelers that rightly earn our wrath — what are they thinking? — are also affected by the pandemic, but in a different light I’m willing to see that they also work under pressures that need release and deliberate misinformation that makes some of their choices makes sense. That’s why I’d like to look at what we have in common — an equal distance and access to God — rather than our personal self-improvement, and how we can find truth — as bruised a concept as any — in what we find in God.

So if we’re going keep Lent at all and adopt a spiritual discipline, let it be a really good one; let’s try making some sense of what God reveals to us. Dabbling in revelation sounds like the beginning of a Gothic horror film: “oh, what are those kids going to conjure up!?” I can imagine discussing my deep exploration into the mind of at lunch at work – if we ever get to do that again – and try not to sound like a loon or conspiracy theorist. I can imagine not being very successful.

Even if the category of revelation is at odds with our culture, at some point we’re going to have to deal with how God speaks to us. Aloofness about revelation, even to spare public embarrassment, isn’t sophistication; it’s being condemned to being haunted by God. It’s thinking that there’s something deeply true that underscores our lives without ever being able to know anything about it. And it’s precisely because God’s will has been so closely identified in the public mind with proclamations of right-wing politics and an abdication from thinking, that if we’re not clear about seeking God’s will and doing it, then our own lives become a lesson that (1) either God is not important and does not care for us, or (2) that a certain set of people have a monopoly on divine understanding and blessing. That will not stand, if we have faith or even self-respect; that cannot stand.

The problem is that you can’t just summon up an understanding of divine revelation. For one thing, experience shows that if you’re certain about God speaking to you, you’re almost certainly wrong. If there’s not a lump in your throat or pang in your belly when you feel God is speaking to you, you’re almost certainly not. A maxim to preachers I learned long ago: if you go to the pulpit to speak an oracle of God and don’t shudder a little with fear, beware. Like Moses, we go before the Almighty humbled, trembling, with our shoes cast off — but we must go. Let us turn to the lessons.

Today’s reading from Mark acts as a rationale for Lent; Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days, and Lent is forty days long. The word Lent doesn’t refer either to wilderness or self-reflection, but refers to spring (think, “the days lengthen”); wilderness somehow seems more appropriate. This past week of strange, hostile weather and this past year of social isolation seems to me to have more in the same wilderness that Jesus met, and where he met Satan, the great adversary.

But why the wilderness? Why not try to meet Satan on the corner or even in the market where he’s so famously overturned the tables of the money changers?

I’ve been in the Judean desert, in fact, once. It was twenty-two years ago, when a friend and minister invited me along as her guest to see Israel for a few days. (She won the trip as a prize in a game show and I was eager to expand my horizons.) But I was flat broke and the only chance we had of seeing some of the famous out-of-the-way sites near Jerusalem was to take what was known as the sixty shekel tour. For about $19, you would meet an antiquated Mercedes bus near the historic Damascus Gate in the middle of the night, and go nonstop from site to site. You didn’t see anything for very long but you were promised the fortress at Masada, wading in the Dead Sea, a chance to see a nature reserve, a stop at Qumran (where the Dead Sea scrolls were found) and a visit to Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world.

The antiquated bus had other ideas. The road from Jerusalem down towards Masada was very steep. Just as the sun was rising I saw a sign warning in Hebrew, Arabic and English to shift into low gear. That’s when the transmission or the engine failed; I forget which. The bus stopped and we tourists piled out of the bus in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately the tour operator had a radio in the bus and called for a backup, but that left us sometime to contemplate our surroundings. I looked the grapes and Turkish delight I brought along, wondering how long they’d have to last. There were no other cars passing.

On one side of the road, a hill rose sharply covered in the same powdery tan rock we’ve seen all over the region, here little more than gravel. On the other side of the road the hill descended just as sharply, and in the distance we could see the Dead Sea, shimmering with the dawn. In the distance, we could make out the lights of factories or perhaps a refinery, in Jordan. The bus, the road sign and the refinery were the only evidences of modern technology, and having had that theological education it was easy to imagine that we could meet angels or devils. Surely the landscape was too desolate for anything living.

So I can imagine Jesus’ audience knowing and probably fearing the desert, the wilderness, and wondering what wild creatures could survive there. It’s exactly where you would face Satan, and temptation. The context is absolutely crucial. You feel small, vulnerable, out of place. You look for help, divine or automotive. But in such extreme environments you might also find God, in part because the exposure can be both figurative or literal. One is as revealing as the other. Might Jesus’ flight into the wilderness be figurative and spiritual, following the crashing, fluttering experience of the Spirit in his baptism? The narrative is filled with biblical allusions, but little detail. It might easily be an extended metaphor, but well understood.

Maybe that’s why our hour by the roadside is the part of the day that sticks with me the most even now. Being lost, in an unfamiliar setting, wondering what comes next, looking in the distance: these are as true spiritually as literally.

On the other hand, the passage from Genesis recounts the covenant God made with all living things, but also has to do with context. To recap, covenant between God and Noah and his heirs came before the flood. (W. G. Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, 68.)

But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. (Genesis 6:18, NRSV)

This covenant was with Noah and his family, excluding the rest of humanity.

As many of you know, an ancient story of an all-consuming, universal flood is not unique. It is seen in the epic of Gilgamesh and in other ancient Middle Eastern literature. The flood was a commonplace, but the outcome in Genesis makes it special.

God says

I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth. (Genesis 9:11)

The rainbow is a sign of this covenant, and a reminder to each generation of what God pledged. I’m sure we’ve covered this in other sermons, or if not, it’s one of those biblical stories that is still widely discussed in the larger culture. I want to focus on another part of the story.

So, why Noah? What made Noah right? Why would he and his family be the basis of a new human race? Why would God make a covenant with him? Was it because of his superlative goodness? Unlikely. As we hear in chapter 6:

Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)

“Blameless in his generation” is what sticks out. Noah was righteous, but by what measure? Reviewing commentary (see Plaut), it’s possible that Noah wasn’t overwhelmingly exceptional, but simply was the best of a bad lot.

But more, what did Noah think of himself and his family being singled out, alone in the whole world? Was Noah lacking in compassion? It would be a mistake to treat this episode like history, or worse, to apply modern sensibilities or morals to it. But there’s no evidence of longing, of regret or of mercy to all who would die.

But if we treat Noah as a good, but not supernatural figure; and perhaps traumatized and not simply callous, we can appreciate something else about revelation. Throughout scripture, we see God communicate clearly with human beings, either directly or through intermediaries. The days of this kind of special revelation are now past — that’s the majority opinion — and what we receive is a general revelation through scripture. A constant Universalist witness is that scripture contains this revelation,

the trustworthiness of the Bible as a source of divine revelation (UNMC)

the trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a revelation from God (1899)

Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind (1803)

(You get the idea.) That revelation is contained in scripture, but in contrast to fundamentalism, isn’t the revelation itself. You have to look for it, find it and interpret it, and that’s not easy. The encouragement we get from this passage is that looking, finding and interpreting God’s intent is not limited to the exceptionally, extraordinarily good, but be taken on by those with a good intent and a willingness to understand.

Friends, both the passages from Genesis and Mark have themes of wildness and liminality. The churning waves, the desert being the Accuser’s domain. And there’s even a connection in the waters: between those that evoked God’s presence in destruction, and God’s presence in the blessing of baptism. (That itself is another sermon.) Both come with blessing, survival for Noah and his family, and for Jesus,

And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (v. 11)

May your searches prove a blessing, too.

In previous sermons, I’ve talked about having an imagination would approach you scripture, as a way of understanding what God is saying. Today, I would add a sense of empathy and curiosity. I encourage you to dig deep wells of patience, or at least thoroughness in your examinations, and a forbearance that values your everyday opinion over others.

This is path which leads to understanding what God may reveal to you.

Sermon: “Leading the Kingdom of God”

I preached from this sermon manuscript online for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on November 22, 2020 using lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Matthew 25:31-46.


Good morning and thanks to Pastor Dave Gatton for inviting me back to the pulpit and for you welcoming me.

The kingdom of God is such a basic Christian concept that sometimes it goes without careful examination. After a while, with our private thoughts, we might end up assuming entirely different concepts, some colored by cultural norms or personal desires. I’d like to defend us against that today, by dealing with some of the assumptions and conflicts we have when talking about, understanding and living in the kingdom of God. In the process I hope we will approach the kingdom of God not just as an idea of something to anticipate, but also participate in it as a practical reality today.

And it helps if we can consider this together. A kingdom, if anything, is communal. It’s a political polity centered on a particular personality, and extended through family relationships. The kingdom of God is centered on our relationships with God, individual and collective.

But kingdom is a concept that’s practically alien to us. Even a hundred years ago much of the world lived in kingdoms or in colonies subject to kingdoms. Some of those monarchs were constrained by parliaments or a shared authority, and others weren’t. Some survive today, but they are the minority, and most of those are practical democracies.

It’s easy then, perhaps a bit too easy, to speak of kings and queens and princes and princesses with a childlike glee or tasteful nostalgia; Disney has done its damage. While monarchies fell over the twentieth century, some were revived in order to bring about national unity (I’m thinking of Spain and Cambodia particularly) and proposed in other places. For the most part though, at least formally, more of the world is governed by the consent of the government than at any time in history. And recent events show how fragile and important this concept is. Making that work politically, while holding an idea of a divine kingdom religiously takes some work.

Why? Because attaining the kingdom of God can become an excuse for human beings to take on the divine prerogative in governing the world. Dystopian fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale comes to mind) and real-life theocratic terror organizations (the so-called Islamic State, for instance) show that the kingdom of God can be made an ideological weapon. The profound moral collapse of organized Evangelicalism in the Trump administration rekindles fears of theocracy overcoming democracy in our governance. I can’t blame anyone for resisting when religious people talk about God’s plans for the world, myself included.

So we should be circumspect, perhaps cautious, not only for our neighbors’ sake, but for our own as we approach the Almighty, who surely knows the hearts of would-be demigods and self-appointed spokespersons. For God has challenged prophets with power. Can we make life? Do we control the seasons or the rising of the sun and the setting of the same? Do our governments and still wonder and laughter? Do rulers comfort the inner soul?

The kingdom of God touches this world but is not restricted to it. And so as Christians we need to be careful to distinguish between what’s God’s and what belongs to the common human family, whether Christian or not.

But theocratic overreach is not only a problem with right wing and authoritarian power.

There’s a temptation in liberal political and theological circles, even though these are different if someone overlapping things. That is, to hope for the kingdom of God without God, or to assume it would be more appealing if were described publicly as a strictly human endeavor. The twentieth-century rise of religious humanism made this transformation complete.

The problem is that there is no appeal to a higher authority when we start confusing what we like and what we esteem with what is actually good.

There’s a little example from the history of our own church. Each week, we recite the declaration of faith that our church adopted a few years ago. It was based on a denomination declaration of faith from 1899, which itself was an authoritative interpretation of a statement of faith from 1803. (You’ll hear more about these some other time.) The funny thing is that there was a denominational statement developed after 1899, the Washington Declaration of 1935, as an interpretation of the interpretation, updated for the modern age. As the name suggests was adopted by a convention in our own city: at the then-new Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue, to be exact. (There were religious services at our then-new church building.) But even thought it was officially adopted in the denomination, as far as I can tell it was never used (or used regularly) by our own church. I suspect because it was over-optimistic, a last gasp of pre-World War One, pre-pandemic, pre-ecomomic collapse theology, being sold in the depth of the Great Depression to local church members, some of which were surely in government service or came to town with the New Deal. (I remember of the last, now gone almost twenty years.)

The 1935 declaration declared as an essential feature of Universalist faith, belief in

the power of men of good-will and sacrificial spirit to overcome evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God.

Certainly some people do good, but this affirmation (in context) suggest a concerted, almost tidal effort to overcome the past and enter a new age by the work of our own hands on God’s behalf. We did not march shoulder to shoulder into the dawn. The Second World War and particularly the Holocaust, and other horrors enacted by a set of equally dedicated men put that misplaced hope to rest.

But kingdom isn’t the only concept for us to work with, as we turn to today’s lessons.

How many of us work regularly with sheep and goats?

I think the closest I get is a goat cheese sandwich. I have a friend who had a flock of goats come over to eat up the weeds in her backyard, and that was such a strange but delightfully comic situation that she took video to share. You might know something about their little square eyes and horns, or the different kind of sheep and the wool they produce but these are optional things to learn today. In Jesus’ time, sheep and goats were central to the economy and therefore well-being of the people who heard him. They knew these beasts.

We can infer from the gospel lesson that sheep and goats are not well-behaved. There’s only so much grass to be eaten. The pushy sheep gets more. The domineering sheep eats. So a big sheep is a metaphor for someone who takes at the expense of others. Jesus taught his that the kingdom of God inverts our expectations. In those days, God will push aside the greedy and give good things to those who have gone without. This relies on God’s purpose and will, an eternal intention, and not our own. If we correspond to God’s ways, we will see the rightness of living in goodness, and put aside our own pushy, domineering ways. The more selfish and domineering, the more violent and cruel the more there is to give up. But the final say is God’s. This is what we should understand when we hear threatening of "eternal punishment." This is punishment from the Eternal, namely God. And I trust God will act with justice befitting deity and not a human tyrant.

How will this change take place? That part is less clear. Some of it will surely happen in God’s ineffable and eternal way. But the fact that the prophets proclaimed this, that Mary sang it, that Jesus preached it but that for millennia even the richest and most powerful people in the world have not expunged it — indeed, some having been transformed by it — gives me hope. I believe the kingdom of God will be revealed to us individually and collectively. Our portion is not to construct it, but to anticipate it. As Jesus said, "the kingdom of God is within you" so how shall it be known and released.

How then? Conscience has a role, as does teaching the young and advising the mature. Societies have a role in constraining the violent and viscous. We better identify it by reflection and prayer. Be patient for it.

I suspect that patience is the last thing some of you want to give. What makes the last four years so hard is to think about all of the progress that we had made be reversed or destroyed. We’ve lost four years on a very quickly winding down climate clock, and I’m worried that future courts can undo lifetimes of work in a flash. Time, when gone, doesn’t get a do-over. Also, the current crisis over the truth is very troubling. Elections come and go, but whether people can be trusted to see the good and do it depends on them understanding the truth and doing it. People resisting masks because they think it’s a conspiracy or thinking that that QAnon might be true or that the president actually won reelection all discourages me gravely. But human nature comes with its own set of self-deceptions and I know that I’ve not been true to the facts, have chosen something that benefits me over others and I might finesse it in ways that make it sound like less than self-benefit. Mask-denying conspiracy-theory grievance-seeking neighbors are doing something bad and ultimately destructive, but I’m not immune to this way of thinking and acting and neither are you.

Patience, seeking and the understanding that follows is a better place to stand. So the kingdom of God, as an ideal rather than a lived reality, depends on us knowing that our actions are always approximate and tinged with failure.

We keep it as an ideal, in part because we trust God, but also knowing that our contributions have to be tested, reviewed and open to criticism. What seems right in the moment will have consequences, and many of them unintended. We wish to do good but will often find the easiest way to accomplish it even if the results are not very desirable. Think about all the wasted recycling that props up a plastics industry that never believed in it. Or think about all of the tailors in low in middle-income countries put out of work because of floods of used clothing from rich countries. Our good intentions are not enough. Our plans are not enough. We need that spiritual core that guides us with care towards the good.

Dearly beloved: the kingdom of God is within you. Within you, but hidden yet ready to grow. The law of God exists, but is not written on our hearts. The age which is to be is present to the Eternal One, but is so distant from us as to be distorted, or at best seen in fleeting glimpses.

But do not despair. Day by day, if we are careful, caring and kind, we shall make more sense of the promises God has made for us.

God bless us today and forever more.