I am running a Facebook "Advent Calendar". You can find it by searching for "Burbania Posts". many of them don't translate well to this format, but when they do I will post them here...
ADVENT DAY 2, 2017
Advent finally began yesterday. Before that--on Saturday night--a bunch of youth groupers gathered to decorate the sanctuary and the parlor for the upcoming season. We also cast the pageant and rehearsed for the annual Advent 1 "Sanctuary Lighting". Then we projected a Phineas and Ferb XMas special on the wall of the sanctuary and ate pizza and snacks. Good. Times. I am grateful this season for the chance to work (and celebrate!) with the youths. :-)
The picture is of our "Charlie Brown Tree". The tags are for presents we purchase for people we do not know but who will appreciate the presents when they receive them. The kids did a pretty good job, right?
The link is for yesterday's (very short) reflection. It is about honoring Advent this year rather than rushing straight to Christmas Day...
OK, so I haven't posted much lately. This is my usual drill as we get church back up and running. This year has been a busy one for the staff. For a variety of reasons we are taking more things on and we are still getting by. It's just that some other things have fallen by the wayside...like regular Burbania postings. Now we are kicking it up a notch. Winter is coming. So, too, are the holidays. One of my tasks is to find ways to remind people to pace themselves. People in the office will have to hear my pedantic lecturing on this topic. Everyone else has to settle for columns and sermons.
In the newsletter column below I imply that my Advent begins on the traditional "First Sunday". For the most part this is true. However I do indulge myself a bit with the Christmas Tubas. Here is a picture. I have some sound, too, but that will have to wait for my Facebook Advent Calendar that begins on Sunday! That is Faneuil Hall reflected in the tuba bells by the way...
Here is the column...
Dear Eliot Members and Friends,
Yesterday I took some time out to look for the parsonage Christmas lights. It appears we are late decorating again. I am not surprised, of course. We are always late. This year, though, I thought more people would be waiting for Advent to actually begin.
My problem is that I can never figure out the rush. After all, it isn't actually “Christmastime”. It isn't even Advent until Sunday and Advent isn't Christmas! At least in the eyes of the church it doesn't become Christmas until December 25. It's time--the “twelve days” celebrated in song—begins then. Yes, on the 26th the stores will be busy changing out the colors to sell champagne for New Year's Eve, but that doesn't change this basic fact. By the time the actual Christmas season arrives many people are too tired to celebrate anymore and are just looking forward to the moment they can go back to work or school. How depressing is that?
Many of us, I suspect, find ourselves moving too fast already. When this happens, lights, decorations, and Christmas planning in general can become a burden rather than a joy. We don't really need to worry. The important thing is not to scramble the spirit out of the season before it ever really has a chance to grow. Doing less may make this time mean more.
Maybe, instead of letting our holiday season be dictated by the commercial interests, we should pay attention to the older division of this time. There is a wisdom to the ancient cycle that pre-dates Christianity. It is done at a human speed and addresses those larger concerns we wish we had time to consider. This Sunday we will light the candles in the windows of our sanctuary during worship. We do this every year to welcome Advent. It is the beginning. It is the first step. This holiday let us walk it together rather than sprint through it alone.
I hope you make it a point to come to church this month. It is a special time in our congregation. It would be great to spend it together. We would love to see you there.
Faith and Hope,
If you happened to walk or drive by the Eliot Church in the last few days, you probably noticed that something is missing. On Saturday night (as best we can tell) someone tore our Rainbow "Peace" flag out of its usual spot and walked off with it. In the morning, I noticed its absence as I headed in to work, Of course we went through a brief "denial" phase. We don't like to think of our neighborhood as a place where things like this happen.
However, it appears that it has. The grommets were still in their place so it wasn't one of us moving it for some reason. Members even walked around the neighborhood to see if the wind blew it away. This theory already seemed unlikely, as we had recently switched out an older, more fragile flag for this one. It was in pretty good shape. Needless to say, we didn't find it.
Eventually we contacted the police and they did the same things. The officer we spoke to, came to the same conclusion we did. Yes, it was most likely stolen. We don't know who did this, of course, and hesitate to ascribe a detailed motive. That said, we assume that they didn't take it to put in their room or to otherwise display for themselves. If that was the case they could have just asked for one. We have plenty for that purpose.
So, what did we do when we met for worship at our appointed time? It was World Communion Sunday, a service dedicated to what holds people together in the midst of disagreement. It is a day when Christians around the globe take communion together. The issues represented by that flag, of course, are ones that divide many people both Christian and non-Christian. It seemed fitting to mark this occasion the way we had planned. .We took communion, too. We chose to stand for unity and for building relationships across ideological lines.
Of course we also prayed. We prayed for whoever took the flag. We prayed for those in our congregation who were impacted by the theft. Finally we prayed the entire LGBTQIA+ community, who have to endure much more than a simple act of vandalism. In fact, they do so on a daily basis.
What are we doing now? We are putting up a new flag. Like I said, we have plenty. We will even give you one if you want. We like to see them put to use. That flag is part of our identity, like communion, the cross in the sanctuary, or the many good works we perform in the community.. It stands for peace, obviously. It also stands for diversity. It is one of the ways our congregation offers support and welcome to all people.
It is not healthy to hide who you are. We are an Open and Affirming congregation.
We will not hide. This is us.
Back during my first sabbatical I made study of Samuel Longfellow. You should check him out...
“A Spiritual and Working Church”
Before I say goodbye to the collection of Samuel Longfellow's sermons that has given me much food for thought over the past two weeks, I wanted to pick out one more sermon in which he described the church that he hoped to build in Brooklyn. The date is October 30, 1853, the day he officially "assumed the pastorate" in the words of his editor. The topic for the day was his vision of the church, how it should function, and what its role should be in the rapidly growing city they were a part of.
Like many sermons of its era, it is one with a clear structure. It was meant to convey fairly complicated and important concepts to his listeners and to do it efficiently by the standards of the time. It is short on stories and humor, but it still reads well and it isn't all that hard to imagine it being spoken. He begins by reminding us that the word "church" "implies some common idea or purpose. It represents something more than a mere aggregate of persons such as individual and separate errands may bring together at any hour in the crowded streets of a city...we limit, however, the word church to that unity whose central idea is a religious one--the idea of God." he goes on to list a variety of "churches". There are Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Christians at least, and he leaves room for others as well. Not too bad for the 19th Century pastor (though he really does use the term "church" for each of them, which was rather jarring to my modern ears).
Then, after waxing poetic for a while about the virtues of faith communities, he gets down to his first set of "three points" (preachers know what I mean) by defining church as "a society of men and women and children, associated by a religious spirit, and for religious work". The first word he picks out of his definition is the word "religious". "A church must justify its existence by this, that it holds as its special thought--not its exclusive possession, but its special thought--the idea of God." Today we might argue about what his (or our) definition of that "special thought" might be. After all, there are plenty of devoted church-goers in my congregation and not all of them are sure what they think or believe about God. However, the idea if God is an obvious--if sometimes ambiguous--one.
He then also chooses to emphasize the word "spirit". There are many folks who like to say that they are "spiritual but not religious". For Longfellow, however, the term is rooted deeply in the life of faith communities. In fact, in the liberal church the religious spirit is essential as these bonds may tie us more closely than the those of belief. "I do not deny that similarity of opinion is a bond of union. We are drawn to those who think like ourselves. But it is not the strongest or deepest bond. It is easily overridden by spiritual sympathy, or annulled by the want of that." There are few ministers who have served for any period of time that could disagree with this. Many, many congregations come together over shared ideas, but if the the connections between individuals aren't also felt then there is no real community. Some congregations find this spirit quickly. For some it takes longer. It also ebbs and flows. When the spirit is lost (or at least not present) the congregation is dead--whether they continue to meet or not--and something else must rise to replace it.
Finally, he addresses the word "work". The church is not a private debating society or health club, or therapy session. It is meant to be out in the world. " It seems to me as if, whenever a new church is formed, earth's suffering, sinning, wronged, and perishing ones should lift up their heads and a new hope light up their eyes, as they cried, "You will help us, you will save us". Churches should work together to support each other and work beyond their doors to alleviate suffering and follow the teachings of Jesus. It is a tall order. However, work is needed to balance out the otherwise navel-gazy nature of religious communities.
Finding this balance is the challenge that faces our churches today. Sometimes we lean one way. At other times we tilt in another direction. It is our way as people. Sabbatical, perhaps not surprisingly, is designed to help the pastor to find that balance. The religious work of the church is the job of the minister. It is the job of others as well, but usually part-time. Pastors are paid to think about the church and its members full-time. Often to the detriment of the her or his own religious spirit. Hence the extended sabbath.
Longfellow has three more "points" to his sermon. They are the kinds of work that the church does. First he lists the Culture of the Religious Spirit by which he means those things that spring most quickly to mind when we think of church. Worship, rites of passage, and communion are examples of this first type of work. The second is Religious Education, the deepening and growing of the faith for both young and old. Finally (and he cheats here by including two things as one) there is the category of Religious Benefice and Philanthropic Action. Here he is thinking of what we more often call "social service" and "social justice." It is clear that he does mean both. Again there is the question of balance. We have limited time and resources. Where do we put them?
It seems to me that finding balance between both sets of "points" comes down to our capacity for thoughtful discernment. How do we, as people and as congregations, find ways to consider issues of importance with as little anxiety as possible? How do we remember the spirit that flows through us and between us, while also nurturing that spirit? How do we become religious? How do we make our communities of faith this way as well?
The answers to these questions vary. We are a diverse species and our faith reflects that. However, I think these are questions that we all must consider both for ourselves and for the congregations we love.
Dear Members and Friends,
Worship and Religious Education are well underway this year. I have been enjoying getting to touch base with you all as we have gone about our usual opening rituals. I enjoyed getting to see folks at the Kickoff Sunday brunch. I was moved by the sharing at our the Gathering of the Waters during our ingathering. This congregation is a community that supports and hears each other. It is wonderful to be getting back together after our summer journeys.
It was also great to see so many of you make an effort to get to church! This brings me to another topic that I would like to touch on briefly. I want to talk to you about attendance. Keep reading! You can do it! It may even be helpful to know that our current attendance is slightly higher this year...
We have always been a church with a much larger membership than we see regularly on Sundays. This is fine. In fact, even though this is the case, most people do manage to drop in from time to time. People work hard to make it to non-worship events when they come up on the calendar. Which is to say that we attend Pub Theology, Dungeons & Dragons, philosophy discussions (like our Emerson group), Chili Cookoffs, house parties, vigils, rallies, and workdays, among other things. We are there for each other outside of church and for casual gathers, too. Eliot Church is blessed by a dedicated membership.
It’s just that we can get really, really busy. The world isn’t constructed around “sacred time”. Many of our members work on Sundays. Others have rigorous travel schedules. There are illnesses, child commitments, weather challenges, and social obligations that get in the way of making it every week.
I get it. There are weeks I don’t make it to church either.
However, I would like to encourage all of us to make a point of attending worship when we can this year. In fact, I would like you to consider committing to making it to church more than you did last year! I will, too. I can think of an infinite number of reasons why we should make an effort. I bet you can think of a few as well. However, I would like to mention three key reasons for this church this year.
Our Faith Community Needs Our Presence To Thrive:
You may have noticed over the years that Eliot Church has gone through some changes. We are very much a community in transition. Our RE program is divided between teens and toddlers with no one in between. Our outreach and justice work (and, therefore our profile in the community) has increased substantially. We have also grown closer together as individuals. Heck, we even go skiing in New Hampshire together!
The fact is, this church is doing a lot of work and having a lot of fun. We need your presence to make the party better. We need your participation to make the load lighter. We need your ideas to maintain this congregation and guarantee its future. Right now the church is strong. We want to keep it that way. This won’t just happen on it’s own.
I am serious. There are no guarantees. If you value the Eliot Church, it isn’t enough to love it from afar. We need you to be here with us to keep it a living, loving, vibrant place. Worship is the biggest part of that. It is central to everything else we do.
Our Faith Community Needs Our Presence for Others:
Guess what? Loving Eliot Church from afar doesn’t help when we have visitors, either. Worship is usually where they encounter the congregation for the first time. The past couple of weeks we have had a few newbies drop by. If you are not here, they don’t know that you are part of what is happening. They only see those who showed up that day. Yeah, we do our best when people cannot make it. That said, when new folks come to church they are looking for others on the same spot in their life-path. It’s not that they don’t want to hang with everyone else. They just want to know that people like them are welcome and supported!
That means they want to see parents of young children, new empty nesters, retirees, young couples and old couples and be greeted by those people. Life can be lonely. Visitors want to see folks who are interested in the same things they are interested in. In a small church--and being a small church is also our strength--the challenge is that when one or two individuals or families cannot make it on a Sunday, it is like that entire group just doesn’t exist. Once again, part of belonging is showing up.
If visitors do not make some sort of connection with people they identify with after a couple of weeks? They find somewhere else to go to church. The congregation misses out on potential members. We members miss out on potential friends. Those visitors miss out on a community that they may have loved and would have loved them.
We Need Our Faith Community:
Look, getting through the week is hard. It is isolating. There are times when all we do is move from task to task. Even things we enjoy take time and effort. They leave us feeling tired and wiped out. Maybe there are moments when we just want to “sleep in” on Sunday. This certainly happens to me. However, when we step back and really consider it, that doesn’t make much sense.
Let’s set aside the fact that services are at 10am. When we are home most of us can realistically both sleep in and get to church on time. I get up between 5 and 6 most mornings. I bet a lot of the rest of the congregation does too. We get the kids off to school and then get to work by 8 or 9. The only “school” the kids have on Sunday is at church. Also, the commute to Eliot is usually pretty easy. It is near where we live. Traffic is light.
What we are really suffering from is inertia. We forget that church has something to offer. We forget that it is only an hour long on the slowest day of the week. We are forgetting that we need to feed our spirits. We need the church but we worry too much about the demands of our everyday lives and neglect the sacred elements that give those lives meaning. This is what keeps us home.
The fact is, what sustains us is exactly what the church is offering. Stressed out and tired? Come sit with us and take a while to put those worries in perspective. Find some solace and new life in the rituals and ancient wisdom that worship provides. Do you feel isolated? Guess what! Your friends are at church. We can talk to you about your problems. We can listen to you talk. We can just have some coffee. We are not the first people to feel the way we do. That is why we are meant to join in community to explore the Divine. Coming together in worship helps us to live lives of greater meaning and strength.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this long screed, people are, in fact, coming to church. Also, those of you who were around a couple of weeks ago know that I made a big thing in the sermon about how worship attendance and participation is non-coercive in our tradition. That is true. Neither I nor the leadership is interested in making anyone do anything they don't want to do. That said, part of my job is to observe and encourage. Both your own spiritual well being and the future well-being of this community are in your hands. In this new church year, it is my hope that we continue to grow together as a healthy community of faith
This Sunday we will gather in worship. We will have coffee hour. We will practice what we preach about being a caring spiritual community. I hope you can make it. If you cannot, then I hope to see you when you are able!
See You in Church,
This is an old post from when I wrote on Blogger. It seemed worth reviving, given the massive amount of football water that has flowed under the bridge since then. Did I quit watching football entirely? Well, not really. I quit watching everything but the Super Bowl as I have a longstanding tradition of inviting friends over. Otherwise yes, I have. I do not watch regular season or pre-season games. No following Brady, Belichik, no "Mr. Kraft". Of course, the reactionary and un-reflective politics of those guys have made it easy to step away. Now I am thinking I may just drop the Super Bowl as well and just have a party, instead.
The video above is about a boycott in honor of Colin Kaepernick that is gathering steam. I may join them. The statement below is only slightly dated, as it turns out.
Regular readers of Burbania Posts will know that there was a time when I watched a whole lot of football. I even religiously tuned in to the 24-hour infomercial that is the NFL Network. I wrote about it online. I made predictions. The first Sunday of our church year is called "Kickoff Sunday" partly because we are kicking off the new year...and partly because the new season begins that afternoon. The point is, I was almost a super fan. The only thing keeping me back was that I couldn't bring myself to engage in the frightening debates at the bottom of the "comments" section on NFL.com.
I got into it in a roundabout way. I live in a place where baseball remained king for longer than anywhere else (Go Red Sox!). It was as a youngish adult that I turned to the fandom of professional football. It began by hanging out with the Phys. Ed. majors in my dorm. I embraced it with the zeal of a convert. That is coming to an end now.
In fact, the end began a few years ago with the slow erosion of my trust in the institution of the NFL. I don't think I have to go into details, do I? There were a number of ill-conceived labor disputes culminating in the absolutely ridiculous lock-out of the referees. I took a break then, because I don't cross picket lines, even TV ones. Then there were the revelations around concussions. Perhaps most importantly, I (and others) had the creeping suspicion that the league and it's owners didn't particularly care about the health of players and former players as much as they cared about message control. About a third of the way through last year's season, I turned off the TV and didn't return until the Super Bowl.
"Protect the Shield" is the unofficial slogan of Commissioner Roger Goodell and it has made him very popular among his employers. The league does its best to project an image that is as pure and wholesome as eating apple pie at a church social, but reality keeps sneaking in. Do I need to mention that racial slur used as a "mascot" in our nation's capitol? The league keeps saying that it is respectful--even an honorific--to Native Americans even though pretty much everyone they aren't paying says it isn't. This week we get to hear that there are new rules around players committing acts of domestic violence. Why? Because the league just discovered that most fans view it as more heinous a crime than smoking pot. The two-game suspension of Ray Rice seems a bit too much like the punishment parents give out to kids when they secretly think their child can do no wrong. What world do they live in? Protect the shield. Always make sure the money keeps rolling in. That is their world.
Here is what I saw before I turned off the TV. In earlier times I had seen a pleasant diversion, an interesting metaphor for the struggle of life, even a certain regional pride as I watched my home team. In the last time I watched I saw something different. I saw a wealthy old billionaire high-fiving his billionaire friends while his employees permanently damaged their heads, spines, legs and backs in pursuit of...something. On the sideline was a coach. Theoretically he is worthy of respect. In reality he was the caricature of the sort of horrible, screaming, obscene middle-aged suburban dad most of us try not to become at youth sporting events. I asked myself if I wanted to be the sort of person who condones this. The answer, it turned out, was "no".
Look, I am not anti-football per se. You will see me at the annual high school Thanksgiving game and maybe at a couple more. What I am is anti-NFL, at least in its current incarnation. The game has problems. It has really, really big problems that trickle down to that high school field and need to be addressed in an open, honest, forthright manner. They need to be dealt with by the folks at the top. They need to be dealt with by the people who build (and profit from) the dream.
No pretending. No fakes. Deal with the issues and I will come back. Don't and I won't. I can go outdoors and spend time with my family on Sunday afternoons. I am quitting the NFL.
My Facebook feed is full of statements opposing the rise of white supremacy. Ministers tend to like words. We also expect to speak out on issues that we find important. There is no way in the world that one could look at what happened in Charlottesville and see anything other than a potential turning point in race relations. Which way will we turn? I do believe that among the many, many markers of the rise of the radical right this weekend will stand out. Therefore, I have been reading and talking and listening along with everyone else.
In fact, there has been a part of me that wonders if there is anything left for me to say that hasn't been said better by others. For a moment I even thought of letting this pass and to wait for another news cycle to bring a new set of offenses. However, speaking out is something we all have to do.
Besides, otherwise I am just walking around angry anyway.
So I thought I would point out a few markers in the internet sea that make the anti-racist/anti-fascist case better than I can. Each of them gets to specific concerns (among many) that I have and that many of you have as well.
Paul Krugman, in his column "When the President is Un-American" opens with a reminder of Sarah Palin's "real America" phase. You will remember the concept. It isn't difficult as many people right, left, and center, fall into it's trap. "Real" America--according to many--is populated by a strangely simplified form of "rural" or "working class" whites. We raise them up as examples of what we perceive as American virtues. The problem is that when we do this (whether we mean to or not) we have instantly labeled everyone else as less "real" and therefore less worthy.
Liberals do this, too, by the way. Right now there is a lot of talk in the Democratic party about "reclaiming the base". Along with this effort, there is little thought given to the risk of romanticizing the crueler part of whiteness that--as we have seen this week--simmers beneath the surface. Perhaps they (we) do it unconsciously and without reflection. However, when we ascribe greater authenticity to one group, we give them greater power. Their narrative then controls the conversation.
My faith tells me that all humans--and that would include all Americans--are equally "real". This is a bedrock of the theology I preach. However, it is a challenge to assert that position when so much of the noise around us tries to tell a different story. That is why speaking out is important, even if it feels like our position has already been said, and said with more art than we can muster.
But I digress: Krugman's article is an indictment of the President, who has inhabited the "real America" narrative of his base. Donald Trump has increased the noise in what at best can only be called a failure of leadership. In many ways, the stoking of this narrative has led directly to society's apparent new comfort with white supremacist language. The results of that should be obvious.
On the same day and in the same paper Michael Eric Dyson wrote "Charlottesville and the Bigotocracy" I don't feel the need to add much commentary. He refines the point that Krugman makes until it cuts with surgical precision. He quotes LBJ saying "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you are picking his pocket". To me that is an accurate--if somewhat dated in its language-- description of how myth of "realness" functions.
Dyson concludes with a call to people like me. "Now is the time for every decent white American to prove he or she loves this country by actively speaking out against the scourge this bigotocracy represents. If such heinous behavior is met by white silence, it will only cement the perception that as most white folks are not immediately at risk, then all is relatively well." This article has reminded me once again that I need to finally get through his book "Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America".
Finally, I have one more item. This is an old film first shown in 1943 and then edited and rebroadcast (as far as I can tell) in 1947. "Don't Be a Sucker" is many things. I see it as a classic noir PSA. The narrative of America it provides us, though, is still a powerful antidote to the rhetoric we are hearing from the alt-right, the fascists, and many in the conservative establishment,
Many folks have been linking the tw0-minute clip. If you can stand it, however, I suggest you watch the whole thing below. It is jumpy and the beginning feels like a non-sequitur at first. That said, I am glad I stuck with it. It made me uncomfortable in parts. However, it made me ask why...
Oh yeah... and the American Nazi? He talks about "real Americans" too.
No, really... Have you?
Every once in a while someone asks me about what being a minister is actually like. People are curious. Some people are even interested in exploring it as a career. I must confess that at least sometimes (okay, most of the time) I probably sound discouraging. This is because I care about the people who ask me these questions. Also, I care about the ministry so I spent a great deal of time thinking about its future. Parts of that future can sound pretty bleak.
In conversations with prospective clergy folks, I usually point out that we have no solid idea of what organized religion will ultimately look like. In many ministry settings there is a great deal of anxiety, conflict, and dysfunction brought about by the larger challenge and by local ones. I also tell folks that if financial rewards are part of one's concept of success, than the ministry will only bring frustration. In the future (as in the present) we will be in the position of re-making the profession. In your early settlements you will struggle to be solvent. In your later ones you will probably never "keep up with the Joneses". In the material world we live in, you will always feel a little bit behind.
HOWEVER, I would like to set the record straight about what the profession has meant to me personally. I absolutely love being a minister! There are hard times, sure, and some of the specifics can stink. Still, in general I have never felt the need to question my call. So if you--dear reader-- have ever considered taking the plunge, here are some reasons to do so.
1) You Are Called to Directly and Consistently Help People: This is a big deal. Many, many folks go to jobs in which "helping" basically comes down to convincing someone to buy something. They find other ways (at least most of them) but their impact is lessened because of those hours doing something else. The ministry is not like that. Sometimes one can get overwhelmed with the number of ways to help and the number of individuals needing assistance. That said, if you want to make a difference in the lives of friends, enemies, frenemies, and strangers, the ministry might be for you. You may not always feel like you did enough, but you will pretty much always go to bed feeling like you did something to change people's lives for the better.
2) You Want To Impact Your (Our) World: Maybe you want to do more than comfort individuals. That's fine, part of the ministry is about standing up for the oppressed. Have you heard of the "Religious Left"? Google it. There are religious leaders of every faith tradition providing moral, intellectual, strategic, and practical support to what is sometimes referred to as "The Resistance". If you want to never be in the position of being unable to speak out against the evils and sins of this world, then grab yourself a pulpit! Join one of many justice ministries or start your own. Be a chaplain to young people, old people, the sick, the well, to activists, students, the military, and many more groups besides. If you want to be relevant in the conversations and debates of this dark time, the ministry may be the place for you.
Now, of course, these two first points call people to a great many professions. I know. Trust me. I am married to a clinical social worker. My congregation, my extended family and my collection of friends are filled with other people who--like clergy people--would be classified by The Rev. Mr. Rogers as among "the helpers" that folks in need should seek out. That is cool. None of these are unique to the ministry. Still, it take all kinds and the pastoral approach is unique and essential.
3a) You Are Interested In Your Own Spiritual Growth and Religious Tradition: One of the most important facts of clergy life is that it occurs for the most part in community. That community-- even if some members are more interested in the topic than other members-- is dedicated to the spiritual dimension of our identity and walk through life. As clergy, part of our job is to develop our own spiritual lives. That is, we practice what we preach to the best of our ability. This kind of religious discipline may not be for everybody, Yet I have found, both as a church member and a church leader, that I have grown spiritually and religiously from the work that I do. Sometimes this is through my own efforts. Sometimes it is through the in-breaking of the spirit. Sometimes I learned through my failures or through the advice of someone else.
That regular practice is important. It is also part of the job. Whenever I end up in the thicket, I know that I have the obligation and the tools to get back on the path.
3b) You Are Interested In Other Religions: It is popular these days to think of religious groups retreating into their own corners and sniping at each other. Certainly there are plenty of examples of this! However, the opposite is also true. In many circles, in fact, opportunities for cooperation and dialogue are growing rapidly. As a minister I have had many chances to discuss theology, spirituality, justice, family and current events with representatives of other world religions. See that picture at the top of this post? Those folks meet monthly for lunch. We genuinely enjoy each other's presence. Clergy of all stripes tend to end up hanging out together. We influence each other. Who else would we talk to? We are interested in the world around us and in each others' perspectives about that world.
4) You Want To Delve Deeply Into A Variety of Subjects: One of the great parts of my job is that every week I am expected to stand in front of my congregation and talk about something. Sometimes these issues are explicitly religious or philosophical. Sometimes (as you may have gathered) they are about how we should act in the world both as individuals and as a society. Every week I set aside time to study. Sometimes the topic is one that excites me. At other times it is one that my congregation is excited about. Most of the time both of these statements are true. In any case, I always find the process of learning and exploring these topics to be a fruitful one.
This opportunity for study and for delving into an issue exists outside the pulpit as well. I lead and attend workshops, classes, and seminars for adults and children on a variety of topics. I also learn by participating in community and by conversing with others. Many people go to church in part to keep their hearts, minds, and souls strong. As a minister I get to be part of that.
5) You Get To Exercise Your Creativity (And Encourage Creativity In Others): One of the things that people expect from their ministers (parish or otherwise) is that they bring their own passions and interests to the community. For me, this has meant a number of things. Elsewhere on this webpage you can find references to the church's ukulele-based music ministry (the "Ukestra"), it's garden, and it's justice and outreach work (among other things). I have also mentioned the Dungeons & Dragons Club I run for our youth (and for the youth of a local learning community). In worship we try to be creative every week.
This is a cooperative process. I have ideas and projects and so do others. Much of the time we work and grow things together. Since I have arrived at this place we have made and re-made the congregation every year. It is a workshop and a family. Our core, our spirit, is always the same. How we manifest that spirit keeps up with the times and with our interests.
Of course, there are ways to be creative in the broader conversation. The great advantage to being a minister at this time is that the old rules and ways are failing us. We get to explore the ruins and build the new faith communities of the future. Who wouldn't want to do that? If you are worried about joining profession that is old, fusty, boring, and wearing the chains of conformity, don't be. Every day clergy are striding into the temples and turning over the tables. We would love to have you join us!
6) You Get To Hang With The Most Interesting Folks: Now a lot of those interesting folks are, in fact, the lay people you will work with. That said, I want to say something about my colleagues. I could not ask for better, more interesting people to spend my time with. Most of my friends are clergy people, their partners and children. They are all writers, artists, poets, academics, deep thinkers, and eccentric individuals. They are never boring. They always have something to say or do. They all tell great stories and play great music. They support each other with an openness that the rest of the world would do well to emulate.
Clergy also provide each other with accountability. Yeah, we have rules "for the good of the order" but I've never found them to be a burden. Instead they are a gift. After all, we try to structure our lives in the way that we encourage others to live their's. My community of religious friends helps me to do that.
I could go on, but I promised myself that why would only share six reasons today. We are in a time of transition. The whole culture is. Our religious institutions need to decide where they (we) will stand. My desire is that we will stand for inclusion, justice, forgiveness, and hope. To do this we need people of all kinds to form faith communities. We also need professionals to help these people realize their dreams.
As many of you know (I just mentioned it after all!), I am a Game Master for a variety of role-playing groups. At the table we GM's try to be in conversation with the other players. When they have an idea (or we have an idea they like) our job is to say "yes...and". This attitude helps us to collaborate in building the world we are imagining together. So I ask you again, can you be a "yes...and" person for faith communities? If the answer is yes (or yes,..and) then please give a clergy career a closer look. It is as much a way of life as a job.
Yup, it is now officially Lent.
For most folks I know (including many in the church), Lent isn't all that big a deal. I must admit that in a way, I am right there with them. Lent sneaks up on a person. There is so much to do in "normal" life and--since Easter doesn't have the same commercial requirements as Christmas--there isn't the same sense of panic about getting everything done in time. Also, there is the theme. Lent is about introspection, sacrifice, and connecting to the Divine (whatever that may be for you). Those are non-starters compared to other religious holidays. For most of us, accountability stinks a bit.
However, I have gotten a lot out of Lent in the "giving things up" or "taking things on" department. My approach--perhaps not surprisingly--is from the perspective of what the Transcendentalists (among others) call "self-culture" which is a fancy way of saying self-directed self-improvement. The fact is, Lent is a much more efficient time for resolutions than the new year. First of all, spring is coming so we are feeling more energetic. Also, it is a religious holiday, so there is a sense of sacred responsibility that is harder to generate while hung over on New Year's Day.
Finally, there is the unit of time. Forty days just works better when you are trying a new thing. On Easter morning I look back at my Lenten efforts and decide which life-changes I am bringing with me and which ones were fine for six weeks, but not forever. Lent is when I took my first music lesson as an adult (mandolin), for example. It is also when I decided to learn everything I could about Abraham Lincoln. I still play music every day. The Lincoln thing has died down substantially.
This year I am focusing on three things, which no doubt I will tell you about here or in church over the next month or so. First, I always take on some esoteric study project that I know I will like (as with "Old Abe" last year). This year it is Bronson Alcott. Second, I am trying to get back in shape. I have never been--shall we say--"affirmed" when it comes to physical activity so it is a challenge for me to exercise in public. The problem is that I won't do it when I am alone. I have an accountability issue in this part of life apparently. Therefore I have signed myself up for Jiu Jitsu twice a week. In fact it has already started and it hurts like Hell. Only forty more days...
On a related note, this year I have decided to give up alcohol for a while. It is a challenge for me. There are all kinds of reasons to do it. Most pressingly, every beer I don't drink is weight that won't be slamming down on the mat with me in Jiu Jitsu class. There are other reasons, too. On a personal level, if we say that we can stop drinking any time, shouldn't that be a hypothesis that gets tested occasionally? It is a good thing to do in the more "traditional" sense of the season, too. It is a fast. So when I miss having a drink this month I will be reminded of God...or at least that is the idea.
Actually what I will probably miss most isn't beer,,,it's bars and the welcoming social ritual that grabbing a drink represents. Like Alcott, my preferred mode of communication is conversation. My favorite venue is a causal place with food that won't kick you out right away. In fact, the picture I put on this post is there because it reminds me of a really great breakfast I had with friends in Long Beach during UCC General Synod. I plan on having a lot of breakfast meetings I guess...but with coffee. Fortunately I love coffee.
Anyway, are you doing anything for Lent? Most of my minister friends have plans. This is even even true for low-church Puritan types like me, who don't come from traditions where the season is officially a thing. We are borrowing it. My Facebook feed is filled with the plans of colleagues.
What about lay folks? Anyone? We always make Lent sound so grim, and of course there is a reason for that in the story of death and resurrection that brings us to Easter, However, it is a great way to attempt a positive change in our lives. I, for one, don't plan on passing it up.
I am up super-early this Christmas. I think this happens to me most years. My reverend mother says that when I was kid I was sick every Christmas morning because I was so excited during the week before. It is probably true. I am not sick this year (yay!) but there is a lot running through my head so I thought I would spend the restless time trying to put my 5pm Christmas Eve sermon notes into a readable form. Folks really seemed to like it and I enjoyed delivering it to a packed sanctuary of friends and visitors.
Unfortunately I was basically a hinderance to the readers at the--more formal and traditional--7pm worship, getting lost in the order of service a couple of times and nearly skipping the offering! The formats and style are different for each. Still, maybe I should have just preached this twice. Anyway, here it is! I am going to console myself with Facebook posts of other pastors who had similar hiccups on the way to the morning. We are reminding each other that Christmas still comes no matter how many balls we drop.
My youngest will be up soon in any case. He takes after me. Perhaps he will let me help him empty his stocking.
The Work of Christmas
Rev Adam Tierney-Eliot
December 24, 2016
So, I was going through an archive of old Christmas sermons in preparation for this evening and I found a script to the pageant we used here at Eliot when I first arrived. Now I realize that some of you probably remember it (and some of you were no doubt in it). For the rest of you, let me just say that it was...different from the way we do it now. After all, back then it began--oddly enough--with this exchange between Mrs. Claus and a reindeer.
“Santa” says Mrs, Claus “You need to get busy. There’s so much to do to get ready delivering presents!”
Then the Reindeer--mostly innocently--says “Is that what Christmas is all about--delivering presents?”
“Not really,” says Mrs. Claus “Santa [she says while turning to her husband] while you are getting up, why don’t you tell us the real story”
Now, these days our pageant tends to go straight to the “real” story. However, we still are able to recognize the tension this pageant exchange reflects. We do, after all, understand the young reindeer's confusion. We see and feel the tension ourselves between the call toward the spiritual birth and rebirth that this time has represented (on the one hand) and the excuse for consumption and acquisition--an engine for the economy (on the other hand). It is this second group of activities that dominate much of our surplus time over Advent.
I certainly know this to be true. Every year I try and fail to avoid the chaos of the malls and shopping centers of route 9. Every year I try to cut back on my purchases, too. In fact, I even more or less succeed at the cutting back. However, I still end up feeling like I should have gotten a couple more things for a few folks on my list.
This commercial element of our culture is pervasive. Our understanding of this time is deeply connected to the exchange and display of material goods. So it isn’t all that hard to see how someone like Ebenezer Scrooge could downplay or ignore the religious and ethical obligations of the season.
In Dicken’s classic Christmas Carol, his nephew, Fred, tried his best to set Scrooge straight. At one point he describes the holiday as “The only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women...think of people...as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
Still, it isn’t hard to imagine--given all the noise that can surround the sentiment of the season--how that message can be missed. After all, in the song of Mary she sings that “God has scattered the proud...and brought down rulers..and raised up the humble. Has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with nothing”. Yet nothing in our observation of the holiday this year seems to indicate any great victory on that front.
This Advent it has been difficult to accept the idea that our fellow-passengers do in fact take the message of Christmas to heart. The birth of Jesus, like any birthday can be an excuse for a celebration. However, it feels like the meaning of his life, death, and teachings has fallen on many unheeding ears.
Together this Advent we have had our hearts broken by the news from places like Syria. We have journeyed together through a contentious and demoralizing election cycle. We have had our hearts injured again by stories of bigotry and discrimination here in our own towns and in our own neighborhood.
So, Mindless cheerfulness is pretty hard to maintain given the current situation. Like the Grinch there are times we wish to escape to the hills, or like Scrooge maybe even to our counting houses. It is enough to make some of us build walls between ourselves and the love we yearn to share and receive.
But...here is the thing.
Specifically because it is so hard to put on the usual festive veneer, many of us haven’t really tried! Instead we have put our energy elsewhere this December. Sure, maybe our Christmas trees and our lights went up late. Maybe our gift list is still a shambles and there is nothing we can do about it by tomorrow, but we took the time and energy we normally spend on these things and put it somewhere else.
That’s right. We put it somewhere else. Looking out into the troubled world of 2016 we have chose to find ways to help. We did this for the of others. We did it for our own sakes, too. For example, this church took on the Christmas Open Door community meal this week, which is no mean feat in the midst of everything else. We also went caroling at Riverbend Nursing Home.
In addition, many of us have found some healing in the work of Natick Is United. The rainbow “Peace” flag campaign, the marches and vigils, the joint statements and all the rest have drawn our minds away from despair and into action. Then through action we have been drawn back to hope.
Hope, is, after all, what this holiday truly is about. It is about Hope for a light in the dark, a light that is kindled by our fellow beings through the exercise of a broad, dynamic faith
And an all-encompassing love.
This year we are learning to live into the words of the civil rights leader Howard Thurman.
The work of Christmas begins he tells us
to find the lost
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the brothers and sisters,
to make music in the heart
Our lives--and hopefully the lives of others--will be better for this work, so tonight we remember. We remember that the birthday we are celebrating is not our own. We remember that we are called to walk the path of faith. We remember we are called to walk the path of justice.